Erica Heilman thinks you should go to WEC’s Annual Meeting. It’s not just because she’s the featured speaker, or because she’s a member. It’s because she thinks our best work happens in spaces full of other human beings, figuring things out together, with snacks. “The fastest democracies are the longest, slowest, most boring meetings,” she said.
Vermonters are proud of our local governance processes, which can be weedy and intense, but come on: who could reasonably take offense at her calling these meetings long, slow, and boring? They usually are, and she is a passionate champion of them. If you’ve heard the Town Meeting Day episode of Rumble Strip, the podcast Heilman hosts and produces, you know this.
Heilman has developed a reputation for being a good listener. She talks to all kinds of people – almost certainly including someone you know – regarding everyone as an expert on something worth sharing. She gives her interviewees fields of space to work out what they want to say. When she’s the one speaking, Heilman is direct, hilarious, and a generous cusser.
The concept of slowness, and this deadly serious irreverence, underpin Rumble Strip. Heilman started her podcast ten years ago, soon after she moved to Calais from Montpelier, because what she heard on the radio was a “covered bridgified version” of Vermont. For her, really understanding Vermont includes exploring its weirder corners. “I thought, if I do this long enough, and talk with enough people and talk with them uninterrupted, something will come into focus about what this place is,” she said.
Since 2013, Heilman has won major recognition for the podcast with the subtitle “Good conversation that takes its time.” The stunning episode “Finn and the Bell,” from 2021, won a Peabody Award. In 2022, the New Yorker named Rumble Strip its top podcast, and the New York Times put it on its “best of” list. Countless local and national media have offered similar praise.
But what makes Rumble Strip a Vermont story, and not an American story, is that Heilman has zero plan to franchise her success. The show is “esoteric and small, which I used to be frustrated about and now am happy about, or resigned to, or whatever,” she said. “It’s a small show that will always be small by its nature.”
So for Vermonters, Rumble Strip remains an incredible cultural document: as specific, cavernous, and alive as a friendship. “Somebody asked me recently, ‘Whaddaya know about Vermonters now?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ It’s an impossible question,” Heilman observed.
Still, she’s reached a couple of conclusions. “The thing that I’ve arrived to, after thinking about the changing demographics in Vermont a lot, is this: the only things that keep us on the rails are curiosity and humility and a sense of humor,” she said. “All parties need to have these attributes in order to have any fun going ahead.” And while Heilman yields to others’ viewpoints on the show, she does have an overall agenda. “If you can tease back and back peoples’ rationale or logic for arriving at where they are, you can understand someone else’s life from the inside out, and you can find yourself there,” she said. “I want people to be delighted by each other.”
One year ago, Heilman produced an episode featuring the Co-op, in which she talked with WEC lineworkers about prom, among other topics, after they finished restoring power. “I always wanted to make a show about people out in the storm while we’re home drinking hot toddies or whatever it is we drink,” she said. So she went for a ride-along with GM Louis Porter after a late-season storm. The lineworkers, she said, were calm, competent, and funny. “These are guys you want on your lifeboat. They’re going to make the right decisions and they might save you,” she said.
It was also the moment she uncovered what it meant, to her, to be a member of an electric cooperative. Through just a degree or two of separation, she knew every lineworker on that crew. “It’s local in a way I was happy about and relieved by,” she said. “And they said as much: in addition to collecting a paycheck, it’s nice to maintain order in your own community.”
At the Annual Meeting on May 4, after the business portion concludes, Erica Heilman will talk about “how and why to stick a mic in someone’s face” and will play clips of stories told by people who may be your friends or neighbors. Show up and be delighted.