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April 17, 2024, 10:42 a.m.

Rumble Strip creator Erica Heilman on making independent audio and asking people about class

“I only make unimportant things now, but it’s all the unimportant things that really make up our lives.”

Erica Heilman has been making Rumble Strip since 2013, when she was in her 40s and feeling, she told me, “the foretaste of regret.” It is, on its surface, a podcast about life in Vermont, but it’s also so much more; on the podcast’s website, Heilman describes it as “messy, obsessively crafted stories of the everyday.”

Rumble Strip is a bit of an odd duck in the world of podcasting. There is no release schedule; episodes drop seemingly at random, with varying runtimes and meandering subjects. There are no ads for online mattresses or toothbrushes or mid-century modern furniture, and its creator doesn’t know how many people listen to the show. The podcast is part of the independent audio collective Hub & Spoke, but aside from a few trusted friends and collaborators who occasionally send her feedback before episodes are released, Heilman largely makes the show by herself, from her closet.

But if the show is an odd duck, it’s of the Mandarin variety — colorful, beautiful, and much-loved. The New Yorker called Rumble Strip “limitless” in 2022, the same year it landed on The New York Times’ best podcasts list. “Finn and the Bell,” an episode from 2021 about a teenager who died by suicide and his community’s attempts to pick itself up in the aftermath, won a Peabody Award. It’s a show that regularly evokes a strange, unnameable ache in the chest.

A Vermont native (she left for college and a stint in New York before returning in 2004), Heilman has watched her home state transform over the years, and in many ways Rumble Strip has documented that transformation. She recently published a series of episodes about one particular aspect of that transformation, collectively called What Class Are You?, in which she asked the question to friends and strangers alike. I called her to talk about making the series and what independent podcasting looks like today.

Heilman spoke to me over Zoom from her home in Vermont, where house cats and stray friends wandered through the frame. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Neel Dhanesha: The show’s been going for a while — 11 years this year — but I’d like to start from the beginning. What’s the Rumble Strip origin story?

Erica Heilman: Well, I wasn’t a radio producer. I was working as a private investigator. I had just come out of working in television, but I was lost. I had done some freelance audio work, but I wasn’t really doing anything, and I was feeling the foretaste of regret. And I had a kid, and it was becoming evident that he was going to grow up with a frustrated mother who was disappointed in herself. It was very upsetting to me, the prospect that he’d be seeing me disappointed in myself.

Podcasting was sort of a new thing back then [in 2013], and I was on a stationary bike, and I had a sudden, like, 8-year-old voice in my head that said, “You should start a show.” And there’s a community radio station like, five miles away and I was like, “Jesus Christ, Erica, you gotta just fuckin’ do it.”

So I started a show at the community radio station knowing I wanted a podcast, but I knew that if I started at the station, I’d have to do it. I’d backed myself into it. But I didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t know what it was going to be. I didn’t expect anybody to listen to it and they didn’t for years. So that’s how it started. It was a compulsion, at the beginning. And there was no big plan about it. But even after the first two terrible episodes, I did feel profound relief. Like, “Oh great, finally. I needed to do this and now I’m doing it.”

It was like a wash of relief after being chased by this compulsion for a lifetime. Do you ever feel that sort of compulsion?

Dhanesha: Oh, definitely. I think that’s the reason I became a writer.

It’s so interesting hearing about that as the origin story. It feels very different from how podcasts are made today.

Heilman: I suppose that’s the new reality of podcasting or the industry, such as it is. People have plans now. I think at the beginning of podcasting it was a lot more experimental, and I hope that we don’t lose sight of that. So many podcasts were sort of acts of desperation which I think is beautiful. And they’ve changed the face of radio.

Dhanesha: Some of your episodes start out as stories you make for Vermont Public Radio. Tell me about your relationship with them.

Heilman: [Vermont Public Radio] are the people who pay for my groceries and not my health insurance. In other words, I work for them part time as a reporter. And they’re great because they encourage me to pretty much make things I want to make. I don’t know how to make things that other reporters make, so that’s nice for me. And then they also run Rumble Strip on their air, but only seven-minute versions. I have to fit it into the Morning Edition or All Things Considered slot.

Dhanesha: The class series started there, right? What was the impetus for that?

Heilman: After Trump was elected, everybody was going out doing horrible interviews asking things like “What don’t we understand?” that yielded very little, or what they yielded was annoying. And I kept thinking “Well, how do you have a real conversation?”

