Guests: Aaron Spieldenner, Mary Auld
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editing, mixing and music composition: Aaron Spieldenner, Sean Dwyer, Hazy Bay Music
Additional editing: Elle Castelli, Hazy Bay Music
Transcription by: Josh Moyar
Megan Torgerson (narrating): Hello Listeners, Today’s episode marks the final installment of Season 3: “Groundwork.” It’s a conversation between Reframing Rural story editor, Mary Auld, audio engineer and composer, Aaron Spieldenner and myself Megan Torgerson, the founder, host and producer of this podcast.
You’ll enjoy this episode if you are curious how I work with Mary to weave together the numerous interviews and field recordings that make up this season’s immersive narrative stories. These were the episodes set in North Idaho, the ranching community of Winnett, Montana and the wheat producing regions of Ledger and my hometown Dagmar. Or maybe you’re interested in how Aaron composes original music that elevates the emotional landscape of a story and the culture of a unique rural community.
I’m excited for you to get the opportunity to know Mary and Aaron more. They have both taken Reframing Rural to the next level this season. Because of their efforts, earlier this year our “Farm Succession in Northeast Montana” episode was named a finalist in the impact category by the international audio festival, Third Coast.
We began dreaming up this season in the Spring of 2022 and launched the first episode with the farmer’s lawyer Sarah Vogel a year ago this month. And we have more dreaming on the horizon. This fall, three close friends and collaborators will join me for a weekend retreat in rural Montana where we’ll make a plan for Reframing Rural’s fourth season.
We’d like your input too. Visit reframingrural.org where you can find a link to a listener survey to share what stories from this season resonated with you the most, and what types of episodes you think would be fitting for our show to explore in the future. If you’d prefer, you can also just send me an email with your ideas or feedback to email@example.com.
Thanks so much for following along with us this season!
I hope you enjoy this behind-the-scenes conversation with Reframing Rural’s creators.
Megan Torgerson: Thank you, Aaron and Mary, for joining me for this creator roundtable. I'm excited to talk to you about all the work that you've done this season and to hear a little bit about the process that you all go through when collaborating and contributing to Reframing Rural. So I guess let's just all introduce ourselves and talk about the roles that we have in life.
Mary Auld: Great. I'm Mary. On Reframing Rural, I serve as the story editor, so I help shape the narrative of each narrative episode, and serve as a sounding board for Megan's ideas and kind of making a polished, beautiful story. And outside of that, I am the director of the Montana Media Lab at the University of Montana, where I support audio storytellers and teach teens how to make audio stories.
Torgerson: Thank you. I think it's kind of fun how you and I met too. So you attended a Rural Radio Collective meeting, which I'm a co-leader of—this grassroots group of rural podcasters and radio-makers. And you reached out to me and you're like, “You ever need someone to help with your stories, your narrative stories, let me know.” And then I was like, “Oh, I really could use someone's help.” I think we got coffee in Missoula at some point when I was in town. And then yeah, then you've been part of this third season, the whole season.
Auld: Yeah. And I reached out because I was like, “This is such a cool project,” and I want to be like you basically. So it was kind of like a, yeah, an admiration that turned into a collaboration, which is so fun.
Torgerson: It's really fun. And Aaron, how about you?
Aaron Spieldenner: That's awesome. I'm Aaron. I oversee the audio editing and music production and mixing for Reframing Rural.
Torgerson: And you are a co-owner of…?
Spieldenner: Oh yes, of Hazy Bay Music in Seattle, Washington. And we tackled these episodes, collaboratively dispersing the work among people at Hazy Bay, and are starting to grow that even more to work with some contractors on top of that as well, so we can keep things moving and keep growing the business, and yeah.
Auld: Aaron, do you- what like, what kind of work do you mostly do? Is podcasts, like, right in your wheelhouse? Or is this a new thing for you?
Spieldenner: So I've worked on podcast before. This is the most extensive contract I've ever done for a podcast. I've done kind of a lot of things across the board. I do a lot of audio mixing for radio jingles. I also do a lot of—I'm like listening to myself say “uh” over and over again—because one of the things that I do is take out all the “uh”s. But yeah, I have worked on a video game where I did a lot of sound design and music composition for that. That was a couple of years. I've done a lot of recording and mixing and producing for local artists and bands. And a post-production audio for film, some film scoring and kind of a lot of things across the board. Yeah. So if that answers your question.
Auld: Yeah, totally. I mean, maybe we'll get into this later, but I'm curious about what makes this project different? And how it compares in like your interest, you know? What you're excited about.
Spieldenner: Totally. Well, I think the biggest difference that I've noticed with this project is the impact is so much more tangible than most of the work that I do. I've been lucky that I've gotten to work on some cool projects that have had kind of an unusual way of communicating self-empowerment and bringing up interesting issues. The video game that I worked on was about finding your voice and it was supposed to, you know, create this kind of cool, playful environment for you to experiment with your voice, especially for somebody who is not necessarily using their voice all the time or is not used to singing.
So that and this podcast, I think, are two examples of things that I've gotten to do that it's like, “Wow, this is, this is making a difference,” you know? I can see that this is making a difference. And then on top of that, I think the long-form aspect of the podcast has created some freedom to decide how we're going to do music production over a long period of time and create the ambiance and the score that helps tell the stories that Megan and you, Mary, are putting together and that has been unique to this situation. Because normally, with like film scoring or video game scoring, you're working on a single piece that's got a linear form. And this is more abstract, and we get to reuse music as well and find creative ways to use it. And so that's been unique and a fun challenge associated with this project.
