Wanting to Be Heard: On Podcasts and Representation -The Toast

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I set out to write about podcasts and representation in terms of media criticism; to ask podcasters, Who do you record with? Who gets to hold the mic? Are you sharing the (Internet) airwaves with people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and other marginalized groups? I wanted to hear more about content and diversity. But when I talked to five podcasters, each smart and successful in her own way, I also learned a lot more about the nuts and bolts of podcasting — the cost of hardware, the victories and glitches of software, and the embracing of or aversion to corporate sponsorship.

Representation in podcasts and the impact it can have so often hinges on advertising. We have more opportunities than ever before for the voices of queer people, trans people, people of color, and women to be recorded for online dissemination. Just that: recorded. Uploading a recording is liberating to a point, but it comes with no guarantee of listenership or further engagement. You can work at podcasting like a job and take home no paycheck. Like it or not, the presence of ad slots on a podcast — on its own platform, or as linked to a podcast network like 5×5 or RelayFM — increases the likelihood that listeners will tune in. The form podcasting takes, as it turns out, holds a more significant answer to the question of representation.


Radio that listens back

Listening to podcasts can feel like friendly eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in your earbuds as you work out at the gym, run errands, or commute to work. Over and over I heard one word describing podcasts: “intimate.” Hosts interview friends or strangers for a chance to pick their brains, or join a panel to geek out over a new video game or movie.

Serenity Caldwell, a regular podcaster with iMore and frequent contributor to The Incomparable, as well as regular guest on Twit, This Week in Tech and MacBreak Weekly, spoke of the podcast as a kind of radio program that listens and responds to its broadcasters. “Radio feels like broadcasting into the void, podcasting feels like broadcasting into somebody’s living room,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Serenity Caldwell Photo courtesy of Serenity Caldwell, pictured right

This phenomenon is due in large part to recent technological advancements that allow podcast creators to cheaply and efficiently produce audio content while also easing the way for listeners to find it. According to Stephanie Foo, a producer at This American Life and contributor to podcasts like 99% Invisible and Reply All, last year’s release of the Apple iOS 7.1.1 led to an explosion in podcasts, including the soaring success of Serial. Foo said the inclusion of the podcast app in particular made it easier for people to take in podcasts, since listeners no longer had to transfer files from iTunes to their phones. “They could just search and look at this whole world of podcasts—most of which are totally free,” said Foo. “Because of that, really smart people are flooding the industry, wanting to make audio. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

A uniquely DIY spirit inhabits the podcast world. “Anyone can make a podcast,” said Foo. “You can get free editing software, you can get a pretty basic mic, you can set everything up, and you can make your own podcast for maybe $300 and have it sound really great.”

An especially satisfying reward for folks creating podcasts (or any media) today is direct and prolonged interactions with the people consuming the content. Interactions among podcasters and listeners showcase the spirit of the Internet age. “The special thing about podcasts is that radio for a long time—at least in the pre-Internet era—felt very siloed,” said Serenity Caldwell. “You could call into a radio show, but it was a couple people in a booth shooting it back and forth and playing songs to the ether. Whereas in podcasts, by the nature of the Internet (where we sometimes record live and sometimes broadcast live), we get questions constantly. We interact with fans! In the times we’re not broadcasting live, we interact with fans as soon as the show comes out.”

Caldwell in particular has seen contributors and producers of shows like The Incomparable collaborate with fans who have reached out. David J. Loehr, once an anonymous fan of The Incomparable TV show, now writes the scripts for The Incomparable Radio Theatre of the Air. “We had him on once,” Caldwell remembered. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m a director and a writer and I do that kind of stuff. I love that kind of stuff. I could write you guys scripts if you’re interested.’” They were.


What if the radio is tuned to Troll FM?

Stephanie Foo admitted that she hasn’t faced the kind of harrowing responses to her work that some of her colleagues at This American Life have. But it’s impossible to deny that some old-school media sexism still haunts podcasts—from criticism of vocal fry to commenters researching what women podcasters look like and then emailing to tell them they’re ugly.

