STL native finds compelling, under-reported narratives for popular podcast

Hannah Barg is a St. Louis native who is a producer for the ‘Israel Story’ podcast.

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

News stories about Israel often involve conflict—missile attacks, tension between secular and religious Jews—or tech startups and innovation incubators. While there is a definite thirst for information about Israel among U.S. Jews, there is only so much depressing news consumers can handle. Tech is great, but how exciting is the development of the USB port?

That’s where Israel Story comes in. The popular, growing podcast is about the people of Israel, and their unique characteristics. Hannah Barg, 27, is a St. Louis native and an Israel Story producer. The Solomon Schechter Day School alum is now doing what she loves—mainly, storytelling.

“I graduated four years ago from Mt. Holyoke College with a degree in anthropology but what I enjoyed most was working on oral history projects,” Barg said. “I took an oral history class, but it’s tough to get a job doing oral history. So I ended up taking a two-year Americorps internship position in Highland Park, Ill.

“When I finished that in 2016, I was at a crossroads and had to decide whether I wanted to continue in education or give myself a year to see how many skills I could develop in radio. Luckily I’m still doing that.”

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Barg started out her radio development project by volunteering with StoryCorp. She conducted interviews, but she also gained valuable experience editing and producing audio interviews.

“For eight months all I did was edit audio interviews, about 20 of them, taking them from 40 minutes down to three minutes,” she said. “I’ve gotten pretty good at editing just from doing a lot of it, and I learned how to edit in StoryCorps’ style—they have a very specific way of telling stories.”

 A natural born storyteller

She got the audio storytelling bug from that assignment, which led to her job at Israel Story, where Barg started as a production intern. She has handled a bit of everything that goes into creating a podcast, from production to manning sound tech equipment to updating social media. Eventually, she got to conduct interviews and produce her own stories. That has been the best part of the job for a natural storyteller.

“I love being able to enter new worlds and create awareness about people in different communities,” she said. “The biggest thing for me is to do storytelling and oral histories as a tool for empathy. I think about this a lot for Israel Story. If I can help the listener understand what it’s like to be a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, then we’ve done our job. That’s the power of radio and podcasts. They allow you to meet people that you never would in your everyday life.”

It helped a lot that Barg speaks near-flawless conversational Hebrew. That came in handy when she was setting up phone calls and conducting interviews. During her first assignment, Barg interviewed doctors and nurses at a hospital in Nahariyya, which treats many Syrian patients. She conducted interviews in Hebrew and English and worked with an Arab translator to communicate with the patients.

One quality of any good storyteller is compassion and warmth. That accurately describes Barg, according to her father Peter, a video producer.

“She attended a summer school program at Exeter Academy and learned photography and she developed a nice eye,” he said. “It came in handy when she did a series of portraits of the Holocaust docents at the Holocaust (museum) in St. Louis. They used her portraits in a show and all of these survivors came up to us and they said ‘You know, I wasn’t interested in doing anything like this until I met Hannah and we fell in love with her.’”

Stories like the Nahariyya hospital are Israel Story’s bread and butter. The podcast develops long-form narratives that delve deeply into the Israeli people. Full episodes can run for an hour or longer, but they are slickly produced with professional-grade audio technology. Music also plays an important role in the storytelling process. In fact, the most recently produced Israel Story podcast is all about music. It traces the history of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) one of the most recognizable Israeli tunes ever written.

Barg said she likes being able to tell offbeat stories and share them with Jews in the United States who are curious about Israel.

“The way Israel is represented in the media is either all about war and terrorism and occupation or how Israel is the home of high tech,” she said. “What we offer is insight into everyday interactions with the Israeli people and more stories about humanity.”

Uniting the world through podcasts

Israel Story produces about 10 new podcasts per year, with 37 available to download from the website’s archives. If you have ever wondered about the origin of hummus (and the pressing question of whether it originated in Lebanon or Israel), just navigate to Episode #30 where Israel Story “explores the real Middle Eastern battleground — food.”

The world of podcasts is vast. There are more than a half million of them to choose from. Attracting listeners is a challenge, but Israel Story currently gets about 30,000 downloads per episode. The majority of listeners are in North America and Israel. In the United States, New York and Los Angeles account for the majority of listeners, but the podcast has fans in 182 countries. The biggest base of non-English speaking listeners is in Germany.

It all started with an idea from Mishy Harman, Israel Story’s founder. After Harman graduated from Harvard University, he took a 13,000-mile road trip across the United States with his dog Nomi and listened to every podcast of “This American Life.” He decided he could do something like it in Israel, so he went back and with three of his best friends, created a Hebrew version. Eventually, they recognized it needed to be available in English as well as Hebrew.

The passion Barg brings to her role as a producer and storyteller are a perfect combination for Israel Story, Harman said.

“Hannah is a very conscientious and extremely talented storyteller,” Harman said. “Her managerial skills are really impressive and I learn from her all the time. She has this ability to make people want to open up to her and feel at ease with her.

“I’ve seen her in interviews with all kinds of people, very famous and rich people and people from the street, and she has this charm about her that enables people to feel like they want to tell her their story. She has an inner calm about her, which is also crucial to being a great storyteller and a good journalist.”

 Taking the show on the road

For the past few months, Barg has branched out beyond producing to become a showrunner of sorts for Israel Story’s North America “road show.” This is a typical marketing and awareness device for the competitive world of podcasts. Barg found she had the skills to work the logistical side of the business, booking talent, scheduling travel, location scouting. Those skills didn’t go unnoticed by her peers and Mishy Harman.

“Hannah has distinguished herself at Israel Story by being so organized and so methodical and systematic about her work, which especially in a small, growing organization likes ours is absolutely crucial,” Harman said. “It was really a no-brainer to put the whole tour manager role into Hannah’ sturdy hands. She is also looking into organization tours in Europe. Organizing these shows is no small feat, it’s a large responsibility to be in charge of shepherding a dozen people all over America.

In fact, it was during the road show tours that Barg learned from personal experience the show biz adage the show must go on.

“I found out when we’re on tour, everything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” she said. “We had a show scheduled in Toronto and weather forced all the flights to be cancelled. We ended up driving in a van for 16 hours from Norfolk, Virginia to Toronto. You could tell it was a labor of love because everybody said, ‘Yes, we’re going to do it!’

“We arrived at 5 a.m. and did a show that evening. Everyone felt so strongly that we were going to get there and do the show and not everybody on the road show was part of the Israel Story team. Some of them are band members who perform in the shows. But everybody believes in the mission and it’s pretty amazing.”

 Hannah Barg is currently working on plans for Israel Story’s 2019 road show, with a possible spring stop in St. Louis. You can download her latest work on Israel Story, “A Song for Peace,” about the anti-war hym Shir La’Shalom, from Episode 39: Mixtape Part IV – War, Peace and Bumper Stickers, at this link: https://israelstory.org/en/episode/39-mixtape-part-iv-war-peace-bumper-stickers.

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