32. Joni Deutsch: Why silence is just as important as sound

Sue Stockdale talks to Joni Deutsch, Podcast Manager for WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station in North Carolina about the importance of making space for silence, and how she amplifies underrepresented voices through her work as a broadcaster and podcast host.

Joni Deutsch is podcast manager for WFAE (Charlotte’s NPR station). In addition to leading the public radio station’s chart-topping podcast productions, Joni is also the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast Amplifier, recently honored for excellence in arts and music podcasting by Charlotte Magazine, the Edward R. Murrow Awards and The Webby Awards (called “The Internet’s Highest Honor” by The New York Times). In October 2020, Joni executive produced the Charlotte Podcast Festival, Charlotte’s first podcast festival with free and virtual sessions designed to inform and empower the next generation of audio storytellers and podcasters. Joni is an NPR Music contributor and was the first woman to guest host the legacy NPR program Mountain Stage. A supporter of innovative media and a mentor to digital women leaders, Deutsch’s work has been heralded by NPR, Harvard University, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Poynter, the Online News Association and the American Press Institute.

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Joni Deutsch transcription

Sue: Hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to Series Five of the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unlike you. Now as 2021 begins you may be self thinking about setting yourself some goals for the year ahead or reflecting on what the year may bring for you. No matter your situation. We hope that the stories and insights from our guests in this series enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. Today’s guest is an expert in the medium of podcasting. Joni Deutsch is podcast manager for WFAE Charlotte’s NPR radio station. That’s national public radio in the US and she’s the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast, Amplifier, which recently received a number of national accolades for excellence in arts and music podcasting. Welcome to the access to inspiration podcast, Joni.

Joni: [00:01:15] Hi, Sue. How are you?

Sue: [00:01:16] I’m great. It’s lovely to speak to you. Now while our listener might think that sound is your stock in trade. I’m actually intrigued to talk with you today about something that might be described in radio terms as the [00:01:30] nemesis of sound and that is silence. What for you is important or wonderful about silence?

Joni: [00:01:39] You know, Claude Debussy had this quote that the importance of a story, the importance of a mood or a theme isn’t necessarily in the sound as it is in the silence between the notes. And I think that holds true with the way that we go about our day-to-day lives. And even for podcast listeners out there, the way that we listen to stories, and songs and conversations that it’s not just talking as it is also listening, that’s how we’re able to create these relationships because it’s a give and take of sound and silence. So I think that’s the beautiful thing is that. We’re able to have the yin and the yang, the loud and the soft, and it doesn’t have to be all consuming with just one end of the spectrum.

Sue: [00:02:28] And I know as a young girl, silence perhaps played quite a role in your life when you were growing up. Tell us a bit about your backstory when you were young.

Joni: [00:02:37] When I was younger, I was very, very quiet to the point where when I was a child, I had an occasional babysitter or keeper. And that individual actually ask my parents, you know, does she need to have her tongue clipped? Which for those that are wondering, yes, that is actually a medical condition where, because of a tongue [00:03:00] defect of sorts, it’s preventing a child from speaking. And so my babysitter thought, Oh, because she’s so silent, it must be because she’s literally mute when in actuality it wasn’t that it didn’t, it wasn’t a physical condition I had where I had to have major medical surgery that I simply was a very, very silent kid. I was introverted. I love being able to listen, to watch, to observe things, to read all the time.

I was an only child. So I didn’t have another sibling to bounce off of. And it was fine, but at the time I think a lot of folks saw that in me as there’s something wrong. Whereas to me, I never felt like there was anything wrong. I felt like silence was a very good friend. Someone that this physical embodiment could always be there for me because I could always listen and learn and grow. That’s something I’ve carried with me. Obviously I work in radio now, so sound is also part of my life. I’m less of an introvert, I’d say, but I still have that tendency to want to listen, to want to absorb what’s run around me and not necessarily fill the space myself with.

Sue: [00:04:04] So it seems like there’s a sense of curiosity, awe or wonderment that I pick up from what you’re saying there, that intrigues me.

