Here she speaks with West Managing Director → Allison Light about how she’s navigated sensitive topics and harnessed the power of the medium in getting to the truth.
— Kaitlin Prest
Allison Light: What influenced you to gravitate towards audio storytelling?
Kaitlin Prest: There was something about the idea of public radio that really resonated with me because, as a medium, it is accessible to everyone. As an artist, I really liked the idea of trying to make art under those terms.
The other factor has to do with reach. But when I listened to public radio and what was being aired, I said to myself, “What’s happening here could be a very magical thing––telling stories with sound and only sound. But it felt like the medium had a lot of room to grow.
There’s a third reason, and that is the inherent political mission of public radio: trying to represent the truth to the public.
Allison: Okay so you hear broadcast radio, you feel it could be better, and then you start creating what eventually becomes The Heart, which explores topics that don’t typically appear on public radio at all. Walk me through that journey.
Kaitlin: I started out making a show called Audio Smut that eventually turned into what is now The Heart. I was 22 years old with a very naive view of public radio.
I thought, “Oh, public radio is supposed to represent all the issues about being a human. We have shows about science, we have shows about art, we have shows about politics, but there are no shows about intimacy and sexuality or shows told from the point of view of women. Or shows that represent queerness.” This is a huge area of the human experience that is not really being investigated with that same kind of journalistic fervor.
And I was like, “This is great, they’re going to love me.” And then they didn’t love me. Firstly, because the work was sexually explicit. We felt if we’re trying to document sexuality and love, then why censor it? Second, which I didn’t understand at the time, is that traditionally journalism is meant to be apolitical. But to me, feminism wasn’t politics, it was my own human experience. We’ve come really far, but at the time [2008 to 2014], nobody wanted a feminist, sex-positive radio show.
But then the podcast boom happened—This American Life put out Serial and suddenly all of the big power structures and institutions in radio were like, “Oh, podcasting is legitimate. Podcasting can make money. Oh, this is a real thing.” And that changed everything.
Allison: I want to talk a little bit more abstractly about the medium. Why does audio lend itself to a certain kind of truth-telling?
Kaitlin: Radio had always been the dominant medium for news and entertainment. But as soon as television and film became widespread, radio started to occupy this space of, “This is where we go to get information.” Probably from the late thirties until now, radio wasn’t really seen as an entertainment medium. Even within the podcast-verse, it’s mostly people talking about issues that are real life. Fiction is still marginalized in the medium.
And then I believe, purely in terms of the medium, that sound itself is especially positioned to tell the truth because we are free of the image. When you’re hearing sound, you’re just hearing. You’re hearing the speaker’s truth. You’re hearing emotion. Sound is the realm of emotion and I think that our eyes are more judgmental. I heard a quote this morning from Rachmaninoff, and he said that “I talk to express my thoughts and I write music to express my feelings.”
Allison: I love that. So what you just described is on the receiver-end––when we listen. Can you share your perspective on the creator-end?
Kaitlin: There’s a real intimacy to making sound. When there’s a camera in your face. You’re thinking about how you look, maybe you’re self-policing more. When you’re doing an audio interview, you’re just having a conversation, and the presence of the microphone is forgotten so quickly. You’re completely present with that person.
As an individual maker, sitting down to write or create something that is about the truth of my life, I feel a lack of inhibition because I’m alone in a studio with a microphone. I’m not on a stage in front of a hundred people. I’m not in a room in front of an entire film crew. I’m not thinking about how I’m being perceived. I am just opening my heart and expressing the truth of what is in there.
Okay. So let’s talk about the type of art that you make. It is obviously, for anyone who’s listened to it, really different from anything that’s out there and from what most people think of when they think of podcasts. Differentiate for me where the industry is headed versus where you’re headed.
Kaitlin: I was heavily influenced by Radiolab and This American Life when I was coming up. Particularly how they took the principles of cinematic narrative storytelling and scoring and sound design and applied them to radio and documentary. It scratched that same itch that movies do.
They call radio the theater of the mind. I had a background in theater and I just felt that radio is actually such a three-dimensional space––it connects to the three-dimensional space that is your mind, your imagination.
So what kind of things do you want to put in there? What kind of colors? What kind of movement? The work that I do is similar to the experience of watching a movie, just with sounds. Some people describe the experience of listening to this type of radio or a podcast as something in between reading a book and watching a movie. You’re creating your own images in your mind.