Torgerson: Yeah, I love to see how you make worlds come alive for listeners, and to send you notes like when you created the soundtrack for when it like, “Imagine the color burnt orange and bright blue sky and an AM radio and some old fuzzy country tunes on the radio,” and then to hear my ideas come to life in sound is so satisfying.
Spieldenner: That's awesome. Yeah, it's been a lot of fun. It's been a lot of fun for sure.
Torgerson: Well, I guess before we get into kind of some of the nitty gritty details, maybe we can talk a little bit about just like the process that we all go through in collaborating with one another. I guess for this season, I've had two different types of episodes: the interview episodes and the narrative episodes. The interview episodes are a little bit more straightforward. Sometimes I am talking to Mary about like, questions for a guest or like how the sequence of episodes will relate to one another. But the narrative episodes are really where a lot of the magic happens. So I guess I'll just kind of describe that process. And then yeah, for you guys to elaborate on it. But for a narrative episode, I will first go to Mary. And we'll have a pre-reporting meeting. And maybe should I even back up and talk about where the inspiration comes from, too?
Auld: Yeah, I think so. Start at the very beginning.
Torgerson: Okay. So the very beginning. I guess for this season, I had a couple of issues that I was thinking about, like farm succession, because my family was going through planning for the future of our family farm. And then like the topic of gentrification came about, because of just how much Montana and the Mountain West has been changing post-pandemic. And then the theme of regenerative agriculture came about because I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and was looking at alternative ways of farming that are potentially more healthy for people and the land.
And then, I guess just like through networking and reading books I've kind of identified different people to interview or do narrative episodes about to explore those topics. I guess Sarah Vogel, the first episode of this season, my cousin reached out to me in Bismarck, North Dakota, and was like, “You should interview Sarah.” So that's how that one happened.
Yeah, then the farm succession episode, that was because I really wanted to explore that more for my own personal self and because I know a lot of people are going through that right now.
Kathleen McLaughlin is just an amazing journalist and author. I'm reading her latest book “Blood Money" right now, and I just thought she was a badass and wanted to interview her about cultural extraction and rural gentrification. The rural gentrification episode was because I read this book that was really inspiring, “Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US West” by Dr. Ryanne Pilgeram.
And then yeah, I wanted to learn about the roots of regenerative agriculture, and so I found two guests, Latrice Tatsey and Danielle Antelope from the Blackfeet Tribe.
And then Winnett ACES was an episode that was, like, recommended to me by someone I know at the Red Ants Pants Foundation. They were like, “You should do a story in Winnett.”
Mental health and ag, that's a topic that's very important right now.
John Wicks was someone who I learned about through interviewing the journalist Emily Stifler Wolfe.
And then my upcoming episode, which will be out by the time this airs, with Grace Olmstead, was just an inspiring book that I read called “Uprooted,” and I wanted to talk to her.
Yeah, so I guess those are, that's kind of the inspiration behind those episodes.
But then when I launch into narrative episodes, I'll do a pre-reporting meeting with Mary. And yeah, Mary, do you want to take over and talk a little bit about that process?
Auld: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think it kind of starts with Megan having done this kind of like background thinking and being inspired by your own life and then by things you're reading or things people are telling you are relevant to kind of the rural community at large. And so yeah, you come with that, and often with, you know, a person or a place that you're really going to cover, and then we just talk about, you know, “How can we take this idea and make it into some kind of a narrative that hangs together and that feels like, you know, we're starting with one idea and ending with some new concluding idea, and really portraying places and people in a really vivid way along the way?” And then we talk about, you know, not just the big ideas, but also smaller, kind of like, “When should- when should you get out the microphone, you know? What kind of questions are good to ask? What places should you ask people to take you?” Just to kind of start dreaming up what the structure of this thing will be, which I think is so, so exciting to be at that phase where you're like, you know, you're gonna go and gather these things, but we're just kind of making the plan of attack.
Creator Roundtable: A Behind-the-Scenes Conversation with Reframing Rural’s Audio Engineer, Story Editor and Producer/Host: Yeah. And then after that meeting, I'll go out and report in these communities. And that I feel like is always like, a really exciting and a little bit nerve-wracking point. I'm like, “Did I do enough research? Do I have good enough questions? Are they going to feel uncomfortable by my microphone?” which I never whip out immediately, but still it's intimidating to be recorded.
Yeah, and then, after I've gathered enough tape, and like scene tape, so you know, maybe me walking through a corral with someone or pasture, or sitting down having dinner. Different things, playing a game, sequence game that came up in one of the episodes. Then I'll kind of, sometimes I think, do we have a post reporting meeting? I'm forgetting. Or then I'll create a story map, like an outline.
Auld: Yeah, I think that's what we did most of the time. You would kind of go out and get all this stuff, and then kind of like dump your ideas from that into some kind of a map. And then we would meet before you started writing to talk about kind of like which pieces actually came to fruition and what did you get that you didn't expect. And what kind of, you know, there are always ideas and even people or you know just kind of things that emerge during that reporting process that we didn't anticipate. And so kind of getting me up to speed on that, and then creating that structure so that you can start writing something that is going to make sense and have a powerful story at the center.
Torgerson: Yeah, and then in that point, too, I'm revisiting all the tape. And then I feel like maybe in season four, I'll learn how to do this in a more streamlined way. But I have a Word doc with like all the notes about all the things that stand out to me that end up being way too long, because if you know me, you know I take way too many notes and like go really big and then narrow in.
