In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the importance of addressing and destigmatizing mental health publicly; to do so, many people are turning to audio. It’s no surprise: Audio provides space for intimacy, honesty, privacy, and comfort in the stories, reports, and lyrics of others. Some Spotify listeners even see audio as a way to find helpful mental health resources or use their favorite music to feel calmer and more balanced.
Podcasters, too, see the benefit. For Lemonada Media founders Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramerstarting a podcast network fit the bill for the stories they needed to get out into the world.
“Stephanie and I met through a shared tragedy. Both of us lost our beloved little brothers to opioid overdoses two years apart, ”Jessica shared with For the Record. “My little brother Stefano passed away in October 2017. Harris Wittels, Stephanie’s little brother, passed away in February 2015, and Steph wrote a book about her experience.”
The two women were united by a desire to tackle tough topics like mental health, sexual assault, and substance addiction through audio that aims to share an “unfiltered version of the human experience.”
“We realized that the world was really hard. . . Just a difficult place to be, ”shared Stephanie. “And how can we make it better? How could we have content and community that makes getting out of bed easier in the morning? That makes life suck less for people. ”
The Lemonada founders are just two of the many mental health advocates speaking up on Spotify. This May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, and we’re spotlighting several impactful individuals through curations on the Play Your Part: Mental Health page, curated by Social Impact Editor Ayo Oti and Black Culture editor Bianca Garwood. It’s also filled with guest curations, including Make Life Suck Less from the founders of Lemonada Media, Your Mental Wellness Toolkit from Jay Shetty, Mental Health Pods with Peloton instructor Kendall Toole (which you can also find on the Fearless hub), and Sun’s Out, Tums Out with Virgie Tovar.
In addition, listeners can find curations focused on trying to thrive, the importance of sleep and rest, using creativity as an outlet, and a special curation on motherhood and mental health. And beyond the Mental Health shelf, Black and Latinx listeners can also find guest curations on the community pages. The Dinner Table (curated by Bianca Garwood) features one from Nosy Neighborsand PRESENTE (curated by Barbara Gonzalez), features Viv Nunez of Happy to be here.
Read on for more of our conversation with the Lemonada founders.
Tell us the story of how you two were introduced.
Jessica: After my brother died, I heard [Stephanie] on a podcast talking about loss. And as only an extremely type A, lightly traumatized mom and big sister could do, I saved this episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking for my birthday. If you’ve ever experienced a loss, any milestone days are just brutal. Shortly after and sometimes forever after. So on a cold winter’s day in Minnesota, I popped my earbuds in, went for a walk, and listened to Stephanie and her mother talking about Harris and their loss. I could feel my face smiling for the first time in months. At the time, I was an executive producer at Crooked Media. So under the guise of that role, I reached out to Stephanie and said, “Talk to me.”
Stephanie: We got on the phone, and I think we talked for over an hour. It was a cosmic thing. When you have a shared trauma with somebody, you can bond pretty quickly. And at the very end of the conversation, she was like, “Would you ever want to do a show about the opioid crisis?” And I was like, “Thanks. I’m good. I’m all set. ” Four months later, I was scrolling Twitter and saw something about how opioids are killing more people now than car accidents. And I picked up my phone, emailed Jess. I think it was one sentence: “The world is terrible, I want to fix it, let’s do this.” And here we are.
What show did you start with, and what was the initial response?
Jessica: Last Day is our flagship series. It tells our origin story. It really is a show about harm reduction in the spirit of The Wire meets Teen Mom, which is how we positioned it from the outset. Though Teen Mom is a reality show by MTV, it had an impact on the conversation around teen pregnancy over the course of its initial run. And we wanted to have that impact around overdose deaths.
Stephanie: When we started pitching out Last Day, we got feedback that it was really niche. That there’s only a small amount of people that are going to listen to this. We were like, “Oh, no, no, no, this is affecting everybody. They’re not talking about it, but it’s definitely affecting everybody. ”
It’s clear that things were truly affecting people, because you quickly went from one podcast to an entire network. What was it like to take that leap?
Jessica: Making Last Day just clarified for us that this was our particular “barrel of lemons.” There was a space in audio for content that would be healing at a really big level. It was like, let’s do this ourselves, and if we do one show, we can do multiple shows. When the worst thing has happened to you — when you’ve lost your person — it’s certainly not worse to have a failed company or a podcast no one listens to.
There was a real white space in audio at the time for content that was outside of politics and more about the human experience. So we launched with three shows: Last Dayquickly followed with As Me with Sinéadand then Good Kids. The shows were really successful from the start, which emboldened us to keep going.
Why do you think audio makes for such a compelling medium for tough topics like mental health, loss, and grief?
Stephanie: Audio is right into your brain. We like podcasting as our primary medium at Lemonada because we can get something up quickly and we can read the room. We see what’s going on in the world and we want to be able to respond to it fairly immediately. And audio is one of the best ways to do that. But on top of that, it’s so intimate — it’s the way I found Stephanie in the first place. You pop those earbuds in or put those headphones on and you’re walking around and that person is with you.