By Kathleen Shannon
J-School professor Jule Banville is back from a year on sabbatical, which she spent working on a podcast, due to launch in late October. Jule has done loads of audio in her career, but this show is more serious in nature than some of her other projects and podcasts: it’s a crime investigation. Jule sat down with graduate student Kathleen Shannon recently and below is a transcript of their full conversation, edited ever so slightly. Read all the way to the end to get Jule’s crucial advice for podcasters and makers and creatives in general.
Q: Tell me about being on sabbatical.
A: You know, I set my pace reporting this project. I set my schedule. I did a lot of life-affirming reporting trips, [in] which I did discover that … if you’re really feeling lost or down about this profession, what you need is to get in your car and go talk to people. Go talk to people where they live. So, I was lucky and I was unlucky, in a way, because this pandemic happened during my sabbatical. I feel like a lot of smart university professors had plans to go to Europe or go somewhere tropical or somewhere fabulous. And my plan was to stay in Montana. And so, I adjusted and I decided to keep my sabbatical, even though most people obviously didn’t because they couldn’t travel. So, every trip I took was in my car. I saw a lot of Montana.
The crime in my story happened in Billings. My main source is a woman in her 40s. She was raped when she was eight. She lives in Livingston, which is an amazing place to visit. If you’ve never been to Livingston, it’s the best. I got to spend a good amount of time in Livingston, and then another major source lives in Kalispell, so then I was up in the Flathead. And, I did quite a bit of reporting in White Sulphur Springs. I went to Portland, Oregon, too. It was really important for me to get in-person tape. So even though it was during the pandemic, you know, I wore a mask, I had a boom a pole. Some of my subjects were masked, and some of them were not. And I came through without getting COVID, so far. So, it was a challenge. It was a reporting challenge. But I chose not to do Zoom. I did some Zoom tape. But I mostly went and did and reported and I’m just so grateful for that time.
It doesn’t always work out the way that you plan, especially when you’re pitching a huge narrative. And it took me a long time to sell the story. It’s a hard story. It’s not one that everybody wants to buy. I had a lot of meetings. I would get pretty far with different companies in the podcast industry. I would get to the point of like, ‘send me your budget’ and ‘yes, that looks good.’ And then it would still: ‘poof,’ go up in smoke. It was a huge process. I wasn’t super prepared for that part of it. I didn’t have a contract until late July.
Q: Which company picked it up?
It’s a subsidiary of a big reality TV company in Austin. The big company is Megalomedia, Inc. They have a podcast subsidiary that’s pretty small and easy to work with and they’ve been awesome. That’s called Mopac Audio, which is named after a highway in Texas. They’ve released several podcasts and one of them caught my attention. It was about the Long Island serial killer case. And, the victims were sex workers. The way that they did that podcast — I admired how fully developed those victims were. I got to know a lot about them, about their families, about the people who became their families when they went through hard things. So, I reached out to them because I liked their approach. And they’ve been really great. It’s a hard story. Not everybody wants to hear this story and they’ve championed it and they’re going to distribute it. They are working with me to produce it and mix it. They’ll sell the ads, they’ll distribute it on all the platforms. And, they’re paying me, which is nice.
Q: Yay! So, I’ve heard about the character. What is the premise of the podcast? What are you exploring?
A: It’s called “An Absurd Result.” Part of that is signaling to the listener, that this is not a podcast where you get to the end and you wonder “who did it?” It’s done. It’s over. We know who did things. So, it’s really a story that this survivor is willing to tell and wants to tell, after a long time of not talking about it. When I met her in 2015, she had never talked to a journalist. I met her through a friend of her sister. And Linda, who is my source, she was ready. She was kind of mad at that point. She was pissed, because they hadn’t charged someone who had been identified by DNA as her rapist. So, there was this limbo period before those charges were filed. She and I met then and we talked on tape for three hours that day. A lot of that is in my podcast, actually, so I was glad I recorded it. But, she really needed a quicker turnaround story. So, at that point, I put her in touch with newspaper reporters who did stories in Billings. She needed pressure on the prosecutors in Billings and she needed more people in Montana to know her story. Then I just kept up with her [through] these years, and I didn’t get a chance to take a sabbatical before I did. Then when I [came up with the idea for the podcast], I first got in touch with her. And I said, ‘if you want to do this, then I’m going to apply for sabbatical. And if you don’t want to do this, then I’m not going to pursue it. Because, I really need you. And … only if it’s something that’s positive for you. I’m not interested in re-traumatizing you or doing a story you’re not into.’ Unfortunately, with the way that things have gone for her, she said, ‘this is the first truly positive thing that’s ever happened in my case.’ So, she’s all in. Yeah, she’s amazing.
Q: I know you’ve done other podcasts in the past. What did you learn that was new or different from this particular experience?
