In its first season, the podcast “Last Day,” produced by the Minneapolis-based network Lemonada Media, took a clear-eyed look at the opioid crisis in America. The podcast’s focus was preordained; the network’s founders, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, had both lost brothers to overdose, and they were determined to produce a show that could help listeners sort through the painful web created by opioid addiction and the rising rates of death by overdose in the United States.
Kramer and Wachs met after their brothers’ deaths.
Kramer, daughter-in-law of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer, is executive producer of the news, culture and social-justice podcast “Pod Save the People.” Her brother, Stefano Cordova, died of a heroin overdose in October 2017.
Kramer was listening to an episode of the American Public Media podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” when she heard Wachs, author of the best-selling memoir, “Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss,” and her mother Maureen Wittels talk about the 2015 overdose death of their beloved brother and son, comedian Harris Wittels.
“I saw there was an episode about heroin overdose,” Kramer said. “I saved it for my birthday. I was in a dark place.” Kramer’s birthday is in late February, so she took a long walk in the Minnesota cold and listened to the podcast. She felt an immediate connection to Wachs.
“The way Stephanie and her mom talked about Harris and how they were impacted by his death,” Kramer said, “it became this moment..”
A few days later, Kramer sent Wachs an email asking if she’d be a guest on “Pod Save the People.” Their conversations ultimately led to the creation of Lemonada, a podcast network dedicated to, as Kramer explained, creating shows that make lemonade out of life’s lemons.
“We want to provide space for people to tell their stories and we want to provide positive solutions,” she said. “We want our shows to shed light on what is working.”
‘We wanted to talk about all the hard things in life’
Kramer said that she knew from the start that she and Wachs were destined to work together.
“After talking for 90 minutes, we realized we had all these connections,” she said. “Our brothers were so similar. At the end of the first conversation, I slipped in, ‘Would you ever consider doing a podcast with me on the opioid crisis?’”
The first season of “Last Day,” which premiered in September 2019, was just that. With their brothers’ deaths serving as an inspiration and a launching pad, the two women created an artfully produced “This American Life”-style show of 26 episodes. Wachs, with her background in theater and successful career as a voice actor, serves as “Last Day’s” host.
The desire to talk about the tough stuff is at the core of all Lemonada podcasts, Kramer said: “We decided, ‘Let’s make a network that’s all about making the hard a little easier.’”
One way to do that is to weave in personal stories. Because Kramer and Wachs hoped that telling their brothers’ stories might save lives, they made them the focus of “Last Day’s” first episodes, interviewing Harris’ comedy mentors Sara Silverman and Aziz Ansari and going to Boston to retrace the last day of Stefano’s life.
Those shows were “really painful to create,” Kramer acknowledged, but she said that she and Wachs needed to take this step to move closer to finding catharsis. The belief that many of their listeners may have also experienced similar losses propelled them through the roughest patches.
“We were on a quest to figuring out: ’Could we have done anything to save our brothers?’” Kramer said, “and in the course of figuring it out we hope to shed light on the same questions for others.”
While it would’ve been easier to point a finger at one person or institution clearly responsible for Harris and Stefano’s deaths, Kramer said that she and Wachs discovered that there actually is no clear single target on which to focus their grief and anger. While difficult to accept, that reality infuses the show with a sense of realism and compassion.
“If you think about mental health and addiction, there is really not a clear villain,” Kramer said. Avoiding the more obvious, “blame Purdue Pharma” narrative, they come to the conclusion that this crisis is now so embedded in American culture that it is impossible to find a clear target. “We wanted the podcast to be,” she continued, “almost like ‘The Wire,’ where nobody is a villain. Everyone is trying their best.”
In the end, “Last Day,” turned out to be, Kramer said, “more of a systems show. We set out to make a show that was ‘Teen Mom’-meets-‘The Wire.’” Kramer’s “Teen Mom” reference is key — research has shown that real-life stories of young motherhood actually played a big role in reducing teen pregnancy in the United States. (“When girls saw what life would be like with a baby they took different precautions,” Kramer said.) They hope that their podcast will have a similar impact on listeners.
“We wanted to create a piece of art that actually reduced opioid overdoses but didn’t shame people with addiction,” Kramer said.
The focus of “Last Day’s” second season, which launched in October, is suicide, another national crisis that affects families and individuals across all segments of society. While their personal connections to the opioid crisis made the first season a “quest,” Kramer said the second season still feels intimate. It features in-depth interviews with people whose lives have been changed by suicide, and with activists dedicated to reducing the number of suicide deaths in this country.
The second season is sponsored by the JED Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting emotional health and preventing suicide. The first episode features two men named Kevin, Sgt. Kevin Briggs, a police officer charged with preventing suicides on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and Kevin Berthia, a man who survived multiple suicide attempts, including one on the bridge that Briggs halted. It features conversations about the language that’s often used in media reports about suicide and discussions about suicide contagion in communities.
A later episode about seniors and suicide provides tips for recognizing risk factors in older adults and is particularly helpful around the holidays.
Like the podcast’s first season, it emphasizes the importance of open communication about often taboo subjects. After periods of deep grief and isolation, both Kramer and Wachs decided that talking openly about their brothers’ traumatic deaths was the best way for them to heal — and to help others in the process.
“You’ve got to get it out,” Kramer said. “If you don’t, it just becomes this earworm of trauma. You have to speak it out. That’s what we’re trying to do with this show.”
On a mission
Open communication hasn’t always come naturally to Kramer, who said she usually keeps her emotions private.
But after the trauma of her brother’s death, she learned that she had to begin to open up: “I didn’t see another way through.”
Kramer said she hopes that “Last Day” will provide listeners with examples of treatment options that might save lives. Stefano and Harris both tried treatment programs but ultimately succumbed to their illnesses; episodes of the show focus on how traditional addiction treatment doesn’t work for everyone and how medication-assisted treatment with drugs like buprenorphine and methadone can help people live normal, healthy lives.
“We did not know that they could live free lives on suboxone or methadone,” Kramer said of her and Wach’s brothers. “We did not know that 30 days in the most exclusive rehab centers just weren’t going to do it for them.”
While she could have buried her brother’s death deep in her heart and gone on with her life, Kramer said she is glad that she instead chose the path of activism.
“I feel like there are a lot of pathways a person can take when something horrific happens. You can fall apart and hide it inside or you choose something important and focus on that. I chose the second path. I kept working while grieving beyond anything I’ve ever felt.”
The network’s other shows also focus on finding solutions to difficult problems. They include “In the Bubble With Andy Slavitt,” an in-depth look at the global pandemic with information and hope for a path forward; “Good Kids,” a weekly parenting podcast about how to help children create a better world; and “Our America With Julian Castro,” a discussion about how issues like poverty, race, gender and immigration status shape life in the United States.
Another Lemonada show, “In Recovery,” is, Kramer said, is “an old-school chat show with a very progressive, nonjudgmental, brilliant woman as host.” The show’s host, Nzinga Harrison, a physician certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine, provides callers with clear-eyed answers about addiction and recovery.
“In Recovery” was designed to be a natural companion to “Last Day.” Kramer and Wachs didn’t want to leave listeners hanging after their first season was finished. Offering an opportunity for people to call in and get their questions answered by an expert seemed to be the next best step.
“Creating ‘In Recovery’ felt like a moral imperative,” Kramer said.Though his life was cut short by addiction, she wants Stefano’s legacy to expand the discussion about opioid addiction, highlighting solutions and saving lives.
“I didn’t want his death to be for nothing,” Kramer said. “Creating this show was one way to make that happen.”