September 21, 2019

If at first you don’t succeed, do a podcast about it

In the spring of 2016, Sara Singer Schiff and Bipasha Shom applied to a program sponsored by National Public Radio that offered to teach participants how to produce a podcast. The two looked forward to visiting NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and learning from the best.

They never made it. NPR turned them down.

Looking back on it, that rejection may have been the perfect preparation for the podcast they went ahead and made anyway: “The Other F Word: Conversations About Failure.”

The hosts of the podcast, which debuted in October, are Schiff, 45, a full-time mom with a background in television distribution; Melissa Brohner-Schneider, 48, a marriage and family therapist; and Morgan Simpson, 42, a filmmaker and actor. Shom, 48, a film editor, produces the show.

Why did they think they could have success with failure?

“Failure right now is kind of trendy,” Shom said. “It’s in the zeitgeist. And there are so many angles to it. Talking about failure can really make people feel uncomfortable. But unless we all share our stories, we’re under the misguided impression that we’re suffering alone. Ultimately, we’d like people to know that failure is something that’s not just a part of life but in many ways essential to growing and learning as a human being.”

Schiff was responsible for bringing everyone together. She knew Shom and Simpson through schools their kids attended, and she met Brohner-Schneider when their kids were on the same soccer team. 

“It was like a blind date,” said Brohner-Schneider, whose family worships at Nachshon Minyan in Encino. But they “immediately jelled,” said Schiff, who calls her family “Reform cultural Jews.” Simpson is Episcopalian and Shom is not religious.

Because the foursome knew they would be asking others to open up about their personal failures, they figured they should start by sharing their own struggles. So, for the debut episode — recorded in the kitchen of Schiff’s Studio City home, like most episodes — they took turns talking about their own failures.

Simpson discussed the film he poured so much time and energy into, only to have it fizzle, with one “scathing” review seemingly overpowering several good ones.

Brohner-Schneider recalled attending seven colleges and universities before earning her undergraduate degree.

Schiff revealed the shame she felt in getting diverted from her professional goals and the fear she now has pursuing her dream career of journalism in her mid-40s.

And Shom, who prefers her usual role behind the scenes, shared her story of starting a children’s clothing line that struggled with sales and then collapsed when a bogus sales rep she hired stole her products and disappeared.

Listening to the podcast is like hanging with a group of friends who tell their stories with honesty and humor. This same openness is what the four hosts look for when booking guests.

“We want guests who have self-awareness, insight and are comfortable … showing vulnerability,” Brohner-Schneider said.

Some guests are regular folks talking about their struggles, like couple Jenn and Eddie Gonzalez, who discussed infertility and their eventual decision to adopt.

Other guests are experts in their fields, such as Nina Savelle-Rocklin, author of “Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders,” who spoke about the inevitability of diets failing and making peace with food.

And because this is Los Angeles and “The Other F Word” crew has entertainment industry connections, quite a few guests have come from that world, including actors Jon Cryer, Greg Grunberg, Tony Hale and Sharon Stone. Television writer Elizabeth Craft talked about her fear of being fired and how she overcame it. Tom Kenny, the voice of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, recalled coming close to a job on “Saturday Night Live” many years back and how, in retrospect, it might have been for the best that he didn’t land it.

For now, the podcast is a labor of love, albeit one that has grown a nice little audience. The 5-month-old show is getting around 20,000 downloads a month and has reached a popularity ranking as high as No. 4 in the self-help category on iTunes.

“I feel like people, probably because of the work I do, are busting at the seams — not only to talk about [failure] but to hear other people talk about it,” Brohner-Schneider said.

Still, after some awkward exchanges early on, she and her colleagues quickly learned to be strategic in how they approach potential guests.

“I’ve learned to reframe it,” Brohner-Schneider said. “Like, ‘Because you’re so successful, along the way we figured you’ve encountered some failure. And maybe you can talk about it to inspire others.’”