On The Longest Shortest Time, Hillary Frank finds solace in stories of other parents

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Pubradio producer Hillary Frank channeled her experiences during a difficult pregnancy into parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time, which recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign and landed a series of high-profile sponsors.

Frank is a contributor to This American Life, Marketplace and other programs, and has written three novels for young adults. She began producing and self-distributing her podcast in 2010 while caring for her infant daughter, whose “sunny-side up” reversal in the womb rendered her mother unable to walk for months after giving birth.

“I just felt like I couldn’t be the mom that I wanted to be,” she said of her convalescence and recovery. “What I really wanted was to connect with other moms.”

Frank wanted to counter what she described as the “black and white” philosophy of most parenting books. In producing the first 20 installments of the podcast, she interviewed both moms and dads, including her own mother, about their unique parenting experiences.

Her Kickstarter campaign, which concluded Oct. 16, earned $34,676 for a second season of the program — 12 episodes to be delivered over six months, beginning in January.

And it wasn’t just moms funding Frank’s endeavor. “I’ve been actually surprised by the number of childless men supporting this Kickstarter,” Frank said. She heard from men who say they consider the show as a resource for when they become parents.

The podcast has been featured on PRX Remix and American Public Media’s The Story, and has won recognition from Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars, who also curates PRX Remix. Alex Blumberg, co-host and producer of NPR’s Planet Money economics reporting unit, recently agreed to serve as the program’s media advisor. Select episodes ranging from seven to 25 minutes are available to stations via PRX. One episode about a girl who refused to wear clothes for a month inspired a short animated film funded by the Knight Foundation.

Frank has found success in cultivating corporate sponsors by cold-calling companies such as Diapers.com, breastfeeding accessory vendor Medela and other businesses that cater to new parents. Several of the sponsors agreed to offer challenge grants for her Kickstarter campaign.

To enhance the value of sponsor credits within her podcast, Frank writes short stories about how parents use the product. “As an independent podcaster, you’re reliant on your sponsors wanting to continue to work with you, and I want to give them a reason to do that,” Frank said. “I think reading their tagline isn’t necessarily going to do that.”

“They’re coming to me because I have a skill at telling stories,” Frank said, adding, “There’s a way to do it where you’re not crossing an ethical line.”

Though Frank has shopped The Longest Shortest Time to radio stations, she’s struggled to drum up interest from programmers.

“What I was hearing was, ‘This is too niche,’” she said. Meanwhile, she noted, her sponsors have been telling her the opposite: that the podcast isn’t quite niche enough to attract the kind of demographic they want to see.

Frank’s podcast is also one of the few on the market hosted by a woman, a fact not lost on her. This year, in a widely circulated Transom op-ed, Julie Shapiro, former director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, noted that slightly more than 10 percent of the top 100 podcasts on both Stitcher and iTunes are hosted solely by women, including Frank’s own.

“I did sort of take that article as a challenge,” Frank said, adding that it helped drive her to seek success for The Longest Shortest Time. “But I want the listening experience to be interesting to any gender.”

Frank said her daughter, who is now 3 years old, is only vaguely aware of the program, though “she knows that her crying face is my logo.” Recognizing that embarrassing stories about young children posted on the Internet could haunt her subjects later in life, she allows interviewees to refrain from using their full names.

“I’m an editor and I edit myself,” she said. “There are plenty of parts of my story that I haven’t shared. I share as much as I’m comfortable sharing.”

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