Getting Real About Russia: Meet The Podcasters Challenging The Mainstream Media

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A few weeks ago I was introduced to a new podcast that’s all about Russia. My initial reaction: Do I really need more Russia in my day?

Putin is a constant presence in my news and social feeds most days. My podcast feed isn’t immune, either. Podcasts about Russia are plentiful. So, I wondered what this new podcast could give me that the others hadn’t already provided.

Then, I read the podcast description. I was interested. Within the first 15 minutes of Episode 1, I really wanted to know more about the two female co-hosts.

The show is called She’s In Russia. And, spoiler alert: one of the co-hosts lives in St. Petersburg. Which gives this podcast a unique angle that I wasn’t expecting. Also, neither of these women are professional journalists, and they’re brand new to podcasting.

Here’s a clip from episode 2 of the show:

An Interview with She’s In Russia

After listening to that first episode, I asked for an interview. I wanted to find out how the hosts of She’s In Russia had come up with the idea for the show, and what it’s like co-hosting a podcast from opposite sides of the world. The following is my interview with Smith Freeman and Olivia (Lily) Capozzalo (Lily is the one living in Russia).

Podcast Maniac: Forgive the blatant profiling, but you two sound like Millennials. How old are you, and how long have you known each other?

Smith: We’re both 25 and have known each other for 7 years. We’re really good friends.

Lily: We met in college. We lived on the same floor freshman year. I spent the first semester thinking Smith didn’t like me because she basically ignored me. But she kind of ignored everyone, she was very…independent.

I eventually broke through her wall and we ended up living together the last two years of college. We often made jokes that people thought we were a couple (though we’re weren’t and aren’t, we swear).

She's In Russia Podcast

Lily & Smith from She’s In Russia

Podcast Maniac: Lily, how did you end up living in Russia? How long have you been there/will you be there?

Lily: I studied Russian language and literature in college, and studied abroad in St. Petersburg for 6 months during my junior year.

I lived with a host family, an elderly couple. I can’t say exactly what made me fall in love with this city so much, but I know whatever I felt was nurtured by my host mom. She is a very talkative, animated person.

Every night, I would come home from class and we would sit in the kitchen where she would make me tea and try to feed me. I would listen—sometimes for hours—as she talked. She is extremely knowledgeable, well read, and has an encyclopedic memory. She would also take me on walks through the city, telling stories about everything we passed.

During that first trip, I knew for sure I wanted to come back at some point, and that 6 months was not enough time.

Back in the States, I decided I wanted to move back to Petersburg after graduating, so that’s what I did. I didn’t have a job waiting for me, I wasn’t going in any official capacity.

It’s been almost three years since I moved. I’m here indefinitely, but my current thought is to figure out a way to be able to split my time between here and New York.

Podcast Maniac: When did the idea for the podcast come up? How long did it take for you to take the leap and record your first episode?

Smith: For years, Lily had been expressing the sentiment that Westerners have a really vague understanding of Russia and Russian people. Like, all this trauma happened after the revolution and in the lead-up and aftermath of World War II, and then an entire nation disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

I think that her feeling has always been that Americans were given an oversimplified, xenophobic, and caricatured version of Russia during the Cold War. And then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was just this absence of any real imagining of Russian people in the American psyche.

After she moved to Russia, I remember us having a series of conversations. They were kind of a hybrid of discussing our individuation and just sort of eye-rolling at shitty, self-congratulatory journalists who feel like they have the scoop on Russian culture.

Lily’s a really good writer and we had talked about the idea of her writing about Russian culture, trying to articulate America’s absence of a complex image of Russians. [The idea] never really materialized.

    This ongoing conversation we’d been having just between the two of us became much more relevant.

But then all this fervor around Trump and Putin and collusion started building, and the American media’s real lack of imagination around Russia came to the foreground. This ongoing conversation we’d been having just between the two of us became much more relevant.

We talk to each other a lot on the phone, and it seemed like a natural conclusion that if we wanted to share our ideas, or really persuade people, we’d want to capture those ideas in their original medium. I guess we’re sort of banking on people being as charmed by us as we are by each other.

After we decided to make the podcast, we pretty much immediately recorded three practice episodes, to get in the habit and learn the skills around editing, mixing, and producing.

Lily: Yeah, that’s about it. I’ve been saying I wanted to somehow publicly express my experience of being here, with the goal of making Russia (or at least my little slice of it) more real for people in the West.

