James Harper isn’t your average coffee podcaster and Filter Stories isn’t your typical coffee podcast. With the tag line, “the untold stories hidden in your cup of coffee,” and the nickname, “This American Life of Coffee,” Filter Stories has been bringing a refreshing dose of documentary style investigative journalism to our ears since August of 2018.
Each episode of Filter Stories is exceptionally well crafted into an easily digestible 25 to 40 minute episode—one that Harper says you can enjoy in the time that it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Harper is the journalist and host. He also records all of the interviews, directs voice actors, composes original piano music, and constructs a seamless narrative in about 100 hours of work (per episode!). It’s ambitious, and the results are delightful, entertaining, frightening, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking—but that’s the point of sharing stories isn’t it—to help us feel something. Filter Stories takes some of the more complex themes that many of us in the coffee industry are familiar with through data points and headlines—statelessness, misogyny, low coffee prices—and quite literally gives them a voice.
Harper ran a successful kickstarter campaign earlier this year which gave listeners-turned-backers the unique opportunity to taste coffee from a farm featured in the Aquiares episode. The photos you see here are of yours truly brewing the Costa Rican coffee I received in the mail for backing the project. It was red honey processed L485 (or Esperanza) roasted by Color Coffee Roasters out of Colorado. And, the sensory experience was made complete with the opportunity to tune in to Filter Stories and learn some of the history behind the coffee as I was brewing it. For an industry that’s continually looking for new ways to add value and context to a cup of coffee—while also reaching a broader audience—Harper is definitely on to something.
Since the time of our interview, Harper has released a few new episodes and Filter Stories has been featured as “New and Noteworthy” by Apple Podcasts in the U.K.—an impressive accolade. And, given the complex issues tackled in the show, one that can potentially be a boon to the coffee industry as a whole. The more awareness brought to the general public about challenges along the coffee value stream, the better off we all are.
It is my absolute pleasure to share this Q & A with James Harper, the creator of Filter Stories Podcast. Please enjoy…
tLBCC: How do you find stories? And, how do you know when you’ve come across a story worth telling?
James Harper: Loooooong conversations with people from across the coffee world! When I’m in “story-finding mode” my day will literally follow the sun—9am I’m chatting to Tokyo, 11am Addis Ababa, 2pm New York, 5pm Colombia. These are coffee people who know many people and will probably know a story or two within their circles or refer me to people who know other people.
But deciding to tell a story…that’s a tough one. It has to tick so many boxes. Here are just a few: Does it grip me? Does it have a tangible connection to coffee? Does it offer cultural/political/historical insights? Is the protagonist open to telling their story?
tLBCC: Why did you decide on podcasting as the medium for sharing coffee stories?
James Harper: It’s the perfect match, in my opinion.
Radio is a deeply intimate medium. It’s you talking directly into the listener’s ear while firing up their imagination. And Filter Stories aims to connect listeners emotionally to coffee people and their journeys. So, a deeply intimate medium like radio is perfect for soaking in someone else’s life story.
tLBCC: When you land on a story, person or idea that you want to follow, what is your process for collecting information? And, when do you know it’s time to book a plane ticket?
James Harper: I’m on the lookout for the magic moment.
It happens like this: I’m on the phone to the protagonist, diving into their story to see what it contains. The protagonist is talking and they’re on a roll. It’s absolutely gripping. It’s ticking all the boxes I mentioned above. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
That’s the magic moment. I stop them mid-sentence and say “don’t say another word. I have to get this on tape.” (As in, a high quality recording with me being there in person.)
I don’t want them to say anymore because the second time round never sounds as good as the first.
That’s the point I make arrangements. It may be many months away, but I know there’s an incredible story waiting to be told.
After that, I create a storyboard and brainstorm different angles to the story, different people to interview, creative ways of telling the story. Then I reach out to many people who are minor characters in the story. I learn as much as I can about the protagonist from them. And finally comes the big finale: the marathon six hour interview with the protagonist where we dive into all the details and get the full picture.
tLBCC: Did you have any experience podcasting prior to launching Filter Stories? If not, what has the technical learning curve been like?
James Harper: Not really. I learned through brutal trial and error.
The technical side of podcasts isn’t very difficult. There are so many great resources out there. For €1,000 you’ve got everything you need to begin creating professional sounding podcasts. But learning the story telling side is much, much harder. I’m still learning and I don’t see myself ever stopping. I think everybody making these kind of podcasts will be learning for the rest of their lives. It’s challenging in the same ways novelists, screen writers, music composers find their art challenging.
tLBCC: Your personal journey to the coffee industry is quite compelling can you share a little bit about how you ended up here?
James Harper: I started my career in finance in London. But as the years progressed, it didn’t inspire me. It held no deeper meaning. So I quit and spent 18 months traveling the world, including three months on a vintage motorcycle criss-crossing India (without a license or knowing how to ride it before buying it), four months in the jungles of Borneo managing volunteer work and much else. But I still didn’t know what to do with my life. So I found myself on a bicycle peddling through Kashmir, in the Himalayas, grinding up and down the world’s highest roads for weeks. That gave me the headspace to put my life in context and let go of the insecurities I held. And I had always been passionate about coffee. I loved cafes, the flavours, the personalities, the energy, the story. I went for it and landed in Melbourne in January 2015 and got my myself a job with a roasting company. The rest is history.
tLBCC: Since you’ve interviewed many folks in the coffee industry are you finding there are many storylines similar to your own—or at least common threads—that draw people to building careers in coffee?
