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Jenna Levin ’13 - Podcasts are the Voice of Storytelling

Photo of Seattle Academy Alumna Jenna Levin 13

Alumna Jenna Levin was 15 years old when she discovered the podcast, This American Life. She remembers her mind being blown: “Ok cool so like..  this is the pinnacle of storytelling…” And while her taste in radio/podcast has expanded and diversified over the years, she still agrees with her 15-year-old self! She finds audio storytelling to be a timeless, intimate and raw medium, unlike any other. Recently Jenna took that interest to the next level when she landed an Editorial Assistant job at Higher Ground Productions, otherwise known as President Obama and Mrs. Obama’s production company. 

Higher Ground was founded by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in 2018 to tell powerful stories that entertain, inform, and inspire— while elevating new and diverse voices in the entertainment industry. They also do films like American Factory, Crip Camp and Worth, and will also be coming out with a whole slate of podcasts in 2022 - including the recently released “Big Hit Show.”

Prior to this job, Jenna spent four years working in pre-school TV programming at UniversalKids, Netflix, and the AppleTV+. “Once I decided to make a major career shift, I left AppleTV+ (and it’s health insurance - eek) to take a crack at this podcast thing!” explains Jenna. 

Jenna connected with another SAAS alumna, Sofia Smith, who was working as the assistant to the heads of TV/Film at Higher Ground and introduced Jenna to the podcast team. “Over the past few years, Sofia and I have become even closer than we were in high school, and I feel so grateful for her friendship, advice, and support,” says Jenna.  

Jenna loves her current role with Higher Ground because of the horizontal power structure which allows for everyone’s voice and opinion to be valued. “I’ve never experienced a company culture like this before, and it’s incredibly motivating and encouraging,” Jenna says. Loving her job also comes a bit easier when she has unique perks like meeting President Obama himself.

When asked what guides her editorial decisions, Jenna says,

“You can study writing and story structure - Alison Ray and my playwriting teacher in college undoubtedly played a major role in shaping me as a strong storyteller and writer. But when it comes to giving notes on other people’s work, I think the most important part is tapping into the most basic principles of storytelling.” 

What makes a story successful at a dinner party, she explains, is whatever we know instinctively in our bones about pacing, tone, stakes, and story structure. She tries to listen to those instincts when giving notes on scripts and audio cuts.

The podcast landscape has changed drastically in the past few years and will certainly continue to evolve. Jenna does not believe that audio storytelling will ever lose its value, but the ways we consume podcasts, the companies who own them and the methods by which creators distribute and market them will change in ways she can only guess at! 

Personally, she has a number of interests that could take shape of future podcasts, such as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, sexual abuse in pairs figure skaing, the future of young, progressive American Jews & their relationship with Israel, gentrification and housing justice… and the list goes on. An episode she produced and story edited for the podcast, “Blind Landing,” about the first Black ice skater will be released in February of this year. 

Jenna knows that there are so many stories to be told and she is optimistic that she will have the opportunity in her current position. We can’t wait to tap into these podcasts in the future.