A: Well, a lot of what I have done in my career as far as radio, even when I was at WNYC, the stories that I was drawn to and the stories that I did there were quirky and fun. I was on the staff of a show called The Next Big Thing. It was a weird show where there were a lot of kinds of stories. A lot of different kinds of radio were welcomed on that show. I was the quirky correspondent. I did funny stories. This isn’t that. This was a really serious story. There was some investigation involved. There was definitely some calling people and knocking on doors and people who didn’t want to talk to me. So, I learned a lot. I learned that I can do it. You know, I teach reporting, I teach narrative, I teach audio, I teach all these things. And, I know that I can edit all these things, but this was a huge reporting challenge. And, I loved it. I love being a reporter. It’s actually really great.
Q: So you’re reporting on a really serious incident. Were there moments where you were feeling down where you kind of had to lift yourself back up? What was the balance between the joys of traveling out on the road and the seriousness of this story?
A: I would say that I never felt weighed down by the story. I always felt buoyed by it because I know that Linda wants to tell it. I know that Linda’s story is important. I know that it’s about her. So it’s heavy in the way that I better do a good job because she trusted me with this story. She was eight. You know, she was in her bed asleep. And this man broke into her house and did this to her. And now she just feels really ready and I’m just so grateful. For me, it’s [energizing], to be honest, because I get to be the one to tell her story this way. And it’s [a privilege]. It doesn’t bother me that it’s about something so hard. I definitely understand that from other people. When I was trying to sell it, that was tough. People are like, “don’t use that tape of her explicitly talking about the rape.” And I’m like, “but that’s how she talks about it. That’s what she says.” So that’s important for that, too. It’s a hard story, but I think what’s great about it is her. She’s awesome. And I never forgot who it was about.
Q: I’m sure you and Linda spent a ton of time together.
A: We did. And I hope we still do. But, yeah, she’s my source. It’s hard to have that separation when what happened to her was horrendous. And it’s not just the act itself, [it’s also] what happened with the law, which is a lot about what my story is about. You know, that’ll make you mad.
Q: I assume you’re diving into a lot of legal documents and court proceedings in the podcast. How did that go for you?
A: I was a cop reporter in a previous life, so some of that was kind of familiar. And one thing that I learned early as a cop reporter that was a benefit to me was you have to be nice to the people who actually control the information. So that’s clerks. When I was a cop reporter, it was dispatchers because they’re the ones who knew everything because they answer the 911 calls. You’ve got to go out of your way and not be fake at all because they can pick up on that. There’s a lot of people trying to butter them up. But yeah, I learned how to be nice to court clerks. That’s clutch. They are clutch people. I got lucky, too, because the defense lawyer in this case, who defended the guy who was charged with sexual assault without consent, there was a moment in his office, where there’s like ten boxes and he’s like, “yeah, you can look through these.” And several things that were really important to my story ended up being in there.
Q: So now we’re going to play this game called “happy crappy” where you tell me one really great thing about sabbatical one bad thing about sabbatical.
A: I love happy crappy. Yeah, we’re going to do that at my dinner table tonight.
We moved our desks [at home] around during the pandemic, like everybody does. And so my desk moved into my bedroom. And, that happened to me once before when I was a freelancer and it was not a happy. It was crappy. Because, I didn’t have a focused project and so the desk was a little bit too close to my bed. [And now] I sort of wistfully look at the time I sat my ass down and I wrote a seven-episode narrative. I just did it! In a pretty short period of time. I just sat my ass down and wrote the story. And even though it was really hard, I did that. And I didn’t know that I could really do it. But I can, as it turns out.
Yeah, crappy. I thought I was going to hike every day. I often go up the Sentinel fire road. And I was like, “oh, man, when I’m on sabbatical, I’m going to be on that thing every day.” I was so busy. I was working all the time. If I wasn’t planning a reporting trip, I was trying to get documents, I was trying to line up interviews, I was trying to sell the thing. That took forever. You know, it was lots of pressure. It was a lot of anxiety about having the story land somewhere because I was so tied to it and Linda, too. So, I didn’t hike. That’s crappy. I went for walks in my neighborhood and listened to other podcasts, which made me also more anxious.
Q: What would you say to a student who has a podcast idea he/she is really excited about?
A: I think on one level, make it. Just make things. That’s how you’re going to maintain your excitement about something and that’s how you’re going to learn. The other sort of prong of that is: listen. Listen to things that are like the things that you want to make. And you can’t listen as a consumer, right? You have to listen as a maker. You have to listen as a journalist to understand the decisions that this producer made, or this host made, or who are the multitudes of people who are making this thing? It takes a lot to pull off these kinds of projects. And it’s not impossible. I did most of it myself, but I’ve also been doing this for 20-odd years. I think that there’s a lot you can learn by making but I think there’s maybe even more you can learn by listening.