Yeah, and then after I get Mary's feedback on my story map, I'll take a stab at the first draft, which will be both audio and a script, so that you can kind of hear usually just the voices, but not all of the sounds kind of yet coming into play. Maybe a little bit of scene tape, but not like any of the songs that Aaron adds later.
And then, yeah, I don't know how you do the next phase because I get so many notes back that are incredible. But I'm like, “Wow, this must have taken her a long time,” because you're moving things around and you're like, you know, “Tell me more,” like “I want to hear your voice more here.” And that just seems like a magical, mysterious kind of part of the process to me.
Auld: Yeah, yeah, I can talk about what I do, kind of, when I get that.
Yeah, so I get Megan's kind of rough audio draft and her script and the first time that I interact with it, I just listen through the audio. So I'm not looking at the script, and I'll like, jot down some notes. But really, I just kind of want to like, get the feel of, you know, who are the people. I really want it to strike me, kind of, the way that it might strike a listener the first time. And so, I do that listen-through kind of as like, it's not even about edits. It's about just kind of like letting the things soak in. And then I'll go back at the end of that, listen, jot down my notes, mostly like who did I really love and feel inspired by, where were the points where Megan's voice was really strong and just like intimate and really felt like it was getting at something important. And also places where I want more, or I, you know, thought that there was kind of like something that I ended that listening session wondering about.
So then I go in having those big picture notes, and then I really go into the script. And so I'll do a read-through where I make a few notes. And then I do the crazy thing that Megan sees where I'm like highlighting and moving and like a billion, you know, “More Megan here,” like, “Oh my God, this is so amazing. I'm crying right now.” Like that, you know? Just kind of like dumping everything that I could possibly think. And so yeah, then that kind of resolves in this big, colorful, messy document that I hand back to Megan, to see kind of what she thinks of my suggestions.
Torgerson: Yeah. And then at that point, I do a read-through of all of those notes and kind of try to follow, because you'll move big sections sometimes. So I'm like, “Okay, here's, like how that's gonna fit into this.” And then after I kind of do a read-through and like see the structural edits, I'll dive in and do more writing. So that process does take a little while to make the second draft. And sometimes I think I've gone back to you with questions. But then, yeah. At that point, I have pretty much a solid draft. And I think that's when I bring in Aaron too, and then we have a meeting where I'll kind of tell you about like, the emotions that I want and the types of sound that I'm envisioning. And then you go on to make, in addition to the music that you've kind of made before, at that stage you're making sound pads and- What do you? I forget some of the terms for things that you're creating at that point too.
Spieldenner: Yeah, one of the notes that I got from you pretty early on was that you wanted sound design and pieces that would put the listener into a space when that would relate to whatever it was you were talking about in the story. And some of that has literally been source audio that you've recorded while you've been on your field recording trips. And then others are kind of abstract sound pads that are like an eerie synth, or we take one of the other pieces of music and we run it through a bunch of reverb and slow it down. And that creates, you know, kind of something reminiscent of the rest of the palette, but also fresh and new and evoking a new emotion that can complement whatever is going on in the story.
So yeah, usually, in terms of the music and the sound design we have, most of the time, we have one new piece of music per episode, more or less, and that'll be made in advance usually. And that's based on what we were talking about earlier where Megan gives a summary of what the episode is about and what mood she wants to evoke in the soundtrack in this new song that will be featured. So that's usually made in advance before we even receive all the work that you and Mary have done.
And then once we have that all, the additional sound design, basically, I'm just listening through. Well, we do an initial editing phase where we do like a bunch of editing and make sure, with the narrative episodes, we don't do it as much because a lot of that stuff is kind of capturing moments and you do a lot of that editing in advance too, Megan, for those narrative episodes. So you know when we get that, I just basically listen through and then find moments where it feels like, “Oh, this could use something,” and then I'll just do it in real time and you know, like play something on my keyboard or track something really quick. As we've evolved too, I've gotten my coworker, Sean. Him and I run Hazy Bay with our third partner Paul. And Sean has a lot of experience with sound design, and music scoring in particular. He's a really talented composer. So we will divvy this stuff up, and he'll do the same thing on his end. And that kind of makes managing a one-hour long episode, it makes it a lot easier. And we've worked together for so long too that we trust that we're going to make very similar decisions. So it creates a pretty, you know, homogenous piece of podcast by the end of it.
But yeah. But a lot of it is just in real time. It's just like listening through and being like, “Oh, what needs to go here?” So pretty similar to your process, Mary, too, where it's just like, kind of absorb it all, and then just go through another time and hit all the points. And yeah.
Torgerson: Yeah. And then I guess, after I have that meeting with you, Aaron, I usually do like a final edit with Mary, which is often kind of just like a proofreading. And then I'll go back in. And at those two first edits, I'll have like, within the audio, there'll be a temp track. So just me recording the narration. And I might not be as like emotive as I am in the final, and probably talking a little bit faster. And you can probably sometimes hear the hour of night when I'm working in those drafts sometimes by my narration, but then I'll go through and do the tracking.
And I've learned some things about tracking. Like I used to have the thought that I needed to do all the tracking in one day, because your voice does sound different, like when you first wake up, or like throughout the day. But then that can be sometimes hard. Like I have found that doing the tracking over a couple of days, it's more important that I have the energy and the enthusiasm that I'm bringing to the narration than if my voice sounds exactly the same, because I don't think the listener can probably tell what time of day I recorded the narration.
