Things I’m Bringing Home from Werk It, A Women’s Podcast Festival

Image: Molly Webster shares one of three types of storyboards used by her team at Radiolab to outline podcast episodes. Credit: Amy Leo.

This blog was originally published by my employer, Dexis Consulting Group, on Monday, October 9th.

I’m in a room with over 600 women podcasters. Before us, our heroines in headphones share their craft. I’m taking copious notes to bring home to the podcast series I’m producing for USAID Learning Lab. And I’m noticing that some of the lessons I’m learning transcend podcasting to apply to my broader role as a strategic communications consultant to USAID.

Werk It, a women’s podcasting conference, was launched by WNYC in 2015 to expand women’s voices in podcasting. At the time, research showed that only 20% of all podcasts in the iTunes top 100 chart were hosted by women. Two years later, that number is 33%. WNYC’s mission is to get to 50% by providing opportunities for women to learn new skills and make professional contacts in podcasting.

Completely self-taught, I came to Werk It to learn from the best and meet others who are dipping their toes in this still nascent industry. I’ve distilled my reflections into three key takeaways:

Know (and revisit!) your audience

In the digital age, it’s not enough to design with your intended audience in mind. With the myriad of data collection and communications tools at your disposal, it’s possible (and necessary!) to learn about, and adapt to, the needs of your audience, continuously.

Manoush-Zomorodi-1On the high end of the engagement spectrum, Manoush Zomorodi of WNYC’s Note to Self, led listeners through experiments designed to help them reassess their technology habits, unplug, and jump-start their creativity. She asked listeners for feedback on their experience and received thousands of responses via voicemail and email.

In the international development context, USAID calls this cycle of continuous learning collaborating, learning and adapting. It has been shown to help USAID staff and partners achieve better development outcomes, and it can help consultants produce work that meets actual needs. It also makes constituents feel heard, increasing the likelihood that they’ll stick around.

Be direct about what you want, but leave space for others

In the Q&A following Lisa Chow’s session on the art and craft of interviewing, several women asked how to get that compelling sound bite from an interview that is not going as expected. Chow’s universal response was “why don’t you just tell your interviewee what you’re looking for?” As a fangirl of Chow’s reporting on Gimlet Media’s StartUp podcast, I’ve heard the fruit of this direct approach. It also saves time and energy and helps subjects feel more comfortable being interviewed.

ep-3On other hand, Chow suggested leaving a beat between a subject’s answer and your next question. Having learned this technique later in her career, she lamented the insights she has missed by not giving subjects the time and space to dig deep within themselves for answers.

In any professional relationship, there’s a time to be direct about what you want, and there’s a time to leave room. For example, agreeing upon key decision points at the outset of a meeting can help participants manage their time effectively. And creating space for silence can draw out deeper reflections, especially from introverts.

Just DO it!

With all creative endeavors, the best way to get started is to just create and iterate. To the many women still swimming in the idea stage of their podcasts, Werk It speakers consistently said “just do it!”

I can attest from my experience with the USAID Learning Lab podcast that iterating is the best way to learn. There’s no manual for podcasting; we’re all still figuring it out.

stanfordsea2.jpgSo, when shipping out into the uncharted waters of podcasting, or any professional endeavor, remember the tools of your trade. Make feedback your guide, and ask for it often. When meeting with others, be direct about your objective, but leave space for the outcome to be different than you anticipate.

I left Werk It feeling equipped and inspired to grow the USAID Learning Lab podcast and strongly encourage professionals to invest in unconventional opportunities to develop their career. You’ll find that in the sea of learning as you go, you’re not alone!


Thirty Years Old

Lowland Hum released some B-Sides today, and a song called “Thirty Years Old” is among them.

I actually discovered this song on Spotify on my 30th birthday, somehow. Daniel told me that he wrote it shortly after his thirtieth birthday, reflecting on some of the things he was thinking about at that time.

Reading between the lines of the lyrics, I can relate to his reflections.


To Move, or not to Move? My Eternal Question.

Welcome to our home.

When we got married about two-and-a-half years ago, Alex and I moved into a 450-square-foot apartment in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC.

It’s the original tiny house and lacks a dishwasher, garbage disposal, washer/dryer, and central air. We’ve dealt with three bed bug infestations, the first just weeks before our wedding. Most mornings we wake up at 6:15 AM to our neighbor’s dog barking, or her owner shouting at her even more loudly to stop barking. Our kitchen is home to a breed of (thankfully) small cockroaches.

