Nestled inside an inner loop home sits a cozy recording studio. Gig posters, illustrations by local creatives, and even a small taxidermy bird line the walls, and a shelf overflows with graphic novels, art books, and painting supplies. A card table surrounded by folding chairs supports a tangle of headphones, cables, a recorder, a mixer, and microphones. This is the headquarters of Mocking Bird Network, a podcast collective launched and led by storyteller, comedian, and voiceover artist Brenda Valdivia in January 2016. Guided by a resourceful passion, the group showcases commentary by some of the most dynamic performers in Houston.
“We are very grassroots. It almost feels kind of punk to me, because there have been plenty of nights when I have been called at 11 p.m. and somebody said, ‘Hey I have this big-name comedian. They’re only here for tonight. They want to record in the next 30 minutes. Can you get here?’ and I pile literally my entire studio into my backpack and I’ll go to wherever they want me to record,” says Valdivia, who also co-hosts the Nerd Love pop culture podcast alongside comedian Roxxy Haze.
Today, Mocking Bird Network hosts 18 unique shows embodying one or more of what she believes to be the “three core tenets of the network, which [are] comedy, community, or culture.” From pop culture to parenting, social justice to sports, Mocking Bird’s offerings cover a wide enough range of topics to pique most interests. Many of the podcasts elevate perspectives that otherwise go neglected in mainstream media outlets, and Valdivia holds all creative partners to high standards of equitable, professional behavior.
“Brenda has been very helpful with providing us the space to do what we want. She understands the importance of letting creators have control over their content; you really don't find that often when working with creative partners in Houston,” says Mai Ha, producer of the Veer Queer podcast hosted by Bianca Gomez and Endesha Haynes. The show focuses on issues faced by queer, transgender, and non-binary people of color with an emphasis on Southern culture and experiences.
“Along with having creative control at [Mocking Bird Network] there is also a strict harassment/defamation policy that you must sign before joining the network. This was instantly a win with us when deciding where we wanted Veer Queer to be. Brenda is by far one of the most respectable individuals trying to make Houston a hub of creatives.”
Comedian Stacey Daniels, who co-hosts the popular sex and dating podcast Relation$#!t with fellow funnywoman Hoja Lopez, agrees. “Brenda offered us a safe place after our last producer tried to ruin our podcast. She offers as much or as little help as we need. Sometimes I text her repeatedly for some easy problem and she is always supportive,” she says.
For Valdivia, the inspiration behind creating, nurturing, and sustaining her burgeoning community grew organically from her enthusiasm for podcasts, radio shows, and interviews, as well as her experience with storytelling for outlets such as The Moth. She switches on podcasts as soon as her day begins, citing Paul F. Tompkins, the Earwolf Network, The Last Podcast Network, and NPR as her major influences.
Mocking Bird Network began when Valdivia decided to launch a podcast of her own. She recorded on her phone’s built-in microphone since it was the only recording apparatus she had on hand at the time. The episodes, which featured her short stories, ultimately never saw release. Valdivia blames her initial hesitance on the randomized nature of internet media; she feared the inability to know who tuned in and the possible lack of feedback. Many of the improvisers and stand-up comedians interested in podcasting with whom she spoke shared the same sentiment.
After processing what she refers to as “one of those quiet epiphanies,” she decided to finally transform the ongoing conversation into a tangible pursuit.
“For a year, I would have this conversation over and over again with friends who were just starting podcasts and were feeling frustrated that nobody was listening to them or they couldn’t find their audience or from other people who didn’t have the equipment to record these shows that had a great premise,” Valdivia says.
“I just kept saying ‘Somebody should form a network! Then we can solve all these problems, share the equipment; we can all cross-promote each other. Once it hit me that I am capable of doing this, and I am in the position of reaching out to both very talented and very funny people, it made sense to connect them with each other.”
She selected the name Mocking Bird Network for the project for a number of reasons, primarily the association with the social justice and racial consciousness of To Kill a Mockingbird and the bird’s gift for mimicry.
“From one creature, you can have multiple voices,” she says.
Valdivia ping-ponged from friend to friend, making connections among individuals with equipment and web design experience before reaching out to talent. The first show she booked came with a built-in audience. The Stacks, an improv podcast hosted by comedians Josh Brokaw, Ned Gayle, and Ruth Hirsh, records live at the Rec Room in downtown Houston; the trio enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to help launch Mocking Bird Network and encourage more creators to join.
This expansion included Rec Room owner Stephanie Wittels Wach and University of Houston-Downtown professor and performer Abby Koenig, who co-host Hands Off Parents.
“Steph and I met several years prior to creating this podcast, but we really connected when we discovered we were both pregnant at the same time... We quickly discovered, together, that it wasn't like in the movies! It sucked in the most unimaginable ways! We really wanted to have a podcast to discuss these issues that we felt new moms were feeling but not discussing,” Koenig says.
“When we started the podcast, we had a crummy mike, we recorded in her daughter's playroom as the kids ran amok! We have since stepped it up a bit and we now have a recording area at Rec Room.”
Valdivia continued to recruit performers from her pool of collaborators, choosing those whom she felt provided the strongest concepts and most intelligent commentary, or whom filled a particularly interesting niche in the podcast scene.
“I've known Brenda for a few years now from being at shows and other performances I was either watching or participating in and we became fast friends. I started the show under the Mocking Bird Network from the beginning,” says John Wayne Comunale, host of John Wayne Lied to You, a companion podcast to his short story collection of the same name.
“I know Brenda is always curating amazing content for the network, and that in itself helps to elevate everyone involved.”
Despite having to borrow equipment at the time, she still had the resources available to up a room in her own home to serve as a studio and provided advice on speaking clearly, using mixing boards and microphones, and marketing.
