Pick an episode of Erica Heilman’s independent podcast Rumble Strip. Odds are, one of the first things you’ll notice is the intimacy of the conversations. Rumble Strip is usually composed of one-on-one interviews, but even in group interviews or solo monologues, Heilman leads her discussions about questions of serious human import with an existential bluntness. She reaches early for serious, searching questions, often revealing much of herself in the process.
“Everybody can teach me something that will help make life bearable or meaningful or interesting.”
“I do honestly believe that everybody I talk to knows something that I need to know,” Heilman explains. “And if I knew it, I’d know how to get through my day better, I’d know how to survive the 11 o’clock hour better than I know now. I’m always trying to figure out how to get through the day better. Part of doing interviews is trying to figure that out, and so everybody can teach me something that will help make life bearable or meaningful or interesting.”
For those unfamiliar: rumble strips are the textured borders on rural roadways that force drivers to pay attention to where they’re going. It’s an instructive namesake.
The podcast began a decade ago, Heilman says, without a specific shape. “I didn’t have any plan at all when I first started this podcast. I made what I felt like, and that’s what I still do. That could be something that I’m worried about—my age or Jeff Sessions, or it could be people who live next door to me, who I want to know what they know.”
Her preference for face-to-face interviews means Heilman made Rumble Strip out of the details all around the area of central Vermont where she grew up and still lives today.
“I like to think that after doing a billion interviews in this tiny place, one will be able to feel this place and what I love and hate about it,” she says. “But [Rumble Strip is] also not expressly about this place. It’s more about just how you get through the day and how one survives.”
Whether or not the people Heilman interviews are familiar with the podcast, those to whom she’s speaking inevitably respond with an open heart, and more often than not, reveal facts about their lives they might have been surprised to hear themselves speaking into a microphone. While most of us have the kinds of conversations on Rumble Strip late at night with our closest friends, Heilman has them with a dizzying array of characters: farmers, ER nurses, game wardens and wildlife experts, cheerleaders, loggers, private investigators, defense attorneys, judges, and people recently released from prison. There are food-bank workers and people who don’t have enough to eat, musicians and record producers, taxidermists, high school seniors, and philosophical tenth graders. She’s interviewed an author of high-school textbooks, a pioneering transgender politician, and in perhaps the show’s best-loved story, a Vietnam combat veteran turned Heilman’s sister’s hairdresser.
“What are you like when you’re in pain?”
In every one of these conversations, Heilman approaches her interview subjects with seriousness and palpable respect, and she cuts immediately to far bigger questions than other interviewers might be inclined to ask. Death, the fear of mortality, sex, the fear of intimacy, meaning, and the fear of its absence—these are principal subjects around which Rumble Strip lingers in gentle orbit. Heilman treats even minor details with care, and much of that comes down to her reporting philosophy, which treats the people she interviews as collaborators rather than “subjects.”
“I feel strongly that I’m not out to get anybody,” she says. “If there’s anything anyone ever says—if they decided they should not have said that thing about Aunt Betty, they just need to tell me, and I won’t use it. I want people to feel well-represented. That means if they have shared something that they don’t want out in the world, I certainly don’t use it, and I think people feel safe for that reason. Certainly a journalist would never do that. But I give somebody that choice.”
The consequent intimacy of what people will share with Heilman is staggering, and she’s inevitably ready to push for deeper and truer statements. In a recent episode, she asks a close friend recovering from cancer-related illness, “What are you like when you’re in pain—acute pain?” That happens within the first 60 seconds of “Susan on the Brown Couch.”
Though the show was initially called Rumble Strip Vermont, Heilman dropped the state designation a while ago. She takes umbrage at the idea that podcasts produced outside media-business hotspots like New York and Los Angeles are necessarily supposed to be about the little places they come from.
“My show takes place here,” she says, “but it isn’t about here. I mean, it is on some level about here, but why should an interview with a 94-year-old farmer in Coventry be any less interesting to somebody living in Chicago? I’m asking him about his sex life or about his thoughts on God: Those things are universal things, and they’re no less informative to somebody who lives in LA than they are to somebody who lives outside a major city. Shows that are outside big places get pegged as regional shows, and I don’t understand it. That’s no more regional than a show that’s produced in the Lower East Side.”