But yeah. I'm curious, Aaron too, if you could like tell us a little bit about maybe some things that you do with the audio that take it to the next level that the listener probably isn't thinking about, but that is really dialing it in.
Spieldenner: Yeah. So the first time that you and I worked together, Megan, was the last episode of season two.
And I think it was maybe sort of a test or something like that to be a good fit.
Just a little bit of background too: So the way that this all came about was I was playing in a band with Megan. And we would, you know, we would hang out after band practice. And one day, Megan was talking about, like, “I have this podcast, but I feel like, you know, I'm curious to see how the audio quality could change, maybe to bring it to the next level.” And I was of course, like, “Oh, business mode. Yeah, like I can do that. I can do that no problem!” But it was, up to that point, I mean, you may have heard some of the things that I had done, but I'd never done a podcast on this scale before. So that was kind of how that came about. And initially, the plan was I would join at the beginning of season three.
But you got to the end of season two, and you're like “I have this episode, and we're pretty close to the deadline, but I was curious if you could, you know, do your thing with this and we can see how that sounds.” Just working on that created the end-chain, like all the end plug-ins and leveling and stuff that kind of mushes everything together in a way that makes everything kind of the same volume, that made- that end-chain that I've used for all of season three was from working on that.
And a lot of that too is so I have like several software plug-ins that the audio is running through. And they're doing various things, but they're all kind of, like I mentioned, trying to get things to be the same volume. But then also when I'm listening through, I'm finding spots where, “Oh, this is a little loud,” or “This is a little quiet,” and I have another plug-in that tells me how loud it is at any given time. So I have that on a screen all the time. I'm always kind of referencing that and I'm kind of shooting for like a window of about 2 dBs average that I'm trying to keep everything within.
So that's kind of the biggest one. I feel like that creates that nice professional sounding sound. But then you know, I also do a lot of technical, nitty gritty stuff too, like if somebody, their microphone sounds thinner, I adjust that to try to get it as close to Megan's microphone. Megan, your microphone is generally the North Star that I'm trying to get everything else to fit with. So I do a lot of that. We do, we do a lot of editing, especially on the interview episodes, take out a lot of the “uh”s, “ah”s, “um”s, things like that, which has been an enlightening process. It's not something you notice until you have to sit there and take these things out. So kind of all those things have been pretty important. And another really big thing that has, I feel like, has made a huge impact, and I'm curious to see how you feel about this, Megan, is we kind of sat down at the beginning of season three and made some decisions as to how we could improve the audio quality right from the get go, from, you know, the source that we're recording. And I feel like that made life a lot easier for me in a lot of respects. And I'm curious, like, have you felt like that's contributed to the audio quality being better this season?
Torgerson: Yeah, I definitely think so. And I've had compliments from people who've listened throughout the seasons, and they're like, “Wow, season three sounds like way more professional,” so people can definitely tell the difference, I feel like, with you coming on board and really making the sound a lot more professional.
But with the remote interview episodes, this was your recommendation Aaron, we started sending them a Yeti Blue mini microphone, and then using this Riverside Remote recording system, basically where we have two separate audio files from the interview. So if I sneeze while my guest is talking like we can take that out really easily. So I feel like that has elevated the remote interviews. And then you also kind of counseled me, is that the word? You gave me advice, I guess, about how to capture better audio in the field. And then yeah, I got another nicer microphone and used—what is the red box that you plug the two mics into?
Spieldenner: The interface, yeah.
Torgerson: Interface! I started using, yeah, using an Interface and like two professional mics for my sit-down, in-person interviews, which has really helped too. So I'm like recording better audio from the beginning, making Aaron's life easier, and then Aaron has all these magical tools to fix things when they don't go right, because it is technology and some things end up happening differently than you expect. But it's funny hearing you talk about how we first started collaborating, because I remember… So Andrew, my husband, did all the music, composed all the music for the first two seasons, and I kind of collaborated on the theme music for the first season. But I was asking him to record these songs like on his Saturdays off and it was just kind of hard on our relationship to be like, “Hey, can you take one of your only days off to like spend all day making this track for me?” So I think he had some travel coming up and I was like, “I'm gonna ask Aaron,” like asking you again.
And then Aaron is also an incredibly talented singer-songwriter, and something that was really important for me in working with an audio engineer is someone who can recognize the pacing and musicality of people's voices. And so some people I interviewed, they might take a little bit, take a minute to fully compose their sentences, like I do oftentimes as well.
So I wanted to sometimes eliminate some of those pauses, but to keep the essence of their speech patterns, and because Aaron is a musician I know that he can recognize that musicality in the human voice as well as in music. And that immediately came across. I had an idea that that's how Aaron would be and then he completely delivered. So yeah.
Spieldenner: Wow, I didn't know about that. Yeah, that's really interesting. I also, just to kind of like wrap that up, I wanted to say that, you know, one of my favorite moments of working on this podcast was rewriting the theme music, because that was something that Andrew, of course, played a huge role in, but also other people that I know and that, even before I was involved with Reframing Rural, there's an open mic in Seattle that I have been going to for years. And all these people, I found out later, that were involved with making the original theme music were people that I knew through that open mic.
Torgerson: Dan Sodomka and Ryan Manthey, yeah.
Spieldenner: Yeah, absolutely.
Torgerson: Thank you for your contributions to the first theme song as well, yeah!
