Bryn Huntpalmer, C’08, builds a thriving—and profitable—podcast business by inviting mothers to tell their birth stories.
By Will Bostwick, C'10
“This will give you an idea of how nomadic we’ve been,” says Bryn Huntpalmer, an impish grin forming. “While we were both in school in Fayetteville, Arkansas ... we decided that we were going to sell everything we owned and travel around in an RV. And so we did.” A few months after moving into their fifth wheeler with their six-month-old baby and hundred-pound dog, Huntpalmer and her husband, Richard, learned she was pregnant with their second child.
This is the prelude to the first of more than 150 birth stories on Bryn Huntpalmer’s popular and engaging podcast, “The Birth Hour.” The podcast, which Huntpalmer, C’08, records and produces out of her home in Austin, Texas, recently celebrated its two millionth download and has turned into a full-time job for Huntpalmer (and part-time job for Richard, C’05, a full-time lawyer, who does most of the audio editing). In the last several years, thanks in part to the popularity of podcasts like “Serial,” an advertising market has opened up around podcasts, and Huntpalmer has had the business and marketing sense to turn her passion project into a profitable venture. Huntpalmer insists, however, that “it’s never felt like a job.” For her, it’s about the stories and the people they benefit.
“I had no idea prior to having children that writing down your birth story was even a thing,” she says as she introduces the first episode. “But when I was pregnant and planning my own birth, I suddenly wanted to read every birth story I could get my hands on. I spent way too many late nights reading birth story after birth story.”
Huntpalmer quickly learned that she wasn’t alone in finding comfort and fascination in these stories. Now, six years after her first pregnancy, Huntpalmer has dramatically improved access to the stories by providing an outlet, both for those eager to hear and those eager to tell the stories. She’s in the enviable position of having created a platform where there’s heavy demand for the content (more than 150,000 people follow “The Birth Hour”) and heavy demand to provide the content (right now, she has a list of about 500 people who want to be on the podcast).
Part of what makes “The Birth Hour” financially viable is that Huntpalmer had the sense to present it to sponsors as a package deal. There’s the podcast, which is downloaded many thousands of times a day, but there’s also the Instagram page, which has more than 150,000 followers, a private Facebook group for those who support the podcast financially, and an email newsletter. Huntpalmer is able to charge a higher price for advertising because of her broad social media presence.
After determining the RV unfit to accommodate two babies, two parents, and a dog, Bryn and Richard decide to settle in Depoe Bay, a remote town on the Oregon coast, to await the child. Richard, having just graduated from law school, was scheduled to take the bar exam, which wouldn’t be offered again for another six months, on July 30 and 31. Bryn’s due date was July 20, so they thought the timing might work out, but didn’t want to take any chances. The couple did everything they knew to hurry the birth along—they went on long walks, ate spicy food—but the due date came and went. As did the intervening 10 days. Richard offered to skip the bar exam, but Bryn insisted he go.
Listeners come to the podcast for different reasons. There are the expectant parents, for whom the podcast acts as “an encyclopedia of stress relief,” as one online reviewer put it. But there are also the moms who want to reminisce about what was one of the most important moments of their lives. As one mom says, “I fall in love all over again with my son thinking of my experience and bringing him into the world.”
“The Birth Hour” provides a safe place. It documents the endless variety of experiences, and the endless variety of emotions. Some of the stories will break your heart. Some will have you laughing out loud. “I mean I cry pretty much every episode, whether it’s a happy moment or a sad one. There’s always one little thing that will get me, even after all these stories,” Huntpalmer says.
Huntpalmer has long enjoyed telling stories. In high school she was the editor-in-chief of the yearbook. When she was looking at colleges, she thought she wanted to go to a school where she could study journalism. Sewanee didn’t have a journalism program, but she applied anyway, and was sold on the University after visiting one weekend in spring. “I fell in love with it. It was one of those perfect spring Sewanee days, where they really suck you in.”
She thought English might be a natural stand-in for journalism, but found that “Shakespeare just wasn’t my thing.” But then she took History 101 with Harold Goldberg. “And it was the first time I really was enjoying learning, which sounds crazy … but in high school I was straight-A student, and I think I was just studying for the test, and not retaining anything or engaging with it.”
That first class led her to take more classes with Goldberg, and ultimately to declare her major in Asian studies. That led her first on a Sewanee-sponsored trip to Southeast Asia, then to study abroad in China, then to Beijing to study female migrant workers on a Biehl Fellowship, where she was able to combine her Sewanee education with her gift for storytelling and her interest in women’s issues.
Immediately after graduating, Huntpalmer worked in nonprofits. She then used the experience she gained there in fundraising and development, as well as her master’s degree in higher education, to land a job as head of development for a community college in Oregon. From there, she moved on to a tech start-up, where she quickly rose to head of the content team. It was there that she learned many of the technical skills she needed to launch the online marketing aspects of “The Birth Hour.”
Before Richard drove up coast to Portland for the two-day bar exam, Bryn’s mom flew in from Houston. Bryn vowed to sit still on the couch, doing as little as possible that could trigger the labor, until Richard returned. “Once he left, I decided this baby is staying in until he gets back,” Huntpalmer tells us on the first episode. The listener is almost caught off-guard to learn that it worked: Bryn was able to stave off labor until the night Richard returned. The brevity of the birth surprised them, but they were grateful for it. It made for a concise and happy ending to their birth drama.
“I always say it’s every woman’s favorite story to tell ... I think you want to relive the emotions of it, but you also want to find commonality with someone else. So, I find that even the people who had a really traumatic birth, they really want to share it.” And Huntpalmer doesn’t shy away from the sometimes painful and harrowing details of childbirth.
Because of the intensity of these birth stories, their effect on the audience and on the tellers, they give us about as potent a distillation as you can find of a response to the question: Why do we tell stories? We tell them to reminisce, to entertain, to educate, to comfort, and to embolden. In pages and pages of reviews and testimonials to the podcast, you find examples of people who have come to “The Birth Hour” for each of these things. What unifies them is that they’re all so grateful for the medium, and for the host.