Last spring, Brookyn-based podcasting company Gimlet Creative (the marketing arm of Gimlet Media) announced Casting Call, new show featuring Jonathan Goldstein, Canada's drollest radio host. Goldstein—probably best known in this country for his work on This American Life as well as his previous Gimlet Media show Heavyweight—acts as a sort of neurotic Ryan Seacrest as the host of Casting Call, an American Idol for the podcasting set. The show, like Idol, is a contest judged by the audience as well as panel of three experts, and the prize is a produced and distributed by Gimlet. Over 5,000 aspiring podcasters submitted pitches, and the top three were selected to make a pilot with Gimlet producers. One of those three was Debra Jarvis, a Seattle-based author, minister, and hospice worker who pitched a show about everyone's favorite subject: death.
Jarvis, who also worked at Seattle Cancer Care as a chaplain, has plenty of experience dealing with death, and she told me that from the very beginning of her career, she was struck by how little people talk about the inevitable—even when death is just weeks or days away. While this has changed somewhat over the years—hospice is more popular now, as are death doulas, salons, and the like—the show she pitched, The Final Say, hopes to break open the conversation by airing frank interviews with people in the process of dying.
In Jarvis's pilot, which is on Casting Call this week (and is available on your podcast app), she speaks with Bob, a friend of hers from Seattle who was in the final weeks of his life. Ninety-one years old and weak from leukemia, Jarvis and Bob do speak honestly and openly about what he expects will happen after he dies (Bob is a Christian, but his answer might surprise you). They, also, however, talk about life. There's a particularly touching moment where Bob, recalling his son's coming out, starts crying—not of sorrow, but of joy. You'd be forgiven for tearing up yourself.
Even for Jarvis, someone totally comfortable talking about death, the idea of her own end of life is frightening. "It's a primal fear that everyone has," she told me. Still, while we may not be able to change the simple fact that life ends, but we can change how you deal with it. The first step, Jarvis told me, is figuring out what you believe. "We're not a hugely churchy bunch in the Pacific Northwest," she told me, "but when you haven't sorted out your own beliefs you can't be fully present in that conversation with others."
Jarvis also says it's important to read the room before you go charging into this particular conversation, especially with someone who is ill or dying themselves. "Some people want to go there with you," she says. "Some people don't. It doesn't do them any favors by forcing it down their throat. Everyone gets to do it the way they want to do it." But, she adds, "This conversation doesn't have to be hideous or depressing. It can be really fun and interesting and even inspiring."
If Jarvis wins the competition, her show could end up being a hit. Gimlet has produced several blockbuster podcasts, including Startup, a show that was eventually turned into an ABC Family series. But even if she doesn't win, she's going to find a way to keep putting her show out. And that, I think, is a good thing. Talking about death may be uncomfortable, but it's coming for all of us. We may as well get used to it.