Rumble Strip sounds like the confident work of a veteran journalist because Heilman has been a broadcast reporter since the early 1990s. (She worked in documentary TV in New York before shifting to public radio.) She’s a long-time colleague, friend, and sometimes collaborator with public radio legend Scott Carrier, himself an enthusiastic supporter of Rumble Strip.
In recent years, Carrier has branched off from traditional public radio to focus on his fascinating podcast Home of the Brave, composed of personal, intense, and sometimes gently confrontational interviews with people all across America about emotionally and politically complex issues. Rumble Strip is a similar project, but while Home of the Brave ultimately captures the vernacular of a whole country through deep engagements with locals near and far, Heilman’s work is focused on the people and places immediately accessible to her.
Interviews are uncontrolled events: editing is sculpture
Rumble Strip presents an equally profound engagement with the conversations of a variety of regular people, but their concentration within Heilman’s own geographical vicinity wrings a precise local vernacular out of a decade of interviews. A Rumble Strip listener from outside the area might not be familiar with some of the particularities of the region (dairy farming, logging, or the state’s fascinating annual meetings across small towns during which citizens may enact direct democracy). That’s fine: Those details are only the window dressing on Heilman’s project of attempting to answer the real questions of not only making life “endurable, but also sublime.”
“You can find yourself with another human, where you’re talking and there’s a microphone, you’re going back and forth,” she explains. “And then suddenly you’re in this third place with them. You’re no longer ‘you and me’. And here we are, you’re you and me, and we’re in this place where neither of us have ever been. We’re both looking around asking what happened, where are we? The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ And you don’t know. To me, that’s a nearly religious experience, when you get to where both people say, ‘I don’t know.’ I feel like you’ve arrived at somewhere absolutely new that only those two people could find together.”
There’s all of this learning from another person that you can actually hear in an interview—it impacts the sound of an interview.
Heilman sees interviews as uncontrolled events, almost like chemical reactions, mingling not only each person’s words, but also their movements, and their tone.
“When you meet somebody for the first time you’re animals in addition to having a conversation! You’re also two mammals figuring each other out. We’re gestural creatures, and tonal crunchers. There’s all of this learning from another person that you can actually hear in an interview—it impacts the sound of an interview. So if you’re only paying attention to the questions and the answers, you’re missing half the fun. It’s dynamic between people that you hear what is not said, and what is stumbled on, or what is very deliberately left out. That’s all part of the show, or part of the interview.”
That part only represents the beginning, Heilman stresses.
“It’s an entirely different thing in the moment it’s happening as the edited show in the end. But that’s what the sculpture of editing is all about: to make this document that came of that conversation into something that tries to reproduce what it felt like in that room. It’s like sugaring it off to make something that as closely as possible approximates the sublime that can happen between people. Hopefully then listeners feel like they can recognize each other’s humanity.”
Build your podcast right and “a party culminates around it eventually”
This approach to podcasting—exchanging “gotcha” reporting for deep inquiries into the sublimity of human feeling—would be a hard sell for radio. It took a long time to catch on as a podcast as well, Heilman notes, ruefully laughing because at first, “I couldn’t even get my family to listen to my show!” However, she was enamored of the freedom in the podcast format, where no station manager could tell her how long a story had to be, and where the format was entirely in the hands of the producer.
Heilman’s less enthusiastic about the recent trend of podcast producers thinking about marketing and building an audience before they work out what their show could become.
“I didn’t expect to have an audience,” she says. “I had to make the show. I wanted to make the show. And I made the show for nobody for a very long time. It was not something that I did with money or an audience in mind. That’s not a bad way to begin something! But [a podcast] really just is your own shiny object that you’re trying to form up, and it then finds its people. A party culminates around it eventually, because people like the party. But haven’t you got to start the party first? And you’ve got to know what your party is about. If you’re an independent and you just feel hungry to do interviews, or make audio objects, I don’t think you need to think about your audience before you think about your object.”
Rumble Strip is most powerful in its uniqueness, and what makes it unique is Heilman’s emotional frankness and pursuit of the small openings into profundity that are sprinkled into the everyday. It may never have the mass appeal of the shifting crops of glossy true-crime and celebrity talk shows, but Rumble Strip will continue to cultivate a fervent audience nonetheless, and it will hold those listeners very close.