THE IRONY IS not lost on Katy Sewall that, in the present circumstance, social life for many of us has become a lot like a podcast — and that these are harder to successfully produce than you think.
Consider: As social creatures with a genetic craving to express ourselves — and, on a good day, receive some back-at-ya acknowledgment of existence — the messages we send out in a time of isolation have to be planned, concerted, pushed forth.
This requires something that we modern humans love to resist: effort.
The comfort of social interaction, once left to casual contact, has become, for many, lost. For others, it’s an unwelcome new entry on the personal must-do list.
That’s probably easier for creative folks for whom it is instinctive; particularly for writers, visual artists, musicians, performers of all stripes. And it is an onboard feature of a relatively new art form, the personal podcast, where one’s thoughts are captured by a microphone, stored on a chip, uploaded to a server, and made available to anyone with a receiver and a hankering to hear and perhaps — please, oh please — signal, somehow, back.
The Big Question, as with any art form: Is anyone listening?
SEWALL, A LONGTIME producer/host at Seattle’s public-radio station KUOW and now an accomplished podcaster and consultant for others, says her own creative muse struck the old-fashioned way: over public airwaves. She admits a longstanding, heartthrob crush on classic old-time radio — a lost art, for reasons both practical and sad.
She always has been about the spoken word — the intimate act of recording or broadcasting thoughts that offer a glimpse into another person, with the hope that anyone who steps inside might at least be kind enough to say something nice about the wallpaper.
In her earlier years in radio (at KUOW, she was a longtime producer for “Weekday” with former host Steve Scher; she still fills in at the station on weekends), she did what many radio folks try to do to make their delivery more personal, less script-ish.
“You’re trained to talk to someone, in your head, at least,” says Sewall, 43.
And she was. In her case, this imaginary person was real — a devoted listener, Arnold, who liked her voice, her delivery and her imagined persona.
“He would always send me a note saying, ‘Hi, I heard you today,’ ” she says. “Then I find out he has died. I realized that so much of my time at KUOW, I was talking to Arnold.
“What does it mean when Arnold is not there anymore? I felt like I was talking to nobody. It was just oddly emotional. I missed him.”
Counterintuitively, radio, podcasting and other spoken-word craft, she learned long ago, “isn’t just one direction. Listeners do make an impact on the host.”
FORTUNATELY, SEWALL’S EMOTIONAL landscape for the sorting of such questions had been expanded greatly even before Arnold disappeared from her email inbox: In 2013, thanks to a fellowship opportunity for her husband, Derek Farmer, she got a chance to move to Italy for a year.
It was a tough call, leaving a job she loved and saw as a calling. The move promised to open new doors — but it also threatened to unplug her headset, and pull away her microphone. As someone who lives to do the work, she mulled a way to reconnect all those cords long connecting her persona by creating a podcast, originally about living the expat lifestyle.
“It was,” Sewall decided, “my gut art form.”
She pitched the idea, in a cafe in Rome, to an old childhood friend, Tiffany Parks (they met on a school bus bound for Islander Middle School; Parks, of Italian descent, has been living there for a decade, and now is raising a family in Rome).
Parks jumped onboard, and they called the podcast “The Bittersweet Life.” It launched in 2014 and was set to last one year.
THE NAME WAS intentionally nonspecific, meant to reflect, really, the yin/yang of human experience. It initially focused on one’s sense of place.
“The show is about letting go of the rope — and what happens to you when you do,” Sewall says. “It’s always been a little about place — how you choose the place that you want to be.”
It was a logical thrust for two expat friends from Seattle, immersing themselves in the rich culture of Rome, where they recorded their first 43 shows.
The early episodes largely followed that course, touching on human emotions and personal struggles of pushing outside one’s comfort zone.
“We assumed it would last a year, until Katy left, then it would be over,” Parks recalls, in an online interview from Rome.
But when Sewall’s yearlong leap ended, the pair decided the podcast had enough chops to move back overseas. And half of it did, as Sewall and her husband somewhat begrudgingly accepted their American re-immersion.
They eased back into it by literally taking the long way home to Seattle, via a circuitous American road trip that included a stint living in the Bay Area.
The podcast was the beneficiary of an inevitable raft of emotions related to this, funneled into Sewall’s and Parks’ microphones and rebroadcast into that big void of hoped-for listeners. Encouraging voices came back, and the show broadened its focus once the couple was replanted, at least in physical terms, back in Seattle.
Seven years later, the dual-citizen show is still produced by Sewall in Seattle, via a painstaking process of splicing together separate audio tracks from old friends in different places, crafted to sound like a conversation between old friends in the same room.
SEWALL DOESN’T SAY SO out loud, but as a veteran radio producer, she’s good at this — certainly levels above an average basement-office podcaster. While there’s no pretending otherwise on the podcast (in fact, the separate-location-based nature of the two hosts is central to the theme), a casual listener might not know Sewall and Parks were conversing an ocean apart.
But it’s a challenge.
Working with the separate audio tracks, Sewall notes, “You have to line it up so if she laughs, does it sound like she’s laughing in the right place? I clean it up, not necessarily taking out huge things. I clean up her language, the pauses and the ‘ahs.’ ”
The fact that you don’t really notice is a credit to all that work.
Sewall also is responsible for deftly editing in most of the “background” — critical sounds of places, clinking of glasses, traffic noises, bird chirps, music and chatter that give listeners a sense of “being there” — even if nobody involved really is. (Last April’s Episode 313, “A Virtual Tour of Rome,” was produced entirely in Seattle, with the podcast partners locked down in their homes in the United States and Italy.)
