‘Untitled Dad Project’: How a Four-Year Journey Became One of the Year’s Best Podcasts

Looking to find truths about the father she barely knew, Janielle Kastner put her life into a podcast and framed it as a journey into storytelling.
Untitled Dad Project Janielle Kastner and Carson McCain
Untitled Dad Project: Podcast Hosts Janielle Kastner and Carson McCain
Untitled Dad Project: Podcast Hosts Janielle Kastner and Carson McCain
Untitled Dad Project: Podcast Hosts Janielle Kastner and Carson McCain
Untitled Dad Project: Podcast Hosts Janielle Kastner and Carson McCain
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As part of Podcast Week, IndieWire is taking a deeper look at some of the best podcasts of the year. For more of the top episodes of 2019, you can read our mid-year and year-end lists here and here

About six months after her dad died, Janielle Kastner started recording.

Most of that tape doesn’t come until well into the 10-episode run of the podcast that eventually was released four years later. But over that intervening time, Kastner pursued an understanding of a man she barely had the chance to know and framed it around the basic pillars of storytelling.

What came of that search was “Untitled Dad Project,” a podcast born from Kastner trying to figure out why her dad, Rick, was not a part of her life. In the show’s “Prologue,” Kastner explains that, before he passed, she had gotten Rick’s email address. Unable to find the perfect way to reach out, Kastner never sent the message she drafted and redrafted. After Rick’s passing, “Untitled Dad Project” became her attempt to create a story of their relationship that would help to fill the gaps in understanding that an online back-and-forth might have been able to answer.

Describing “Untitled Dad Project” is a challenge for the same reasons that Kastner went through a dozen versions of the pilot episode just trying to structure the thing. Because there’s not just one Janielle. There’s the one that pressed “Record” on that first interview with her Mom. And there’s the one that the audience hears listening to that footage years later, actively pointing out all the ways she isn’t quite like that person anymore.

So over the course of building episodes around story elements like Plot and Foreshadowing and Genre, Kastner talks about herself and her father Rick as Jan Character and Dad Character, two people in the story she never had and was now trying to make sense of.

“It took us 12 different versions to figure out that past me is different than current me and this isn’t going to be a podcast where I present to you past me. It’s going to be a podcast where I pick up where I am now and I investigate everything I’ve done so far,” Kastner told IndieWire. “That meant that it was so much harder to make, because we couldn’t end an episode until the me who was in the booth understood what had just happened and what was important about the inciting incident. The person in the booth who’s not safe became the person that you, the listener, are tracking over these episodes.”

So it was up to Kastner and the show’s co-host and producer Carson McCain to figure out how to present this duality that, in many ways, wasn’t allowed to use some standard audio production conventions.

“You can’t get a pickup for grief,” McCain said.

“There’s ways that good podcasters make difficult things more sonically dynamic and easier for your ear. All you have to do is emotionally process it. And we couldn’t use a lot of those tricks because there was no meta voice above me, no ‘This American Life’ producer above the story,” Kastner said. “Imagine the version of the podcast where there’s an omniscient narrator who kind of knows all and she has my voice and she knows where this is going to end. She transitions things for you in between. But it became clearer that that’s not what this wanted to be.”

That approach made organizing Kastner and McCain’s on-mic discussions of this search for a story such a pivotal task. Like all meaningful artistic pursuits, there was never going to be a definitive endpoint where the two could say an episode was really finished.

So sometimes that meant reflecting on that audio and returning to the recording booth as many times as it would take. Not only was Kastner realizing meaningful changes in herself that she’d encountered since the start of the process, she was sometimes working through ones she’d made since the beginning of making an episode.

“Talk about stratifying your own realization. It never made me more aware of the fact of how often you change,” Kastner said. “The choice we made again, and I’m proud of us that we did it, was to just say, ‘OK, no, get back in there.’ The thing at the forefront of our minds was, ‘What’s really happening? What do you actually think, not what you think people should think? What are you actually afraid of, not what you think people should think you’re afraid of?’ And we kept pushing until finally we realized, ‘That was it. These are my actual questions about this and these are the actual answers and there is nothing lost.'”

Getting to that point meant hours and hours of conversations between her and McCain, sometimes with a particular thing to unpack. Other times, the goals faded away and a tiny breakthrough evolved into some deeper rite of friendship. One of those particular moments not only solidified the trust between the two, it helped clarify what role McCain would be able to take stewarding this story.

Each episode has what the pair call an “activation,” something that Kastner could do during the process to get closer to clarity. In the series’ third episode, “Script,” the idea was for her to rework a Biblical tradition and come up with her own version of a psalm of lament. In a moment that Kastner had intended as more of a joke to cut the tension in the room, she asked McCain if she had any laments of her own.