Spieldenner: Yeah, Dan and Ryan. Yeah, so that was a really cool project, because that piece of music doesn't follow a specific tempo the whole time, a lot of it's pretty free, and so trying to find ways to creatively reinterpret that and also bring it to a new space of professionalism, but also kind of keeping the DIY and the emotion of it. And it was a really cool challenge there. I feel like we totally nailed it.
Like, every time it starts, you know, I just feel like, “Oh yeah, Reframing Rural. Let's do it.” Like, it's got the, it's got the sonic brand and it's got that nice ramp that we kept from the original one that worked so well in the first couple of seasons. And yeah, I'm always surprised. I'm like, “Wow, this is so easy to like, construct around.” I mean, that definitely has to do with the way that you pace your narration. But yeah, that was, that was such a cool thing to be able to work on and, and be able to collaborate with those guys on, you know.?
Torgerson: Yeah, I feel like the theme song kind of feels like I'm in high school sports again. And I'm like, getting ready to get out of the locker room and like, it's like it ramps me up. It gives the energy.
Auld: Yeah, I was gonna say, Megan, when you and I kind of were talking about like, bigger picture, season three, what's going to happen next, I think one of the things that I, you know, pointed out about what I love about the show is just how musical it is. And it sounds really good. And it feels really kind of carried along by the music, and the music feels really well integrated with the stories and with the content. And I think that really is something that makes this show stand out. And so Aaron's work, you know, elevating that even further from season two, when I already thought it was amazing, just like kind of made the whole show lean into an identity that I think it already had, kind of strengthened that part of it. So I think it's something that really makes this show special.
Torgerson: Yeah, definitely. And I feel like I learned this a lot in grad school, I got an MFA in arts leadership, and it was always like, pay collaborators. And like I never wanted to use—I mean, I think I have maybe once or twice in a dire situation—but I didn't want to just use free music online. Like I wanted to have original music that you aren't going to ever have heard and to hire a, you know, a musician and an artist to do that work, I think is really important to me.
Auld: I think it pays off. It makes a huge difference.
Spieldenner: Mary, I was curious how you got involved in the work that you're doing—coaching young people on storytelling and audio storytelling in particular. How did you get into that? Did you do that on your own? Or did you study it somewhere? Or how did that come about?
Auld: Yeah, yeah. It's a great question. I got into audio journalism initially. I had done a little print journalism and really liked it. I studied creative writing in undergrad, and it was kind of like this fun way that I could use those skills. So I went to grad school at the University of Montana and really focused on audio journalism. And I thought that I wanted to be a public radio reporter. Like I wanted to work for NPR something and I did work for Montana Public Radio and a public radio station in Alaska for a while, but I found that it was such a turn. You would, you know, talk to people really quickly, and then kind of move right along, and didn't have the time to really get into kind of the narrative part of communicating experience. That is really why I love journalism and storytelling. So after that, I kind of wanted to move into the narrative audio podcast space. So I worked in that space for a while, freelancing on shows that were like, you know, that style, as a producer, but before I became a journalist I was in education. I taught preschool for a while I taught.. I worked in nonprofits, teaching people about agriculture and farming and gardening and stuff.
And so yeah. I got this opportunity to kind of meld all of those interests at the Montana Media Lab, where they were kind of launching a program that had never happened before—a new program where we would travel around the state of Montana and go to these communities, rural and Indigenous communities, and take kids from not knowing really what audio journalism is at all to producing a radio news story that would run on the public radio station.
Spieldenner: What? That’s so cool!
Auld: Yeah, it's so cool! And really, like, you know, a big part of the project actually has a lot in common with the spirit of Megan's project, which is just like, these are really kind of underrepresented voices in the media. We don't hear a lot from rural or Indigenous communities. And teens are so, you know, well positioned as experts in those places. So they come up with the idea, and they're, you know, it's just amazing to go in, and they're like, “The highway is getting redone through our town and it's a huge deal and we're going to tell everyone about it.” And then they're like, “And I should call my grandma, and my friend lives here, and let's go talk to the Dairy Queen, because they're going to be affected.” Like, it's just like, they really have the expertise needed to make great stories. So it's the best.
Spieldenner: Wow yeah, that's super cool. It's so awesome that you and Megan found each other, because you're both part of this, you know, movement to champion the underrepresented in Montana, and yeah. It’s just so cool.
Auld: Yeah. I mean, honestly, like talking to Megan, and kind of working on this project with her has really helped me wrap my head around kind of the direction that this thing could go and find the language to talk about it. And yeah, so it's, it's a really fruitful collaboration for my other work as well.
Spieldenner: Yeah, those are the best kinds of side things that when you show up for it, it somehow makes you better at the other thing you're doing, and then it just keeps going. Those are really special opportunities.
Torgerson: Yeah, I was just gonna say, I'm excited for like the impact that you're making on rural youth. Like, I never thought that producing audio or radio was something that I could do as a kid. But you going into those communities and sharing those skills, and showing those possibilities, I think, could have a real positive ripple effect on the media landscape. It's pretty cool.
Auld: Yeah, and I think it's such a cyclical thing. If there aren't examples of people doing this thing, then it's hard to imagine yourself doing it or like, if there aren't examples of stories of this genre that you can see yourself in, it's hard to imagine doing it. So yeah, I feel like we're working on the same plane, kind of moving things forward, which is so exciting.
