Mitra Kaboli smiles in a black and white image

The Feministing Five: Mitra Kaboli

The Heart is a podcast that’s equal parts deliciously sexy, beautifully tender, and downright devastating.

An intimate exploration of what people experience when they fall in love and have sex, The Heart tells real stories of real people breaking up, fucking up, stashing weed in their vaginas, jerking off in bathrooms, writing love letters, overcoming shame, getting naked, and more. It is a show described by a friend of mine as “best enjoyed alone in bed”. Strikingly poignant, The Heart is notable for a few reasons, including its original use of experimental audio to enhance storytelling, and for its decidedly radical feminist leanings. The show often explores queer issues, the experiences of trans people, and stories of women navigating identity and sexuality. The result is an audio experience that is as beautiful as it is thought-provoking.

This week, I caught up with Mitra Kaboli, Senior Producer of The Heart, for The Feministing Five. She works closely with Host and Creative Director Kaitlin Prest on all aspects of creating the show. Mitra is a self-described breakfast enthusiast, media producer, audio engineer and consultant. Her work has been featured on Snap Judgement, Latino USA and ESPN’s Dunkumentaries. In addition to The Heart, she makes podcasts for magazines like Bon Appetit.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Mitra about her work on The Heart, how writing can come alive when paired with sound and music, the messages she’d like to give listeners about sexuality, and more! You can catch her on Twitter @mitrasaurus.

Senti Sojwal: The Heart is such a feminist podcast. You share real stories of women young and old, queer people, people of color, and explore feminist themes in sexuality, bodily autonomy, non-traditional relationships, and of course, pleasure. How do you feel you’ve been able to propel your own feminist agenda with your work on The Heart?

Mitra Kaboli: I think Kaitlin and I are both in a super lucky position. The Heart is our show, we can do what we want. That’s really special. We have all the autonomy that we want, and we are accountable to our fans and listeners but there’s nobody telling us at any point what we can and cannot talk about. We’ve been wanting to broach consent for a really long time but haven’t found the right way to talk about it yet. For a long time I didn’t want to complicate consent, but when you actually think about the ways people are socialized it is very complicated. Clearly for men it is complicated. No one ever taught them how to read someone’s body cues or to like, listen. We’ve been talking about doing something consent-related for almost two years. Right now we have something slated for early 2017. That’s really exciting. There are things that are issues like consent and sexual assault and then there are things that are more personal, and both are really valuable. I think talking about pleasure is radical. It’s happy, it’s nice, people like it — we can agree that it’s great. I’m so glad that we can put something that’s focused on that out into the world.

Senti Sojwal: So I know you come from a creative writing background. You said in an interview, “When I started adapting my writing for radio, I had a revelation—I’m not a very good writer if the work is to only be consumed on paper. My work really came alive when I introduced sound and music, or even if I just read my work out loud.” Can you talk a little more about that, and how the experimental and creative ways The Heart uses sound has impacted your storytelling?

Mitra Kaboli: I still feel that way about my writing. You know, I think when you go to a reading event like a book or poetry reading, depending on who the reader is and what the work is, it can kind of be a little snoozy. I sometimes avoid readings because I have a very short attention span. When something is intended to be listened to, from the very beginning, you have to actually think about how this is going to sound. Just writing something and reading it is not enough. Oftentimes we’ll write stuff down but by the time it gets to recording, it’s a whole new beast. Something Kaitlin and I do a lot when we’re recording is getting the interviewee to not look at the page, just tell the story. Sometimes I can guide someone through it, and ask, okay, and then what happened? I want the story that way, instead of them just reading it. Sometimes on a few special occasions, I can hear something before I’ve actually made it, and have this certain vision going forward. I know what I want it to be, or at least I think I do, and that’s always very nice. We want to create a whole new dimension to listening to a story.

Senti Sojwal: I want to talk to you about Silent Evidence, your most recent series that recounts Tennessee Watson’s story of childhood sexual abuse. Listeners were really allowed to get so deep into this story as it was four episodes long, and understand the story from the time when it happened to how she dealt with the trauma to the eventual court proceedings. It must have been a difficult and really thoughtful undertaking. What were your hopes for what it would mean to share this story on your platform?