Then at some point this Spring, Smith and I were on the phone and Smith said ‘Maybe we should do a podcast about all this Russia-US stuff.’ And I said ‘Ok, yeah.’ And we started almost immediately, as she said.

Podcast Maniac: Have you both always been interested in current and international affairs, or did this interest stem from Lily’s move to Russia?

Smith: Generally I’ve payed attention to what’s going on. In the couple of years leading up to the [2016] election, there was a mix of elements that made me really American navel-gazey. I kind of get the sense that a lot of people were that way.

I think with Obama at the helm, a lot of centrist/moderate liberals felt really comfortable with America’s position in global politics and it afforded them the security to focus inward.

The Trump presidency is total mayhem, but something about that mayhem forces me to re-situate myself as an American and look more outside the country. And in some ways that can feel like a release. Less claustrophobic.

There’s something thrilling, though also very masochistic, about really feeling for the first time that America’s dominance in the world is not actually some natural, physical law. It has to be maintained.

Lily: I have most certainly not always paid attention to politics, and especially not to international affairs. I remember when I first moved to Russia, random people would ask me about American politics and criticize Obama and I would just say ‘I like Obama’ and disengage.

I knew about America’s patronizing, imperialistic political tendencies…I just had major 'heart eyes' for Obama. Click To Tweet

I wasn’t a complete idiot. I knew about America’s patronizing, imperialistic political tendencies, and superiority complex. I think I just had major “heart eyes” for Obama.

When the Russian election meddling frenzy began, I started paying more attention to how the US media was portraying ‘Russia’, and becoming more and more frustrated with the shortcomings of most of the approaches I saw.

When Trump was elected, my relationship to politics in general and my thoughts about what it means to be American shifted pretty notably. I spent the first couple weeks mostly on Facebook, trying to be comforted by the collective mourning and anger.

It was hard being in Russia at that moment. Most people here, other than my close friends, weren’t able to, or didn’t care, to comprehend how much of a tragedy Trump being elected was for so many people.

I’d say it’s a combination of Trump getting elected and Russia being in the news a lot that pushed me to start being more interested in politics in general. Especially in the history of US-Russian relations.

There’s just so much right now (rhetoric, emotions, approach) that’s being literally dug up and regurgitated from the Cold War era and applied to current relations, it’s kind of astounding.

Podcast Maniac: What are you hoping to accomplish/who are you trying to reach with the show?

Smith: I think, in general, we’re just trying to raise the overall complexity of American thought on Russia. And stymy the flood of boring and simplistic media that paints Russia as some sort of Soviet-era menace endowed with computers.

As far as who we’re trying to reach, just anyone that’ll listen to us.

Lily: I think our target audience is generally non-Russian people who are either interested in hearing about Russia and/or frustrated by mainstream media coverage of Russia-US politics. And who are not put off by banter and some rambling storytelling (mostly me).

As Smith said, the big picture idea is to add some more complexity, some layers of realness to the mainstream American image of Russia and Russians. So, in addition to current events and politics, that could mean little history lessons, literature, me telling anecdotes from my life here.

We’re pretty much making it up as we go along, but the idea is to help counter the American/ Western tendency (that’s being encouraged by the current media frenzy) to imagine all Russians as either a) super villians b) hackers c) crooks/thugs d) poor and e) generally Soviet.

Podcast Maniac: Lily, do you have safety concerns about living in Russia and speaking out so boldly about your opinions of the people and the government?

Lily: No, I don’t. First off, we’re not getting nearly enough attention for anyone in the government here to care about us at all. I think even if by some stroke of luck we became more well known, most of our audience would likely not be in Russia, and our content is not particularly pro-USA or anti-Russia, so it’s hard for me to imagine why any authority here would find us threatening.

However, I get why you asked this question. I’m not trying to dismiss the fact that there are real challenges—and sometimes dangers—to being a high-profile independent journalist, or working for an independent news source in Russia today. I’m just saying my situation is quite a bit different.

Podcast Maniac: Can you explain the logistics of creating She’s In Russia? How hard is it to have your co-host on the other side of the world?

Smith: Logistically, it’s not so hard having a co-host so far away. We record when it’s my morning and Lily’s evening. We record once a week using this web app called Zencastr. It’s designed for podcasters and is basically just a combo VoIP (Skype, Hangouts, etc), no video, and recording software.

