WHAT MAKES YOU TICK? by Sara Courtney
Jackie Tantillo and her podcast guests explore the role of their mothers
Did you ever wonder where you would be today without the love and support of your mom? For Maplewood resident Jackie Tantillo, this question goes to the heart of her popular podcast, “Should Have Listened To My Mother,” where she employs her soothing radio voice and inquisitive mind to discover what makes people tick. Tantillo often finds that at the heart of every successful person is a story about their mother.
Tantillo, who was born in Europe and grew up on Long Island, moved to Maplewood in 1999. She’s a second-generation Italian American, and one of seven children. The family traveled extensively and remain a tight-knit group to this day. “My six other siblings and myself, we talk many, many times a day. They are my best friends,” she says. “It’s a giggle and a smile every time we get on the phone together. My parents did a really remarkable job. We were very, very lucky.”
Tantillo had a close relationship with her mom, Linda, and speaks with admiration about her remarkable life. “At 17 years old she went to South America to work for the State Department. She was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and even some Portuguese.” Tantillo marvels at how her mother was able to get anything done while she and her siblings were growing up. “She would be in her sewing room all night long and we would be driving her crazy not going to bed when we should have. But she was patient with all of us.” Calling her mother “brilliant,” she says, “She had so many interests of her own that she kept up as she was raising us. She would stay late at night in her little studio whether it was painting or studying Italian or sewing and designing our little clothes. She was really remarkable.”
Tantillo, who has made a career of coaxing fascinating persons into sharing their stories, began in radio in 1979 with the encouragement of her mom. “She would tell me to send in my tapes, saying things like ‘You should be the voice of that station!’” Jackie reminisces. Her enthusiastic urging was prescient. “She actually did send my demos to WABC Radio!” she recalls. And sure enough, a few years after her demos were sent in, Jackie started working there.
Tantillo’s radio career kept her busy. “I have always worked. I’ve always been very lucky working in radio, then my voice-over career, and then back to radio.” Yet the transition from radio to a podcast came unexpectedly, when, after a 20-year career at WABC Radio in New York, it was sold and everyone was let go. Jackie considered how to move forward. “I was like, ‘Okay. Now what do I do?’”
Noting how the media landscape had changed, Tantillo considered starting a podcast. After mulling over various content ideas, she had an epiphany. “Literally, it was one of those things in the middle of the night: should have listened to my mother.” She is quick to clarify that the phrasing is meant as a positive. “It’s not in a negative way, it’s meant to think about the lessons that she was trying to teach us and that we didn’t grasp that gold ring as young as we could have. But we always have to be on our own journey.”
Working out of her home studio in Maplewood, her extraordinary podcast has led to conversations with a wide array of individuals. Together, the host and guest contemplate how they got professionally where they are today, and more importantly, how they became who they are.
“My main question that I ask every guest is: Are you who you are today because of, or in spite of, your mother?” Tantillo says, adding “and the floodgates open.” Tantillo admits she gets chills thinking of the many stories her guests have shared with her. “The initial podcast began with who the guest is today, asking, 'Who inspired you?' But then I realized the key component of all of this is the mother. So we start now initially right out of the gate with, 'Who is your mother? What is her name?' Giving her a name is really important. And then we talk about the impact she had on them.”
It’s important to Tantillo that her listeners are brought into the intimate conversation, and she is always looking for ways to ensure that fans of the podcast feel as though they were right there.
“Anything to get my guest to make things come alive. This comes back to my love of radio and how powerful the medium is. I want my listeners to be able to see, sense, and feel this particular mom that you are telling me about right now.”
She remains inspired by how resilient people are, noting that some had the support of their mothers, while others were raised in difficult circumstances, without that unconditional love. With these stories, Tantillo is drawn to their grit and drive to realize their potential, marveling how “some people have had really tough roads and they somehow make it.” Noting that her guests’ emotions sometimes overcome them, she says, “The walls come down because it’s a very personal conversation. They forget this conversation is being recorded.” Tantillo’s gentle approach and warm demeanor help put the guests – and audience – at ease. It all comes down to the human connection. “They feel like they are sharing stories with a friend,” she says.
When it comes to interviewing fascinating guests who are her friends, Tantillo does not have to search farther than her own community. Such was the case when she interviewed local Maplewood resident and renowned baritone singer, Christòpheren Nomura. An artist who has performed with choirs, symphonies, opera houses and even Broadway, Nomura’s journey captivated Tantillo. They became friends when their boys were playing little league baseball together. Nomura, a self-described “baseball dad” who coached their kids' teams nearly 20 years ago, remembers an “immediate” friendship was struck. “We just became very friendly from our love of the arts and our backgrounds and our jobs, and of course our love of baseball!” Nomura remembers.
When Tantillo approached Nomura about sharing his story on her podcast, his reaction was, “Where do I sign up? This sounds like an amazing podcast!” With his friend’s gentle coaxing, Nomura shares his fascinating beginning: how his mother, who played piano and encouraged his singing and love of music, tricked him into thinking they were going sightseeing around San Francisco, only for them to show up at an audition for the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Nomura, who was only 6 years old, found himself singing to a room full of delighted adults considering him for a position within the competitive choir, which normally did not allow children younger than 8 to join.
Nomura loved the experience and is grateful his mother so strongly believed in him. The interview is fascinating not only because of Nomura’s singular life story but for how his mother’s joy in music spurred on the beginnings of his career. And yet it remains not just a discussion between a podcast host and a remarkable artist, but an intimate discussion between neighbors and friends.
Tantillo counts herself lucky to live in the SOMA community, where she can get to know so many talented individuals. “It’s amazing. There are so many giving and loving people in this town who will be there at the drop of a hat,” she says. “Not only are there people in the arts, you can find every facet of life.” The creative spark that flourishes in SOMA captivates Nomura too. “It’s a very special community here,” he says. “You can tell there is a real deep appreciation for the arts in this community.”
When it comes to her listeners, Tantillo wants them to think about their own journeys, and yes, their mothers. “I hope they are inspired. Maybe it will make them feel more fortunate, more appreciative.” she says. Being a mother and raising children is “hard, and one day a year for Mother’s Day in May isn’t enough,” Tantillo asserts. “It doesn’t acknowledge or give them praise. It is the most important relationship that we have in our life, this relationship with our mother. You could be a psychologist, a philosopher, an expert – and yet it always comes down to the significance of the relationship between you and your mom.”
Sara Courtney lives in Maplewood and yes, she listened to her mother.