Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Avery Trufelman almost gave up on radio. In 2013, she moved to Oakland to intern at a little-known podcast called 99% Invisible (just kidding — the smart, well-crafted architecture and design show was already huge) and gave herself an ultimatum: “If this one doesn't work I’m calling it quits. I’ll find another way to make a living.”
Four years later, Trufelman is a full-time producer at 99% Invisible, though she might prefer to call herself a “conversationalist.” Talking to people -- about the secretly Finnish history of skateboarding, the romantic ruins of Sutro Baths, or the armed forces’ challenge coins -- fuels Trufelman’s work process and her own boundless curiosity.
You’ve made some of my favorite episodes of 99% Invisible, but they’re all completely different. Where does a story usually start for you?
The fun thing about radio is being able to connect the dots. “The Pool and the Stream” started with this article from a Finnish skateboarding magazine that said, “Hey the first kidney shaped pool might have been in Finland.” Then I watched Dogtown and Z- Boys. Then I came upon [landscape architect] Thomas Church. And when I was in Finland, a friend of mine reached out and set me up with two expats in Helsinki. It turned out they worked at Aalto University and they provided me with two of the most valuable sources in the story.
I think the way I work is different from a lot of writers. Instead of keeping everything secret until the big reveal, I have to talk about what’s in process or what I’m thinking about. The most valuable resource for me has just been talking to people. It’s a lot of preparation and a lot of luck.
What do you try to accomplish with the work that you do?
I have a really hard time describing what I do. A friend of mine wanted to print business cards for me, but I couldn’t figure out what to put on it. I don’t like “podcaster” and I don’t like the word “writer.” So I told him I think I’m a conversationalist. Mostly what I do is talk to people and connect dots and take in a lot of information. I see myself as kind of a sieve that various sources flow through.
My goal is to one day make a story as stirring or addictive and moving as Laurie Anderson’s song “Sharkey’s Day.” Then I’ll be able to call myself an artist.
What’s it like to work on one of the most popular podcasts out there?
It’s so weird to me; I was a huge fan of 99% Invisible before I started working here. For the first two years, I definitely had to keep pinching myself. It’s like I joined my favorite indie band.
At 99% Invisible, the numbers are scary, but very thrilling; I think it’s like 800,000 to 1 million downloads per episode. The lucky thing about the podcast is knowing that people are listening to this thing I wrote, listening to it all the way through and listening to it at the pace I made it — unless they’re listening to it at double speed.
What else are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
In August, my friend Chris Funk, guitarist for the Decembrists, is curating a festival in Sisters, Oregon for the total solar eclipse. I’m giving a talk about the importance of the eclipse and what it means to people. People’s feelings about it span what I call the “spectrum of rationality”: everything from doomsday to this is an amazing, beautiful scientific phenomenon. Scientists get mystical and mystics get scientific. The whole talk is going to illustrated with found clips from YouTube of conspiracy theorists.
The cool thing about this year’s eclipse is that we’ve had an eclipse drought for the past 38 years, but there will be an eclipse boom for the next few decades, and I think that bodes well for America.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
I know so many wonderful, powerful, creative women in the Bay Area. But they get kind of split up along this financial spectrum. Half of my friends are starving dog walkers and artists and the other half work at startups.
I wish we didn’t have to focus on money as a barometer for self-worth. I find a lot of conversations circle around that. This is something women have to monitor; we have to make sure we get credit and equal pay for equal work. And I hope in some sort of utopian future that we can focus more on the creative problems and focus more on the ideas than the nitty-gritty of "did you get paid, did you get credit, can I say no to this?"
It’s important to remember the work isn’t all done yet.