Welcome to Gain, an interview series where we ask podcasters about the backstories of the great work they’re creating.
Today, we’re speaking with James Harper, creator and host of Filter Stories, a documentary-style podcast about coffee and people. The podcast launched in August 2018 and is based in Germany (and wherever good coffee stories can be found).
Where did your podcast idea come from? What’s the backstory on your podcast’s name?
I’ve always loved stories, and have been telling them since I was a kid growing up in Australia.
Life eventually brought me to Berlin where I worked for a prestigious coffee roaster. I soon realised everyone around me was deeply ignorant about this product. And yet these are the same people that are informing coffee drinkers.
So, I bought microphones, a plane ticket to Guatemala and began a quest to discover the truth. I quickly realised how coffee was intersecting with many challenges we’re grappling with today as a society – illegal migration, climate change, war.
Filter Stories became a documentary that sheds light on these links through personal stories in faraway places and how we coffee drinkers can change the world by selecting our coffees more conscientiously.
I chose the name Filter Stories because each episode is as long as it takes you to enjoy a cup of filter coffee.
Who was the first person you told about your podcast?
I met a man in Berlin who shared his plans for his shelved podcast project. Something lit up inside of me – this podcast is what I needed to do. ‘I hope you don’t mind’, I said, ‘but I’m going to steal your idea’, to which he replied, ‘Go for it!’
I have remained in touch and he’s a big fan of the show, although his vision was quite different from my own (less story, more interview, nowhere near as politically charged as Filter Stories). The last time we spoke I leaned on him for editorial advice on the Tito episode. He was enthralled – and admitted he choked up at the point in the story where Tito’s parents pass away.
Why did you want a podcast website?
So many of my listeners are actually people who discovered Filter Stories through my storytelling evenings and crowdfund projects. They are not podcast listeners, but love the show, so I needed a place for them to play episodes outside of podcast player apps. (Related: the people I interview for the show also have rarely listened to a podcast before, and I describe what I’m doing as “a documentary without the visuals.”)
Podsites does a great job of showcasing episodes with an intuitive player and helps me focus on creating stories.
You publish a new episode of your show. What’s your approach to promoting it?
I will often post on social media (Instagram, etc.) where I have thousands of followers to let them know that a new episode has dropped. I try to take photographs as I travel for interviews, but it’s sometimes challenging to include it with a tight schedule traveling in a foreign country. Once a month or so, I send a newsletter to my subscribers.
Filter Stories is also quite a novelty in the coffee world! There are many media outlets in the coffee world, starved of interesting content, so when a podcast comes along with gripping stories, they jump on the chance to feature it in their news round-ups. Initially, I built connections and trust by interviewing them when searching for story leads. For example, I received media coverage from Daily Coffee News when I started the show, and regularly feature episodes as the basis of an article.
After a while, Filter Stories itself becomes embedded in the media landscape and I do cross-promotional features. Nowadays, it’s less about promoting the show itself and more about advocating for change in the coffee industry.
What’s your favorite episode of your podcast? Why is it your favorite?
The series “Is your coffee building Trump’s Wall?”
I spent a month in El Salvador last year and created a series that explored the history of El Salvador. It began as a relatively equal society, but once coffee enters the picture, the country brutally massacres indigenous Salvadorans and eventually slides to civil war and mass migration to the USA.
The story helped me unearth the plight of the most neglected people in the coffee world and led to the launch of a campaign to help their situation.
Describe a recent time you talked about your podcast in person. Who were you talking to? What did you say to help them learn more about your show?
It’s always tough to describe a peculiar podcast like this in a way that compels Joe Bloggs to give it a chance.
I’ve learned the best thing is not to tell, but to show by giving them story teasers.
For example, for the episode Lemons and Berries, I’d say:
Martin is the best barista in Kenya and dreams of opening his own cafe. But he can’t. Kenyans don’t drink coffee.
However, Martin’s got a crazy plan: he’s going to win the World Barista Championships to bring fame and glory to his country’s coffee.
But he’s all alone and up against the richest teams in the world. In the episode, I follow Martin for three years as he tries to achieve the impossible.
When you record your podcast, you might think about your imaginary listener who will hear this episode soon. What’s your mental image of this listener, and how do you incorporate their needs into your recording?
I imagine them as busy people, queueing for their coffee in the morning before heading into the office for a busy day.
I work very hard to pace the episode and unpack the story in such a way that is easy to follow. Things will come up during their commute that will remove their attention so it’s my job to signpost often so they can quickly slip back into the story.
Many of my listeners are not native English speakers, so I deliberately talk a little slower and enunciate clearly.
I also want this podcast to be accessible and interesting to everyone, especially those who don’t drink coffee. I keep the content focused on people, life journeys, broad societal trends. And I think it’s been working because a listener told me last week that, while she doesn’t drink coffee, after enjoying Filter Stories for so long she finds herself exploring the coffee growing world every time she travels to a coffee growing country.