Tape Head: Kaitlin Prest on Sex, Sound and Storytelling
What inspired the best creators in the podcasting world to be the best? In the latest instalment of our interview series, Tape Head, Kaitlin Prest picks out the pieces that made her.
Kaitlin Prest is a New York-based radio-maker, podcaster and artist. Her work, which includes the long-running Radiotopia show The Heart and the CBC fiction podcast The Shadows, explores the dynamics of power, love, sex and human intimacy. The Heart has won numerous awards, including the Prix Italia Golden Award for New Formats and the Third Coast International Gold Award for Best Documentary. In 2019, Kaitlin founded Mermaid Palace, an audio arts company dedicated to furthering the craft of narrative audio.
When I was 22, I knew I wanted to be really good at something but I didn't know what my medium was. I was trying on all these hats. Then I was at a party where this guy was like, “I have a radio show on the Campus Community Radio station. You wanna come check it out?” I walked in the doors of CKUT in Montreal and started volunteering.
One day, they sent out an email like, “The hosts of this sex-positive feminist radio hour called Audio Smut are stepping down. Does anyone want to do it?” A collective formed around it. There were five of us in the beginning; we were just kind of fucking around on the radio at 6pm and trying to figure out what we thought was good.
I think my mission as a creator has been to look at intimacy under a magnifying glass, and to use it as a way of talking about social and political issues. Those issues show up in our most intimate relationships, and those intimate relationships are the ones where those big issues impact us the most.
In a lot of films and books, romcoms and the like, which talk about love and relationships, the goal is not to tell the truth. The goal is to entertain. So my mission has been to try to create stories that represent something that people see themselves inside of. Those dynamics are really hard to talk about, and those are the kinds of stories that I'm drawn to.
As an artist and a creator, the works that have influenced me the most have been the pieces created by the people I'm in creative community with. The things that surprise me the most are not the things that I hear on the radio, but the things that my friend just made. Those are the moments where I'm like, “Oh my God, you can do that!” I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by creative people whose work I’m constantly amazed by.
Britt Wray, Audio Smut (2008)
An experimental audio piece that captures the realities and raw intimacy of a relationship.
Britt Wray is now a renowned climate justice writer and public speaker, but 14 years ago she was part of the original Audio Smut collective . I was a radio baby learning how to do things and she was an experienced radio goddess. It was the erotica show, and we all came into the studio with pieces we’d made. She had recorded a story about a woman giving head to her girlfriend’s dildo. The phrase I vividly remember was, “I held it between my lips like a cigar.” The way Britt had produced it, the way she narrated the piece … it blew me away. It was the first time I heard the way that delivery and scoring can transform a piece of writing.
I realised that in trying to tell a story, you have to be the thing. You don't just talk about love, you be love. You don't talk about sexuality, you be sexuality.
The scoring she did was simple but incredibly impactful. She used a guitar rendition of a piece by the French composer Erik Satie , which has an air of intrigue. Listening to that piece was the embodiment of the way that music creates the scenery of a radio story. It takes it from just being a recording of someone talking to a cinematic moment. When Britt left the show it was one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life!
Lady Norn, “The Real Vagina Monologue” (2012)
"The Real Vagina Monologue" is an experimental track from the sound art album Vadge of Honour that documents noises created by the artist’s own body. It aims to challenge stereotypes about how women should sound.
Jess Grosman was also part of the original five who made up Audio Smut. We were discovering radio at the same time and fell in love with it together. One day she goes on the internet and learns how to make a contact mic. And then she's like, “I'm gonna attach it to my vibrator and record the sound.” I thought, “Oh my God, this is on a whole other level.”
When the piece came out in 2012, it was the height of third-wave feminism. Showing that we have command over the narrative and our bodies felt very disruptive and important. This album felt very revolutionary. And then we found out that a woman in the 90s had done the exact same thing! But that was another lesson that Jess taught me. She was like, “Imagine if there was a whole genre of vagina art.”
The Heart – “One-Day’s Love: The Hurricane” (2015)
This episode of The Heart is about finding a short-lived love in the middle of Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive storms in New York’s history. It’s an ode to sweet and intense experiences in life, moments we hope would last longer but which are doomed to brevity.
This story by Mitra Kaboli is so intimate and beautiful. She gets an ex-partner of hers – not an ex really, they had a fling during a hurricane – to reenact what had happened. You hear how powerful their dynamic was but you're also desperately listening for what things are like between them now because it didn't work out. He ghosted her afterwards. The whole time you're wondering, “What the heck is going on between those two?”
Mitra is such a good writer and I love the way that she narrates; you can hear it on the podcast Welcome to Provincetown , which she hosts, too. I love her voice.
Love and Radio – “Jack and Ellen” (2013)
This episode of Love and Radio, produced by Brendan Baker, is about morally questionable boundaries and the consequences that come from crossing them. It won an honourable mention at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2013.
Brendan Baker was one of my first friends when I moved to New York and, of course, we became friends because of radio. A bunch of us would meet up in coffee shops and work. Everyone else would leave at 6pm but Brendan and I would stay until midnight every time.
In my opinion, he's one of the best sound designers in the business – but I don't want to say “sound designer” because a thing that Brendan and I often get grumpy about is the idea that sound design is separate from narrative or writing. It’s more that he takes a big mountain of audio and turns it into a cinematic narrative experience. He’s a writer: he's writing with sound.
At the beginning of the piece, you hear this masculine voice and it's only later that he moves the pitch up and you realise that both voices are in fact the same person – the narrator is pretending to be someone else on the internet.
His work is about so much more than sound design. It's the whole thing.
Sharon Mashihi – “Story Maker Presents”
Story Maker Presents is a performance piece that uses screenwriter Robert McKee’s famous principles for writing, Story, to explore the nuances and limitations of story structure when applied to real life.
In 2012, Sharon Mashihi, Audrey Quinn and I started this thing called Radio Cabaret, which was a series of audio-centric work. Sharon Mashihi created a piece called Story Maker Presents. It was a game-changer for me but it was a performance piece so it’s not on the internet anywhere.
People sometimes roll their eyes at Robert McKee’s Story, but Sharon is a disciple. She spent an entire summer studying the book and developing this performance. The piece she made is brilliant: she applies McKee’s technique to a real-life story.
She comes on stage and she's like, “In the words of Robert McKee: life unfolds in three-act structure. Allow me to demonstrate.” She brings someone up on stage, and asks the person to tell the story of a difficult moment in her life. Then she proceeds to show the way that McKee’s storytelling principles show up in this person’s anecdote and ends up creating a thrilling narrative out of a random event in this person’s memory. The performance reveals how impactful story structure can be, while also delivering a kind of critique about the way that narrative gets imposed on documentary storytelling.
If you’re curious about something by Sharon that you can listen to, check out Appearances . Sharon is the one who taught me about narrative. We worked together for eight years and she always made my stories better. Story just lives in her.
• As told to Indira Birnie