Opinion

Audio Astra: Candid stories of recovery call us to action

November 5, 2021 3:33 am

Discarded needles litter the pavement. Addiction is one of the subjects covered this week in Kansas-based podcasts. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Jacci Espinoza

That Podcast in Hutch, Oct. 28, 2021

During the past few years I have recorded dozens of lectures for my students at KU for online classes during the pandemic. However well crafted and concise I think those videos are, my students have alerted me that they view them at double speed on YouTube, so they can ingest the content more quickly. Every once in a while, I will wander through the resource center at the journalism school to hear my own frantic and disembodied voice sprinting through a lecture on color theory or photography

So it is for podcasters as well. Their audio, the product of hours of editing, gets played back at 1.8x speed — or if you are a sadist, at 3.5x speed on Spotify. I’m guilty, too. Listening to four hours of Kansas podcasts each week goes a lot faster on hyperdrive.

Some podcasts demand normal speed, though. The podcasters that I think of as audio friends (without their knowing my name, of course) get 1x speed. Sometimes, the material of a podcast is too sensitive or the episode too artful for fast playback.

This week I dialed back the speed on the latest episode of “That Podcast in Hutch” for those reasons: Host Jason Probst produced a sensitive interview with Jacci Espinoza. Racing through it was cheating myself of the full effect and cheapened Espinoza’s generous vulnerability.

While I’ve yet to showcase Probst’s work in previous installments of this column, I’ve admired this podcast that he started in August. The podcast bio says, “We’ll step beyond the headlines, to hear the real-life stories from our community and develop a deeper understanding of policy and people.” Those words signal his devotion to extraordinary people around Hutchinson who are definitely not celebrities.

In choosing “real people” and creating such emotional candor with them, his interviews sound like tributes to Studs Terkel. Plus, you can hear Probst’s expertise: He is a former reporter for the Hutchinson News and a current representative in the Kansas statehouse

Other high-profile interview podcasts are great, with celebrity interviewers and superstar guests. In the eponymous “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” the former late night host welcomes Shaquille O’Neal or Elvis Costello. The boys of “Smartless” — Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes — interview other Hollywood darlings.

The guest list for “That Podcast From Hutch” is impressively humble: a nonprofit consultant, a retired judge, a board of education member. Without the prominence of famous guests, Probst guides episodes toward compelling storytelling about everyday life in the middle of Kansas.

The key ingredient in this week’s episode is disarming honesty. Espinoza, a recovered addict, speaks about her life of substance abuse starting at the age of 14 through today, including her most recent three years of sobriety. Few people would share this much. And few podcasters frame an interview this skillfully around a guest’s harsh realities and emotional victories.

Espinoza shares her philosophy about how addictions can change over time: “I really believe that everyone’s addiction evolves. The reasons you’re addicted at the beginning aren’t the reasons all the way through. … The relationship that I was in was abusive and (using drugs) was the only way I could cope.”

Later, she explains the absurdity of being rejected, while in the midst of recovery, from a Starbucks job because she was overqualified. She explains her personal struggle with finding effective addiction treatment because she was unable to pay the high costs of private health care. And she shares her humility throughout the episode, at one point saying, “I don’t think I adequately understood what I was dealing with.” The hour-long interview is frank and reflective.

Probst’s recent episode with Metropolitan Coffee shop co-owner Myra Kitson similarly contains emotional and even financial honesty. Kitson explains how her family keeps the coffee shop open amid pandemic closures, supply chain breakdowns and staffing crises.

This week’s “Kansas Reflector podcast” also spotlighted an emotionally vulnerable guest. Lacey Cruse kicked off her interview with Tim Carpenter by recounting scenes from her childhood when she survived her family’s mental health catastrophes, including suicides and her own abandonment.

The Espinoza and Cruse interviews demonstrate how there is simply too little public funding to calm the whirlpool that drowns so many families, namely homelessness, mental health and addiction. Espinoza narrates a life story of desperation: no stable place to live, reliance on toxic relationships and an appetite to use drugs. Where was the public safety net to help?

Cruse’s current post as a county commissioner empowers her to make changes in how Sedgwick County responds to homelessness. She explains one recently launched initiative that aids people suffering from homelessness, plus other ideas.

Espinoza advocates, on the podcast and through an ambitious nonprofit, for addicts to have access to medications that prevent overdose from opiates. In the absence of an effective public response, she sees Addicts Against Overdose as a simple, effective and morally righteous way to save lives by providing Narcan. Some people, she says, don’t want to provide any aid and comment online that addicts should be left to die.

“When you’re out there and you’re selling drugs and you’re doing drugs, you know that society as a whole would feel better off without you,” Espinoza said. “No one’s counting on you to do anything. No one’s expecting you to do any better. They honestly don’t care if you live or die most of the time.”

The honesty that Espinoza, Cruse and others give us when they publicly share their traumas should be repaid. The currency? Simply listening to their voices, on podcasts like these, is a vital start.

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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