In 2014, a podcast series called “Serial” made its debut, chronicling a gripping tale of a murder with details yet unexplained. “Serial” rapidly became one of the first audio smash hits since the golden days of radio. In the aftermath of its success, podcasts spanning every genre and topic spun into production, creating “the podcast boom.” Though podcasts were created as a medium over a decade ago, they only recently became an important part of the changing landscape of media.
In June, Street Sense debuted its own podcast, created by National Endowment for the Arts Media Production Specialist Adam Kampe. “Sounds from the Street” is a bi-monthly audio feature that offers a unique window into the lives of men and women in the District who have experienced homelessness. Each podcast episode begins the same, with the soulful voice of Aloe Blacc on the chorus of “I Need a Dollar (How to Make it in America)“:
“I need a dollar, dollar, dollar that’s what I need, and if I share with you my story, would you share your dollar with me?”
Music was always a passion for Kampe, so picking the right theme song for “Sounds from the Street” felt essential to him.
“Lyrically, the chorus knocked me upside the head,” Kampe said. “Ultimately, it’s exactly what Street Sense and the Media Center is all about: storytelling and story sharing . . . We share stories to foster understanding about a marginalized community and to help break down stereotypes and misconceptions about homelessness.”
Kampe began dabbling in audio production in 2003 when he first moved to Washington and participated in a workshop at local radio station WPFW. Realizing how much he enjoyed the craft, he decided to attend the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, to further develop his production chops. He returned to a program coordinator position at WPFW before beginning his job at the NEA in 2006.
Kampe began to conceptualize “Sounds from the Street” soon after his move to Washington. He was volunteering at Street Sense in his free time while he worked on projects at WPFW and searched for a more permanent job. According to Kampe, though he has volunteered in many capacities throughout his life, homelessness is the issue that he felt real passion for.
“This is an issue that’s solvable if everyone thought a bit more about it and didn’t act as if it’s not even there,” he said. “Everyone’s tendency is to ignore things they’re afraid of or that they’re saddened by.”
Street Sense vendor Eric Thompson-Bey as he is interviewed for the first episode of “Sounds from the Street.”
While volunteering, Kampe became convinced that the stories of Street Sense vendors would be well-expressed through the medium of sound. Over the next few years, he pitched the idea for a podcast to multiple executive directors of Street Sense, and the time was never ripe for the organization to take on a new project.
But Kampe never gave up on the idea, and with persistence, he eventually gained the support of current Street Sense Executive Director Brian Carome, who was looking to expand beyond the newspaper to other projects. Carome believes in the power of digital mediums to engage new audiences and educate the public about homelessness.
“When you’re listening to stories in the person’s own voice, I think it’s really powerful,” he said.
Voice was exactly what Kampe had in mind when designing the podcast. Most episodes have featured Street Sense vendors as they reflected on their experiences with homelessness. Vendor and filmmaker Cynthia Mewborn was the subject of a “Sounds from the Street” episode several months ago in which she discussed the challenges involved in recovering from the trauma that accompanies homelessness. Beyond her own experience as a podcast subject, Mewborn enjoys gaining insight into her fellow vendors through the window “Sounds from the Street” offers.
In an exerpt from “Sounds from the Street” Episode 5, Cynthia Mewborn discusses homelessness, PTSD and recovery.
“You can see the growth level of people through these podcasts,” Mewborn said. “Who wants to hear about people stagnant? That’s a victim mentality. We might have been victimized, but we’re not victims. We can take full responsibility for our lives.”
Kampe places great importance on the opportunity the podcast gives subjects to show this growth. He believes that oral storytelling can be an empowering experience for the Street Sense community.
“People lose their dignity when they discover that they no longer have a place to call home,” Kampe said, “And I think these stories, with people kind of letting their guard down, [help them] to regain a little bit of that lost dignity and self-respect. This audio allows them to be heard, even if it’s just by me.”
Their stories are being heard by more than just Kampe. Regular listener Hugh Scott weighed in on the value of the podcast.
“I like the narratives. I like the insight . . . when you hear people’s tone and you hear their voice, you can understand things you might not just in writing,” Scott said.
As Program and Management Analyst for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Scott considers Street Sense to be primary research for his work. His first interaction with Street Sense was in discussion with vendors, who helped to educate him on the realities of homelessness. From there, Scott became plugged in to the newspaper and, eventually, “Sounds from the Street.” According to Scott, the newspaper and podcast have different functionalities for Hill staffers like himself.
“I like the paper when I’m riding the metro, and I like the podcast in the office or at home,” he said.
While appreciative of the new medium the podcast provides for Street Sense, Scott is critical of the lack of awareness surrounding “Sounds from the Street.” Now that the podcast has become established, building a stronger audience is a priority for Kampe. In tandem, he hopes to broaden the subjects covered in “Sounds from the Street” to include District authorities on poverty and homelessness, such as Department of Human Services Laura Zeilinger, whom he has interviewed for an upcoming episode.
In this exerpt from an upcoming episode of “Sounds from the Street,” Street Sense vendor Ken Martin discusses his experiences selling hats in Union Station and the people he met on the job, including Paul Newman and Tom Brokaw.
Kampe also hopes to collaborate with other Street Sense Media Center ventures to grow the podcast with new creative endeavors. Recently, he collaborated with Street Sense’s Interactive Art Bus, providing audio clips from the podcast to be played in the vehicle. Among other projects, he hopes to collaborate with Sue Dorfman, who runs a photography workshop with Street Sense, to create a gallery that uses both picture and sound to greater combined effect. In the future, he also plans to extend the reach of the podcast as well through partnerships with local public radio and beyond.
Whatever new developments are in store for “Sounds from the Street,” Kampe is determined to keep his vision for the podcast intact. Enabling individuals to tell their stories will always be the core of his mission.
“At the heart of it, I want to humanize people that are left behind or forgotten,” he said, “Giving a voice to the voiceless is what this is all about.”