I live in a very, very white state. And when people say there’s no diversity here, it always rubs me the wrong way. There’s deep diversity here, but it’s both class and culture diversity. And the tensions there are really deep and fascinating. But we don’t really want to talk about class, because ultimately it begs the question of what we are going to do about it. Nobody wants to give anything up.

I couldn’t figure out a way into it. And one day I just was feeling desperate, and I thought, “I’m just going to go out and ask people, ‘What class are you?’ and see what happens.”

My editor said sure, try it, and I drove around the [Northeast Kingdom] asking people that question. And it led into fascinating directions that weren’t just about politics. It’s a question that gets deep into culture and power and education. And it led to really interesting conversations with people that got to a kind of diversity we’re not really good at talking about yet. We’re getting better at talking about race. We’re getting better at talking about gender. But if we ignore class in those inquiries, in those discussions, then I think we’re failing.

Dhanesha: You talked to a wide range of people — people working at convenience stores, a former state representative, a kid about to go to college, among others. Did you ever have anyone say they didn’t want to talk to you about this?

Heilman: Oh, yeah, of course. The rich people. People with money are really hard to nail down, so there are fewer of them. Mike [a lawyer who described himself as someone who grew up “comfortably upper-middle class”] was a friend of mine, and trusts me, so that was part of the negotiation. The negotiation for me is always: If you say something that you don’t want me to include, I won’t. So there’s real safety there. I live in a really small state, so if you say something that makes you feel really vulnerable, people you know might hear it. So for the class series people really had to feel like they could have takesie-backsies always in those conversations.

Dhanesha: Was there an episode that particularly stuck out for you? It sounds like people really responded to the episode about Isaac, who’s going off to Columbia for college.

Heilman: You know, it was interesting. I thought the response to Isaac was fascinating. This kid is going to go to Columbia on a full ride and so suddenly the entire world wants to help him. Meanwhile, Kytreana, who works at the general store in Orleans and now is working at a gun manufacturing company — people wanted to help her, but not at the same volume. And that was kind of fascinating.

I think the people who listen to podcasts are generally college-educated people who can understand the fate of Isaac. They understand where he’s going and what that might look like. And so they could figure out how they could plug into that. Whereas the fate of Kytreana is more opaque. It’s less clear to them how the texture of her life feels and where she’s going.

When I asked Ethan, who is a young man I met in Orleans who worked at the Dollar General, “What do I not understand about not having enough?” — and [Ethan] is a person who grew up with a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a carpenter, and he works and he works — he said, “You probably don’t know what that feels like to not have enough to eat.”

And he was right, I’ve never experienced that. And when I asked him “What do you want?” it was hard for him to even access this dream of his because poverty is a full-time job. It requires all of you to be poor. So when he finally said that he might want a pizza joint, he got emotional because he realized his dream as he was talking to me, and because he also realized he didn’t have time to think about that sort of thing very often.

I don’t know, it’s broken. What are we doing, that we can say “Boy, that was really moving, Ethan,” and then we carry on? Is this entertainment that I’m making? Am I making a show that makes people feel something and so the fact of their feeling something is enough for them? I don’t know. Is it useful to make people feel something? I do think there’s inherent value in people being able to find each other across divides. That to me does feel worthwhile.

Dhanesha: This reminds me of a recent piece by Alex Sujong Laughlin about the problems with documentary work, and the show Shocking, Heartbreaking, Transformative by Jess Shane. I think documentary makers in general are wrestling with the worth of their work, and who it’s for.

Who do you think is listening to Rumble Strip, and why? Do you ever think about your audience when you’re making an episode?

Heilman: Well, the show is mostly for me. Nobody’s waiting for my show. So you have to be your own audience first, you have to say, “Well, I’m just going to do it anyway.” And you have to be hungry for it yourself first. And then over time you recognize that there are other people who want to listen to your stuff. I mean the internet’s a big place, somebody out there is going to want to know about this. But it is really nice to not have to have a discussion about whether this show is going to have legs for a national audience. That’s the power of downward mobility.

Dhanesha: Is that how you see your trajectory? I was going to ask you what class you saw yourself as, after you asked so many people that question yourself, but maybe you answered that just now.

