Stacia Brown's voice pours through speakers like velvet as she helps deliver a collection of narratives from some of the city's long-standing, nostalgia-inducing sites in her podcast "Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City."
In half-hour episodes, she explores Baltimore history and interviews residents of all generations on themes as varied as nuns, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, City Hall and Hampden. She highlights institutions and topics with particular relevance to Baltimore's black community, such as black banking, the Afro-American Newspapers and the bittersweet memories that Mondawmin Mall evokes.
The podcast is the 36-year-old Pikesville writer's first foray into radio. Launched in January, it's funded with a $70,000 grant from the Association of Independents in Radio and made in collaboration with WEAA 88.9, the FM station affiliated with Morgan State University.
"[The opportunity] came at a really important time in our city's history in terms of what's going on right now," said Brown, who was born in Michigan but spent her formative years in the Baltimore area. "When we applied for our grant with AIR, we did it in a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore culture, so we wanted to produce stories that represented the city in a positive light, and being able to do that has been a real honor."
Now wrapping up her 10th episode (the last episode is slated to air in early August), the radio rookie is already planning for season two and a finale fundraising event. Here, Brown, an evolving storyteller, talks about her experience as the lead producer of the project and what's up next.
As a freelancer, I am usually writing essays or creative stories. This is my full-time job as of right now and my first time working with radio, but it's not so different than working in fiction or nonfiction. Our grant with AIR is ending at the end of July,but we have two more episodes to produce, and then we are looking for additional funding for a second season. After that, I'm back to freelance work. It's the same sort of feeling in the fact that it's temporary and that it's sort of up in the air. But it's very exciting work.
How did you come up with the concept of "intergenerational stories about place and memory in Baltimore"?
Baltimore has a lot of historical sites, and many that have been around for generations are still frequented by older and younger people. We wanted to talk to young people who still frequent these places like Shake and Bake, and also older people who remember Baltimore before those places existed.
It's a collaborative process. You have to work with experienced people so they can help translate your vision so that it sounds good to an audience. Sometimes it's a long process and one that is foreign to me, but I do know how I want things to sound. Before I did this work, I read a lot of my work out loud, which helped me know rhythmically how I want a narrative to go.
Also, not interjecting. With this type of podcast, we have to nod and be very quiet. The first episodes you'd hear me "Mm-ing." I had to learn how to be completely quiet and just let the person talk until it was absolutely necessary to prompt them.
How long does it take to package an episode?
It takes a long time to do these [laughs]. We talk to between 10 and 15 interviewees, sometimes more or less depending on where the story is going. It takes about 40 hours, possibly longer with transcription, narration and editing.
You've done a story about Shake and Bake — that was your very first episode — then the Afro-American newspaper, Hampden, nuns —what has been your favorite topic so far?
The nuns story was really compelling for me. The Oblate Sisters of Providence are the oldest order of black nuns in the world. I had no idea they were here, and I didn't know what to expect. I've never really spent any time with nuns, so this was cool to tell that story. Also, to find out about the football program at the [St. Frances Academy]. Just to see them go from an all-girls Roman Catholic high school to one that's primarily men is fascinating.
Some of the topics are more controversial, like gentrification and the history of racism and segregation in Hampden. Have you found any of the topics personally challenging for you to tackle?
The gentrification thing was a little difficult to tackle. When talking about race, I feared some of the residents wouldn't be as candid. I sent my producer, Ali Post, who is from the area, to collect some of the interviews. Sometimes it is difficult to get stories when you're entering a community where you're an outsider.
We also produced a story on Muslim communities in Baltimore, and our sound editor is Muslim, and it was her idea to produce this episode. You have to establish trust over time because you're going to keep returning to the community to get sound bites, and then, there's an increased pressure to represent people well.
We average between around 1,000 and 1,500 per episode. We get a lot of great feedback, especially from people who we've featured. It's been enriching to hear that people, especially those that know the neighborhoods, are happy with how they're being represented. It's also good to hear from people who know the neighborhoods and that people are excited to hear themselves being positively represented in media right now.
What can listeners expect if there's a season two?
We haven't done any Cherry Hill stories or any South Baltimore community-based or waterfront stories. We haven't done education or health. There's so much to tackle.
We also want future episodes to coincide with things happening in the community. Being able to create narratives is important because people are used to headlines now. They're just kind of doing a cursory glance at some stories, and they're not drilling down on what's going on with the people in those communities. We get to do that. It's really a privilege, and we hope to be able to continue to do it for a long time.
"Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City" will host a night of multimedia storytelling to raise money for its second season from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Museum, 1417 Thames St. Free. douglassmyers.org
Stacia Brown and the podcast producers will also host a skate party at the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center for from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday. Admission is free for the first 100 attendees. 1601 Pennsylvania Ave. $10 admission includes skates and pizza. skatenbowl.com