“I’d love to host a podcast one day,” Sarah says wistfully when I speak to her on the phone. She’s 17, from Georgia, and just graduated high school. She’s saved enough money to go traveling for a year, and plans to start college in 2019 if she can afford it.
Her parents are supportive, but they don’t understand why she would want a career in radio, which, to them, is made up of white conservative men in their 50s shouting over each other.
“They don’t understand that podcasting is different, and that someone like me — from the South, black, genderqueer — could make a career out of talking to people about my experience,” explains Sarah, who asked me not to use her last name for fear it might impact her future applying for jobs and colleges.
“Someone like me — from the South, black, genderqueer — could make a career out of talking to people about my experience.”
She didn’t grow up listening to podcasts or public radio. She was introduced to podcasting in 2014 when she discovered Serial, and that catapulted her into the vast world of audio content. She enjoys podcasts like Two Dope Queens and Another Round, both hosted by black women, and gets extraordinarily excited when I tell her that the following day I’m going to be speaking to the hosts of WNYC’s Nancy, a podcast hosted by two queer Asian-American friends exploring LGBTQ issues.
For decades, radio has been the domain of middle-class white folks, most often of the straight male variety. While print and video media were revolutionized by the advent of blogging and vlogging in the late 2000s, and more diverse voices began to emerge, radio has taken longer to catch up.
But now that podcasts are becoming increasingly popular, there’s a new thirst for great audio content and an audience clearly keen to hear shows created and hosted by women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
Striving for change
Podcasting has come a long way since the mid-2000s, when the medium was largely dominated by tech enthusiasts recording mp3s in their basements. Now, podcasts have hit the mainstream, and those of us who prefer them to traditional radio have a very different perspective on what kinds of voices we expect to hear.
But podcast-obsessed millennials aren’t the first ones to recognize the need to tackle the lack of diversity in radio.
Laura Walker is the president of New York Public Radio, where she’s been working for 21 years. Her first job in media was in 1979, and she’s seen a huge shift in the way diversity has been addressed during that time.
“By having diverse perspectives on air and behind the scenes, you’re asking yourself different questions.”
“There’s been a growth of diversity on air in general over the past few decades, but public radio has been a lot more forward-looking in many ways,” she says, talking about one of her first roles in radio at NPR. “When I first got there, it was almost all men on air, and we’ve changed that.”
Walker spearheaded Werk It, a women’s podcast festival, which aims to empower and celebrate women’s voices. She thinks it’s crucial for radio to reflect the audience it’s trying to reach.
“By having diverse perspectives on air and behind the scenes, you’re asking yourself different questions. If we want to serve more people in New York, we need to sound more like the city,” she says.
Figures released last year show that NYPR has managed to achieve an even gender split, with women making up 53 percent of the overall workforce and 45 percent of its board of trustees. When it comes to racial diversity, however, it still has a long way to go. Of its 40 board members, only six are people of color, and the general workforce is 74 percent white.
Walker recognizes that podcasts are a lot more diverse than traditional radio — even public radio, often considered a beacon of progressive viewpoints in the media.
“There’s a lower barrier to entry [with podcasting] and people from all different backgrounds can create one,” she says, explaining that NYPR now has radio shows that started out as podcasts, such as Freakonomics Radio.
The number of people listening to podcasts is steadily increasing, and creators have a more diverse audience to serve. According to 2016 Edison research, podcast audiences are becoming increasingly racially diverse, with non-white listeners increasing from from 32 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2016.
Looking beyond the media bubble
NPR is another major player in the podcasting space. Its biggest successes include hugely popular radio shows that are also downloadable as podcasts, like All Things Considered, as well as original content created specifically for a podcast audience, such as Up First, a new daily news podcast. In response to the growing popularity of its podcasts, in 2014 NPR even launched a standalone app that allows listeners to access NPR content seamlessly.
Despite its reputation as a thought leader in this space, NPR’s diversity credentials are clearly lacking: recent figures showed that 75 percent of its newsroom staff is white.
But one way NPR is trying to diversify is through its Kroc Fellowship, a year-long paid training program for college graduates. In 2009, one of the fellows was Sam Sanders, who went on to cover politics for NPR, and was one of the original co-hosts of the hugely popular Politics Podcast. Last month, NPR launched It’s Been A Minute, a new current affairs talk show podcast hosted by Sanders.
“I didn’t know what NPR was until I was about 19 years old. When I first started listening I didn’t think much about the race of people talking, but I guess I assumed they were white,” says Sanders, who is black. He’s been involved in podcasting for years, but he’s cautious about promoting the idea that the medium is a path to equality in radio.
“We act like Serial [hosted by a woman, Sarah Koenig] came out of nowhere, but it came from This American Life, which for years has been the most popular podcast of all time, and as soon as Ira Glass told people to check it out, they did. These industries are very incestuous,” Sanders says.