During the first walkthrough, our landlord explained that the scuffed hardwood floors would be refinished before we moved in. On moving day we discovered that they been covered with matte-finish deck paint, which is impossible to keep clean.

Shortly after moving into the building we complained to management about a foul odor in the hallway. After it persisted for several weeks I went on a sniffing mission to discover the source… a festering pile of poop (from an animal, we hope?) in a stairwell.

A snowy day in 2016.

So, why have we stayed? I ask myself this question every few months and search frantically on Craigslist for a new home. But after two and a half years, we still haven’t moved. My patient coworkers have listened to me rant on and on about this question, which reflects how much I think about it, which is a lot.

Here are the positives: since moving into building, two other couples we’re friends with have joined us, one right next door. We assemble for impromptu nightcaps, water each others’ plants while we’re on vacation, share clothes, tools, and more, and watched all of the Presidential debates together. Though weeks go by, sometimes, without getting together, its always good to know they’re there. And, they keep extra sets of our keys, which is helpful because I lock myself out… often.

Our picnic was rained out so we improvised inside.

Our building is three blocks from the metro and two from the grocery store. While yes, we still do drive to the grocery store sometimes (too much to carry!)… the proximity is helpful for forgotten items, cravings, snow days, and simply saving time.

My window box herb garden in the beginning of summer 2016.

While our windows are north-facing, there’s enough sunlight to sustain my herb garden, which is currently thriving for the third year in a row.

Alex and I have a lot of hobbies, and hobbies come with supplies. My sewing machine and collection of fabric are tucked in my closet and under the couch, respectively. Our camping equipment lives in a milk crate in the entryway closet and our sleeping bags are perched high in the bedroom closet. Alex’s bartending supplies are on display in the living room. Our bedroom is home to four (!) musical instruments. Our books are stacked on custom-built shelves in the hallway. We’ve found places for all of the things we most enjoy having, and the limitation of space has kept us from consuming things we don’t truly need.

And, importantly, our rent is below market rate. Far below market rate, actually, which makes the opportunity cost of moving very high. Rent control is a blessing for the conscious, but a curse if you’re just using it to save up and move up.

Because moving is a lot of work, and the opportunity cost is high, my list of musts for another home is long. I want all of the conveniences: a dishwasher, garbage disposal, washer/dryer and central air, and I also want hardwood floors, lots of light, outdoor space (or deep windowsills, at least), more closet space. But one-bedroom apartments with these features cost about $700-$900 more per month than what we’re paying now. This is what I mean by opportunity cost: it’s high.

Last weekend, we looked at a giant one-bedroom apartment a block from where we live now. It had all of the conveniences, but the floors were bad. We were on the fence about it for several days. At one point I said to Alex “what if we move there and then something even better comes along?” He responded: “It won’t if you stop looking at Craigslist.”

It took nearly an entire Saturday to attach these shelves to our plaster walls (thanks Alex!).

I am so restless sometimes, even when life is good. I’m spending my time well, I think, but my phone tells me what else I could be doing, where else I could be, what else I could own. In an interview on the Freakonomics podcast, actor, comedian, and astute social critic Aziz Ansari shared that he once found himself browsing Google for information about what toothbrush to buy. Stepping back and realizing how unnecessary this was, he joked “I’ve never heard anyone say ‘You know how he died? He chose the wrong toothbrush!'” Via the internet, we have access to more information than ever before. But is it helpful? I have a strong desire to make a home, but I can’t decide where. There are too many options. My wheels are spinning.

This spring I took it upon myself to sow flower seeds in the planters in front of our building. The planters had been filled with just dirt and garbage for as long as we’d lived there. So I didn’t know how to feel when, just as my seeds were sending up promising green shoots, I came home to discover them uprooted and replaced by an ornamental tree surrounded by struggling annuals. I suppose my landlord finally took it upon himself to beautify our stoop. It was bittersweet.

Below us, in the same 450 square feet, lives a family of four: a mom, dad, 5 year old girl and 16 year old boy. So, sometimes I feel that my desire to move comes from a feeling of entitlement. I don’t need more. My home is enough.

Cozy times on the couch in my cozy little home (before the built-in shelves).