James Harper: The sad fact is that I come across a lot of stories of people who work in the coffee industry but don’t stay in it. At the barista entry-level, it can be gruelling, low paid, and offer limited progression.
But for those who stay in specialty coffee, there are themes. Passion. A desire for a life where money matters less. There’s a strong ethical/moral pull—for many (but not all) it’s their way of building a life that doesn’t do active harm. Some even manage to do some social and ecological good.
The specialty industry is small, nimble and it’s easy to dive in and out of it. That means many people I meet have very many life goals and paths that take them into and out specialty coffee into wildly different industries at different points. Contrast that to an accountant in a large corporation who spends 30 years wearing a suit in the same building.
tLBCC: Filter Stories podcast hits on a lot of very relevant topics for coffee professionals and enthusiasts but it's also presented in a way that very relatable for listeners that don’t have a special interest in coffee. Do you think telling humans stories through the lens of coffee has the capacity to change the perception of coffee beyond the specialty coffee community?
James Harper: I really hope so. It’s a gamble I’m taking! I think in all of us is a curiosity to know the truth behind the everyday things we consume. And I think we can all relate to stories of other people pushing through challenges.
tLBCC: I really appreciate the thoughtful approach you take to your storytelling. For example, when you mention, “is it Gesha or Geisha” and the careful way you tackled the topic of misogyny happening in the Asheville coffee community. Do you have any specific goals or guidelines for Filter Stories in terms of the language you use and how you choose to tell your stories?
James Harper: It comes down to feeling the pulse of your listeners, society, and the coffee industry together. I make sure I’m on mark by road testing each episode with lots of different people before releasing it, so I’m absolutely sure I’ve struck the right tone.
tLBCC: In the Filter Stories episode called, Tito, you hired a few actors to play the roles of the protagonists. What was your experience like working with voice actors to achieve the likeness of the real-life characters in your story?
James Harper: That was a challenge. Finding an actor in the first place is hard. And once I found them, I wanted to avoid the cliche BBC-style voiceovers that sound so wooden and generic. So I purposefully did not give them a translation. They were Spanish, and I played the character's tracks to them in the original Spanish. I then asked them to become the characters and speak their lines in English. My goal was to move the listener, shift them emotionally. Tito is a very emotional man who wears his heart on his sleeve. So I had to feel it from the actor. Every phrase was re-recorded up to eight times, each time with different emphasis, different intensities, improved pronunciations. We got there eventually…but it was intense.
tLBCC: As the narrator of the podcast, I imagine you also have to do a considerable amount of voice acting yourself. Do you a background in the performing arts? Have you had to coach yourself? What have you learned in this process?
James Harper: Again, huge learning curve from scratch. I bumble and stumble over my words a lot. So I usually do four takes of each line before I finally nail it. I’m still trying to find my voice. It’s going to be long journey. I get lots of feedback from different people and try to get better and better.
tLBCC: So far, all of the episodes you have released are around 30 to 40 minutes long or roughly, “the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.” In a prior Q&A we did, you mentioned that every episode takes over 100 hours of work. You construct a storyline, travel, record interviews, narrate, direct voice actors, record original music, and cut audio into a seamless, entertaining and easily digestible story for us—it’s an art! How do you know when the work for an episode is done and the story is ready to share?
James Harper: The million dollar question. No episode is ever finished. And I’m a perfectionist—so it’s really hard for me to let go and get it out to the world!
The most important thing is the story. Does it hook? Does it shift the listener emotionally? If I can get these to work, then I’m happy to get the episode out fairly soon afterwards, even though I feel there’s a million more things I could do to make it better.
tLBCC: In your interview with Chris Defario on the Keys to the Shop Podcast, you touch on the subject of reframing stories. What's the benefit of being able to reframe a story?
James Harper: We make sense of our lives by telling ourselves stories. Stories that explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, the things you choose to believe, who you love. Sometimes these stories keep us living our lives in hurtful ways. Reframing a story means seeing your life from a different perspective. It’s hard to do it yourself, because you’re in it and drowning in the details. Huge events in our lives force us to reevaluate the stories we’ve told ourselves and force change. The death of someone close to us is a common trigger.
Or, if you’re open to listening and acting on the advice of an outsider, they can also lend you new perspectives, help you reframe your personal story, and you can go into the world changed.
tLBCC: Are there any narratives that you think the coffee industry is telling that could benefit from being reframed, or perhaps might be better if they were retired altogether?
James Harper: Where do I start?
The notion that serving only very high quality coffees is a valuable service for farmers. It can be helpful, but commitment goes a lot further.
Roasters will go to great lengths to explain how their business is a challenging one and their margins should be higher. But contrasted to a cafe or a producer, they’re laughing. They pocket most of the money from a bag of coffee and have the most to be accountable for.
Specialty coffee is overly obsessed with flavours. Flavours are great, don’t get me wrong. But the people who produced these flavours are more important than the flavours. I’d like to see specialty coffee become highly personalized, where we know the people who grow our coffee in the same way some of us are lucky to know the local farmer who produces our food.
Roasters will talk about African producers in the same language they talk about Central American producers. Many will spin a narrative that the livelihood of these producers are markedly better as a result of the roaster purchasing this specific coffee. That argument might, maybe, be made for a Honduran producer. Kenyan producer? No way. (Watch out for a future episode of Filter Stories on this topic!)
tLBCC: What’s next on the horizon for Filter Stories Podcast?
James Harper: Many more stories! Africa and Asia is in my sights.