Grab A Coffee With… Abby Ross Menacher

Abby Ross Menacher is a talented florist, podcaster, and one-half of the creative force behind Berlin briefing, a curated podcast that reports the daily news in the Hauptstadt. We were lucky enough to sit down with Abby to chat about her adoration of print media, her creative process, and the importance of impartial news.

Hey Abby! Could you introduce yourself to our readers? 

Introducing Abby

My name is Abby Ross Menacher. I am a co-founder and co-creator of Berlin Briefing which, if you don’t know, is a daily Berlin news podcast that my partner and I started together in 2017. 

And where are we going for coffee today? 

Well, pre-pandemic I would generally stay local and head to Liebling in Prenzlauer berg. The coffee there is great, but I really go there for the Zimtrolle. 

However, when I’m home, I opt for Ben Rahim. The listeners/readers can’t see this but I’m holding up a packet of Ben Rahim coffee beans and recommend them highly. They’re fantastic. 

Berlin Briefing is a joint effort. It’s created and produced by you and your partner, Albert. How did you two meet? 

I met my husband at a gig in 2008 while I was working at the University of Maryland in Washington D.C. He’s German, from Munich, and his company had sent him to D.C. to work for NPR.

After we met, we lived in the U.S. together for three years, and then it was time for Albert to move back to Germany, so we got married and emigrated to Munich. 

So what inspired you to later move to Berlin? 

Well, can I get personal? Ok. Honestly, Albert’s family is based in Bavaria and we wanted to move there to start a family. We thought it would be nice to start that next chapter of our lives close to relatives, but in the end, a family-like we had envisioned didn’t happen for us so we decided to start a different kind of chapter by moving to Berlin. 

It sounds cliche, but I moved here when I was 41 and it felt like I had been waiting every single one of those years prior to find a city that I truly loved. As soon as I arrived here I felt immediately at home. I absolutely love this city. It marked a brilliant new chapter in my life and taught me that everything happens for a reason, a logic that’s life-changing, but also difficult to understand, you know? 

For example, if you’re going through some serious bullshit, you don’t want to hear that the pain you’re experiencing is happening for a reason. However, in hindsight, I can see that every single bad thing has led me to the next thing. If I didn’t move here, I wouldn’t have our podcast, and my husband and I would have this incredible new professional tangent to our relationship. 

Before starting Berlin Briefing, had you been a podcast fan? 

So truth be told, I really never listen to podcasts. I mean, I have been addicted to some of the major ones, such as Serial, but it’s not my preferred mode of content to consume. 

I used to be a pretty introverted kid and so I’ve always found reading comforting. Up until recently, I had a physical subscription to the New Yorker and I still have every single copy I ever received. I can’t bring myself to throw them away. I store them in our bathroom in two big stacks behind the toilet.

My husband Albert, on the other hand, loves podcasts. He’s worked in the audio world for years and is always encouraging me to listen to this and that but it’s just not my thing. My favorite media is and has always been print. 

Do you think that maybe you subconsciously associate podcasting with work, so you prefer tangible media because it doesn’t feel like you’re mixing business with pleasure? 

Maybe that’s it. It could also be something to do with the fact that I’m not tech-savvy at all. Like, seriously. It’s not my thing. 

With a physical subscription to a magazine, I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to get it, consume it, or anything, it just arrives in my post box like a little prize. I mean, how often do you get mail in Germany that isn’t from the Zollamt, Finanzamt, or full of doom and gloom? Pretty rarely, right?

Too rarely! So what was it then that inspired you to start Berlin Briefing? 

Well when I first moved to Berlin, I was still primarily consuming news from the U.S. I would be fully up to date on issues of the Washington Post, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, but I’d have no idea about German news. Before corona, we would host dinner parties. When I spoke to other immigrants about this phenomenon, they confessed to doing the exact same. I mean sure, we knew the important things that were happening in the political landscape on the whole, but none of my non-German friends knew what was actually happening day-to-day here in the city. We had each arrived in Berlin consuming news from home, and even though Berlin was now our home, we hadn’t changed our consumption patterns to reflect that. 

At the same time, Albert was encouraging me to listen to more podcasts, and together, we came up with the idea to start a podcast ourselves. 

Admittedly, I took a bit of convincing to get involved in the podcasting sphere. I’m not a journalist and had no prior experience working with the news or with translation, so when Albert suggest that he produce the show and I act as the narrator, I was unsure. However there really was a direct need for Berlin Briefing, so we stuck with it, and now it’s just taken off. 

Your show takes daily new stories, condences them, and translates them into bitesize English audio bites. I’d imagine creating the podcast can be incredibly time-consuming. Tell me about your creative process. 

It definitely took some to find our rhythm with producing the podcast, but it’s become part of the fabric of our daily routine. 

I only work part-time so I have more wiggle room during the day than Albert does, however in the beginning, we would both get up at like 5:00 am to sieve through a whole bunch of sources, condense and translate them. This, we quickly realized, was not sustainable so we decided to streamline our process a little more. 

Now, we prepare each episode a day in advance. We still go through the major news stories, but only ones that regard topics like education, socioeconomics, politics, etc. We don’t even look at culture anymore, because so many people offer succinct news on that already. Then I translate the major stories and later, Albert proofs my translations and we record them in time for the episodes to go out every morning. 

Since you started the podcast, there’s been a global pandemic, a neverending series of elections, and constant infrastructural change in Berlin. Was there a period in the news cycle that made producing the podcast was particularly difficult? 

