Culture / Entertainment

When Death and Grief Grow Into a Podcast Network That Takes on Real Life — Inside Lemonada Media

Four Shows That Are Anything But Podcasting as Usual

BY // 01.08.20

This is the second part in a two part series on Texan Stephanie Wittels Wachs and the Lemonada Media podcast network. To read part one on the overdose death of Wachs’ comic genius brother and everything it triggered, click here.

For a podcast network founded on death and grief, Lemonada Media has also contained a strong foundation of humor since its conception. The network’s co-creator — Houston actor, educator and entrepreneur Stephanie Wittels Wachs —still finds a lot of comedy in the joys and calamities of making Lemonada out of her life’s most bitter experience, the death of her brother Harris Wittels from an opioid overdose.

PaperCity talked to Wachs about her journey from teacher to theater founder to best-selling memoirist and now to chief creative officer for the podcast network she founded with Jessica Cordova Kramer, executive producer of Pod Save the People. She makes it clear that if Lemonada’s mission statement could be distilled in one word, it would probably be empathy.

“The idea is that we’re trying to build a better world. That’s the idea with all our shows, that the world is hard and how do we make it better,” she says explaining the networks’s glass half-empty philosophical starting point as they also strive to bring a half-full perspective to the world.

“Lemonada’s founded on the fact my partner and I both experienced the worse losses, the most tragic terrible things,” Wachs say. “We have that in common but from that we’ve built this thing that’s working, shockingly.”

The First Days of Last Day

“It’s a monolith of a project. I’ve never in my entire life done anything as hard, ever,” says Wachs of Last Day, the podcast that began it all. Yet in its four months running, Last Day has already made several best-lists and was nominated for a iHeart Podcast Award. Their greatest challenge came with the question of how to tackle such a tragic yet very complex subject, the nation’s opioid epidemic.

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“We didn’t know how we’d do it. How do we a podcast that’s entertaining, that’s about the opioid crisis that’s also very personable?”

They decided they would begin with the last day of Jessica Cordova Kramer’s brother Stefano.

“I didn’t really want to tell Harris’s story anymore. That’s a part of it, but I’d done that, so let me tell your brother’s story,” Wachs told Kramer, and they would keep that format of telling stories to deliver information that might just help save the lives of other people’s brothers, sisters, children and parents.

Returning to those last days stories helps them trace all the people affected by the opioid addiction from the relatives and friends and children of those addicted to emergency responders, health care professionals, congressional representatives, mayors and even celebrity comics. Wachs spoke with her brother’s friends and comic writing colleagues Sarah Silverman and Aziz Ansari on the first episode.

Partnered with Westwood One media, Wachs primarily works from a studio at 104 KRBE, Houston, with Kramer in Minneapolis and producers in New York and Los Angeles.. They interview people throughout the country, and for each show go through 11 versions of every script and seven edits.

“In terms of theater it’s like opening a show every week and it has to be perfect. You open the show and then boom another one has to go out the door. The production process is insane,” say Wachs, but she’s also astonished at the number of people around the world who listen and send in their stories and join the conversation online.

She doesn’t usually read reviews, but during our talk, shows me one from a very grateful family member of someone struggling with opioid addiction. The note explains the family shifted from a confrontational mode to a more supportive medical-based interaction because of the information facilitated by Last Day.

“We’re part of that conversation. It’s a very weird thing,” marvels Wachs, then ponders with her usual cynical-optimism sense of humor. “I didn’t want to do the show because I didn’t want to talk anymore about opioids but now my entire life is talking about the opioid crisis but in this very hopeful context.

“People aren’t going to die now. I can make art that helps save people.”

As Me with Sinéad

For their second show Wachs and Kramer came up with the concept and then found the perfect host, Sinéad Burke, mostly by happenstance.

“We knew we wanted to do a show about what it was like to live in someone else’s body, as in mind and identity, to dig deep as a way to build empathy,” Wachs says.

Sinéad Burke on Late Night with Seth Meyers
Sinéad Burke on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

The Irish writer, academic, and influencer came into the fashion and design zeitgeist when the 3-foot-5 Burke created a TED Talk titled “Why Design Should Include Everyone.” Since then she has graced the cover of British Vogue guest edited by Meghan Markle and became the first little person to attend the Met Gala. Yet, when Lemonada came calling after a guest spot on Kramer’s Pod Save the People, Burke didn’t think the message was real.

“She didn’t respond to the email,” Wachs notes. “She thought there’s no way this is true. This is too good to be true, a show where I get to talk to people about what it’s like to live in their bodies. That’s all I want to do.”

And do it she has, talking to a wide range of artists and activists like Victoria Beckham, Daniel Levy, Andrew Hozier Byrne and Jameela Jamil since As Me began in October 2019.

“There’s no greater conversationalist than Sinead and everyone wants to talk to her. Nobody will say no to her. It’s crazy who she gets. She’s truly a remarkable human,” says Wachs, adding, “You talk to her and feel better about things.”

Wachs also believes bringing Sinéad into the Lemonada network early in their development also changed their ideals.

“Once we brought Sinead on we said there’s this standard now,” she says. “We want to create good content that is universal that speaks to all the things we’re dealing with humanity.”

Parenting Advice for the Real World

The third of their shows, and the one Wachs executive produces, Good Kids: How Not to Raise an A**hole is unusual beyond the provocative title. Each short episode features a different parent, parenting expert or simply knowledgable non-A-hole person who discuss anything child-rearing related from traveling with kids to intuitive eating to raising emotionally intelligent children.

“I didn’t want to have a show where there’s a host interviewing people about parenting. It’s been done,” says Wachs on the format and brevity of each 15 minute episode. “I think it gives people room to dive into different aspects of parenting. Each show is how-to or how-to-not.”

(Pod)Casting the Future

The fourth podcast Mouthpeace will debut in late January hosted by Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Michael Bennett and his wife Pele Bennett. The couple have been together since they met in at Houston’s Alief Taylor High. Wachs says pretty much anything is on the table for topics from marriage, sex, child-rearing and yes, the NFL.

“He’s like a unicorn, a best selling author, athlete, activist, feminist. They are both so dynamic. They disagree about things. The two of them will talk about stuff that affects everyone. There’s no filter there.” Wachs describes of the wide range of possible topics and guest.

Yet with this latest show listeners will again hear Lemonada’s underlying empathetic resonance.

“We’re calling it Mouthpeace because the idea is that you can communicate your way through anything,” Wach says. “You can talk your way through anything.”

While Wachs isn’t ready to reveal what comes after Mouthpeace, Lemonada plan to announce a fifth “topical” show soon and a sixth by the fall. She even envisions they’ll have more than 20 in production within the first three years.

When I ask her what her brother, now muse, might have thought of these podcast worlds he inspired, Wachs grows introspective, while also keeping that cutting sense of comedy.

“He’d make fun of me for all the crying I’ve done on the shows, but I think he’d be proud,” she says. “He wanted to make the world a better place too. He had the same fire, just manifested in a different way. What’s amazing is if I tell the truth about where I am, people are like: Yes me too.

“I also feel those things we don’t talk about. It seems so simple, but if you authentically represent where you are, people will respond to that.”

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