Earful is a new column focusing on the masterminds behind some of the coolest podcasts out there and the motivations behind their work. This is the first interview in the series.
It’s safe to assume that regular listeners of The Heart feel really close to host Kaitlin Prest. It’s her job to get them in the mood, something she does by delivering what she describes as “a bit of a whisper in the ear before bed.” Prest’s intimate hosting style is perfect for setting up the show’s first person stories that aim to introduce new narratives about sex, love, and relationships.
Prest, 28, started working with audio seven years ago when she joined an experimental, erotic college radio show called Audio Smut in Montreal. In 2012 she and Mitra Kaboli, another Audio Smut producer, moved to New York City with the goal to get their show on public radio. For two years they tried to make their way on air only to be shot down by program directors who felt Audio Smut was too explicit for the public radio audience.
Finally, in 2014, Prest and Kaboli got their big break and landed a deal with Radiotopia, the podcast network created by 99% Invisible mastermind Roman Mars. Now the Radiotopia stamp of story-driven excellence has propelled their show, renamed The Heart, far beyond the AM/FM dial. For the past year it has steadily climbed the iTunes podcast charts and now nearly 50-60,000 people download the show per episode.
You’re gearing up to release season two of The Heart. Will it be different from season one?
Not really. More or less our fundamental core mission of trying to create culture that challenges the way that we think about love, sex, and gender will never change. But the way we go about it is constantly evolving.
I’ve seen your show described as a “sex positive podcast.” What does that mean?
The term “sex positive” comes from a particular category of feminism. I don’t have the perfect lingo, it’s been awhile since I was in school studying gender studies. It’s all about women owning their sexuality, owning their femininity, and de-stigmatizing the conversation around sex. It’s also about talking publicly about the private sphere and acknowledging the private sphere as something that’s newsworthy.
How did you conceptualize The Heart?
The Heart originally was just going to be Audio Smut but by a new name. The dream was always to get Audio Smut on the radio. A lot of the time I found myself being like, “Public radio stations aren’t interested in us because they’re not bad ass enough.” I think that’s part of it, but I think the other part of it was that we were legitimately independent. It’s hard to get picked up by a station for anybody, let alone a really explicit show made by queer women and women of color that’s discussing sexuality from a female perspective.
I love how you introduce stories on your podcast. Has your hosting style changed over time?
In the early days we were making documentary erotica about our own lives. I guess I wanted it to be genuinely erotic, I really didn’t want it to be posturing erotic. I remember trying really hard to find my voice. Sam Greenspan (producer of 99% Invisible) was an early fan of Audio Smut. I remember him giving me feedback saying the hosting shouldn’t be sexy, it should be a safe neutral place where you’re introducing things that might make people feel uncomfortable. I don’t know, I didn’t take that feedback.
When you are choosing stories to develop for the show, how do you decide if one is good enough to become an episode?
We’ll get a pitch and ask does this challenge what we think about sex, love, and gender? Is this treading new ground? Is this furthering a conversation? We’ll have a topic and then we ask ourselves do I have a story that could explore it that I’m willing to tell? Then we have conversations with the people that we know. Sometimes we’ll have big pitch party in my backyard with margaritas with people who might have stories.
Sounds like fun! So, how did you finally make the jump from being independent to becoming part of a big time network?
When I moved to New York, I was obsessed with public radio. Anybody who was working in radio, I was like, “Want to be my friend?” When Radiotopia was about to be launched, I knew about it because I was friends with all the people who were involved. I remember being like, “a podcast network. Holy shit, this is made for me.” I met Jake Shapiro (CEO of PRX) at the end of the Public Radio Programming Conference so I wrote to him and had let slip that our numbers had grown a lot and that we’re on a regular schedule. They called me two weeks after that and said, “Yeah, we want you.”
Now that you’re part of Radiotopia, which is one of the most successful podcasts networks, where do you see The Heart going?
The truth is, I’m not sure. As an artist, do I want to sign up for the radio model which demands that you reproduce something ad nauseam until you die? Is my dream to try to be the "This American Life" of love and relationships and be a show that has a 25 year life? I think that once you have millions of liseners you’re accountable to your listeners and essentially you become a slave to them. They suddenly need you, they own you, they want you to do the thing that they love you for doing. What if you’re bored of that? I want the show to be dynamic and I want my creativity to stay dynamic. I can’t really think of a five-year plan because I spent the last five years dreaming to be on a network and be a real radio show. I feel like that happened. It’s that moment when your dreams all come true and you’re like, “What do I do now?”