Fourteen-year-old singer and guitarist Nell Smith of Fernie, after a chance meeting with the lead singer of the legendary rock band The Flaming Lips, recorded an album with the band last year.
“Nell’s already been interviewed on Stephen Colbert,” says The Headwaters podcast reporter Jayme Moye, “and she’s setting up a tour with The Lips, and living a life she and her family could not have imagined just a year ago. She’s kind of becoming a rock star.”
This is the kind of story The Headwaters specializes in: Kootenay people doing extraordinary or startling things. The podcast is produced by Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine and funded by the Columbia Basin Trust.
Since the first of eight episodes landed in late May, The Headwaters has had 4,000 downloads on all platforms.
Moye starts Nell’s story in the teenager’s bedroom full of guitars, with Nell playing a few bars and talking, and a close-up recording of Nell’s cat purring. We hear Nell’s father telling parts of the story, the narrative switching back-and-forth between Moye and podcast host Mitchell Scott, and occasional music clips, all put put together with a relaxed but precise momentum that gives us Nell’s whole story in 12 minutes.
Scott is the publisher and editor-in-chief at Kootenay Mountain Culture. His genial performance as podcast host sounds like he’s done this before.
“Mitch was a natural as soon as he got in front of the mic,” says The Headwaters’ writer, producer, and editor Bob Keating, the recently retired Kootenay reporter for CBC Radio.
Keating and Scott say the success of the podcast series boils down to sound, pacing, and unexpected stories.
“It’s like what we do in our magazine,” says Scott. “We take an idea, a theme for an issue, and then we surprise you with how we’re approaching it. You get an idea of what the episode is about, but then you’re like, holy cow, I had no idea they’re going to take me down those roads.”
Scott says Nell’s story is one of three segments in Episode 8, entitled Young Dreamers, about young Kootenay people who force you to ask, “You’re doing what? And you’re how old?”
The Saving Species episode includes a visit to a taxidermist and to people who are paid to kill invasive frogs.
In Doukhobor Lore, we learn about Canada’s first act of terrorism: the bombing of a train near Castlegar that killed Doukhobor leader Peter Verigin in 1924, a crime that is still unsolved.
In The Adventurers we hear from Mia Noblet of Nelson, world champion slackliner. Other episodes are Fixing Food, High Tech Sales, Cutting Carbon, and The Innovators.
Scott says listeners are interested in local stories and will choose them over “stories about money and personal growth and famous people,” but only if the story-telling quality and production values are high.
In addition to Moye, the reporters in the eight episodes are Sydney Black, Lindsay Clague, Graham Tracy, Patricia Smuga, and Greg Nesteroff.
In the podcast they all sound like professional reporters, and some of them are, but podcast reporting is a little different, Keating says, and he coaches them through the stories to achieve just the right pace and style.
“When we pick a story,” he says, “We don’t just have a reporter go out and do the story. We try to get them to live a bit of the story.”
In a segment about the Cronometer, a Revelstoke-based nutrition tracker, reporter Black tracks her own nutrition and exercise. In the segment about slacklining, Moye steps up onto a rope and tries it.
Scott says the CBT, as the funder of the podcast, has allowed great flexibility in what stories they tell and how they tell them.
Delphi Hoodikoff of the CBT told the Nelson Star there will be two more episodes added to the series this summer. Then, because the CBT set up The Headwaters as a pilot project, the results and costs will be formally evaluated and a decision made about whether to continue.
Meanwhile, in the two episodes still to come, Keating and Scott continue their strategy of drawing in the listener by surprising them.
“Tell them something unique in a unique way,” Keating says. “That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
The Headwaters can be found on Apple Podcasts and most other prominent podcast platforms.
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