Torgerson: Yeah. Well, I'm curious as both collaborators on and listeners of the show, how Reframing Rural has changed your ideas of rural Montana, and maybe, I know Mary, you're familiar with rural Montana, but like, the eastern side of the state doesn't get as much attention as the communities where we both went to school, Missoula, and so on.
And then Aaron, of course, you grew up in a suburban area, or would you call it urban or suburban? Sorry.
Spieldenner: I think I grew up in the suburbs, yeah.
Auld: You're not offended by that?
Spieldenner: No, for sure. I remember I had a friend who lived not like directly across the street, but just like across the street and down the street a little bit, and the first time I walked into his house, it was the exact same layout as my house except like the stairs were reversed or something. There was like something that was different, but everything else was the same and it was like, “Whoa, this is, this is freaky.”
Auld: That's so crazy.
Spieldenner: Very much grew up in the suburbs.
Auld: Yeah, well, I mean, I guess, you know, this season in particular, I had some familiarity with kind of like food systems work and agriculture in Montana. I did like an AmeriCorps program when I first moved here several years ago, that was about local food.
And so I felt like I had a pulse on kind of mostly like small, organic veggie operations, was a lot of the folks that I knew and had worked with. And, you know, I know or I knew that so much of the state and so much of the kind of communities really relied on these like bigger, larger scale crops and beef farms, but I didn't have a lot of experience working with people who had lived or been a part of those businesses.
So I felt like just kind of this really important part of the landscape of Montana and the economics of Montana and the experience of the culture of Montana, was illustrated in such a just intimate and really deliberate and vivid way, especially in the succession episode. I wish that I had been able to listen to that when I first moved to Montana to kind of get a feel for, you know, what was happening in agriculture in this state. So yeah, I think that representation of that experience and the communities that rely on those kinds of experiences was so, so amazing to me.
Torgerson: Yeah, I think I'm, I hope I'm quoting this right. But in the last episode, I quoted this stat that I think it's like a fraction of 1% of farms in Montana farms and ranches in Montana produce organic produce. Was that… Does that sound right to you?
Auld: I think that's right. Yeah.
Torgerson: Yeah. But that, I feel like, gets a bigger portion of the narrative. Like, you don't often hear about large scale wheat farms, like where I grew up. So I'm glad to share those stories, in addition to the really cool and innovative organic, regenerative, local food system stories. But I feel like the reality for a lot of producers in Montana is kind of the landscape where I grew up, so it's important to me to represent that experience.
Auld: I think hearing you kind of grapple with your own experience with this, like, you know, really amazing family system that came together around a business, and then also thinking about the broader trends and environmental issues and these bigger systems within which that, you know, your personal experience sits, it’s so… Iit's really unique. And I think it's so eye-opening to hear kind of, I mean, I just love hearing you talk to your family about how important this place and this endeavor are to you. And then also thinking about, “Yeah, like, what are the practices we're using mean for the future? And how do these things continue on? And what's next?” So I just think this kind of storytelling is really transformative, and helps people connect and empathize and understand each other. And I just feel like that's totally what you're doing here. So it's really fun.
Torgerson: Yeah, and selfishly it helps me too like do research into what the global commodity market means for local farmers. What are the impacts of existing in that kind of a system? And yeah. So I'm selfishly, me doing me-search or like research into things that I just want to learn more about. But I'm glad you find it interesting.
Auld: Well, and I think it's so like, the fact that you have first-hand experience with it, and then you can, like, you know, depict or share this really intimate conversation between you and your dad, or you and your family, makes those conversations about global commodity systems, which is, like sounds like the most boring thing you've ever heard, feel like it really matters and like it kind of grounds it in this emotional experience. That's really powerful. So I think you are in such a good position to tell the stories.
Torgerson: Thank you. Yeah, Aaron, what about your experience?
Spieldenner: My experience with global commodity?
Torgerson: Yeah, exactly.
Spieldenner: Well, the biggest thing that I noticed when I first started working on Reframing Rural was how I just looked at the grocery store differently.
It did pretty immediately change my perspective on where food comes from. Who are the people that are behind that? How does it get here? You know, that was a pretty immediate impact. And I imagine for the uneducated listener like myself, your podcast does such a good job of opening people's eyes to what all is going on.
And I especially think the narrative episodes have put, you know, this sort of cool mythos behind these people and in this culture and makes it really interesting. And, you know, I think global commodities market, I mean, we can joke about, like, “Oh, yeah, it doesn't sound interesting,” but like now it does, you know? Because of your podcast. It really does.
Torgerson: That's really cool.
Auld: Megan, I'm curious about, you know, that's something we talk about a lot is like, audience, you know? You're kind of trying to both inform people who do not live in rural communities and say things that help people in rural communities kind of like connect and feel represented and feel like their experience is elevated. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to make something that is for such a broad audience?
Torgerson: Yeah, I think there's different points in different episodes when I'm writing that I'm thinking about like someone like me, who grew up in a rural place but now lives in an urban place, or has experiences living, you know, on the coasts, or in different parts of the world.
And then sometimes I'm thinking about, like am I writing people I know who've stayed in their rural community, in the same community where they grew up in?
Sometimes I'm like, pointedly thinking about people who I’ve been frustrated with in my life who are pretty ignorant about rural things. And I hope I'm not being like mean in my script writing, but I am like, candidly thinking about, like, things that I wish they knew. And it's not their fault. It's partially because of the media that we have such limited narratives about rural people that are complex.
