unfiltered and on air

Houstonian launches her podcast network to talk about the tough stuff

Lemonada, founded by Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer, wants to air content that takes an unfiltered approach to life. Pexels

Even before Stephanie Wittels Wachs' Lemonada Media launched its first podcast on September 25, the network got a shout-out from none other than the New York Times, which listed its "Last Day" offering as one of seven new podcasts to listen to this fall.

The media company, which Wachs built with award-winning podcaster Jessica Cordova Kramer, takes aim at the human experience in all its messiness: addictions, the troubles of raising decent children, how we develop empathy. Its three shows will be distributed by The team has partnered with Westwood One on distribution, and upcoming guests include such star power as Jamie Lee Curtis, comedians Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, and Aziz Ansari, author Reza Aslan, actress Mara Wilson, activist DeRay McKesson, songwriter Justin Tranter and filmmaker Kulap Vilaysack.

None of it, however, is what Wachs set out to do in her life. But she knows it's exactly where life led her.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything."

A part of that everything is her brother Harris Wittels, a creative force in his own right, known for his works on Parks and Rec, who died of a drug overdose (Wachs used her reaction to that to write Everything is Horrible and Wonderful, which not only chronicles Harris' addiction, but also how she processed her grief). He was a podcaster as well, and Wachs says this venture helps continue that legacy.

"But it's also about activism," she says. "About opioids and every other epidemic we're going through that feels so unsolvable. And that's how I roll."

Since her brother's death, Wachs has looked for ways not only to process the grief and anger she felt, but also found herself more and more drawn to finding ways to educate people and advocate for better understanding of addiction and ways to treat it. When her two young children were diagnosed with hearing disorders, she found herself advocating for having hearing aids covered by health care. So, while she may not have wanted to step into an activist role, once she found herself there, she threw herself into it with her characteristic energy and intelligence and not a little humor.

"Our goal is to make shows that help people get out of bed in the morning, that help people deal with the hardest shit in their lives," says Kramer in a press release announcing the podcast launch.

Kramer and Wachs met in 2017. Kramer had heard Wachs on another podcast, and as the two continued talking, they realized they were developing a shared mission. Lemonada takes its name from the idea of taking life's lemons and making them into lemonade – incorporating the bitter and the sweet.

To make the transition from writer and artist to media maven, Wachs drew on her already established strengths of community building and a desire to create high-quality content.

"We really wanted to bring a community flavor into the mix," she says. "And, as a women-run company, it was huge for us to have women's voices."

Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer launched Lemonada this fall. Photo via lemonadamedia.com

The result is a podcast network that brings to bear what Wachs calls incredible talent. The starting lineup includes "Last Day," which launched Sept. 25. Wachs confronts massive epidemics with humanity, wit, and a quest for progress. Starting with the opioid crisis, the show zooms in on a person's last day of life, exploring how they got there and how we, as a society, have gotten here.

Debuting on October 24, "As Me with Sinéad" explores the concept of empathy and how listening brings us closer. Academic, TED alum, and advocate Sinéad Burke leads candid conversations with diverse, notable guests who explain what it's like to be them. They challenge us to confront our biases, deepen our humanity, and feel empowered to impact and change the world around us.

And later in the year, with a debut date of November 26, comes "Good Kids: How Not to Raise an A**hole." For 15 minutes each week, a diverse set of parents, teachers, policy makers, and world shapers grab the mic and offer relevant advice, rants, and reflections. "Think of this as a quasi-manual for how to raise better humans," read the show's description in the press release.

"It feels almost non-profit in flavor," Wachs says of the endeavor. "I mean, we are a for-profit company, but it's mission driven, and that was important to both of us."

That mission, it seems, has also taken over the Wachs household. Over the summer, Wach's husband, Mike Wachs quit his job to work full-time with Lemonada, and Kramer's husband works in Lemonada's leadership, as well. That sense of family is galvanizing to Wachs, who loves that the new venture gives her time and space to watch her children grow. She's also crazy about how technology – everything from audio editing programs to conference calling to texting and FaceTime – has made Lemonada possible. Kramer took a safari as she and Wachs were planning the launch.

"I love that!" says Wachs. "We put everything on Slack and even though she was halfway around the world, it was like she was in my house."

The partnership with Westwood One gave Wachs her own tiny studio at 104 KRBE.

"It's really, truly miraculous," she says of the way the business was built. "And I know we all bring all these great gifts to the table. Mine is that I am able to talk all day," she quips."

Both she and Kramer are baking on the idea that there are a lot of people out there who feel like they do, that it's easier to survive life's challenges when you know you're not alone, who are ready to tune in and listen.

Houston's Nobel Prize winner, Jim Allison, is the star of Breakthrough, which premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App. Photo via SXSW.com

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.