We have a list of topics we want to cover, and we try to plan at least a week in advance what we’re going to talk about. Honestly the calls are too long. We often have 2+ hours of recording. But that gets pared down when I edit.

After editing the original tape, I add in our theme music, other lead-in music, and do the mixing. I like to have a one-episode reserve, in case anything happens.

I actually recently wrote a pretty thorough article on how we record, edit, and mix the show: What Tech Do You Need to Make a Good Podcast at Home?

Podcast Maniac: What sorts of reactions have you received from listeners?

Smith: Most of the reactions we’ve gotten we’ve solicited from our friends. Everyone is really supportive and excited about telling their friends. That’s been reassuring. Our audience, though still small, is significantly larger than our immediate circle, which is cool and also puzzling (who are these people?).

Lily: Yeah, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and sometimes from people we don’t know! People seem to like the casual format. It’s sincerely heartwarming to know that people are listening at all and even enjoying it, and sometimes learning things!  Also it’s nice that the trolls haven’t found us yet. But we all know they’re there, just lurking in the internet shadows.

Podcast Maniac: Lily, are podcasts a “thing” in Russia? Do most Russians have access to and listen to podcasts?

Lily: There are definitely Russian podcasts, and people have access to non-Russian podcasts of course, so they are for sure a “thing”. But I wouldn’t say they’re as popular/widespread as in the States.

I only know a couple people who listen to podcasts regularly. But l recently realized that my favorite go-to independent Russian journal, Meduza, has several different podcasts, and I imagine they have a pretty decent listenership.

Podcast Maniac: I love the music in the podcast. Who is it and why did you pick it?

Smith: Our theme music is Shit Happens by Tierra Whack, a rapper out of Philadelphia. I came across her maybe 9 months ago and was just instantly smitten by her music and her persona. She only has like 6 songs, but every one is odd in this really non-boring and non-commercial way. She’s just very good at trafficking in “weirdo” territory without being a caricature.

Lily: Smith showed me Tierra Whack’s SoundCloud back when she found it and I’ve been listening to her 6 songs pretty regularly ever since. She gave her blessing to us to use the song, in case anyone’s wondering.

I think the reason we chose it was just that we both really like that song. There was a minute where we were considering using a more thematically-relevant song (a song called ‘She’s in Russia’), but we decided against it because neither of us liked it much.

Podcast Maniac: You’re about 7-8 episodes in now…what have you learned about podcasting (any aspect of it) and what have you changed about your process/content?

Smith: We’ve learned a lot about technical producing. Like how to get high quality recordings, how to edit effectively, how to mix.

But we’ve also just been learning how to have conversations that are consumable by more than just us. Honestly that’s the finer skill. Just sussing out what is good content and what is bad content is way more subtle than if the volume levels are good. I do think we’re honing in, it’s just a matter of getting to the point where we feel really consistent and satisfied.

Just sussing out what is good content and what is bad content is way more subtle than if the volume levels are good. Click To Tweet

Lily: Smith does all the editing. She’s taught herself a lot technically, which I’m very proud of her for. Honestly, I still struggle with basic recording etiquette, like not bumping the mic and not eating while speaking.

I think we’re still in the process of being comfortable recording and figuring out what our thing is. The episodes that feel the best to record are the ones where we have a balance of informed discussion, funny banter, and a more casual lightness that comes through when we’re actually just speaking to one another and not worrying about an audience listening in.

I would say we’re still very much in experiment phase in terms of content. We’re trying different kinds of topics and formats and just seeing how they go. One of our biggest struggles has been not just spending the whole time summarizing a topic we both researched. We’re still actively working on that one. Generally, Smith has to edit a lot out.

Podcast Maniac: Thank you both for sharing so much with me and other podcast fans. What else do you want to share with readers who are interested in She’s In Russia?

Smith: We’ve set up a voicemail box to collect people’s comments or questions on Russian related topics. If people are curious about details of Russian daily life, or have thoughts about the media’s handling of Russia-related articles, they can drop us a line at (347) 292-7126 and we may play it on the show.

We can also be reached via email at You can follow @shesinrussia on Twitter and Instagram. Our website is

I really want to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions about the She’s In Russia podcast and what Smith and Lily had to say. Comment below to start the conversation!

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