For the first year, promotions largely encompassed asking hosts to cross-promote other shows on their network, particularly when national guests were scheduled to appear, as well as some social media presence. Valdivia prioritized releasing quality shows over pulling in massive audiences, believing that doing so would place less pressure on the hosts and allow them to cultivate a passion for their works and the rest of the Mocking Bird Network docket alike. Hosts even began to appear as guests on other shows.
She points toward Relation$#!t as one notable example of where cross-promotion proved beneficial to growing the listener base of two Mocking Bird Network podcasts, particularly when they welcome comedian Britt Vasicek from the polyamory-focused Poly Wanna Podcast.
Poly Wanna Podcast also opened up Mocking Bird Network to an international audience, along with Veer Queer, honored as one of Autostraddle's "17 Queer and Latinx Podcasts to Get Into" last year. Both shows provide resources and encouragement to people who may not be safe opening up about their genders, sexualities, and/or preferred relationship structures to their friends and family. The ability to establish supportive communities well beyond Houston reflects Valdivia’s vision and excites hosts eager to spread hope as far as they are able.
Haynes says, “I hope both Mocking Bird Network and Veer Queer can become household names. When people think ‘Southern queer podcast,’ I want Veer Queer to be the first name they think of. I hope we can build our audience and expand, become more of a brand, maybe get merchandise out and possibly speak at events. I wouldn't mind going on tour.”
Gomez agrees. “We’re incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to even make this project happen in the first place… I would love for us to have a sponsor or two so that we can have the resources to start moving beyond Houston,” she says.
Plans are also in place to expand The Gallery and Food Culture, both hosted by Claudia Osorio. Fans of both shows often ask to contribute to the in-depth examinations of art and cuisine, respectively, and Osorio now welcomes guests from as far away as Los Angeles. She inspires listeners to explore the pleasures of Houston, and widening her scope to include other cities – particularly those within a day’s drive – helps nurture an exchange of ideas and appreciation between residents.
“The growth has been rapid for both my shows, and the Mocking Bird Network has been such an advocate for the success of each show,” Osorio says.
“The objective of both my podcasts is to tie in a heavy Houston influence and urge my listeners to go out and catch a show, discover local eateries, visit an art gallery, buy local art, attend an improv showcase, and support our arts and restaurant scene.”
Relation$#!t already enjoyed a following prior to its transition over to Mocking Bird Network, but the move opened up even more opportunities for Daniels and Lopez. They've recorded live episodes at Rec Room, toured a downtown BDSM dungeon on air, and appeared at last year's Come and Take It Comedy Takeover alongside national acts like Eugene Mirman and Colin Quinn. Catherine Cohen, a well-regarded alt-comedian, actress, and poet, also participated in a live recording in October 2017 while visiting from Brooklyn.
Valdivia stands ready to take more promotional risks beginning in 2018, including purchasing more advertising materials. As she continues to finalize her strategy, the host-driven "feedback loop" serves as the primary marketing model, with podcast fans seeking out the careers of hosts outside the network, and fans of the hosts seeking out the podcasts. Yet as the buzz increases, Mocking Bird Network still embraces its DIY origins.
“It’s still very low-tech… We basically use stage mikes. I have an office in my apartment that I turned into a studio. We need to do serious upgrades to all of it. Honestly, it’s just four to five mikes, a mixer, and a digital recorder. Then we transfer it onto a little laptop and I use Audacity to mix it and to upload it to our website,” she says.
“I feel like I’ve gathered a strong foundation of people so that we can all start moving forward.”
Running Mocking Bird Network is nobody's day job for now. Most shows record on weeknights or weekends to fit in with hectic schedules, even beginning well after midnight in instances where a particular guest visiting from out of town can't otherwise meet up. Some hosts must take the occasional hiatus while they focus on their careers, paid projects, and/or families. Valdivia notes that it isn't uncommon for podcasters to build up a small library of prescheduled episodes on open nights to ensure content reaches audiences on a regular basis despite their busy lives.
Releasing the shows online for free comes with the challenge of turning the profit needed to keep them going. What little money Mocking Bird Network earns via donations, out-of-pocket expenses, and sponsorships goes toward equipment, hosting, and marketing. The collective only recently broke even. Lone Star Buttons already sponsors the surrealist variety show Revenge of the World, hosted by Gabriel Dieter, Mike "The" Rodriguez, and Brennan Burch. Eureka Heights Brewery recognized their work in the creative community and offered its sponsorship as well. More financial support from local businesses can go a long way in offsetting the cost of growing pains, and it's an avenue Valdivia plans to pursue more aggressively in the months ahead.
The largest investment in both the creative and fiscal growth of Mocking Bird Network, however, is that it's in the process of becoming an LLC. Diversifying offerings to encompass more than just podcasts holds the potential to bring in the revenue necessary to generate a profit.
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"We're going to start offering classes and consulting for businesses who want to get better with public speaking and feel more comfortable on mikes... We're doing free or reduced cost [business] for nonprofits, so if you're a school that wants to do a podcast class or a podcast workshop, we'll go over and teach you how to do it," Valdivia says.
"Our rates are pretty low because our equipment is portable. We can travel with the equipment and set it up wherever [clients] are. We're looking into it."
Valdivia also hasn't ruled out workshops and classes for individuals who want to improve their skills as hosts and technicians, too, though for now she prefers to emphasize businesses and nonprofits on the front end.
No matter what form Mocking Bird Network eventually takes on, the dedicated, resourceful spirit with which Valdivia and her team broadcast their ideas and efforts commands attention. Houston has never been at a loss for creative talent, and this venture does not shy away from showing off to the world just how many incisive, intelligent, and downright hilarious voices this city has to share.