This month, we chatted with Catherine Burns, longtime artistic director of The Moth. As one of the lead directors on the Moth’s MainStage for more than a decade, Catherine has helped hundreds of people craft their stories, including a Nobel Laureate, a retired New York City cop, a jaguar tracker and an exonerated prisoner. Along with Jay Allison she is the producer of The Moth Radio Hour, and the editor of the international best seller The Moth: 50 True Stories. Here’s what she’s listening to now.
What show do you wake up to?
On my best days, I start with a very early morning workout. My constant companion is the radio show/podcast On Being, which is hosted by the ethereal Krista Tippett. In 2010 I became a parent for the first time. Those first months are a precious time in your life, but also completely exhausting and kind of isolating. But then one morning, Krista’s voice came over my public radio station (WNYC), and I was mesmerized.
I first got hooked on an episode about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. I grew up in Alabama, but have lived in New York City for nearly two decades, and I’m obsessed with stories about the city’s past. I knew a lot about the building of this iconic bridge, and honestly didn’t think there was much more I could learn. I was wrong.
Nate pulled me into the perils and challenges of that construction site in a completely fresh way. You feel like you are there, deep under the water, digging through the muck. More recent episodes cover a show lion named Leo, and what it was like to be a homesteader in the late 1800’s (me and my now six-year-old son listened to that last one together as we’re currently reading all the Little House on the Prairie books, and are fascinated with that time period.)
What is your favorite listening environment?
I do much of my listening while commuting by foot and train. Like most of our artistic staff, I listen to 2-3 hours of audio a week, screening stories from The Moth’s 500+ annual live storytelling shows to determine what we’re going to put on The Moth Radio Hour and podcast. I have a 15-minute walk to the subway, and then a half hour ride to get to our office. I love listening on the go because I figure most of our fans also listen to The Moth in this way, so if I have trouble following a story while crossing the street or transferring trains, then so will they. We sometimes call this “the laundry test”: Can you fold laundry and follow this story? It’s important because few people listen to a podcast while sitting, staring at a blank wall with fancy headphones.
What’s a podcast that doesn’t currently exist that you think should?
Hands down–one hosted by Sharon Salzberg. She’s one of the greatest meditation teachers alive. She is so wise and funny (I’ve heard people refer to her as a “sit down comic” ). She has this way of humanizing meditation and Buddism, and making it easy to understand and put into practice. She’s one of the greatest storytellers alive (we’re working on getting her on The Moth stage.) She’s also a columnist for On Being’s website. Maybe they’ll do a spin-off with her!
*Editor’s note: it turns out, Sharon does have a podcast! Take a listen here.
What I love about podcasting is that you can create a beautiful piece of audio that appeals to a very specific group of people, and give them access to that audio in an easy way. It’s so different from the 1970’s and 80’s when I grew up, where, if a TV show didn’t have millions of viewers, it was considered a failure. Nowadays, you can create art for a niche audience. You don’t need Games of Thrones or even Serial-level numbers to find an audience and be a success. I hope that we’ll continue to see more podcasts that take on micro-cultures and explore them in an original way.
We’re living in this magical time where many people have unprecedented on-demand access to media. I find a lot of inspiration in the author Seth Godin (another person who should have his own podcast!). He talks about making a product that you love, and going out and finding every single person in the world who would want it, and getting it to them. It’s the opposite of the Mad Men-era thinking, where they would first create a product and then try to convince everyone they had to have it IMMEDIATELY. It’s about finding the people who genuinely want what you are creating.