Joni: [00:04:13] I would agree that there’s something about letting the room be silent. Not because there’s a void there. Not because there’s nothingness there. If anything it’s that the silence allows for creation. It allows there to be reflection. Of [00:04:30] ideas of new theories of new imaginary worlds or connections that can be made. It’s almost like a whiteboard, the silence that whiteboard where you can draw or write or list or do anything you like in that moment and allow others to add, add to it or combine or create new level of engagement. So I think if anything, silence, isn’t a bad thing. Whether it’s an audio or not, it allows that pause, that breath. That then comes together again with sound.

Sue: [00:05:01] So I’m imagining that whiteboard, as you describe, it had to be filled up with a few things in your life as you were growing up from being that young child. How then did you take that leap from the world of imagination and reading and possibilities in your head, to getting involved in podcasting?

Joni: [00:05:20] Well, when I was younger, I actually never considered a career in audio. I never thought that it could be something I could work in. I loved it. I loved audio. I loved media. I loved music. But I was never around anyone that could inspire me to think of myself in that line of work. And so like a lot of kids growing up, I thought being a scientist, being a medical physician would be my choice. It would be my path and I pursued it and I took science classes. I was the only girl in a field of like boys in a science room with amphibians that we were dissecting, you know, the very standard stuff. I finally went into college pre-medicine track working in a biology lab with [00:06:00] rats that I named after Harry Potter characters and Buffy the vampire characters and all that.

And it came to me in my sophomore, junior year that after years and years of science, I fell out of love with it. I felt like I was going through the motions. And I think to that ideal of what silence is, I think it was a time where after being in so many years of motion of science and science and science. I could finally take a pause, a breather and realize that maybe this isn’t the motion I want to pursue any further. So, and all that, to say that in my junior, sophomore year of college, I had. Found out that there was a college radio station on campus that was looking for DJs or radio hosts. And I thought, you know what? That sounds like fun. That sounds like something I can do. That’s going to get my mind off of, you know, or metabolic syndrome research. And so that’s what I did and I’ve been doing it ever since I changed my career path from science to. Communication to broadcasting, to radio, to podcast, if you will. And I don’t regret it. It’s been about 10 years now since I changed my life over into sound and that way, and I think it’s been one of the best decisions I can make

Sue: [00:07:08] In that moment of pivot and change from the science track into the world of communications. I’m imagining that. Perhaps there must have been a moment of silence then to step back and reflect. Otherwise you would have just continued on that track.

Joni: [00:07:23] Yep. I would have continued on it probably would’ve worked out fine in the end, but I just remember my college years, [00:07:30] how I felt an enormous amount of pressure and enormous amount of stress. I was literally on a hamster wheel. I just kept moving and moving and moving and not really having a moment to realize that this is what I want to do until I physically made myself stop. And sit and have a bit of a cry over the fact that this wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. My parents were absolutely understanding of it. They wanted me to be happy and to do something I wanted to really put my full heart into. And at the time I thought I’d done radio well enough, audio well enough, but I wanted to try it. And so, yeah, I think in that moment, the silence allowed me the space to really stop and consider, and also to look into other possibilities by me not thinking I needed to talk so much as I just needed to listen to myself and what my body and what my spirit really needed.

Sue: [00:08:20] That sounds like quite a courageous move to take that leap and follow what your senses were telling you, as opposed to perhaps what your head might have been initially, that kind of logical path.

Joni: [00:08:30] After my head and my college credits were saying for years.

Sue: [00:08:35] So once you got into the path of radio and audio, how did you then carve out your career?

Joni: [00:08:42] At the time I started working in radio 10 years ago, I didn’t have connections. I didn’t have an idea of the industry being so new to it. And at the time that I started working in radio, which was around 2012, 2010, 2011, podcasting [00:09:00] was slowly becoming a thing. The burst for podcasting really began in 2014 when Serial, the true crime podcast launched. So this was the fertile ground of new audio discovery of new storytelling ability through podcasting as a medium. Luckily I was working in audio and radio around that time. I saw this thing coming into fashion and learned more about it. When I moved from my college state of Virginia, back to my home state of West Virginia, I luckily was able to get an internship at the NPR station there. And I show to them that I want to try new things. I want to be the millennial young professional, eyes on the ground for you all, because there’s a pretty hefty age gap. And I learned as much as I could, as much as I could everywhere I could. From the radio department, the marketing department, the membership department. Or we always have public radio tote bags, all of it, because all of it comes together to create sound and to create sound that you’re able to share with the world and bring your community into.