In earlier years, the two fledgling ‘casters did what many in the newly exploding genre do: host occasional meetups (stateside) for listeners. These burnished a personal connection with fans of the show, whose listenership has risen every year, even in recent months, when such personal marketing isn’t possible.
Today, it’s regularly downloaded by 20,000 to 25,000 listeners — or at least potential ones. Sewall, ever the artist, admits they don’t know how many of those downloads actually translate to in-ear absorptions — that critical delivery from digital chip to the human brain, via headphones, a speaker or a car audio system.
The podcast is mostly listener-supported. It does draw some advertising, but both Sewall and Parks emphasize that they couldn’t make much of a living from the podcast alone — “not enough to justify spending this much time!” Sewall notes with a laugh.
“When you’re creating something independently … I don’t have a marketing team,” she adds. “Everything we’ve had to do is by ourselves.”
As is the case for many podcasters, their twice-weekly postings are part of a larger gig existence. The show has created other work for both of them: Parks, who now has a young son (who, naturally, became part of the show’s subject matter), has published a book and has served as an Italian tour guide; Sewall has earned work as a podcast consultant for others, works on writing projects of her own and continues a part-time radio career.
“It never hurts to have a podcast audience when you’re trying to sell something you wrote,” Sewall says.
FOR SOME PODCASTERS, that, in fact, is the motivation: Many of the nation’s most-downloaded shows are offshoots that spin out supplemental material by writers, performers, TV hosts or others seeking to pad their overall media reach. Others, often produced by media companies, have their own small staffs of writers, reporters, editors, producers and soundtrack engineers.
For Sewall and Parks, the “independent” model is noteworthy for the opposite: The self-produced show is about their lives and what lessons they offer to others; professional spinoffs have come as a result of their storytelling.
So, given the broad brush of their mandate, what do two women with deep Seattle roots, but an extremely long-distance friendship, talk about when they gather for virtual coffee?
You can dabble for yourself here, but a sampling includes many personal experiences, interviews with authors and thinkers (Sewall’s connections from a decade of booking radio-show guests are valuable here) and just engaging conversations (“life’s big questions” is a category on the show’s archive page) that have gained dinner-table familiarity with listeners.
Shows with travel- and Italian-flavored topics began with the pair’s explorations of Rome, but evolved into personal tales from Parks’ life, including marriage and motherhood; food and art history (a passion of Parks); and, more recently, fascinating comparisons of life in Italy and the United States during the pandemic lockdowns.
But their most-listened-to show owed its subject to Sewall’s sharp eye — and ear — for storytelling. Episode 51 was Sewall’s 2015 tale of an 8-year-old local girl, Gabi Mann, who fed crows, which returned the favor with shiny “gifts.” (A companion piece Sewall provided to BBC went viral, making the world want to hear it told in Gabi’s own voice.)
The podcast is not all coffee-table idle chatter. June’s Episode 320, “Facing Death,” an interview with Jim deMaine, a retired physician and author of an end-of-life book and blog, offered “graceful” consideration of mortality amid the coronavirus pandemic.
They typically produce a full episode for Monday and a shorter “Moment” on Thursday each week.
THEIR PODCAST, having outlived its initial one-year run by a factor of seven, has taken on a life of its own for the creators. It’s been challenging at times, especially since Parks became a mom, even more so given the nine-hour time difference between Seattle and Rome. Not to mention additional challenges in live-recording wrought by pandemic restrictions in both places (when applied, shelter-at-home rules have been much more stringent in Italy than here).
But the rewards of putting emotional energy out there — and seeing it increasingly reciprocated by human, albeit digital, voices echoing back — remain strong.
They hope the show inspires other independent podcasters to try their own luck, and share their own life experiences, to broad audiences through a medium that has proven to be among the most (small “d”) democratic of modern communication tools.
“The Bittersweet Life” is intentionally nonpolitical, for the most part, because the dark arts of modern bluster are anathema to a show aimed at mindfulness and introspection, Sewall says.
For her, the show is as much a need as a want. Sewall is a Minnesota native whose family, led by her Presbyterian minister father, moved to Mercer Island when she was 10. She began her radio career at Mercer Island High School before completing a writing degree at Western Washington University in the late ’90s.
She later, through recordings and readings, caught the old-time radio bug and knew, immediately, that she’d found her personal and professional home, wielding a microphone as a tool to probe crevices of people’s thoughts, fears and ambitions.
(This choice of profession did not surprise anyone who knows her. Sewall confesses to keeping her phone — and favored podcasts for that day — at arm’s length, everywhere she goes. This includes into the shower, where it is perched atop the stall and, for certain important podcasts, gets sound amplification by being propped up against a shampoo bottle. “It’s fair to say,” she says, “that I’m super into radio.”)
But she’s also stretching her legs as a writer, currently revising a short memoir with the working title “Marriage: Impossible,” structured in a framework that follows the filmography of Tom Cruise into a longer memoir, at a publisher’s request.
She hasn’t heard back from the action film star himself, but it’s a safe bet that “The Bittersweet Life” will, at some point, toss the concept out there to the listening world, and wait with anxious curiosity to see what comes bouncing back.
Even if the only response is radio silence, well, life goes on, say Sewall and Parks, who note that the work sometimes can be its own reward. They savor the connections — success stories about people who have taken leaps to travel, change their lives, rethink their values.
But even without that, the simple, regular, human practice of reaching out, audibly, has its own reward, perhaps today more than ever.
“I get to have a 45-minute to an hour conversation with one of my oldest, closest friends every single week,” Parks says. “Not just, ‘How’s life?’ or, ‘How’s your job?’ but real, actual subjects that mean something. Not many people can say that.”