“I thought this is going to be a bit, and then she responded with genuine laments on my behalf, ‘Why did you let this bad thing happen to my friend? It’s not fair. It’s not funny.’ That moment changed everything,” Kastner said. “Because that’s what love is, the feeling of, ‘I wish I could take away pain from someone else because it hurts me.’ It’s this marvelous, miraculous thing and it’s such a gift to have it catalogued.”

There’s a lot of discussion in “Untitled Dad Project” about that pain, how to deal with it, where it comes from, what value it has. You can hear in McCain’s parts — even before she explicitly addresses it herself — that the idea of taking on someone else’s pain is also significant, both in life and in this very particular podcast pursuit. But McCain says that there was something that always gave a grounding to that process.

“When you are securely attached to someone, you’re not scared they’re going to leave you. There’s a particular friendship that Janielle and I have and I’m really grateful for that,” McCain said. “I was never scared that she would leave me in this process, no matter how hard I pushed or no matter if we disagreed or I thought something needed to be different or I was stubborn about not changing it. I had no doubt that we were going to finish this project and that we were going to do it together and that we were both in it for the long haul. I think it allowed us to push boundaries further because we knew neither of us were going to quit.”

Part of what makes “Untitled Dad Project” feel so focused in its goals is that truly lets its component parts outside of those Kastner and McCain debriefs breathe, too. Rather than assemble a panel of experts for each topic, most of these episodes are a combination keep the outside input to a single person — a soap opera actress to speak about Genre, the man who presided over Rick’s memorial service to speak about the Script we’re given for the pivotal moments in our lives.

That organic simplicity meant Kastner and McCain following their instincts, even as some original plans felt insufficient when the time came to put them into practice. One example was figuring out how many people from Rick’s life to interview. Kastner says that they expected to talk to more people who knew him directly, but that those few conversations ended up being a different kind of guiding force.

“We started working on the episode and by the time that we started getting us in the booth to have emotional reaction, it became clear that the episode was less about what Janielle could find out from people who knew him, because their experience was going to be different. I think that was ultimately what the episode became about. Janielle was never going to get the answers she needed or wanted and was always going to have to discern who her dad was based on the undeniable facts that she had,” McCain said.

Janielle Kastner and Carson McCain
Janielle Kastner and Carson McCainLynda M. Gonzalez/Dallas Morning News

That’s one of the ways that, in looking back on the experience, Kastner feels that the show becomes a different kind of pursuit in the second half of season. Every episode has its own turning point, right up through and past the penultimate “Third Act Breakthrough” episode, which finds Kastner reaching some of those points in a very specific kind of solitude.

Adding together all those collective reframings of this story, the show couldn’t help but become something new entirely. The show debuted while Kastner and McCain were in the heart of working on the series’ fifth episode, one that Kastner points to as a kind of unconscious pivot point.

“We weren’t omniscient narrators, we were documentarians and simultaneously characters. So it just became something that wasn’t what we told you it was going to be at the top, in some ways,” Kastner said.

It’s that evolution, though, that makes the whole pursuit feel more tangible. It’s in something McCain says about the process of sifting through the hours and hours of engaging with complex feelings of loss and discovery, but it applies to the show as a whole.

“What I love about this podcast is that it isn’t perfect and that things are clumsy and stumble-y. I think it’s the perfect marriage of a highly-produced podcast that’s scripted plus sitting in a room talking with your friends on the couch that maybe has never been edited,” McCain said. “I’m really proud of the way we protected the vulnerability and authenticity of what Janielle experienced in the booth. Like she said, it’s the story of the whole podcast. We can’t have the perfect thing. All we can do is try.”

“Untitled Dad Project” is also a tribute to an idea that podcasts can work as a two-way street, that you can literally put your life into your work and trust that it will connect with someone who’s experiencing something similar. At the end of each episode, Kastner invited listeners to share their own experiences of searching for stories. Just this week, the show released a bonus episode of listener calls, and Kastner says she’s been responding to an inbox full of messages from people sharing journeys of their own.

“I’m thinking about how many people don’t feel like they understand what’s happened to them and how many people also feel like they don’t have a legitimate claim to their own story or their own feelings,” Kastner said. “There’s a narcissism to feeling alone. You feel awful and you’re lonely, but you also are special or whatever. So with this, there’s some peeling back of, ‘Oh, I’m not alone at all. So many of you feel the way I feel. That’s great news: We belong to each other.'”

Untitled Dad Project” is a Spoke Media production and is available on all podcast platforms.

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