Friday, April 03, 2009

End of Days- Interview with Brenda Dayne

I was so pleased that Brenda was willing to take some time (a lot of time) to answer a few questions for my eager readers. Although Brenda is a writer, most folks know her from her wonderful, ground-breaking podcast, Cast On. Her honesty in this interview has touched me deeply and I hope it does you. With that, I give you Brenda Dayne:

MB: So, I can see the way your podcast has evolved into a world unto its own. I know from a while ago that you weren’t sure how it was all going to play out. Just between us, has this become a business for you?

BD: I wouldn't say it's a business yet, but it is in the process of becoming one. When I began podcasting it was still a very new medium, and there weren't any solid business models in place. They didn't exist. There were a few ideas, and a lot of grand hopes for connecting independent media producers to advertisers looking for new markets, but nothing much ever came of it. As with a lot of Internet based businesses, there were a few independent producers who caught the wave early, and managed to find sponsorship, but most didn't and still don't.

I think when it comes to online content, most Internet marketers agree that there are only three ways to profit from what you create. You can sell advertising. You can sell the content. Or you can use your content as a vehicle to market and sell product. So I looked at all of these, at one time or another and, for a variety of reasons, rejected them. I couldn't see how to integrate them with my own value system, which is basically rather anti-consumerist. I don't really want to influence people to buy more stuff. I think people have enough stuff. Stuff doesn't interest me. Ideas do.

It's taken me a few years of floundering around, relying on listener donations, and a few small niche specific sponsorships, to wake up and get serious about figuring out the business end of what I create. I realize that my perfect business model, the one I can live with, that's in complete alignment with my values, isn't going to magically float into my life on gossamer wings. I have to create it. So that's what I'm doing now.

What was your original inspiration for cast-on and how has that changed over time?

BD:I was probably most inspired, at the very beginning, by Adam Curry's Daily Source Code. His was one of the first podcasts I listened to, in the summer of 2005. I had no idea who he was when I discovered his show; he wasn't a famous person to me, he was just some guy, talking about podcasting, and telling stories about his life. I find him honest, and real; charming, and endearingly human. He’s muddling through life, sometimes with a grand plan, sometimes on a wing and a prayer, just like the rest of us, and that really comes though in his podcast. Listening to Adam Curry had a very profound effect on the way I approached the microphone, right from my very first podcast. He set a benchmark for a level of emotional honesty that I wanted to emulate.

I launched Cast On in October 2005, with a clear vision of what I wanted it to be, but not clear at all about how it would pan out. I thought that maybe if I discovered I was good at it, and it was fun, I might possibly, someday, down the line, look at ways to make money at it. But it was all rather amorphous at the beginning.

The first year the process of learning that inspired me most. I put out a new podcast almost every week, and I had little time to think about the business side of things. I was too busy learning the craft. I created about forty hour-long episodes in that first year; an amazing amount of work, it seems to me, looking back on it now. Especially given how little I knew about the technology or the medium.

In the second year I slowed down a bit, and I began paying more attention to the quality of the audio, as well as the quality of ideas that I presented. I attracted a few sponsors, more by accident than design, and still felt I was too busy gathering technical skills to pay attention to business. I listened more intently to the radio, and learned how the pros use audio to craft their stories. I realized it was not unlike print journalism, and as I got faster at editing, I began to see audio production as the creative process it is.

My third year of podcasting, quite frankly, I would very much like to draw a line through, as it was a very difficult year. I was dealing with a major health issue that began about six months earlier, and took over my life for a while. I slogged my way through the third year and summoned the energy to create a few podcasts through sheer force of will. It helped that I had finally mastered the technical end, and developed my own production techniques that simplified the way I created each podcast, but the process exhausted me. I’d produce a podcast and then need two weeks to recover.

I was also done learning, and that really changed the feel of the process for me. I was getting burnt out, and feeling out of ideas. As I struggled with my health the podcasts became fewer and further between. I became more and more concerned that I wasn’t meeting the expectations of my listeners, and for a while there it seemed like I couldn't please anybody, much less myself. I began getting negative comments and email complaints. Those really hurt.

Up until that point I had always believed that my listeners could hear the real human being inside the podcast, just as I had, when I discovered a sense of the real man behind the microphone in listening to Adam Curry. They thought they knew me, and I thought so too. I had been as emotionally honest as I knew how to be. It was horribly disappointing to realize that many of my listeners didn't really give a damn about what was going on in my life. They had their own lives, and their own problems, and I was just entertainment that they funneled into their earbuds, on schedule, once a week. If I wasn’t entertaining them weekly, they weren’t interested.

And you know, quite frankly, that kind of pissed me off. I was sick. I was tired. I still hadn't figured out the business end of the podcast. That was my choice, and I own it; I was the one who decided to focus on making podcasts, not making money, but it did add to the general resentment I felt. I wasn't earning nearly enough, and certainly not what I thought I should be. I was busting ass to produce content for a bunch of schmoes who didn't care, and who left nasty comments and complained all the time. The injustice! I was sorely aggrieved.

I haven't listened to the podcasts created during that time since I produced them. Given that a high level of emotional honesty is what I always aspired to, I am pretty sure that my anger and disappointment and resentment came through the podcast, right into people's living rooms, loud and clear. It had to. The wonder isn't that I received negative feedback during this time, but that I received so little. It was not a good year, and in retrospect, I really wish I'd given myself permission to take the extended break that I so clearly needed.