Yeah, and then I think partially because like I've always identified as a rural person, no matter where I've lived. Even when I was living in Seattle, I identified in that way. But I do have experiences in both places. So I feel like that kind of enables me a little bit to talk to both audiences.
But audience is such a tricky thing. Like I'm always figuring out like, who my audience is and what stories do I want to tell for which audience. And like, I try not to over explain things. Like I don't want to like have a podcast where I’m talking about farming and ranching and super basic terms. I want people to like Google things if they're unsure, or like continue their own research. Because I think it is so important for rural people to see media produced that is for them as well.
So I don't know if that's a hard question to answer. I feel like because it's like the podcast is for two seemingly disparate audiences. But like, one thing I was really trying to do, especially in the first season, was like show how much we have in common and how at the end of the day, we all care about our families and our communities. And so I think that's, that's something that I still try to weave in too, is the common denominator.
Auld: Yeah, totally. I think that was the moment, I think, I left a comment like, “Can you please explain what this kind of farm equipment is?” And you're like, “I think that the people who I'm hoping feel centered in this story know what it is and other people can look it up.” And I think that's a really thoughtful choice to make and I think it's another one of those things that really helps this show feel unique and rooted in a really focused mission.
Spieldenner: Yeah, I think you do a good job with it. I think any great stories are demanding of the listener and don't underestimate them, and it's probably better that, you know, if somebody's interested in it, they have the ability to look things up, rather than somebody have to be like, “Oh, I know everything that's going on here,” you know? So, that makes sense.
Torgerson: Yeah. And I think the best episodes are also demanding of me. I've told you, Mary, this before, too. I'm like, if I haven't cried yet in producing a narrative episode, then like something is missing. In one of my episodes, I’m like, “I cried, so it means it’s at the right stage.
Auld: I know, that was one of your notes to me was like, “Oh, my God, I haven't cried yet. Like, I don't know what we need to do. But we got to change something.
Torgerson: Exactly. And I think that's like a signature of the podcast as well, is the emotional vulnerability that I weave in throughout all the information in the stories from other people.
Auld: Do you want to talk about that, Megan? Just kind of about what it's like to put so much of yourself into the show?
Torgerson: Sure. Yeah. So I guess like after the first season, I kind of wanted to break from that, because that season was all about my hometown.
And so, and in part because of the pandemic, but I switched to just doing interviews with people about what they were doing. And then I kind of missed some of that personal storytelling at the end of the second season, and then decided really, with the farm succession episode, that that was something I wanted to dive back into.
And yeah, I asked my dad if he was willing to share that story with me. And usually he says yes to things pretty quickly, but he actually asked for, like, a couple of days to think about it. And I was really grateful that he said yes, and that also my family allowed me to use the recordings I captured of our farm succession meetings on Zoom in the episode, which I did ask, I was like, “I think it'd be good for us to have these meetings recorded.” But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, like, “In case I ever want to tell a story about it,” and then they agreed. So that was great. Thank you, family. You were very generous with me.
But yeah, some of it is really hard to be that emotionally vulnerable, and to decide what to leave out and what to put in. I think that's something I'm continuing to learn more about, is that threshold of like, am I being too comfortable in my storytelling? Am I pushing boundaries enough? Am I oversharing? Am I sharing in a way that others can relate to my experience? And I really get excited about that. I feel like that's where I'm most creatively fulfilled is by exploring those boundaries.
But I think it is kind of by design, I wonder, if I also did the every other episode is an interview and a narrative episode, because I do feel really tired after the narrative episodes, both because it takes a lot of time, like over 100 hours for me to do those episodes. And then also because it's just like, emotionally draining. Yeah, especially the farm succession episode. So I feel like I’ve, as a business owner and a creative, have learned more over the last few years of like creating in buffer time. Like I used to work on the weekends all the time, and I've really tried to stop doing that because I think it also helps my work to be able to have a break and not, yeah, think about these issues that I'm not just reporting on, but that I'm also living through with my community and with my family, which I feel like is a benefit to the podcast, but it's also like creating that personal space for myself to recover, rest and recover and retreat. A little bit.
Torgerson: Yeah. Do you guys experience that in your own work ever? Like, that boundary of taking care of yourself and doing a good job with your work?
Spieldenner: For sure, yeah.
Auld: Yes. I feel like there are times when I'm like, “I wish I just did a job where I like clocked in and clocked out.” When I start having that thought, I’m like, “Okay, I gotta take a break,” because I like, you know, it also is like, I wouldn't want to live any other way than have my work feel like really central to my identity and feel like it kind of drives me forward in so many ways. But sometimes it is like, “Oh, God, I just wish I actually cared a little less or I, you know, was up less in the middle of the night thinking about my work.
Spieldenner: Yeah, yeah. Agreed. Agreed.
Auld: Which is like, I feel like that's… Megan, one of the things that I loved about our first conversation, I was like, “Will you Zoom with me?” and then was kind of like, “It's really like hard to be a creative person and be making things that feel really special and important, and balancing that with, like, making money and all of that.” And I just feel like you do that very gracefully. And you are always thinking creatively about how to make that happen, which is inspiring to me personally.
Torgerson: Yeah. Aaron, you had a question about were there ever times where I was unsure about continuing Reframing Rural, and I feel like there have been moments with like, the fundraising piece sometimes where I'm like, “Oof this is like a heavy lift.” Like, it's really hard to fundraise for your paycheck all the time.