Yeah. If I’m honest, Corona almost broke me. Not only were we mentally just beaten down, but we were completely inundated by a neverending news cycle. Despite our process being pretty streamlined, it was hard to have something ready to release each morning. The lack of congruency on corona reporting made this even harder. Generally speaking, we like to have the podcast ready to go with a nice tight ribbon on it for the next morning, but with Corona, that wasn’t possible. 

What made this extra complicated was that throughout Corona, our audience was increasing exponentially. While this was and is amazing, it also added a degree of pressure. We now had a whole group of people relying on us every single day to deliver their news and as someone who has never worked in journalism before this was completely astounding to me. 

And now, how does it feel to know that so many people are listening to your show and reliant on it as their daily news?

It stuns me. I think some people think that the podcast might be something that it’s not, like a big machine or something? But in reality, the podcast consists of me and Albert recording in our spare bedroom while the dishwasher is off and our cat isn’t screaming. It’s nothing fancy whatsoever. 

I recognize that people put a great deal of trust in us and so I feel obligated to do them justice. We want Berlin Briefing to be free and available to everyone, but two years ago Albert convinced me, as he is so good at doing, to set up a donation-based Patreon to help fund the project, and the generosity we were shown blew my mind. It was unbelievable. 

Now, Patreon acts as a space for us to get to know our listeners, hear their feedback and incorporate it into our reporting to make it more inclusive. For that reason alone, we’re immensely grateful to the listeners. They’ve helped shape the podcast and progress some of our language and ideas immeasurably. 

Abby on her Voice

Those who listen to the podcast and are listening to the soundbites of this interview might notice your voice sounds different from the podcast. Is this augmentation a conscious decision?

It’s interesting that you say that because we always get feedback from people asking if I am a robot, which of course I am not. 

Deciding to use a less expressive tone wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but we were aware that some of our listeners were non-English speakers and so we decided it was probably best to slow down my speech and concentrate on enunciation instead of tone. This, I suppose, makes me sound a little robotic. 

As well as that, we script everything. I even follow the text on my screen with a cursor so I’m almost reading the syllables instead of the words. So, I mean, Alice, I guess I could talk to you the way I read, but it would be really strange because my cadence is totally different. 

You see, normally, I’m really, really fast talker, but if I spoke this way in the podcast then we wouldn’t be understood by a whole bunch of our audience and at the end of the day, that’s our goal, to help people understand the news. 

That’s interesting. I often wondered was the monotonal tone deliberate to create this kind of impartial space for listeners to make their own minds up about the news – did you ever consider this?

Yes actually! It’s incredibly important to us that our news is unbiased and to achieve that, I do try to adopt a cadence or tone that doesn’t give my own political opinion away, which can be very tricky. 

From the beginning, we did not want to editorialize anything. I mean, I understand that the mere fact that we’re curating specific stories does show a little bit of an editorial bend, however, we try to cover an entire spectrum of the news. We don’t omit anyone. 

For example, we include all political parties despite our own political leanings and sometimes, this is super hard. When I’m reading a story about someone with an unequal political opinion that I don’t agree with it’s hard not to have sarcasm or anger in my voice, but it’s necessary. In a way, it’s what differentiates Berlin Briefing from news outlets. Instead, we’re just a fancy translation service. 

For some couples, the addition of a professional element to their relationship can be revolutionary whilst to others, it can introduce an element of tension. How do you feel that working alongside your spouse has influenced your marriage? 

You know, I have to say it helped us. We’ve been married 10 years and throughout that time we’ve shared a romantic relationship, a habitual relationship, a marriage, but the podcast introduced this business aspect to our relationship which is something we never had before.

It has shown us new sides to each other, professional sides, that we never had the opportunity to meet. Now, do we bicker about shit? Oh my goodness. Yes. However, overall, the podcast has allowed our relationship to grow in a really special way. It’s been another adventure.  

In addition to hosting Berlin Briefing, you also work part-time in a flower shop, is that right? 

Yes. For me, gardening was a job that turned into a hobby. When I arrived in Berlin I had no professional experience working with flowers but since then, I’ve been trained, taught, everything!  It’s been a great experience. It feels great to work with my hands instead of my head. 

So as a trained florist, what is your favorite type of flower? 

I have two favorites, tulips, and snapdragons. 

Working in a flower shop must make you a part of some really beautiful moments! Is there a memory from the store that feels particularly special to you?

Generally speaking, Berliners want something for nothing. I can’t tell you how many times people have complained about the price of a flower or rolled their eyes about something that has increased in price from years ago, however, my favorite moments are when people come in and don’t care about the cost. They want to buy something for their Oma or mother and all they care about is how beautiful it looks. That means something to me. It feels really remarkable to know that something I’ve made is on a table in someone’s house or in a kitchen counter and is bringing people joy. 

How has Bear Radio helped your podcast? 

You know, I’m a bit older, and I know that having a podcast about the news isn’t exactly the trendiest of things to be producing so when we first joined Bear Radio I was a little nervous. At the meet-ups, I would just blend into the background, but their continuous encouragement and support helped me to come out of my shell. 

Abby on the Sound of Books

The network gave us a sense of community. We were one of the first podcasts to join Bear Radio and Jill and Julia gave us a platform and contacts that we never ever would have had on our own. 

And to finish, what is your favorite sound? 

Oh, easy. The sound of a big dictionary or atlas. Back when I was a kid in the library or in my 20s when I worked in bookstores, I would handle a lot of hardbound clothbound books and the action of just opening them up to the middle and hearing them unfold and come together. Wow, it was so satisfying. I can almost hear it now. 

You can support Berlin Briefing via their Patreon here and listen to their episodes wherever you get your podcasts. 

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