Each year, radio producers from around the world make a pilgrimage to Chicago for the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Considered the “Sundance of radio,” the conference is a place where attendees can dream up fiction and documentary projects that go deeper than the 30-second news spots that are the backbone of public radio. In the age of the podcast, Third Coast has grown to be an important forum where producers can discuss novel storytelling techniques and the growing pains of their newly glamorous industry.
The keynote of the 2018 conference was a talk by radio artist Kaitlin Prest, creator of Radiotopia’s The Heart and most recently CBC’s The Shadows. Prest’s speech covered a few “favorite things” that inspired her confessional and incredibly intimate production style. Among them was this withering quote from The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm’s 1989 meditation on the nature of nonfiction writing originally published in The New Yorker:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.
In the context of Prest’s talk, this quote served as an explanation of why she so often mines her own life for stories and also as a warning against following the trends prevalent among today’s most popular podcasts. It’s true that journalism can be invasive, but some forms hide the ragged edges better than others. In radio, the audience is privy to scenes from the reporting process. Emotional interviews on heart-wrenching topics are frequently shepherded along by the halting voice of an interviewer asking, “If it isn’t too difficult, could you go into more detail?” This is both what makes narrative podcasts compelling and, at times, subject to very valid criticism.
Prest took Malcom’s quote and formed it into a question about the most ethical way to source radio stories. In her view, personal narratives are the least ethically fraught because they implicitly come with the subject’s full consent. Since the beginning of the podcast renaissance, fans and industry insiders have asked if Serial was exploitative, if Missing Richard Simmons was exploitative, and especially if S-Town was exploitative. Prest made a compelling case that a first-person narrative may be the best way to tell some of the world’s most difficult stories.
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No Feeling is Final, a podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is a perfect example of a story that couldn’t exist if it weren’t told by its principal subject. The show’s creator, Honor Eastly, serves as its narrator and only real character. The subject is Eastly’s own mental health, specifically her struggle with depression and anxiety, and her thoughts of suicide.
The series begins with an early-morning panic attack. We hear voice memo-quality audio of Eastly rolling around in bed and running through a relaxation exercise that involves counting and deep breathing to fend off the show’s primary antagonist. Eastly calls it The Voice, which is similar to the self-critical voice everyone walks around with. Hers, however, is orders of magnitude stronger. She likens it to “a really yappy dog that can talk and follow [me] around” and “a car crash that lives permanently inside my head.” Externalized for listeners to hear, it sounds like a snide AI heckler straight out of Black Mirror.
Living under the constant scrutiny of The Voice is an enormous burden. It constantly asks Eastly questions about her self-worth and long-term plans that most people only allow themselves to ponder for a few seconds before brushing them away to move on with their day. When it gets really bad, as it frequently does, Eastly doesn’t mince words: it makes her want to die.
Her fluency in talking to the specifics of what it’s like to live as someone with a “chronic and everlasting” mental health issue is one of the show’s highlights. In an episode about her long history with psychiatric medication, Eastly describes carrying on with her normal routine during a bout of depression as “putting on life drag.” Even though medications have been ubiquitous in Eastly’s life, most of them haven’t helped. Over exquisite sound design of pills raining down around the listener, she expounds on the list of medical tests and side effects she’s had to endure. Then there’s titration and withdrawal; she mentions that weaning off one medication left her feeling “all hollowed out, like an egg waiting to be painted for Easter.”
Eastly is precise and disarmingly vulnerable in describing how the joy of getting a proper diagnosis and access to the care she needs quickly curdles into a negative shift in her self-image. She polices her own thoughts for signs of her disorder and finds herself stuck in a clinical catch-22 where it’s impossible to get frustrated with her situation without being further pathologized during therapy. The self consciousness and shame of being, in her words, “proper crazy” leads to a deep feeling of isolation.
Eastly ultimately finds a path forward in life by sharing her struggles online. In a video about her experience in inpatient treatment, she remarks that “the opposite of loneliness is shariness.” She builds a platform and eventually finds herself as an advocate and mental health microcelebrity, the sort of person who gives speeches at big events and is included in 30 under 30 lists. Sharing becomes the most effective form of isolation-breaking therapy imaginable.
No Feeling is Final succeeds by painting a vivid picture of day-to-day life with mental illness, something that wouldn’t have been possible without Eastly at its center. Eastly’s presence in the driver’s seat doesn’t merely make the series ethically sound; her first-person anecdotes and observations are what give the series its empathetic power. Each episode is appropriately bookended with warnings that “a show about feelings might bring up some feelings of your own.” However, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Those feelings could include acceptance, understanding, and feeling less alone.
Ben Ellman (@heybellman) is a radio producer and semi-professional eavesdropper in New York