Eventually my health and energy returned but, as I began the fourth year of the podcast, I reached a point where I knew something had to change. I had to either fully commit, and take Cast On to the next level, whatever that meant, or walk away. I produced a few episodes through the autumn, still dancing around the question of whether to stay with it, or let it go. The work wasn’t as satisfying anymore, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it better. In early December 2008 I began planning the final episode of Cast On, hoping to to have it ready to upload on New Year’s Eve.

That same month, in a stunningly honest blog post, Kim Werker announced that she was giving up her post as Editor of Interweave Crochet Magazine. The surprise announcement was followed by a host of personal revelations; things she had realized about herself that were essential to her happiness on the job, and in life. Her story was so compelling, I wrote immediately and asked her for an interview, seeing in her decision a mirror of my own. I thought she’d be the perfect interview for the last ever episode of Cast On.

All through my conversation with Kim, and right the way though the editing process, I was convinced I was working on my final episode of the podcast. During our conversation, as she spoke about her decision, I said aloud, a number of times, “I understand. I also think that I’m done. I believe I have said all I want to say with Cast On.”

I listened to the final edit of our interview, and sat down to write my show. As I wrote, I thought back to the early days of the podcast, and the people and the work that inspired me. I remembered the real joy I’d once felt in telling a story, and producing a body of work that I could be proud of. I reached the place in my writing where I had planned to say goodbye, and I somehow ended up writing instead all the things that needed to change if I were going to keep producing Cast On. My letter of farewell became a manifesto. It wasn’t goodbye I was saying, but it was the end. I was done working to meet other people’s expectations.

I must tell stories. My favorite thing. I must produce the work that is important to me, to my own standard of quality, and in my own time. I must stop caring about what other people think, or say, or write about my work.

In the early days of Cast On an unwritten contract was created between my listeners and me. Or maybe there were two contracts – one that I created for them, and one that they created for me, each spelling out clearly the ways in which we were all to behave; but never negotiated, never agreed to. Somewhere in the third year of the podcast I ceased to meet the expectations of a great many listeners, and they ceased to meet mine and the contract was broken. And that, as it turned out, was probably the very best thing that could have happened to me, and very best thing for Cast On.What inspires me now is the work. What inspires me are the stories. There are so many yet to tell. I can’t wait to get started.

Brenda Dayne is a rabble-rouser and applecart upsetter who, following routine gallbladder surgery, led the patient revolt on Ward 5, resulting in fresh toast for all, and an early hospital discharge for herself. She has been writing manifestos since the age of nine, when her fourth grade teacher disallowed dancing at recess. She makes podcasts to please herself, and is glad that you like them.


Bells said...

This is a great interview. I'm so glad I got the chance to read this (thank you Twitter!).

Brenda, I've been there from almost the start, when I was still a newish knitter. I still think of you when I see photos of a Kiri Shawl.

I've watched you (ok, heard you) go through ups and downs). There have been moments where I thought Cast On wasn't quite what it used to be but I think it's clear from this interview that you knew that. How fun for you that those moments are out there for posterity now!

You're the leader in this field - knitting podcasts - and I can very much see why you say Adam Curry is a role model for you. We're big fans of his, too and my husband has listened to many of your shows with me, sensing that inherent similarity in the way you tell stories, share of yourself and try and work in a really progressive, forward thinking way with the medium. We have to question what we do or it becomes old and stale.

Keep up the good work. You've got many, many fans and I for one will be watching the progress with great enthusiasm.

Katy said...

Thank you for such a wonderful interview, Melissa. I have been a faithful listener of Cast On, practically from the beginning. I'm glad she has found her new direction and kept the podcast going, she's a breath of fresh air!

Vicki said...

Super interview. Brenda is fascinating. So are you. Love your blog. Love your Tweets. @knittingnews

blackthorne56 said...

Wonderful writeup Melissa! Would have loved to have sat in on that interview.

For 5 weeks earlier this year I was without my car-pooling partner and caught up on the missed episodes taking me right up to the end of the series at that time. There is so much comfort in Brenda's voice and her story telling is unparalleled.

Thank you for this interview.


Melissa Barton said...

Gary, the writeup it entirely Brenda's. We did this in cyberspace! And of course, no editing needed. She's a pro.

Jeri said...

This is a fascinating account of a creative breakthrough and should be read widely( A book, Brenda?).It is a wonderfully clear account of creative burnout and resurrection, with the comon theme of doing it for the love of the work, not for pleasing some external critic. Thank you both for sharing this.It reminds me of why I love Cast on!

Camille said...

Thanks so much for this interview. I only discovered Cast On in early 2008—it was the first podcast I listened to, and it's still far and away my favorite. I literally squeal and do a happy dance in my chair every time iTunes starts downloading a new episode. Brenda's extraordinary gift for storytelling, and willingness to explore with us her own triumphs and mishaps in knitting and in life, have really impressed and inspired me—and it makes me sad to hear that other listeners haven't been so appreciative.

Oh well. Onward and upward! Thank you Melissa, and thank you Brenda!!!

Alanna said...

Thanks for sharing this story with us. I'm an avid Cast On fan, and my business sponsored the podcast. As a human, a business owner and knitter, listening to the currents and issues which Brenda grapples has been a thoughtful time out in a world often filled with too much noise.

This year, you can see that she is currently comfortable with where she is. This won't be forever, as things always change, but I think that if she continues to listen to her instincts, they won't lead her astray.