Brianna Wu, a host on the podcasts Rocket and Isometric on RelayFM, knows all about trolls. A simple Google search will yield seemingly endless hits for pages accusing her of everything from corruption and embezzlement in her work as a computer engineer to threats on her life.

But Wu is committed to preventing her own voice, and the voices of other women in technology and gaming, from being silenced. “You get shouted down when you speak up for yourself,” she told me. “I know that more than most people do. But I think it’s really, really clear: I love Final Fantasy. I love Macs. I love dancing games. I love shooters. I love being a game developer. And I have just as much a right to be represented in that field as anyone else does.”


Anyone can record a podcast—but will anyone be listening?

With more software and hardware available to the general population, there’s no doubt that more people are recording podcasts. This allows for increased representation among groups previously excluded from traditional media. But gatekeepers have not disappeared completely—because recording and uploading a podcast episode does not necessarily (or even usually) lead to wide listenership or ad revenue.

It’s been a winding road for Nia King of We Want the Airwaves, a podcast devoted to highlighting the lives and work of queer and trans artists of color in the Bay Area. “The first year of the podcast, I was giving it away for free on my website,” King said. “It was on iTunes, and then I took it off iTunes and put it behind a paywall. I was unemployed and I was spending so much time and energy on podcasts and not making any money from it. That felt really frustrating. So I was like: I can’t keep pouring time and energy into this project that feels like a job but isn’t generating any income.”

King then faced a catch-22: she was charging listeners for podcasts, but this diminished listenership. “Being behind a paywall really limited my audience. Now that it’s moving back into iTunes I can see that it’s getting a lot of downloads. People are listening. I don’t have any sponsors.” King has, for the time being, chosen to expand the listenership of We Want the Airwaves at the expense of paid patronage. It seems an unfair—if not unfamiliar—choice.


Podcasting as a business

The technology revolution that made it possible for podcasts to be recorded and uploaded with less hassle means that many podcasts are available to listeners for free, without any distraction from ads (and no income going to the podcasters). Many other podcasts are embedded with ads and generate revenue for the folks recording them. For many successful folks in audio, podcasting is a business.

Jackie Kashian | Photo credit: Michael Helms Jackie Kashian | Photo credit: Michael Helms

Jackie Kashian of Dork Forest is more of a purist about ads. “Any question that begins, ‘How are you monetizing this?’ drives me crazy,” she said. “I like money as much as most people, but if I keep getting asked about the money, it might change the reason I do the show. Which might ruin the show. As of now, the show is free.”

There’s a pride and grit that comes with running an independent or specialty podcast, no different from the love that fuels garage bands and independent presses and zines. But where’s the line between relishing indie legitimacy and feeling stuck in a silo?

Nia King has always treated We Want the Airwaves, which has no sponsors, like a job, even though it hasn’t paid her like one. “It’s hard to feel like people value your work when they’re not supporting it monetarily,” King said. “It feels really lonely. You spend all this time editing audio in your room, you post it on the Internet, and then there may or may not be any response.”

Some podcasters associate the possibility of hosting ads with the fear of selling out, and are proud of their independence. Yet others maintain that buoying representatives from marginalized groups is the most empowering move.

“I spend a great majority of my week working on networking,” said Brianna Wu. “My show on 5×5—that didn’t happen serendipitously. I made it a plan five years before Isometric started, to start making connections in the Mac world with the eventual goal of having a show on a primetime network. We did 10 episodes of Isometric and got picked up by 5×5. What you didn’t see were the four years of networking that led up to that happening.”

I asked Wu how she felt about the ads that run on RelayFM, where two of her podcasts are housed. “I think they’re solid!” Wu said. “They’ve never brought a sponsor to my door that I haven’t been very comfortable in working with. Rocket in particular is a show—and I don’t mind saying it—it makes me a lot of money. Our ratings are awesome for that show! I think it speaks to a real thirst for a different perspective.”


Mainstream and indie podcasts

In podcasts, is indie status the direct opposite of the mainstream? Since the focus of We Want the Air Waves is queer artists of color, is it an indie project? There is some intangible boundary there. Anyone who consumes enough American media can sense it, though it’s hard to describe or define. Should a conscientious media consumer stick to the indie outlets, to get a better range of voices? Or do we push our righteous indie stars into the mainstream?

