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Tell Them I Am from Higher Ground and Spotify is in the middle of its second season of stories of small defining moments in the lives of various Muslim people. We talked to host Misha Euceph about finding those moments.
You can read a longer profile of Misha here.
She says, “I was planning to go to law school, but wasn’t happy with that path. And in talking to the people around me, everyone mentioned how audio/radio made me light up. So I decided to pursue audio.”
From there she maxed out her credit cards and made her own show Beginner, which got a lot of attention. She got hired as a producer by a radio station, then founded her own company Dustlight Productions made the first season of Tell Them I Am, and even got to help produce the Michelle Obama podcast. I’ve been listening to the second season of Tell Them I Am, and each episode begins with an inspirational message from Misha that dovetails nicely with small moments from her guest’s story that follows.
PBJ: You’re such a joyful person and your show is filled with moments of joy. How do you find them?
Misha Euceph: I think the guest has to find it. It’s really important for us to create space for them to be honest, and vulnerable and not everyone is willing to go there. So one of the things that we do to be respectful of the guest and their time is we schedule a pretty extensive pre-interview and that tells us whether or not that person is willing to make that kind of commitment to have a deep honest reflective conversation with us. The interview usually starts with asking them if they have a story they’ve been wanting to tell and I’m really lucky to have a team that understands the vision of the show. Sure it’s about joy in my life and my ability to have that lens, but it’s also about the team’s ability to get the guest in that place for the eventual interview, and by the time I talk to them we kind of know what we’re going to talk about and then it’s just a matter of being really present in the moment. The more present I am, the easier it is to share a moment of connection with a guest that can lead to a lot of joy.
PBJ: How do you craft and formulate that vision for your team to follow?
Misha Euceph: We had a brainstorming session at the beginning of the season, and we talked about how we expand on the mission from last season. We were very clear last season that it was about the small defining moments in the guests of our lives and not a show about the Muslim experience. We don’t want to pigeonhole our guests, instead, we want to push them and challenge them to ask questions of themselves and dig into stories that they’ve never even told before.
The thing we wanted to do was to push further this season building off of stories likein episode four of season one where Najma Sharif talks about meeting boys at the mosque during Ramadan. We wanted to know how do we go from young Tell Them I Am to grown-up Tell Them I Am. We knew we wanted to explore people’s relationship with Islam, and their exploration of spirituality itself but we never wanted to lose sight of the small moments and make room for the complex and nuanced wrestling that people have with spirituality.
When people started veering into a spiritual direction I actually pushed and prodded and asked more and I think the result of that was what you hear this season where you hear praying at dawn every morning as part of a routine or doing Dhikr/Zikr in nature while tripping on shrooms.
PBJ: Your opening narrative shapes each episode. Did you write those in advance or tailor them to the guests?
Misha Euceph: I write them after the episode has been completed. There are a few stories I really wanted to tell this season and we were waiting to see if any of the guest stories worked in conjunction with that, and some of them fit really beautifully
PBJ: You went to school for journalism. How did you realize there was another path forward other than newspaper or magazine writing?
Misha Euceph: When I graduated college, I already decided that I wanted to pursue a career in radio. And because I come from an immigrant, Pakistani family there was no concept of pursuing radio without a degree so I applied to journalism school because it seemed like the most viable way to do it. Many of my radio heroes pre-Serial were journalists and there wasn’t a clear idea of how someone starts producing narrative documentary podcasts. The school I went to didn’t teach a ton of audio courses and so I was one of the people, along with professor Bill Healy, who pushed for more audio journalism classes at Northwestern for other people to also get that instruction
PBJ: What advice would you give for someone starting out now with the vision to make podcasts? Would you tell them to max out their credit cards as you did?
Misha Euceph: If they can afford to take the risk. I knew that I could take that risk because I had parents who had taken similar risks and had come out okay and I felt like, you know, worst-case scenario, I would just go back and look for a job, and everything would be okay. I think that if somebody is teetering on the edge questioning whether they should take the risk or not, I would always advise them to take it because the worst thing that happens is you fail and you learn and you grow.