Introduce Yourself to…
Julie Shapiro has been working in the podcasting field from its humble beginnings through to the industry it’s become today, always staying true to high quality sound and excellent storytelling. She has played a large role in showing producers how to make their ideas thrive in an audio format, and then taking their ideas from paper to podcast. Julie has been the creative force behind dozens of series and hundreds of wonderfully told stories. We got a chance to speak with Julie about her new role at Novel, her favorite part of the production process, and how we can stay true to our craft in a world run by download numbers.
First off, what’s been your favorite project that you’ve worked on in 2022?
I would say my favorite new project of 2022 was probably the four episode series called My Mother Made Me, which we made for Radiotopia Presents with Jason Reynolds, who is just one of my favorite writers and humans on the planet. It was such a great honor and a blast to work with him, to tell the story of his relationship with his mom and what he’s learned from her, and what he hopes she’s learned from him.
It just was a really heartwarming, very positive, beautiful, thoughtful, peek into their relationship, but also something I felt like anyone with a mom – which is everyone – had something to relate to in that. It was really rewarding and I had a great team to work with at Radiotopia on that.
Mark Pagán was the lead producer and Ian Coss did this incredible soundtrack and sound design, and the Radiotopia team, Audrey Mardavich and Yooree Losordo. It was just a dream project.
You started working as the Executive Creative Director of Novel this summer. Could you tell us a bit about your role there and maybe how that transition started from Radiotopia to Novel started?
Novel is a company that started small, I guess as all companies do, and grew very quickly through the pandemic from just a handful of people to around 50 now. And they grew because they were initially doing mostly work for hire jobs for companies like the BBC and Audible UK.
And then they started getting some slates sold to bigger podcast partners. The iHearts, the Wonderys. And then it got to the point where they thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got a lot of young producers on staff, we’re making a mark for ourselves in the creative world. What can we do next?’
The idea of investing in shows themselves was the next frontier. I’ve been brought on board to help them do that and build out an ‘Originals’ network. These will be shows that Novel owns and can make all of the creative decisions for on their own. We don’t have to get greenlit by other people who will give us money to make things.
That’s the dream!
It kind of is a dream job because it’s really about taking a vision for something and helping build that. But they’ve already done a lot of work on their own and I think that was the pull. I loved Radiotopia so much, and PRX and Ear Hustle, I’m very close to all those projects.
So it was a really odd decision to make, but I found that my initial response was, ‘Oh, no, thank you. I’m not looking for a different thing.’ But we just kept talking and then I realized it was a good thing to just investigate my own feelings about change and what I was doing and what I might be doing.
I’ve always been inclined towards the international audio community. And there were echoes of things I’ve done in the past and things I was doing presently and might want to do in the future. It all combined to create an opportunity that felt really exciting. The company is very committed to sound and craft and has very high standards, and we all speak the same language around audio. They are real audiophiles and lovers of detailed, nuanced sound design. And you know, I feel very comfortable in that space and knowing that whatever we make is going to achieve that level of craft and expertise, and also hopefully open the company up to new listeners and new communities.
We want to break new ground creatively. The Novel tagline is ‘Brave New Audio.’ They want to make what isn’t getting done in the space, and explore how we can make it sound beautiful at all times – or sound scratchy and raw and gritty for the right reasons.
You have so much experience throughout the years, helping people bring stories to life – even if the stories themselves were not initially written for audio. How do you start building out that audio component of a new story?
It really starts with the ‘who.’ It starts with the person and whose idea it is. And what their relationship to the idea is.
What I am most delighted by, in this process, is when people show what they’ve got a bit, and come with the ideas and then go get the tape and have the vision for something that they feel totally passionate about.
And that’s like one kind of podcasting. I understand that there are different camps that you could be talking about in their entirety that don’t necessarily relate as much to each other when you talk about process or you talk about business. For the most part, the work that I’ve been involved with has been more documentary-ish and storytelling.
And in those cases, it really has been led by the creator and I have felt really honored and privileged to be able to help enable them to do their thing. So from Ear Hustle straight up to Jason and My Mother Made Me, I like surrounding myself with a great team, people you really get to know and trust in the creative trenches. Then there’s the not knowing exactly where things will go, but having a sense that you trust this person and the idea they’ve brought to you. They have the longer vision of what it might be.
A lot of times it’s about needing support and cheerleading and some money, when sometimes it’s actual resources, and a lot of times it’s just being like a creative mentor and supporting people and being enthusiastic about something with someone, giving them the permission to go do their thing.
I remember that we did a show called The Great God of Depression with Pagan Kennedy, and she’d never done a podcast before. She’s an amazing journalist, and writes a lot for the New York Times. She had a background in zine making, she’s just a really interesting person.
She wrote about the whole zine culture and she had this idea and she’d never really done it, but she teamed up with a great producer named Karen Brown and we were just there to give a platform and give a voice to it, and help market and all these things, but creatively it was just showing up to meetings and talking through the ideas and caring as much as they cared. But I really cared because they cared.
To me, it’s about relationships, really. I think all of what I do, every step of the way, is about forming, developing, keeping, and nurturing relationships. And those healthy relationships are what create beautiful pieces of audio and art and stories and impactful things down the road.
That safe space and that uplifting environment where people are comfortable to come up with new ideas is so important for growth as a storyteller as well. To have someone like yourself guiding a person through creating a story, to have that safe space and that trust, must be a wonderful experience for the creator.