I asked Nia King if she foresees a world in which there is an NPR anchor who is a queer person of color. Will We Want the Airwaves always be indie? Is mainstream the goal? King was frank: “That’s a question we grapple with a lot on the podcast. And that I grapple a lot with personally.” She reminded me of something she’d recently Tweeted: “I hate the system, but I want its validation and legitimacy.”

Photo credit: Elliot Owen Nia King | Photo credit: Elliot Owen

“I used to think that you just hustled until you got your big break, and now I realize you just hustle until you die,” King said with a dry laugh. “I don’t even think there’s such a thing as a big break anymore. Even the people that have achieved success don’t necessarily have job stability or know where their next job is coming from.

“Is the goal mainstream success?” King asked. “I think it depends. For me, creative control is important. It’s something it seems that you lose when you go mainstream, or have corporate sponsors.”

Add to that the concern that mainstream media doesn’t have the power, clout or money it once had, and entry into the mainstream may not be at all enticing.

“There’s this idea that there was a Golden Age before the Internet democratization, that if you were one of the few who made it past the gatekeepers you were just set for life,” said King. “Now we know that we fight so hard to get through the gate, and once you see what’s inside, it’s not actually that impressive. I don’t know if that was always true, but I think it’s true now. The mainstream system—I don’t want to say it’s becoming obsolete, because it still matters, but it’s not as powerful as it once was. If I can self-publish a book and sell 1,000 copies, what is the incentive for me to have a press that’s not going to help me with touring? It’s just unclear whether I’m better off working within the system or without. Because at least now I have complete creative control.”

Not so, said Brianna Wu. “A real problem that I see with women is: I think we could aim a lot higher with what our professional goals are,” Wu said. “I wish I saw more women sending show proposals to not just Relay, but 5×5, and other shows. I think that we’re so used to the system kicking us and not taking us seriously, we tend to go indie and on our own.”

Wu encouraged women and people from other marginalized groups to pitch to podcast networks and court advertisers. “I guess my message would be: Go out and speak with Moisés [Chiullan] at ESN [The Electric Shadow Network] who is looking for different shows. I know he has given them a shot. He’s mega-connected in the advertising world.

“Work smart,” Wu continued. “I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy! And I’m certainly not going to say I’m blaming women for not playing at the same level. I’m very aware of the obstacles we face. Women, people of color, LGBT people—we have to work twice as hard to get half as much progress. Which I think makes it that much more imperative for us to attack problems in a pragmatic way.”


On representation and sharing the spotlight

I asked Stephanie Foo if there are still gatekeepers and barriers in place that keep a certain kind of podcast or media person in the spotlight.

“Historically, public radio has not been as diverse as it should be,” she said. “I think that’s a fact that anyone in public radio will be pretty frank about recognizing. And I think that’s because of the content of public radio, frankly. It’s made By Older White People, For Older White People (historically).”

tiny for seth (1) Stephanie Foo

This is changing, though, Foo thinks. “I think that as the content has started to change, the listenership has started to change. We finally have podcasts that are made for younger people now,” she said, citing Snap Judgment as an example. “Quality is an issue. I think Serial blew up because it was made by some of the most experienced, best people in public radio. But I think as more people become interested in audio, they’ll start flooding in, and they’ll start getting better. I was in audio for four years before I made it to This American Life. I think the change can be pretty swift.”

I asked everyone I spoke with if they felt any sort of obligation to use their podcasts to highlight others from backgrounds previously shut out of traditional media. All answered in a similar way: They wanted their podcasts to explore topics that fascinated them. Whatever drew them in—people’s unbelievable life stories, a new development in the tech field, a beloved book to be discussed with friends, a new game—they wanted to share the joy of that story with whoever listened in.

