James Harper, Founder, Host & Storyteller, Filter Stories Podcast

James Harper, Founder, Host & Storyteller, Filter Stories Podcast

James Harper, Founder, Host & Storyteller, Filter Stories Podcast

  • Company: Filter Stories Podcast

  • Location: Berlin, Germany & wherever the stories are

  • Sector: Coffee Media, Podcasting & Journalism

tLBCC: What makes you choose to share a story from a specific perspective over another? What elements does a story have, or can a story have, to earn your trust?

James Harper: Filter Stories has been nicknamed the ’This American Life’ for the coffee world. Like a movie, but for radio. The stories follow people going through dramatic life-changing events and uses coffee as a unique way to see the world. 

The stories which get my attention are the big life stories that teach us something profound about the coffee world. 

The more important the story, the harder it becomes choosing a perspective. 

For example, the Firefly episode follows one of the best coffee farmers in Ecuador and his struggles as he earns just $2 profit from 250 espressos. Is the farmer to blame for not being more business savvy? Are the middlemen to blame for not giving him a better deal? Are roasters to blame for not taking the time to understand his struggles? Are drinkers to blame for demanding lower priced coffee? Every story will have different perspectives. It depends who you ask. And what that person tells you depends, oftentimes, on their agenda. 

Everybody has an agenda. For example, it could be a sales agenda, or they have an axe to grind or they’re trying to preserve their professional reputation, etc. This means they will want to avoid talking about certain aspects or they will embellish other aspects. Separating historical fact from opinion is the first step. Actions speak louder than words. 

And, I also interview a dozen or so people for every story. During those interviews I corroborate the protagonist’s version of events with what other people tell me. Sometimes it happens the main protagonist's version of events are factually false. I will simply cut them out of the story if they're not important—we all make factual mistakes sometimes. But, when they are important, I make it clear to the listener there’s a discrepancy. And actually, it oftentimes makes for a more interesting story because it opens up the protagonist’s character to the listener in surprising ways.  

During the editing process, I choose what version of events is the most credible and defensible and construct the story from there. Finally, before I publish, I send the main facts of the story to relevant experts to say definitively whether they’re valid. 

tLBCC: What steps do you take to actively build trust with the people whose stories you are sharing? How do you ensure they can rely on you to be thoughtful and respectful of their personal stories and voice? 

James Harper: A lot comes down to reputation. And I didn’t have one back when I started! And, some the stories I was collecting were very sensitive—misogyny and pick-up artist culture in Asheville, escaping a religious cult and surviving sexual abuse, etc. But I had a pilot episode and, in combination with a friendly and honest email, it usually opened a conversation and trust began to form.

The protagonists know upfront, from the moment I email them, what my angle is. And while recording, if my angle changes, they’ll know about it and I’ll give enough time to figure out how to respond. Before recording, I say we keep whatever you want off the record. It’s used a lot sometimes! 

And finally, nowadays I sit down with the principal protagonist in the story and play the near-completed episode. I get their take on my telling of their story. But, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. For most episodes, it’s my job to just convey the story of the protagonist, as told by them in their own words. It’s hard—that’s why every episode takes over 100 hours of work!

And, so far it’s worked—everybody has shared the episodes made about them. And, that’s a great testimonial for future protagonists I reach out to. 

It does mean that Filter Stories is not ‘gotcha’ journalism, y’know, a savage takedown and someone desperately defending their reputation. That’s not my style. I’d rather shine a light on important issues through real, authentic people and great story telling.

tLBCC: Do you have any other thoughts about building trust along the specialty coffee supply chain?

James Harper: Ask hard questions. 

After creating the Firefly episode, I learned that I could not trust the marketing given to me by specialty roasters. In the episode, I take apart the big disconnect behind the farmer’s reality and the messages specialty roasters told their customers.  

As a drinker, barista, cafe owner, we can easily google a farmer’s name and reach out directly. We can tell them what we think of the coffee and ask them what their situation is. Specifically: ‘has the roaster told you what they paid for your coffee? Has the roaster asked you what you were paid for your coffee?’. If you can’t get a straight answer, then you’re entitled to be skeptical. 

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