Jessica Cordova Kramer remembers that wintry walk around her East Harriet neighborhood in Minneapolis, the one that helped her come to grips with her brother’s fatal overdose and planted the seeds for Lemonada, a podcast network aimed at guiding the loneliest of listeners in from the cold.
“We’re all about making life suck less,” said Kramer, sitting in her living room a few weeks before her company officially was launched in late September. “We want to make programming that helps you roll out of bed in the morning.”
No show exemplifies Lemonada’s ambitious objectives more clearly — or dramatically — than “Last Day,” the 25-part serial in which Kramer details the circumstances leading to the death of her sibling Stefano Cordova Jr. — and the chilling effect the loss had on his loved ones. Despite the dark details — at one point, someone reads the final text message Cordova sent his dealer — the series is punctuated with laughs, warm memories and, most important, empathy.
But before Kramer could tell others they weren’t alone, she had to tell herself.
Nearly 190,000 Americans died from drug overdoses from 2015 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of those casualties was Harris Wittels, a beloved writer for “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None,” whose credits also include coining the term “humblebrag.”
Why not a network?
Kramer, an executive producer for “Pod Save the People,” was still deep in her own grieving process in February 2018 when she bundled up for that life-changing stroll. She was accompanied only by an episode of Minneapolis author Nora McInerny’s podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” in which Wittels’ sister, comedian Stephanie Wittels Wachs, used humor (and salty language) to describe the wide range of emotions she had endured while dealing with her own loss.
By the time Kramer had gone 10 blocks, she was smiling for the first time in months. On the walk back, her hood pulled tight around her face, she was certain she had found a soul mate.
In April 2018, Kramer cold-called Wachs in hopes of booking her on the show she helps produce, “Pod Save the People.” The two bonded almost immediately on everything from the fact they had attended New York University at the same time to their late brothers both being unabashed ladies’ men.
But Wachs was tired of talking about opioid addiction. She had written the critically acclaimed memoir “Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss.” She also was pregnant. Wachs turned Kramer down.
Shortly after giving birth (she named the baby Harris), Wachs came across an article that stated more people were dying from drugs than car accidents.
“I called Jess immediately and said, ‘I hate the world and I’ll do anything to change it,’ ” Wachs said last month from her home in Houston. “ ‘Count me in.’ ”
As the friendship grew, so did their ambitions. Instead of just a guest appearance, why not a whole podcast on opioid addiction? And, hey, while we’re at it, why not a whole podcast network?
By the following year, they were not only committed to creating “Last Day,” which premiered on Sept. 25, but also the upcoming series “As Me With Sinéad,” with Irish activist Sinéad Burke coaxing guests such as Jamie Lee Curtis and Tig Notaro into getting personal, and “Good Kids: How Not to Raise an A**hole,” whose title says it all.
Lemonada, which has the powerful Westwood One Network on board as a distributing and marketing partner, recently announced that it had signed NFL defensive end Michael Bennett to host a relationships show with his wife, Pele Bennett.
Health and living podcasts are a big draw. According to a recent Nielsen report, the genre has fans in 57.2 million households, ahead of homes downloading news and politics programs, and just slightly behind the format’s top category, music, which is popular in 61.1 million homes.
“I’m a TV nut, but you’re as removed from the TV as the screen is away from your face,” said Kramer, a former New York-based lawyer. “With podcasts, they’re in your ears, they’re in your brain waves. It just brings you closer to the material.”
Despite the ambitious slate, “Last Day” will remain the most passionate, and personal, of the network’s projects, at least for the near future.
The second half of the first season will include highlights from various town halls, starting with one Monday in the Twin Cities as part of the Manova Summit, a three-day health conference that’s drawing big names such as Jane Fonda, Katie Couric and Al Franken. In future seasons, “Last Day” will turn the focus to other epidemics, such as suicide and mass shootings.
While most of Lemonada’s tapings have taken place in London and New York, Kramer has conducted some of the interviews at a round table in her Minneapolis living room, surrounded by books for her children, Talia and Olivia, ages 8 and 11. It’s the closest thing the operation has to a brick-and-mortar office.
Despite the fact that the two bosses are based 1,000 miles apart, they both claim it’s the best working relationship they’ve ever had.
“When we started, I was very afraid of video chats. Now, we’re communicating 78,000 times a day,” Wachs said. “I’ve never met anyone else who could match me in terms of work ethic and drive. In terms of pure ambition, we’re very similar.”
But there’s one person, Kramer admits, who may not be so wild about the partners’ first season of “Last Day.”
“Stefano might be a little pissed,” said his sister, her usually animated voice getting a little quieter. “He was a very private person. But the choice of telling his story creates space for other people to feel less shame and celebrate the life he had. I think he’d eventually understand.”