Stephanie Foo was adamant that her sole obligation is to capture good storytelling in podcasts, but that sharing her own perspective as a woman of color adds diversity to the digital airwaves. It was hard not to be infected by her optimism and enthusiasm. “Five years ago, I had a podcast called Get Me On This American Life,” she said. “And that’s it! I had a really terrible podcast that I made on Final Cut Pro (because that’s what came on my computer). I didn’t have any editing software. I borrowed a recorder from somebody. I had a minimum-wage job. I was doing this in my free time, late at night. And in five years, I’m at This American Life. I think there is totally the possibility to change this whole industry very quickly and flood it with young people of color who have a lot of potential.”

Optimism abounds for diverse participation in podcasts, but “old media” habits can die hard. Serenity Caldwell mentioned several reasons she’s recording fewer panel-style discussion podcasts these days. We discussed how to call out ingrained habits as well as the need for microphone-sharing etiquette within the geek/enthusiast podcast community.

“You get into a (virtual) room with three or four other people, and if you’re not the most passionate one in the room, chances are you will get talked over,” Caldwell said. “The Incomparable is much better about this than other shows that I have been on. But it still happens. And no matter how much the host attempts to moderate it, if there are loud voices that want to be heard, that are more passionate about it than you, or have louder things to say than you do, you will not always get to talk.”

I asked Caldwell if she felt this was happening because she is a woman recording about the tech field, or in nerd culture. Or, could it be due to a recording setup utilizing Skype or Google Hangouts, where not every contributor is in the same room—with certain glitches like lags or breaks in Internet connectivity? Is it the medium or the media culture?

I would say it’s 75% the medium—it’s hard, and there are guys who get drowned out too,” Caldwell said. “I think it’s unconscious, a long-standing societal tick. In general, guys have gotten comfortable with being able to say something and not getting cut off—or learning to barrel past the cutoff. I don’t know what it is; wanting to be popular, wanting to hold the mic, wanting to be heard, especially when you’re in a nerdy culture and maybe you’ve spent a lot of your earlier life not getting heard. When all of the sudden people want to listen to you, it’s an intoxicating feeling. You feel like, Yeah, I’ve got the mic! People actually want to listen to me, this is exciting!”

Intentional or not, this phenomenon can have real consequences for representation in podcasts. “I do think that if you are a quieter woman in this community, it can be harder to pipe up,” Caldwell said. “If you have the outgoing energy to have those kinds of battles, then you can power right through. And again, none of my co-hosts and nobody that I’ve ever worked with in podcasting is actively antagonistic; I don’t think anybody is realizing, consciously, that they’re doing this.”

Caldwell suggested a stronger emphasis on podcast etiquette, for all participants, to make sure every voice is heard. “If you’re on a podcast with four other people and you’ve been talking for 50-75% of the time,” Caldwell said, take a breath and take a step back.

When it comes to enthusiast-panel style podcasts, Caldwell said a good moderator can ensure fair distribution of time speaking. “A good moderator can go a long way to fixing those kinds of issues, as well as panelists being aware,” she said.


The future of podcasts

“I have a lot of hope,” said Stephanie Foo. “We have the opportunity to completely disassemble the [media] institutions that have come before, and build a new world where equality rules. I want to be a part of that.”

Photo courtesy of Brianna Wu | Credit: Shannon Grant Photo courtesy of Brianna Wu | Credit: Shannon Grant

Brianna Wu remains more cautiously optimistic, prepared to put on battle gear to see this accomplished. Wu said that when it comes to more equitable representation in podcasts, “It’s not going to get better on its own. We’re going to have to fight tooth and nail… I think 2015 and 2014 have—through blood, sweat and tears—been years when we brought awareness to this. I think we’re getting better but I think we’ve got a long way to go.” Wu was quick to follow up that her path is not The Path For All Women, or All Podcasters, or All Believers In Fair Podcast Representation.

Streaming podcasts can, for listeners, meet a universal human need for connection, for the voices of others, and for stories. Some storytellers sell their recorded tales to pay their bills, and some don’t. But in the end, good stories and well-spun narratives leave listeners with a sense of belonging, and sometimes comfort. Nia King told me her favorite time to listen to podcasts is at night, when she’s in bed, about to fall asleep. Podcasts are better than bedtime stories, she said.

Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University with a degree in Journalism. She's a staff blogger at Newfound Journal and contributes to the GameNight Media podcast. Her works published page lives here:

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