Arts / Performing Arts

How the Death of Her Brother Pushed This Texan to Create America’s Most Original Podcast Network

The Heartbreaking and Wonderful Story of Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Harry Wittels, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Lemonada Media

BY // 01.07.20

When local actor, stage director, entrepreneur and educator Stephanie Wittels Wachs lost her brother to a heroin overdose, she quit her teaching position at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and co-founded a theater company. She named the theater Rec Room, as a kind of homage to her brother Harris Wittels — comic prodigy, inventor of the humblebrag and writer, support player and executive producer of the television hit Parks and Recreation.

Then while running Rec, Wachs wrote a book about Harris’s last days and her family’s grief and survival in the aftermath.

In the next three years, that book would become the best seller Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss. Rec Room would become one of Houston’s most innovative small theaters. Wachs would direct, act, host a podcast, advocate for a Texas law requiring insurance companies to cover hearing aids and cochlear implants for children, and give birth to her second child, Harry.

And then while taking some maternity downtime, Wachs would begin her latest mammoth project, co-creating a new podcast network, Lemonada Media.

This is the story of her journey to turn tragedy into creative lemonade.

The first time I ever spoke to Wachs in the early days of Rec Room, I had the impression that she and Rec Room co-founder, director Matt Hune, both epitomized the idea that one person’s foolhardy is another’s strident bravery. While the duo had the creative gumption they also didn’t seem to acknowledge the risks of their theatrical undertaking. Yet that philosophy became the life legacy Harris left Wachs, and the ultimate revelation of her memoir.

“I don’t ever have a fear about doing things because I just don’t fully flesh out the problems. I enter everything with the understanding that it will probably fail, and that we’re all going to die so it doesn’t matter,” Wachs tells PaperCity.

“That continues to be the theme of everything. What’s the worse thing that happens? It doesn’t work? That’s not the worse thing that happens. I still truly believe that.”

Birth of a Network

In 2018 when Wachs’s memoir was published, she and her mother were guests on the Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast and made a life-changing impact on one listener in particular, Jessica Cordova Kramer executive producer of Crooked Media’s award-winning Pod Save the People. Kramer, who had lost her brother Stefano to an opioid overdose two years after Harris’s death, wanted Wachs to be a guest on her show.

Harris and Stephanie Wittels
Stephanie Wittels with her brother Harris.

In their initial phone conversation they talked for over an hour, and at the very end Kramer confessed she had an idea for a new podcast on the opioid epidemic. She asked if Wachs would be interested.

While Wachs noncommittally said she would think about it after giving birth, her unspoken answer was no.

“I’m tired of opioids. They’ve taken enough. I don’t need them to take more,” she thought. “But when Harry was three months old, I read an article that opioids are killing more people now than car accidents. I emailed her immediately: All right I’m in. Let’s do it.”

While she hasn’t said goodbye to Rec Room and still sits on the board, the birth of her child and a new podcast meant making some distance.

“By that point, like many early nonprofits, I had not been paid a single dollar,” Wachs says. “Our employees were getting paid, but I thought: I have two kids now, and I’m bringing home no income for my family. I have to find a way to send my children to college.

“I love Rec Room and I’ve invested my whole heart and soul in it, but I needed to figure out a way to use my skill set and feed my children.”

Beyond the Last Day

In the beginning, Wachs and Kramer focused on creating one podcast, which would become Last Day, an expansive focus on the opioid crisis through the story of the last day in the life of Stefano and others. Though the duo found interest when they shopped the idea to other podcast networks, no company was quite ready to go with them on the endeavor.

They also realized they had ideas for other shows beyond Last Day, and so the notion to create, Lemonada, their own network took shape.

“People’s lives suck in a variety of ways, not just this one. What if we created all kinds of content and community around things that are hard for people?” Wachs describes of her initial thinking and partnership with Kramer. “There are very few women run networks.

“She has an incredible skill set having executive produced a very successful podcast. With the creative background I have, why not?”

With proposals for a six podcasts and ideas for more within the first few years, they soon found a willing partner with Westwood One, giving them access to studios nationally and internationally, including Houston’s 104 KRBE. As of January 2020, they have three podcast up, running and changing lives: Last Day, As Me with Sinéad and Good Kids: How Not to Raise an A**hole, which Wachs produces. Dallas Cowboys’ defensive lineman Michael Bennett and his wife Pele Bennett will host the fourth show, Mouthpeace, set for late January.

Monuments to Harris

Though many aspects of her life have changed this year, Wachs finds the creative skills she used as an educator, actor and director have fueled her new role as an up and coming media mogul.

“Being a teacher for so long I have a lot of patience and I welcome feedback,” Wachs says. “There’s a flexibility you have to have as an educator because nothing ever goes right when you’re dealing with students. You have a plan and then you abandon it.”

Wachs likewise finds her acting training, especially her voice acting, has prepared for her new life on the mike.

“As an actor you have to be disciplined,” she says. “If you feel like shit, the show has to keep going. You still show up. And I think I’ve been used to for so long making art under not ideal conditions. That’s useful too. If things don’t work out I’ll get on the kit and do it there.”

In our talk, I mentioned that from the outside it looked as if she has spent these last years since Harris’s death surviving and changing while creating art monuments to her brother.

“I have not done a single thing since Harris died, that has not been about him,” she responds. “My dead brother is my constant muse now, I guess. It’s really twisted, but I can only make art about him, driven by pain.”

Wachs confesses, with a genuine laugh that seems laced with a very real sense of everything being both horrible and wonderful at once, a laugh coming from that ultimate comedy generator. It’s funny because it’s true.

Tomorrow: Inside the world of Lemonada.

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