So all that to say is when I got my foot in the door, I tried keeping it there and moving myself in the door, into the home as much as I could for myself, because I wanted to learn as much as possible, but also just for career move because. We’re in a line of work in media where the tip of a hat, it’s a new medium that’s coming up or a new idea. So it’s good to learn a little bit about everything. So you’re prepared, which is what happened with podcasting.

Sue: [00:10:29] And [00:10:30] I think you snuck in a word there that resonated with me, Joni, the word community, because I know that community is quite an important feature of what motivates you.  And for us in the UK, perhaps how I imagine Virginia is thinking about the Blue Ridge mountains and the Waltons from television is it really like that. Or is it different?

Joni: [00:10:50] We’ll say the Waltons do come from a generation that is different of sorts. I mean, that was a few decades ago, but I think so some of it holds true when you think of Appalachia, which is where my home state of West Virginia is, which is where Virginia is my college area, or even I’m currently based, which is North Carolina. Some of which is in the Appalachian region. Appalachia is known for having a community, one that is allowing for individuals to come in and so long as they show that they care so long as they show they’re not parachuting in to get a story and then leave, the people here really do put an emphasis on kinship and on reaching a hand out and helping one another.

So in my line of work with podcasting and audio, anyone can make a podcast nowadays, anyone on any device in any part of the world can make audio, storytelling and upload it. And hopefully the world listens. But for the podcast that really work out well, it’s because they resonate with the community. It’s because they connect with the community and the community is able to share their input. Just like I said earlier, it’s not just about someone like a [00:12:00] podcast host talking it’s about bringing in connections from the community. So they’re not only listening, but they’re providing input. It’s a conversation. So my line of work as podcasts lead is to try to consider yes, the content side is important. We have an idea. We have a great host. We have a great production team. Let’s do it. But the idea of my work is also how can this relate to our listeners? How can we bring our listeners in? So they feel like they are a part of the process in this story, this episode, this series matters to them. And that kind of idea of design thinking of audience centric podcasting is what I hold dear as my line of work.

Sue: [00:12:37] I completely understand what you’re saying and that’s what we’re aiming to try and do here to Access to Inspiration. And hopefully our listeners will keep letting us know that they’re enjoying what we’re doing and giving us additional feedback. Hi, it’s Sue again. And if you’re enjoying this episode, you’ll probably want to keep up to date with all the news from us. So hop on over to our website, at AccesstoInspiration.org and subscribe to the newsletter. You can do this at the foot of the homepage, or while you’re there. Drop us a note and tell us what your favorite episode has been or the subjects that you have enjoyed now. Back to the podcast. Thinking about how you then took that idea of engagement and community. Is that where the Genesis of the idea for the amplifier podcast series came from?

Joni: [00:13:26] It is. When I moved to North Carolina [00:13:30] from my home state of West Virginia, I had been doing years of West Virginia music work in West Virginia as a state, some may refer to it as a maybe Hatfield’s and McCoy’s territory, maybe as the Deliverance movie with the banjo dueling banjos song. Or others may consider it for music from Bill Withers, the late great Bill Withers or Brad Paisley. There’s a rich music scene in the state. And I do a lot of work in it prior to moving to North Carolina. When I moved to North Carolina, I moved to Charlotte, one of the big cities in the state, and I had no idea what the city’s music scene was like. And from what the research I did of it was there really wasn’t anyone focusing on it either. And I saw that there was a need. I saw that the community didn’t have a sense of their musicians were or what their sound of a landscape was. And so, based off what I could see as a new audience, that myself moving to a new city and what I could see of those around the region, this was needed. And so Amplifier the music podcast I host was created from that void, but also from a community interest in learning more about the topic. And since then, since launching about two years ago, We’ve had, I’d say more than 700, 800 musicians from around the region submit their work, which we ask them to through our website. We’ve heard from so many different listeners who’ve said that they’ve learned more about their city, about their State, about the soundscape because of the series, which was really why we did it.

Sue: [00:14:56] So it seems like you’ve taken that ethos from your [00:15:00] home state of community connection and brought that to Charlotte and created that for the Amplifier podcast.

