I started listening to The Heart on the recommendation of a dear friend during the COVID-19 lockdown. I sought a coping mechanism in the midst of fears for coronavirus-infected friends (and anxious ones who were sick) and witnessing the pandemic’s baring of gross inequities. As an anally retentive bibliophile (yes, that string of Tharoor-ic words was intentional), I was hesitant to turn to an audio project to ground myself. The Heart‘s bone-chilling story-telling changed that.
The Heart Comes to Life
In New York in 2014, Kaitlin Prest founded The Heart in her bedroom with a close-knit community of visual and audio artists (Mitra Kaboli, Phoebe Wang, Rider Alsop, Samara Breger, Sharon Mashihi and Jen Ng). The origins of this radio project lay in Audio Smut, a sex-positive show on Montreal Radio CKUT 90.3 hosted by Prest from 2008 to 2014. Like its precursor Audio Smut, The Heart features deeply personal stories about gender, sexuality, and intersectionality in the form of individual episodes or mini-series, which are now available for free on their website and Spotify.
After a hiatus from radio in 2018, The Heart returned to the RadioTopia network under Prest’s new “audio art” company, Mermaid Palace named after her New York bedroom. Phoebe Unter and Nicole Kelly of the bitchface podcast became the new producers of the show. The new company allowed for flexibility in content creation, inviting queer and feminist audio artists to tell stories in one-off episodes or fully fledged series. So far, Mermaid Palace has released a host of content by diverse performers who draw inspiration from their Black, Jewish, Asian, trans, queer, disability and other identities. While all its content is relatable in a Western context, the painfully personal accounts push questions relevant to (admittedly, English-speaking, upper-middle class) women and non binary folks all over the world.
An Acoustic Journey
What is most striking is that the audio work makes you squirm in your seats. The words are powerful, telling, and unfailingly linger in your mind long after one removes their earphones. The music is aptly composed and background scores thoughtfully edited. This essence of audio art is captured in an interview with AnOther; Prest recognizes that, “[c]reativity comes through restraint. The challenge of trying to represent life with just sound was (and still is) a really exciting one for me. People always talk about the intimacy of audio, especially with podcasting – it’s just me talking to my microphone, speaking to an individual. I’m in your ears, I’m in your mind.“
Past episodes and series have explored topics such as consent (No), race, white supremacy and privilege (Race Traitor), pleasure and intimacy (Swelter), and femininity among men (Pansy). The majority of stories are personal, narrated by one or more of Mermaid Palace’s featured artists. The music and historical audio tracks create a simultaneously welcoming and uncomfortable acoustic environment. The goal, as Prest puts it, is to reveal humans as vulnerable by “baring their souls about the most exciting and most terrifying parts of being human.“
Although The Heart is still an indie project, it has received exalting reviews. It unpacks the complexities of being human and living one’s politics. It spotlights the confusion and contradictions of sexual intimacy, trauma-inducing decisions, the candidness of white privilege and the unconventional negotiations within love.
The upcoming mini-series, “Appearances” by Iranian-American Sharon Mashihi, will drop on September 29, 2020 and is sure to feature some of these themes. The series follows Mashihi’s 2017 documentary, Man Chouban (Farsi for “I am good”) which traces the struggles of first generation immigrants, mental health and sex.
Following The Beat
There are one too many reasons to listen to The Heart. Their stories are hard-hitting and are a perfect blend of personal accounts and sexy fiction. Laced with incredible sound editing, the episodes ask questions and reveal the politics in the personal. They are intersectional-in-progress organisation and strive towards unpacking those topics necessary to understand and achieve feminist and queer justice. Very importantly, they put their money where their mouth is, by hiring and prioritising racialised, queer, trans and marginalised artists. In the end, they tell stories of people. People struggling, people resisting, people talking, and people loving.
Clearly, the podcast is full of life, just like its namesake organ. Its radical feminist podcasting is addictive. Which is why instead of reading through my academic work, I often catch myself curling up on a cat-scratched sofa to tune into a familiar, seductive preamble—”From Mermaid Palace and Radiotopia, Welcome. To the Heart.“
Featured image created by author. Images from theheartradio.org.