Gretta Cohn is not afraid of big life changes. At twenty-one, she moved from her hometown of New York City to Omaha, Nebraska. “I was in New York, working in arts administration, and I got a phone call inviting me to join this community of musicians,” she tells me. “It’s funny. I’m actually wearing a Criteria t-shirt. They’re an Omaha band, and I’ve had this since like 2003.” Cohn laughs and untucks her shirt a little so I can see the design. We’re sitting in the Brooklyn offices of Transmitter Media, the podcast company Cohn founded less than two years ago with only a small client list and her own savings. Transmitter now produces for an impressive range of big name partners including Spotify, Walmart, Barneys, and TED.
However, when I first looked up Cohn online, I wasn’t sure if I had found the right person. I had heard of her as a podcast powerhouse, but the first results that came up told of her many musical accolades. Indeed, before Cohn had ever made her first audio story, she lead a successful career as a cellist in the band Cursive. When we sat down to talk, the first thing I wanted to know was how this influenced her work in narrative audio.
I’m really interested in how you started your career as a musician. And I’m curious how it’s informed your transition into audio storytelling.
Gretta Cohn: Yeah, definitely. I started playing the cello when I was three years old, so music and sound have always been a part of my life. I was quite serious about cello. It was what I spent all my free time doing. I played in the New York Youth Symphony and thought I would apply to conservatory. But I ended up enrolling in a liberal arts degree. And though I continued to play music in college, I switched from classical to playing in a band, improvising and that sort of thing.
There I studied cultural history, but from a music perspective. I wrote my thesis on cover songs, thinking about their history from a critical theory angle of recycling culture. After college, I sort of unexpectedly began playing professionally full-time. I got a call to join this band, Cursive. I said yes, and I did that for four years. While I was in the band, I got to know how to use ProTools and was in the studio a lot. My whole world was really oriented around music and thinking through sound.
After the band, I worked for a ringtone company and then in audiobooks. It was around then that I began to see all the things I enjoyed about sound and story could come together. Once I did, I found my way to the Salt Institute in Maine, where I studied with Rob Rosenthal, who is amazing, and learned craft. At the time, there weren’t a lot of jobs in this, but I really loved it. I loved how all of the things I had learned about composing music, and thinking structurally in music — the way, for example, that you build to a chorus — all of this is transferable to the way you build and do pacing in story. So, it took me a while to get there, but once I did, it all seemed really clear. Everything seemed interrelated and it just made a lot of sense.
I think this is actually common, right? People come to radio because they have these different skills they can put together. That’s really cool. So, after Salt, how did you get into radio?
I started out by doing an internship at Studio 360. There’s a lot of talk now about unpaid internships. I had my family close by, so I had a little bit of support there. But I worked a ton of part-time jobs and I remember being really exhausted. I’m very happy to see that systems are changing, because I think it excludes a lot of people who should have the opportunity to get that kind of up-close training. After the internship, I got a three month job down in North Carolina, at WUNC. I was like, yeah, I’ll do that. I had already picked up and moved a few times in my life. All you need is a couple of suitcases and you can figure it out. That was a really good first job because it was harder back then. The opportunities were much slimmer.
After that I was doing freelance assignments for Studio 360 and working in audiobooks. I pitched a podcast at the audiobooks company, and that was an awesome opportunity for me to start figuring things out. I got a mentor from there, and he helped me conceive of the podcast. From there, I eventually got a job at WNYC, probably about a year later. I started at Soundcheck, which is a daily live music show. It was great. It was a lot of fun, and I got to work with some really awesome producers, some of whom now work here at Transmitter. After a few years there, I moved over to Freakonomics, which was great. And after Freakonomics, I worked for a bit in the newsroom. Then I went to Midroll.
What was it like working at WNYC and then at Midroll during their early days? How was the transition?
It was intense. At WNYC, I was a producer on a big team. I was really making stuff, and not thinking about strategy or leading teams. But at Midroll I was the first producer they ever hired and their first New York City-based hire, too. At first, my job was to help grow existing shows, but very quickly it became to create new shows and also to create and launch this app called Howl, which is now Stitcher Premium. It was a real crash course in things other than producing. Had I stayed at WNYC and not gone to Midroll, I’m not sure that I would have ended up creating Transmitter. I had to learn so many things that were a part of this world but weren’t specifically about just making a show.
I’m curious as a producer but also as a person — how did you decide to start your own company?
In the fall of 2016, I was tasked with putting together a show development team at Midroll. So a lot of my energy and time was spent looking for producers. Before then it had just been me, John DeLore, and Chris Bannon conceiving of and making new things, so that we were putting together a team was really exciting. To be frank, though, going through that process burned me out in a way that I had never experienced before. It forced me to think about what I wanted from work and life, and I had a moment where I thought I might look to other fields. I was asking myself, “What are other things that I might want to do?”