Joni: [00:15:07] Yes. And I would also say that it’s not an original idea. Anyone in the world could do this and I implore them to wherever you are. There is an idea. There is a community that is not having a voice right now, or is not able to share their ideas in a wider way, or engage with a community in a wider way. And that is an opportunity for you to be able to come in and work hand in hand with them, not just by yourself, but work with them, alongside them, knowing their interest and what they need and create stories. Create a podcast from that, whether it’s about the arts of a city, the music of a town, or maybe something else this could apply to any subject anywhere. I just happened to do it here. In Charlotte, North Carolina, with music.

Sue: [00:15:51] It’s resonating with me because of the particular interest, certainly from a business context these days with diversity and inclusion and hearing from voices if you like in the business community that we wouldn’t necessarily hear from, you’re taking that same principle into the world of music, which is fantastic.

Joni: [00:16:08] Yeah, exactly. And I think with music too, when we think of music in the States, we think of large music capitals like Los Angeles, California, or New York city, New York, maybe even Atlanta, Georgia. We don’t really consider Charlotte North Carolina that, but I’ll tell you there’s amazing talent here from all parts of the city, all neighborhoods, all genres, and [00:16:30] even people who don’t work on the microphone who worked behind the scenes on album artwork or on production quality. And this is a way to use a podcast as a platform also through the NPR branding of our station, which is connected to the tiny desk brand of NPR music to amplify those voices further. So the, not just our city, not just our state, but the world can know we have talented musicians.

Sue: [00:16:54] It also seems to me that you’ve taken that principle one step further recently, as you were an executive producer of the Charlotte podcast festival. I know that was a huge success. Tell us a bit about that.

Joni: [00:17:06] So the Charlotte podcast festival was a continuation of the work that we’ve done at Charlotte’s NPR station WFAE and not only creating content like podcasts, like Amplifier for the community, but also giving our insight to the community, through podcasts, trainings, free podcasts, workshops, and classes, so that they can be inspired and also equipped to share their stories or podcast ideas with the world themselves. And so we did that in a huge way, in a larger way with the Charlotte podcast festival, which was a month of free podcast trainings and workshops and virtual happy hours. That anyone in the world could watch and attend and learn from. And so all the speakers were based in the Charlotte area. It was a way to highlight their individual respective lines of podcast work.

And we had more than 60 speakers from award-winning [00:18:00] podcasters, from NPR or Charlotte’s NPR station to chart, topping hosts and producers. We had the composer of the Lore podcast who’s based in Charlotte, a recent Spotify acquisition called the Black Guy Who Tips which is on the same list as the Michelle Obama podcast or Joe Rogan. There’s a Spotify exclusive they’re based in Charlotte, the black guy who tips. And it was beautiful. We had nearly 14,000 registrations from around the world. People staying up into the wee hours from the UK to the Philippines, Australia, Canada, to attend the Charlotte podcast festival. The first for the city, first for the state, first for the world in that it was entirely free and open to the public. And over a month. October was now PodTober, if you will. And based off the response, it was inspiring and it was allowing for the world to see that Charlotte had a creative community. So hopefully we can do it again in 2021.

Sue: [00:18:50] So going from that silence as a young girl and those ideas and thoughts going around in your head to making something like that happen, it is really taking the principle of amplification to 10 X in terms of a reach that you can get around the world. it sounds fantastic.

Joni: [00:19:08] If I had told myself my younger self, that one day I would be helping produce a virtual podcast festival during a pandemic. I don’t think my younger self would understand some of it, those words, I don’t think she’d understand the word zoom, a virtual conference platform. I don’t think she’d understand the word podcast so things [00:19:30] can change and over the course of a decade or two decades or even a year as we’ve seen it this past year in 2020. So I think if anything, it’s that idea of silence, the idea of openness that anything can be possible if you simply allow for the space for it to become possible.

Sue: [00:19:47] I think that’s such a powerful message because in the world, in the media driven world that we all live in, we are bombarded by sound and information so much. It strikes me that the onus is usually on the individual to have the self-discipline to turn that off sometimes.

Joni: [00:20:05] And it’s hard because to your point. We are now to the point of our lives, where you likely are on your phone, watching, or listening or reading something as the television is going, that you’re watching or reading and your partner who’s next to you and the children or the dog or so it’s life compounded. And to have a moment, especially during a pandemic, when we feel as if our work life and our personal life are not separate anymore, to have that moment of self-reflection. It’s so rare, but it’s so important. If you’re able to carve out five minutes of your day, 10 minutes of your day for yourself, for your mind, for your body. And then the possibilities are endless where you can use at that time moving forward.