I feel like I've gotten over that hump and like created some really solid-feeling partnerships in the funding and support realm that I feel better about that now. But I feel like, yeah, earlier on in the podcast while it was still kind of getting its legs. I felt that way. For sure. And I was also freelancing more at that time to have other streams of income, like supporting my media projects. But yeah, it's a part of the podcast and creative world that I don't think a lot of people know about, is like the time that it takes to fundraise for these kinds of projects, too. It's a big part of my job.
Spieldenner: Yeah, I absolutely believe that.
Auld: Yeah. Can you talk a bit, a little bit, Megan, about, like, how you have found folks who want to support the show?
Torgerson: Yeah, sure. Well, I guess I worked as a freelance grant writer before I kind of started Reframing Rural and started working on it more full time. So I kind of use some of those skills. And that’s how I've received funding from like Humanities Washington and Humanities Montana. But a lot of the other funding partners like Headwaters Foundation and Arthur Blank Family Foundation, and then sponsors who we’ve brought on this season, like Montana Farmers Union and World Wildlife Fund purchased an ad, like a lot of that has been through networking and through relationship building.
And all of that takes a lot of time. And sometimes people ask me, like, “How do you start a podcast?” And they ask about, like, getting funding for like a first episode. And like, I had a whole first season really before I was fundraising. And luckily, like, I was creating those episodes while I was a grad student. But then, yeah, just having like a proof of concept.
And then I think it also helps that I'm from these communities and care about like World Wildlife Fund’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative, for instance, from both the perspective of a media producer and someone who grew up on a farm and ranch and who stands to inherit like some of the farm and ranch.
And so, yeah, I think it helps to have skin in the game in a couple of different ways. And then to be really strategic, just about like, how you approach funders to make it kind of a reciprocal relationship too, not just like, just taking it and running away, but yeah.
Spieldenner: Yeah, I totally see that. That seems like probably the most stressful part of the job too is, you know, maintaining those relationships. It's hard to create a relationship where, you know, obviously these are like peers and they're people that you like, probably admire and they clearly admire what you're doing But to know that there's some dependence on their continued interest in your work is, you know, that's always going to be kind of tough too, tough to grapple with. But in reality, that is just basic commerce, you know?
Spieldenner: In a way, it's the same thing as somebody who comes back to the same store because the person who makes sure that they have the thing that they know that their customers are going to want. They have some rapport with them. And, you know, this is kind of a different market and different scale of that. But in a way, it's like, yeah, everything is built on relationships.
Torgerson: Yeah, definitely. And I feel like I've learned, like through the years, like what kind of partners want like to use Reframing Rural as like a marketing opportunity, and they're really interested in the metrics, and they're not really thinking about the work that I'm doing, also going into these rural communities that isn't part of the end product of a podcast episode.
And then other people are seeing the opportunity to like collaborate as part of shifting the narrative and contributing to this landscape of supporting rural and agricultural communities. And so, yeah, it's interesting to kind of like learn that as I've collaborated with funders.
Yeah, well we have just a couple of minutes left. I guess we maybe want to talk about what's coming up next. So this is the last episode of season three, “Groundwork.” And then Mary and two wonderful people who I'm working on a short documentary film with. Zack Altman and Anthony Pavkovich and Mary and I are going to go to Twin Bridges, Montana, over a weekend this fall, and yeah, we're going to just brainstorm different ideas for the podcast. And before that, I'm also going to be sending out a listener survey, which I'll be sure to share when I'm publishing this episode, where you're welcome to submit any feedback about different topics you might like to hear, different episodes that really resonated with you throughout the season. And then we're going to take all of those ideas and have a bunch of sticky notes and drink a bunch of coffee, and come up with a plan for the future.
Auld: It's gonna be so fun.
Auld: Aaron, we’ll listen to your music while we're doing it.
Spieldenner: Yeah, that's what I was gonna say is we got to make like a playlist or something, involve in music that we made, and yeah, have that looping in the background to inspire you.
Torgerson: Yeah, Aaron, I'd love to ask you how to get all the songs onto an album and publish it through Apple Music and those channels. I'm sure it's not too different.
Spieldenner: That’d be so cool! Yeah, that’d be really cool. Yeah, or make it like, kind of exclusive for I don't know, for like donations or something like that. It can be something you can offer your listeners or it's Yeah, I don't know.
Spieldenner: We can brainstorm that as well.
Torgerson: Yeah, Patreon.
Auld: I love that.
Torgerson: Awesome. Well, thank you guys so much for all of your contributions. I haven't always worked this closely with collaborators. This is the first season I worked with a story editor. This is the first season I've worked this closely with audio engineers at Hazy Bay Music and I feel like I don't want to do it any other way. It was lonely before and I feel really supported and like you're elevating the podcast and the stories that I'm telling and doing rural people stories justice.
So thank you for all that you do for Reframing Rural.
Spieldenner: Oh, it's always a pleasure.
Auld: Yes. It's so much fun. I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you Aaron and Mary for joining me for this fun conversation. Visit reframingrural.org for links to Mary Auld and Aaron Spieldenner’s websites, and to view a transcript of this conversation.
I produced and co-edited today’s episode. Music and audio editing was done by Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer at Hazy Bay Music, with additional editing by Elle Castelli.
Season Three Groundwork is funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Montana Farmers Union and listeners like you.
To fill out our Season 3 listener survey, access resources referenced throughout the podcast and to make a donation to Reframing Rural, visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Department of Public Transformation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC.
Thank you for listening!