This is going to sound very kooky, but I went and did a float in a sensory deprivation tank. It gave me this hour of total peacefulness where all of those feelings of burnout just melted away. I came out of it and knew I wanted start my own company. I spent the next month quaking with fear about what that meant, but then I got through it and started to lay the groundwork. I put aside a little bit of money, I started to think about what I wanted my company to do, and I started to line up clients. So, by the time I exited Midroll, I already had my office, a little bit of savings, and a client list. I knew that I was starting with at least the bedrock of what was hopefully success, but it was totally unknown.
Who were the initial clients?
Walmart was one of the first. Spotify followed shortly thereafter with the United States of Music project. Then there were a couple of smaller projects I was doing. ESPN’s 30for30 was one of the first. A few months later we started WorkLife with TED, and then things just kept building.
It seems that when people move up, they operate in less of a creative position and more of a managerial one. Have you found that suits you? Do you miss the creative work, or is it more of a mix?
It’s a mix. It’s dependent on the project. Up until this moment I was still doing on-the-ground recording and producing, but I think going forward I’ll be doing fewer reporting trips. I listen to everything that we make though. I’m always giving feedback and participating in everything, even though I’m also HR, accounts payable, and office manager, and all these things that weren’t part of what I did in the past. There are aspects of it that I enjoy. It’s really cool to help shape a culture. You know, how do we want to spend our time here? How do we want people to feel? Hopefully people feel good about working here. We have a good time, we have beers on the roof on Fridays. There are some really awesome things, but then, for example, here’s an air conditioner that I need to put in the window. That’s both sides: rooftop beers, but also the A/C hasn’t been installed yet.
What is it like working with big corporate brands?
I’ve really enjoyed it. For the most part, our partners on the client side are people on their company’s editorial arm. At Walmart, our main collaborators work on their editorial page, Walmart Today, and they’re storytellers. For our show with Barneys, our main partners work on The Window, where they report and tell stories about fashion designers and trends. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but everyone I’ve worked with has already been thinking about the story. So it hasn’t been about convincing someone on the importance of story, but rather what aspects of the story we want to bring out and tell.
Of course, there’s a certain amount of education. For anyone coming to audio-first storytelling from print or even TV, there’s a learning curve. Luckily we can show by doing. Once you actually get into the process of making a show, and you can demonstrate what the differences are, people catch up and you become true collaborators.
How would you say audio storytelling is different from that of print or TV?
We’ve worked with hosts who come from a variety of different storytelling fields. One of the main skills that we talk about is what to do when you go in for an interview. It’s a slightly different approach to teasing out a story. We’re looking for the person we’re talking to to pull us through the story in their own words with as much vivid recollection as possible. You’re trying to place someone back in a moment, so that when they’re recollecting an experience it’s almost like it’s happening again. If I were collecting an interview that was meant for a print piece, I might not need to take the time to draw it out in that way.
Also, a particular difference is that podcasting is really colloquial. Folks who are used to expressing themselves in print might have a formality of language. But in podcasting, It’s OK to sound like you’re talking to me. It’s OK to stumble or use a $2 word rather than a $10 word. That’s the way we actually communicate to each other.
Where do you see radio and podcasting going in the next five years? How would you hope Transmitter fits into that?
Right now, I’m just supremely focused on craft, on making good work and making positive relationships. But it’s interesting, as I’ve been running this company, I’ll occasionally read about entrepreneurs. It seems there’s this sort of ruthlessness in some stories, an aggressiveness that results in things being lost along the way. And I think there’s a way we can create businesses that are inclusive and generous, and make everyone feel positive about being a part of them. That’s what I’m focused on.
But we also definitely need people to be thinking about the industry. Does Barneys want to keep making a podcast? Does it make sense for them to keep making one? Whenever a media organization commissions long-form documentary storytelling, does it make financial sense for them to make podcasts? We can’t do what we do unless the rest of the ecosystem is healthy and it’s not a loss from a financial perspective. I hope that there are people thinking about this and making plans, and I want to be there to do the work.
Do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur?
I think so. I mean, I’m a business owner of a company I built from scratch.
Is that something you ever thought you would do?
Nope. When I listen to How I Build This or read books by entrepreneurs, they say “I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve aspired to this my whole life.” And I didn’t. If I had stayed at WNYC and continued to produce, I don’t know that I would have had the exposure. At Midroll, I was in the room with MBAs and suddenly I was controlling budgets, things that weren’t a part of my world before. But I really like it.
Sophia Steinert-Evoy is Podcast Review’s Interviews Editor. She also works on The Organist podcast from KCRW and Citations Needed. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.