When the podcast boom happened and everything became on demand, there was a flush of really interesting creative work where people were doing things that never would have been allowed on a public broadcast radio station. All this money started pouring in and I always hoped it would mean that the industry would get bigger and we’d discover the David Lynches or Christopher Nolans of radio––I really want to think of an auteur woman director and I can’t right now, I feel guilty!
But it’s not really happening. The more money that pours, the more risk-averse people are. They’ve made a lot of money and they want to keep making a lot of money. What I’m seeing is that there’s really an absence of things that are made with heart and with vision.
It sounds egotistical to put myself in the camp of people who are making things with vision and heart in a desert of vision and heart, but we’re dedicated to that. We put the art first and the money second, for better or for worse …
I think a lot about the difference between quantitative value and qualitative value. Qualitative value is the kind of value where when somebody listens to something that you’ve made, they remember it for the rest of their life … they may go back and listen to it again and again. Those are the kinds of listeners that we have as opposed to quantitative value where a million people listened to something once and then forgot that it ever happened.
Allison: I want to just talk a little bit about the moment where you went from “This is something I make” to now “I need to make a company.”
Kaitlin: I slowly started to understand what kind of money was being thrown around in podcasting, and started to get a true sense of what my team and I were entitled to get paid. When I first started out, I couldn’t say $10,000. And now I can say a million dollars without batting an eye. And I know that a million dollars is actually not enough. I know that to really run a proper company, I need more like $10 million. And I’m not uncomfortable with those numbers anymore.
That’s the first step. Being able to even dream that big. And then to dream to the point where it doesn’t feel like a reach, it feels like something that you absolutely need. Then you actually start to be able to kind of magnetize it towards yourself.
The desire to start a company was more a creative desire than a financial desire. I started to feel the weight of everything being made through my own aesthetic code. I wanted to open things up and give other people a chance to find their own voice. I just wanted to get a little bit bigger and do a wider array of different types of things..
Allison: Let’s take a step back and talk about Mermaid Palace’s mission. Can you just talk a little bit about that?
Kaitlin: Mermaid Palace is what I call an audio arts company. I wanted to create a company that put as its guiding star form-breaking audio as well as empowerment.
I want to give people who have a lot of creative potential, but no established credibility, an opportunity to create. Personally, I had to jump through all these hoops of getting the right awards and being written up in the right publications and I wanted to remove those barriers for others. So one element is giving people an opportunity to circumvent all of that decorating and the opportunities that I wish that I had. And the opportunity I wish I had was money, time, and a platform to make my best work.
We want to make stuff that makes people laugh, cry, and be like, “I never heard anything quite like this before.” One of the goals of art is to surprise, delight, and shake people out of the status quo. Sometimes that means offering people things to think about that they never thought about before. Sometimes it means just going into an alternate universe for a little while where you don’t have to think about your own life.
So that’s the ethos of the company.
Allison: You sort of alluded to this arc of you being decorated––this is something that we see a lot in our world at West. You have a charismatic founder that can either raise a lot of money or gather a great team around them, but a transition needs to happen to go from an individual brand to a company that can sustain itself. It’s a real challenge in a lot of cases. Can you talk to us a little bit about some of your struggles there?
Kaitlin: I’ve learned a few things.
Firstly, to be a visionary, you need to live in the future and the present at the same time. In my universe, the dream of Mermaid Palace … before it was real, it was very real to me. And that’s a great thing for someone who is trying to dream something into reality and make it happen. But when you’re actually running a company, living halfway in fantasy and halfway in reality is not a very good personality trait.
I’ve learned that the best leaders at any kind of company are people who have a lot of humility. The best boss is somebody who is a servant, serving the people who are working at the company. That was a tough transition for me. And I still don’t know if I want to be the CEO of my own company. I want people to feel cared for, but it’s especially strange as an artist who is starting a company. When you’re an artist, all the ways that you’re weird, all the ways that you’re unconventional, all those ways that I’m outside of the box make me a really difficult person to work for.
Allison: It’s interesting because the way you’re speaking right now is packed with humility. But what I think you’re also saying, which we see all the time, is that founders don’t necessarily scale. But I think more often than not, founders don’t realize that when it’s time, and it becomes very scary.
Kaitlin: Totally. You have to let the institution grow on its own. And let go, find your place in the team. And let go of the fact that it’s your baby, you know, it has to become something bigger than that.