Heilman: I think I’m upper-middle class. I talked about it a little bit in the first episode with my friend Susan, who’s a PI. We met at MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour as desk assistants in New York City in our 20s. Upper-middle class people do that, you know what I mean? I’m college-educated, my family went to Florida on vacation periodically, I can tell the doctor “I don’t understand, can you explain it again?” That’s upper-middle-class-dom, I think. But I also made more money at 28 than I’ve ever made since.

Dhanesha: You have mentioned on the show itself that you’re not good at promotion and distribution. What does that look like for you right now?

Heilman: It’s pretty much Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I’m trying out Threads. But basically, all I know how to do is make a post. I’ve figured that out, and that’s all I do. I don’t know what else to do.

Dhanesha: Tell me about your sponsorship deal.

Heilman: My sponsorship deal currently is with a tree nursery in Plainfield called East Hill Tree Farm. It’s a barter; [East Hill founder Nicko Rubin] gives me trees and prunes some of the trees he gave me, and I wax poetic about him. It’s a perfect sponsorship because I get what I want. And I’m deeply excited about what I get from him. And I pray that people are buying his trees. I will beg — I will do whatever — to get people to buy stuff there so that this can continue.

Dhanesha: Do you have a favorite tree that you got from him?

Heilman: He planted an apple tree, and he’s going to plant a red maple this spring, and maybe a pear tree? I mean, it’s the sweetest deal ever. I feel a little bit constantly guilty about it. I hope I’m giving him enough. The problem is I don’t understand the analytics of my show. I don’t know how many people listen to the show. I stopped checking several years ago, because what is it going to do if I know?

That means I also don’t know how many people listen to the sponsorship. And it wouldn’t really matter to him that much anyway, because he only sells locally. You’d have to go to Plainfield, Vermont to get the trees. So he doesn’t care if someone in New Zealand listened to the show.

Dhanesha: You also get listener contributions, right?

Heilman: Yes. Once someone gave me $4.71, which is the amount of money he found on the street that day.

Dhanesha: Rumble Strip has always struck me as this thing that sort of exists apart from the audio industry as a whole. It sounds precarious but also freeing, in that you’re just making shows about things that interest you and you’re putting them out there for people who might or might not listen to it. And you get some trees, and you get them pruned. But I can’t tell if I’m just romanticizing it, or if that’s how you feel too.

Heilman: I think in the beginning, I was trying to make a thing called a podcast. But now I’m just interested in the world that I live in and telling stories about it. What I care about now is that we seem to be losing our ability to see other people as real, and that worries me a lot. And I want the show to remind people how to do that. I hope it’s not pushy; it’s just what I’m trying to do for myself. So podcasting is like a delivery mechanism. And I’m so lucky that I don’t have a program manager who’s saying it has to be X number of minutes or this is boring or this is not important. I only make unimportant things now, but it’s all the unimportant things that really make up our lives.

If I could make a wish for podcasting, it would be that people in small places everywhere start doing this, making small stories that sound like where they’re from. Is it terrifying? Absolutely. It’s terrifying to make things.

Dhanesha: Do you still find it terrifying after all this time?

Heilman: Absolutely. Eighty-five percent of it is terrifying to me. It’s existentially awful. The interview is terrifying, because something is about to happen and you have no control over it. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And yet you have the responsibility of holding the microphone. And so you have to take care of the person, at least at the beginning. You have to make them comfortable. And that’s an acting job because you’re scared too. But then once you’re comfortable, you have no idea what’s going to happen between you and this other person. It’s never happened before. You’ve never been at this moment in this place with this person who you don’t know and then you have to figure out what it wants to be. And your ego also has to get out of the way.

But it’s magical, making this thing. It’s an act of faith every time. And every time I think “Maybe this time I won’t be able to do this.” And what will happen then? I don’t know. But there are moments where time slips, and I look up and it’s three hours later, and I’ve been in kind of a reverie talking to a stranger. And I leave and I feel giddy, and I know that they feel it too. And I’m not religious or spiritual but to me that is God, or love, or whatever you want to call it. That is the container that we all exist in, and that’s what I hope the show touches. Just a little reminder: “Oh yeah, that’s me too.”

Photo of Heilman at work by Terry J. Allen.

Neel Dhanesha is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach Neel via email (neel_dhanesha@harvard.edu), Twitter (@neel_dhan), or Signal (@neel.58).
POSTED     April 17, 2024, 10:42 a.m.
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