Mitra Kaboli: The project was really mostly Kaitlin and Tennessee. I was editing and advising it, but I wasn’t too heavily involved. I can say broadly what we were trying to achieve, but I can’t get into too much detail because I was only peripherally involved in the very beginning and the very end. I know that for Kaitlin and for Tennessee the overall thought was to tell a story about sexual assault, sexual abuse, that is not what you normally hear. A story that shows the emotional face of it, and the emotional side of the issue. That journey first to all the other things — the court procedure, etc. I think the idea was sharing that it’s okay if this happened to you and you never said anything, it’s okay if you did say something. So many people have gone through this exact experience in many different ways. We got an outpour of response from listeners saying that this happened to them. It’s such a common experience. There’s a silent community of people who share these experiences and who move through the world everyday and you may or may not know that they’re around you. We want people to know that there is support and there are resources and they can use them if they choose to but they ultimately have the agency to do whatever they want with their pain.

Senti Sojwal: What is the most challenging, and what is the most rewarding, part of the work you do?

Mitra Kaboli: I think the most challenging is not having a lot of resources, just logistically. We spend a lot of time working on this and we don’t make a lot of money doing it. Kaitlin and I both have other jobs. This is not our primary source of income. The other challenge is trying to do the thing right. Wanting to do justice to the issues at hand, and to be fair and to be balanced. Even though we’re not capital-J journalists, when you’re talking about stories that are intimate and involving other people, you owe it to them. In the Ghost series for example, I did a story about an ex of mine. I didn’t name this person or anything, but you still have to handle things with respect and tact and feelings can get hurt and those are real. We’ve grown a lot over the past two years and suddenly have a lot of people listening to our show. It’s a burden to carry because what if we fuck up? What there’s another side to something that we talked about that we didn’t get to, or didn’t realize? We have blind spots too, of course. Back to resources, there’s so many stories we want to tell but we don’t have the time or access or things like that. We want to do things right, so that’s a challenging. But when we do do things right, it’s so rewarding to have people reach out to us and tell us how much they liked it. How much they relate, or even if they don’t, maybe they just never thought about something like that before. It’s so rewarding when you get an email from someone who’s never had access to queerness or something, and all of a sudden they feel like they have a new perspective that they otherwise didn’t have. They can now move through the world understanding things just a little bit more! That feels really good.

Senti Sojwal: I think The Heart is so important because you are seeking to normalize the various sexual experiences people have, and you tell the stories of people who aren’t often reflected in popular culture. I think it’s really important for people who aren’t familiar with the queer community, who understand sexuality in very traditional ways, who haven’t been exposed to sex positivity to hear these stories in particular. Are you able to get a sense of whether or not you are having that kind of reach, and how do you work to get these stories out to listeners for whom much of this is new information?

Mitra Kaboli: I feel like for a while maybe our audience was niche. Over the past two years, it’s expanded to much more normative identifying people. It’s interesting how that’s changed so much. Sometimes when we call for pitches or stories, it seems like it’s actually pretty rare that those stories are queer stories. It’s always from straight people. It blows my mind! I’ve been trying to figure it out. Is it because our show is more “normal” now? I’m not sure, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Is it the typical thing of how there are just those people who are are always willing to throw in their two cents? I think as we get more popular, more people find the show. All different kinds of people. The issues we’ve been talking about for the past four, five years and during our transition from Audio Smut to The Heart, I think some of these things aren’t even questions anymore. The media landscape and social consciousness has kind of shifted to where the things we used to talk about that were more on the cutting edge of the time, aren’t anymore. Back when we were Audio Smut, there were many episodes featuring trans people, and Kaitlin had this experience of running into a friend of friend who came face to face with their own transphobia by listening to our podcast, and had a realization about how fucked up they had been. And of course, there are still tons of people who are transphobic, but it’s more and more accepted. People are talking about trans issues and people, and they know that they exist. They can recognize that these are just human beings who want to live their lives. We also did an episode about HIV stigma. Now there are so many conversations happening on a mainstream level about that. I don’t think that episode is irrelevant, but it is dated.

Photo courtesy of Mitra Kaboli. 



Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She is currently pursuing her MPH at NYU's College of Global Public Health and works as Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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