Her Article Went Viral. Then She Realized It Was a Great Topic For a Podcast

Writer Laura Cathcart Robbins shares the journey that inspired her to tell stories about being the other on her podcast, The Only One in the Room.

  • Writer Laura Cathcart Robbins was inspired to start her podcast after receiving an overwhelming response to her HuffPost essay about being the only black person at a writer’s retreat.
  • The strong response made Laura realize there were many people who “just identified with feeling other, with feeling alone in a room full of people.” So she launched a podcast to share more of these stories.
  • Laura emphasizes the value of authenticity in podcasting — something she has learned through years of sobriety.

In September 2018, freelance writer and storyteller Laura Cathcart Robbins attended a writing retreat in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains headlined by two of her favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed. A long-time fan of both writers, Laura was excited and hoped to walk away from the experience with some newfound inspiration.

But while listening to Gilbert and Strayed speak, she was taken by surprise as she looked around the room. Of the 600 attendees at the retreat, she was the only black person.

This was hardly the first time she’d found herself the only person of color in a given space, but something about it felt different.

“It’s not something I usually even notice or take with me,” Laura says on an episode of Outlier On Air. “I usually don’t let it impact my experience. But I had never been at an event with 600 people and been the only black person, so I wrote about it for HuffPost and it went viral.”

Hours after the essay went live, Laura received hundreds of messages from people who “just identified with feeling other, with feeling alone in a room full of people,” she recalls. This overwhelming response inspired her to channel her storytelling chops into a new podcast project, a now fully-formed show aptly titled The Only One in the Room, which invites guests to share their personal experiences of being — well, the only one in a room.

“I figured this is a niche that’s obviously not being filled,” Laura says of starting the podcast. “For me to get that much of a swell of messages within 48 hours of the article being released, there’s something happening here. People want to hear these stories and they want to share them. I was excited to tell those stories.”

Read on for more of what Laura’s learned in her storytelling and podcasting journeys.

Pay more attention to the messages — ignore the comments

You’ve already heard about the influx of support Laura got when she shared her personal story on HuffPost. But let’s get real — we’re talking about the Internet here, so it wasn’t entirely positive.

“I got a lot of negative feedback,” Laura says. “I stopped reading the negative comments about a week after the article published. I made a decision to stop reading them.”

While Laura made the conscious choice to distance herself from the mixed — and often hateful — feedback she was beginning to see in the essay’s comment section, she continued engaging with the messages sent directly to her. There, she found much of the inspiration for The Only One in the Room.

“I was so inspired by those direct messages to tell those stories — the story of the man in the wheelchair who wants to date but all people see is his wheelchair, the story of the white guy in Iowa who wears hearing aids and feels like he’s alone in any room he goes into because he can’t hear when the room is crowded, the overweight woman in her seventies who wants to take a yoga class,” Laura says.

Don’t be afraid of controversial conversations

Since launching her podcast, Laura has already told some of the stories that first inspired her in her DMs, but she also hasn’t shied away from inviting more surprising guests with perspectives that might be controversial or polarizing.

One upcoming guest, for example, is a black Democrat-turned-Republican who is a strong Donald Trump supporter and mayoral hopeful. “I was just, like, I’ve got to get this guy on the show, not to dress him down or dismantle whatever he’s created,” Laura says. “I just really wanted to have a conversation with him! Certainly, as a black Republican in Los Angeles, he’s got to be the only one in the room many times.”

Laura named this particular interview among the favorites she’s had for the podcast, and plans to continue leaning into surprising conversations on multiple sides of many issues.

“I like to just have conversations without people going to slander and hate speech and going in on each other right away as soon as they find out they’re on the ‘other side,’” she says.

Get comfortable with authenticity

Laura shares her experience with sobriety — not only because of the way it’s impacted her health and personal life, but because of how it’s empowered her to get more honest with telling stories and sharing herself in podcasting and other media.

“Prior to getting sober, I was unknowingly inauthentic,” she says. “I was not willing to present my authentic self for fear of being misunderstood or judged or disliked.” More specifically, Laura avoided conversations about her lack of formal education (she dropped out of high school in tenth grade and never went on to college) and her need to get sober in the first place.

Laura’s experience in a 12-step program and her sobriety journey have been transformative.

“It’s really important to be honest in all of my actions and exchanges with people so that I don’t feel like I have anything to hide and therefore don’t hide anything,” she says. “People are seeing me and embracing it. And I never knew that could happen. That inspires me to do more and be more authentic and be more of myself.”

In fact, Laura says this authenticity is the single biggest reason for her success in podcasting and beyond.

For more of Laura’s story, check out the full episode at Outlier On Air. Be sure to subscribe to get future episodes directly in your preferred podcast player.

Join us at the Outlier Podcast Festival | Virtual Summit in May 2020!

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