Isolated at home, Petalumans connect via podcast project
“We are the zombies,” a voice wryly observes. “And we walk around downtown with our masks on.”
It is one of many Petaluma voices heard on “Sheltering in Petaluma,” an online voice-memo project that captures and shares testimonials on how locals are coping with Covid. “We feel like there is something inappropriate in our behavior,” the man continues, “as if we were infected even though we’re not. But then we see the smiling eyes of people like us …”
“Sheltering in Petaluma” captures and celebrates such moments, providing a platform for hope, humor and even gratitude in the midst of a dire and widespread crisis. The brainchild of Andy Sewell, with sponsoring by the Petaluma Arts Center, the podcast provides yet another way for Petalumans to come together, be creative in isolation, and support each other throughout the community.
A veteran sound professional, Sewell is nearing the end of a two-month production period in which he has completed six of a planned eight episodes and posted them at shelteringinpetaluma.org. Each 7 to 10-minute episode gathers submitted voice memos under a different theme. Episode Two, for example, is called “Outside.” In addition to the “zombies,” we hear from two boys, ardent skateboarders.
“We’re not as worried about getting it as about sharing it,” one boy says.
In Episode Three, “Alone,” a woman declares, “I would rather isolate in Petaluma than roam about anywhere else.” She values how much time she and her dog now have for writing.
“Although the dog is having writer’s block,” she adds.
Sewell created the project to amplify the experiences of Petalumans during the pandemic, both to allow members of the community to share their thoughts and feelings, and to archive for posterity what it was like to live through these times.
Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sewell studied philosophy, religion and German at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska. After graduation, he worked in the radio industry, eventually settling in Chicago. There, he began doing audio design for the city’s large network of theater companies.
He worked in Chicago’s theater scene for about five years. He also found time to get a master’s degree in library science, specializing in the digitization of cultural objects.
“I wanted to learn how to capture the events of our times,” Sewell says.
Radio has fascinated Sewell since early childhood.
“My older sister was in radio, and I got to hang out with her,” he points out.
In fact, he had his first experience reading the news on the radio at age 4.
Eventually, Sewell and a friend moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a paralegal.
“It was boring, but I was good at it,” he recalled. Until last year, Sewell continued to supplement his income with work in legal services. After three years in San Francisco, he moved to Petaluma. He launched his own business, audio ephemera, which produces audio content such as podcasts, commercials and voice-overs.
Sewell produces a weekly show for KPCA, “The Petalumans,” broadcast on Mondays, noon to 1 p.m. The show features conversations with local people who enrich the community in some way. He will soon move into his own studio on Second Street, where he is building a small recording studio.
Sewell first became acquainted with the Petaluma Arts Center when the center was doing a project on Petaluma’s role in the suffrage movement. Last March, local photographer Jude Mooney contacted him and other local artists to see if they had any ideas for projects for the center.
“I knew so-called normal life was changing profoundly,” Sewell said. “I wanted to capture how people were doing in the face of such change and to create a place for people to share their experiences. We discussed how to structure such a project.”
The agreed-upon goal was to create a mechanism for people to express themselves, stressing the positive while acknowledging the negative. At first Sewell tried taping interviews in person, but he soon concluded that this was impractical.
“You can’t just go knock on doors,” he says.
Then he realized that the voice app, a common feature of cell phones, was the solution.
“It gets us back in a way to old-time radio,” he allows.
The project website gives visitors simple instructions on how to create and submit their voice memo.
Sewell does all the production of the episodes. He gathers the voicemails and edits the material.
He writes and narrates the introductions. With a radio voice that sounds like a male version of Terry Gross on NPR, Sewell gives the episodes a professional polish that is enhanced by his collaborators.
For the past year, Sewell has worked out of Keller Street CoWork in Petaluma. As a shared workspace, it has been a home base for freelancers, commuters and young businesses. It was at Keller that he connected with Heather Mackin, who designed and built the “Sheltering in Petaluma” website. A multi-disciplinary design professional, Mackin has experience in both the furniture and design industries.
He also met Danielle Stroble, director of Keller Street CoWork.
“She helped me on the site,” he said. “Danielle specializes in helping people launch projects.”
Every Wednesday, Stroble conducts a conference call for the creative people at Keller.
The donated music for the credits that accompany each episode was composed by Dave Sampson, a freelance guitarist, producer, multi-instrumentalist and music instructor. The photos were taken by Petaluma photographer Michael B. Woolsey.
“I love to work with local artists,” Sewell says.
To promote the project, Sewell orchestrated a grassroots email campaign. The flow of submissions has slowed a little recently. Slated to end by July, the project may be extended a month. To conclude it, Sewell will archive all the submissions.
“Once the virus subsides,” Sewell says, “I will focus on building my business.”
That said, he plans to leave room for more community art projects that employ audio as a valuable storytelling medium.
“I see each episode as a love letter to Petaluma,” says Sewell. “I commend the Petaluma Arts Center for stretching the boundaries of their mission and trying to find more modes for making art and communicating with the public.”