Two Dope Queens and Nancy are backed by WNYC. Another Round is hosted by major podcasting network Panoply, and created by BuzzFeed, which in itself is staffed by a number of executives formerly of The New York Times and Washington Post.
“The challenge is to find the genuinely independent raw talent, and put the weight of a network behind them.”
For Sanders, true diversity will only be achieved when radio represents more than just the media elite, regardless of their gender or race. It’s the people with clear abilities but no background in media — or even knowledge of public radio — that should be sought out by the big networks.
Sanders says the diversity in background matters. If you have a host from a middle-class, East Coast upbringing who went to a liberal arts college, did a year-long internship at NPR and eventually gets their own show, that’s not as diverse as it could be, regardless of that person’s race or gender.
He sees a future in which big networks bring on people who have completely different experiences than their current hosts and editors, and will challenge their views rather than reinforce them.
Instead of simply acquiring podcasts and hosts who have been groomed to become the next Ira Glass, “the challenge is to find the genuinely independent raw talent, and put the weight of a network behind them,” Sanders explains.
It’s easy for big media organizations to dismiss that, on the basis that it isn’t worth investing in untrained talent. But there are plenty of arguments that it’s to their benefit. One example is Gimlet Media, a podcasting startup founded in 2014 by former This American Life and Planet Money staffer Alex Blumberg. With such a pedigree, Gimlet could have fallen foul to the introspective and risk-averse attitude Sanders is concerned about, but instead they pushed to do things differently, and in December 2015 launched a show called Sampler, which ran for one season.
The host was Brittany Luse, who until then held a day job as a marketing manager while cohosting a show called For Colored Nerds on the side. Her natural flair for audio caught Gimlet’s eye, and they brought her on board. On July 17, she launched her second podcast for the company, The Nod, about black culture.
“I think that podcasting has the potential to be more democratic than most mainstream media,” Luse says. “Without any formal training I went from barely competent marketing manager to fairly decent podcast host in a matter of months.”
“If I’d never heard a radio show with black voices, why would I study to be an editor or a producer?”
Despite her experience, Luse knows that even at the most forward-thinking company, there’s always more to be done when it comes to achieving equality, diversity, and inclusion.
In December 2015 she appeared on an episode of Gimlet’s StartUp, a podcast that explores issues about starting and running a business, using Gimlet itself as a case study. She spoke with Blumberg about the company’s lack of diversity — only three out of 27 employees were non-white at the time. Last month they recorded an update, and while the ratio has improved (almost 20 percent of employees are now non-white), there are still glaring problems, such as the fact that Luse’s podcast about black culture doesn’t have a black editor.
I spoke to Sarah, the 17-year-old aspiring podcaster, about this.
“Hearing that episode made me sad, but also hopeful,” she says. “For generations, black people haven’t been properly represented in the media, and I think that makes us think we can’t be a part of it. If I’d never heard a radio show with black voices, why would I study to be an editor or a producer?”
Sarah says that means there’s a talent gap, and it ends up being “a vicious circle.” She thinks smaller companies in podcasting can change that.
Luse knows how rare these types of conversations are, especially ones that are broadcast for everyone to hear, and she’s aware that she’s “speaking for a lot of people of color in the workforce who can’t have these conversations with their bosses.”
Breaking down stereotypes
A key element in achieving equality of any kind is to acknowledge our subconscious biases. Sam Sanders’ experience, when he began listening to NPR and assumed everyone was white, still holds true today. Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, the hosts of the podcast Nancy, realized this was the case when they jokingly suggested “coming out” as Asian-American at the end of their promo.
“We’d both had experiences where people would hear our voice on the phone and just automatically assume we were white,” Low explains. “And initially when we recorded that segment, it was sort of a joke, but listening back we both really liked the energy it brought to it.”
Tu agreed that the segment should stay. She wanted them to sound like themselves. The whole point of the podcast was to do something new.
“It’s no secret that radio tends to be white, so one of the reasons I liked it was that we weren’t trying to blend in,” she says.
For all the podcasters I spoke to, one theme seemed to link their experiences: They all made the podcasts they wanted to listen to, and in doing so created content for audiences that, until now, had been ignored. And when these podcasts were amplified by big networks with huge reach and influence, they took off, proving to the radio industry that the audience is there if they look for it. Podcasts are breaking the mold of the “traditional radio host” that prevailed up until just a few years ago.
But Luse, for one, is cautiously optimistic about the change.
“I hope it’s not just a trend, and that in the future our work is not some anomaly,” she says. “And I’d be happy to have absolutely no need for ‘diversity in podcasting’ discussions ever again. We’ll see how that actually pans out.”