Sue: [00:20:47] So, how do you do that journey these days? How do you take that time for silence and oppose

Joni: [00:20:52] Sleep. No. Well, yes, actually, but I would also say I’m lucky that I have a partner [00:21:00] as well as a Polish, lowland sheep dog. That I can take long walks with both and not be connected to a device despite working in media. I don’t have to have a device on me at all times. And to have just a moment where I can listen or just watch things around me, I can watch the leaves changing colors in the fall. It’s beautiful here. If you’re based in Appalachia or the South around this time of year, just be able to see the world around me and just try to condense what’s happening there and how I’m feeling the inside. Even a five, 10 minute walk does me wonders on a daily basis? Can I do it every day? Even with this new cycle, maybe not, but I try to find just a few moments so I can say, I appreciate what’s happening around me right now. I do in the next moment, then I forget about it. And I turned to my keyboard.

Sue: [00:21:47] Yeah. It’s easier said than done. Sometimes thinking for the future Joni, what’s your next ambition apart from perhaps another podcast festival. Have you got any other plans in the offing?

Joni: [00:21:58] I think that something that would be great would be similar in line to the podcast festival. If there was a way to create a music gathering of sorts, where we can share industry knowledge with Charlotte musicians, with regional musicians, with independent musicians who are wanting to level up, we’re wanting to move forward in their careers. Despite venues being closed because the pandemic, you know, how can we create a further platform for them to grow and learn and connect with one another? Just like with [00:22:30] audio, with music, with podcasting, sometimes it feels like it’s a solitary platform and that we’re working one-on-one or, you know, by ourselves rather than in coordination with others and a team, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s still ways for us to connect and collaborate, even if it’s during this pandemic remotely. So maybe a way for us to do that with our music community, but at the end of the day, I would just say it’s inspiring as many people in however ways to use their voice and to be able to value that voice. So whether that’s through podcasting or music, discovery, public radio, whatever 2021 will bring. I hope that the mission of it is to encourage people to use their voice and their voice is valued.

Sue: [00:23:12] That’s  wise words. Joni. Finally, I’m curious to know what’s your favorite podcast?

Joni: [00:23:17] Oh, you put me on the spot. Okay. Well, one that I always go back to is ‘you must remember this’ and it’s a podcast about the golden age of cinema of Hollywood and the forgotten or left unobserved stories of it. I think it’s a beautiful podcast in that it covers. So many different historic moments of the 20th century Hollywood. And it’s done in a way where it’s so simple. It’s one woman on a microphone sharing the biography or the stories of Marilyn Monroe or the side  of Marilyn Monroe you never knew about. And sometimes she’ll bring in a guest person who voiced that some [00:24:00] quotes, but otherwise it is one person on a microphone sharing a story of someone other than herself. And it’s just something I keep going back to, it’s beautifully done, beautifully written, engaging, and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more just simply to be inspired again, to podcasting.

Sue: [00:24:17] Brilliant. It’s been lovely to talk to you today, Joni. And if our listener wants to find out more about you and the work that you do, how might they do that?

Joni: [00:24:24] Well, I’m happy to share my social media information. They can follow me and find me on Twitter, on Instagram at “achangeoftune” which is my very first public radio program. And of course they can also just find the podcast that we do at WFAE Charlotte’s NPR news service by going to WFAE.ORG. And they can also listen to my podcast, Amplifier wherever they find podcasts.

Sue: [00:24:50] Fantastic. I’m sure they will do that. And it’s been great to speak to you today to learn more about your journey and perhaps to get our listener, to think about why silence is just as important as. Thanks again, Joni.

Joni: [00:25:02] Thank you, Sue.

Sue: [00:25:04] Thanks for listening today. Joni’s story reminded me about how we all can amplify the voices of others around us. So I set you a challenge. Who do you think has an underrepresented voice that you know, and what could you do to help them to be heard next week? I’ll be speaking to Felipe Saldarriaga from  Columbia whose compelling, personal story, [00:25:30] shines a light on how we can all cope amazingly well when life brings us unexpected challenge, I do hope you can join us then.