But let me know if you hear of any affordable one-bedroom apartments that fit my description…


River Whyless Embraces the Role of Musicians in Times Like These

River Whyless recently released a recording of their take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son and have been playing it (in pussy hats) on tour. I’ll admit that it strikes me as a bit contrived, but I do love the song. The visuals in the YouTube video are scenes from the Women’s March on Washington, which they attended.


Favorite Music of 2016

In spite of all of the bad news, 2016 was a great year for music. Here are my top 10 favorite songs released in 2016, in no particular order: (and here’s a link to the list on Spotify)

1. Home in Your Heart, Elephant Revival

Alex and I had a front-row view of Elephant Revival at the 930 Club in April. They began the show with an acoustic rendition of Ring Around the Moon that rendered the venue hauntingly silent from the first note. Seeing Bonnie play the washboard live added a new dimension to my appreciation of their instrumentation. I bought their (then) newly released album, Petals, at the show and nearly scratched a hole into “Home in Your Heart.” I’m a sucker for strings and simple harmonies with words about home.

2. Damn Sure – Laura Gibson

Also in April, a friend and I ventured to IOTA to see Laura Gibson touring her (then) newly released album Empire Builder. Her performance was as emotionally raw as the album, which draws on the aftermath of her cross-country move to New York City for graduate school. “Damn Sure” is about the irony of leaving good things behind.

3. Best Kept Secret – case/lang/veirs

I discovered case/lang/veirs shortly before Newport Folk Festival and angled to get a good seat for their set. While recent festivals haven’t been as politically charged as the years of Baez and Dylan, with The Staves’s loud and clear “don’t f***ing vote for Trump” as an exception, k.d. Lang’s closing refrain from “I Want to be Here with You” echoed pre-election hopes.

The hungry fools
Who rule the world can’t catch us
Surely they can’t ruin everything

4. Vincent – Car Seat Headrest

Will Toledo starting making records in the back of his parents’ car, hence the name Car Seat Headrest. Vincent is on Toledo’s twelfth album, which he released at the age of 23. The song reminds me of the rock and roll my dad played for me

5. Life Crisis – River Whyless

River Whyless played an earnest set at Newport Folk Festival and were my most-listened to band in 2016. In addition to Life Crisis, Bath Salt, Miles of Skyline, and Cedar Dream III are favorites.

6. Wendell Kimbrough, formerly Director of Worship Arts at my church in DC and currently Artist in Residence at Church of the Apostles in Fairhope, Alabama, released a highly anticipated album of original hymns this summer. He gave me a rough cut of the album when we visited last fall, and “Eternal Weight of Glory” quickly became an anthem of hope during a difficult season in my career, this verse in particular:

Oh eternal weight of glory!
Oh inheritance divine!
We will see our Lord redeeming
Every past and future time.
All our pains will be transfigured,
Like the scars of Christ our Lord.
We will see the weight of glory,
And our broken years restored.

In line with the name of the album, Psalms We Sing Together, Wendell toured the album in churches on the east and west coast this year. Wendell has a gift for writing songs to be sung by a congregation and shared how he uses Sunday mornings to experiment and iterate.

7. Hey Big Star – Kishi Bashi

Kishi Bashi’s third studio album, Sonderlust, was released in September 2016. Though Sonderlust was written during a season of heartbreak in Ishibashi’s life and is more reflective in tone than his previous work, Hey Big Star reminds me of the poppy hooks that make me a fan.

8. Ophelia – The Lumineers

Ophelia is another delicious ear worm from the Lumineers. This episode of Song Exploder tells the story of how it was created.

9. Sia – Cheap Thrills Remix

I first heard this song during the leg series in a Monday night pilates class of which I was a frequent flier, and it made me smile every time. I chose the Spanglish version because lyrics are distracting when you just want to dance.

10. Become Younger – Peals

Peals sent their first album, Honey, to Bob Boilen on a thumb drive inside of a jar of honey. Sounds gimmicky, but the music’s good enough to justify it. This song had me tapping my feet from the first time I heard it on All Songs Considered. The interwoven, rolling melodies remind me of what Sufjan Stevens did with strings on his early albums, and the electronic instrumentation on the Broken Bells’s self-titled album.

I was giddy to discover that Spotify created a list of my most-listened to songs in 2016. It looks about right to me; these are my go-to tunes for that extra boost of energy at work or a soundtrack for a weekend road trip. In my opinion, fun things like this, in addition to avoiding the obnoxious and sometimes uncomfortable (!) ads, make that $9.99/month subscription totally worth it.