It’s trust and – I wanna be realistic – it doesn’t always work out. And sometimes that’s for different reasons. It might not be that the idea is actually solid enough to leap from idea into the podcast.
It might be slightly differing senses of what it needs to be, because there is the reality of the business surrounding every creative decision that you make. One thing that’s really interesting to me about Novel is they are very upfront about, like, it’s a business. It’s not a nonprofit.
It’s the first commercial business that I’ve worked for as a professional person in audio. And I really grappled with that for a while. But I believe in the company. I believe in the people. But there is this tension between being fiercely creative and fiercely commercial, and you have to do both, to do both.
And so that’s a challenge that I think that in some jobs I haven’t had to really focus on that part of the challenge as much. In this job there’s a lot of trust in me and the decisions I’m making, so I can really lean into the creative. But there are other people at the company and it’s part of their job to ask questions like, ‘What are we gonna potentially get out of it? What else will it enable us to do down the road?’ Which for me is like building reputation, building our network of producers and listeners, building opportunities for new voices and bringing new people into the mix as we go. Meanwhile they have to run a business.
What do you wish newer producers knew about the process of developing narrative or documentary style storytelling projects?
It takes a long time. It’s harder than it seems. As much as I live in the world of content, content, content, the reality of the industry and finding an audience with the volume of content out there makes it very, very hard to puncture through the noise and find people to listen to your show.
So you’re gonna put a lot of work into something. You have to rise to the occasion and figure out how to find an audience, and that can be really hard without institutional support if you’re trying to do something on your own. People have done it successfully but I think by and large, there’s a lot of work out there that doesn’t get listened to.
So I think having a more holistic sense of the whole process. You can’t really ever know who your audience is. You can have some ideas, but the whole point is like, hopefully things go beyond who you think they’re for.
And it’s so important to have a team around you, even if they’re not like an official team, trusted extra ears, people to pull you back from the ledge. It’s hard to crack into the industry I think in terms of selling ideas, but going the route of finding a position with a company is one way.
It’s not for the fainthearted. I think it used to seem like audio was just this kind of easy thing to get involved in and a very accepting, warm, open space. And it is to some degree, but the industry has really developed claws and teeth and budgets have skyrocketed for some things. The money piece is really confusing, I think, to a lot of people coming in at the ground level and learning what it takes, what it costs to make work.
What is your favorite part of the creative process – whether it be for a single episode or a series as a whole?
I think my favorite part is hearing something develop from an idea that you see on paper you talk about, to hearing those first drafts of the audio itself. These days I’m not usually on the ground,
getting the actual interviews or cutting tape. I hear drafts, and for Ear Hustle, for example, I was always aware of all of the stories and the interviews that were happening, but those moments of tape surprise where you can read a script and know it’s coming, but until you hear tape delivered in certain voices with sounds around and scenes and place and the nuance of like natural sound, those are the moments when you jolt, when you physically respond to something you’re listening to.
You then take a bunch of notes and then feedback and as a team talk through things and then hear a next draft. That says so much about the process and working together and, and working through creative differences and learning when to compromise and when to stand your ground.
So I was reading your bio online, and it said that you’re ‘a horse girl at heart.’ And you have a Twitter account that compiles podcast episodes that mention horses called The Horse Thread. How did that come about?
I wrote a piece for transom.org that was just about how I was approaching listening to podcasts with the crushing volume of things out there, the pressure to listen all the time and keep up.
Around the same time, I heard two episodes that referenced horses – in the same day. But they weren’t about horses. The stories themselves weren’t about horses. They just had horses in the story somewhere. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so, that’s funny. What a coincidence.’
And then I was like, ‘I wonder how many episodes that I listen to in the course of a week or a month or a year mention a horse every now and then.’ And then it just became a game I started playing with myself with like, ‘Oh, there’s another horse mentioned… Oh, the main character grew up next to a polo club.’ I just started keeping track.
It’s all about putting the fun back into listening.
What is your favorite sound? Or soundS?
I would say the latter. I think a lot of the sounds of growing up, like the really subtle sounds of living in the house I grew up in. Hearing the TV through the floorboards when you’re in bed at night. Or hearing my dad come home, probably between 6:00 and 6:30. The sound of the back door opening and closing and him saying, ‘I’m home.’
Or how the washing machine sounded through a couple of walls while we were sitting in the living room, just like the familiar sounds of that house. And then I think about my house here, it’s the same kind of thing. Like the sound of the cat jumping down from the window. My husband is a musician and, and when he’s practicing in the basement, that sound rises up.
We also have the water bubbler, which is not a beautiful sound, but we hear it a lot. All the beeping of the machines, the mysterious thunk of the refrigerator every once in a while. So those are the more kind of sounds around that mean something to me because they mean home. And they’re regular and familiar and they make me feel safe in a way.
Also, all the sounds at the stable are really ingrained in my memory from being around them a lot as a kid. The sounds of horses chewing – on the inside, you can kind of hear this kind of rubbery chewing, warm knocking of food against teeth in their mouths – it’s really distinct to me. Or like stall doors opening and closing, and the latches.
And then the sound that most recently I’ve really been thinking about is, we got a snake and then we got some fish. And the water filter on the fish tank is this really beautiful background noise. It’s like having an app playing white noise or having a white noise machine on. You don’t even need one – you just need the fish!