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Take a look at the iTunes ranking for the top 100 podcasts and you’ll find it jam-packed with options: a multitude of topics and news reports, analyses of arts and politics, narrative broadcasts that pull you into stories that unfold like old-school radio dramas, and series that make you feel like a detective on a crime case that went cold long ago. The possibilities for auditory delight will exceed your time budget. What you won’t find—what’s missing at this audio buffet—are many podcasts hosted by people of color.
The New York Times reports over 325,000 podcasts available for download. With a number that large, finding podcasts by people of color should be relatively easy—except it’s not. For black and brown podcasters, and those interested in their shows and stories, it’s disheartening to see so little representation in big podcast networks like Gimlet, Panoply, and media giants like NPR. (For the sake of disclosure, this reporter has worked part-time as an associate producer for WAMU and NPR talk show 1A.) As the podcasting industry fails to make space for non-white people, it comes up short on diversity of voices and perspectives.
It’s not as if black and brown podcasters don’t exist. They do. It’s not even as if they don’t exist in massive numbers, because anyone willing to do the work of searching would find a plethora of podcasts in a variety of genres—all written, produced, and hosted by podcasters of color. Black and brown podcasters are here. They’ve been here for quite some time. And many of them are located right here in D.C.
But what they aren’t getting is access and opportunity in the same way as many of their white peers. In her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech, Viola Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” While she was talking about acting, what she has to say rings true in the world of podcasting.
Chinué Richardson and Halle Millien are two black women who founded LemonDrop Media, a national podcasting network that is putting out superb shows and at the same time changing how the industry treats black and brown podcasters. The two, who are sisters, moved to the District and fell in love with it following college graduation. Richardson attended Howard University Law School. Their careers eventually moved them out of the city they love, but D.C. is still homebase. Their mother lives here, and they return multiple times a year.
“We grew up on NPR, and we’ve always been around storytelling in a big way. We found ourselves listening to a lot of podcasts, and most of them were hosted by white men and didn’t speak to people of color or women in a real way,” says Millien. Neither of the women see themselves, or stories similar to theirs, reflected in the media they consume. They also feel ignored, as a demographic, by the major podcast networks. Both say they wish to take nothing away from those networks, and acknowledge the quality of the work these networks put out. “You know when you hear a Gimlet show that it’s going to be high quality,” says Millien, “but it’s mostly going to be from the perspective of a white man.”
Millien says that the content featuring non-white people that places like NPR and Panoply issue, while great, “seems to be more of an accessory and doesn’t seem to be part of their strategy—and [they’re] not necessarily growing with diversity in mind.” The women point to segments on NPR that only feature dialects and voices of black and brown people when a story is on an issue that has been coded in society as primarily about non-white people. Think immigration reform and affirmative action, even though data and scholarship suggest that white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action policy.
Richardson and Millien see the problem, in part, as major outlets believing that hiring a black or brown host is enough, while at the same time expecting them to perform for a primarily white audience and cover a range of topics that is limited so as not to offend that listener base—even at the risk of never expanding another. And in some shows that have been elevated in major networks, hosts of color often seem to exist only to talk about their otherness.
The two women say their goal with LemonDrop Media is to highlight the entire spectrum of the black and brown experience. Their network houses shows that range from interviews with unpublished authors of color (Hidden Scribes) to the show Brown Girls Do. TaKiyah Wallace and Amber Cabral co-host the podcast. Wallace is a life-long educator and founder of the Texas-based non-profit Brown Girls Do, INC., and Cabral is a board member of the oganization, which provides “annual scholarships, a mentor network, and community programs to empower young girls.”
“We noticed how hard it could be to find positive stories,” says Cabral.
Black women are often portrayed in media as demanding or unjustifiably angry when they appear, and are not represented at all in some parts of the American story. Latina women are regularly hyper-sexualized, as are their black counterparts. Indigenous women rarely get a voice at all, and Asian women, when they are represented, are often made out to be omnipresent nags. All of these portrayals lack depth of character, and all these stereotypes lack nuance.
Cabral says that while positive stories exist in the world of podcasting, “when we do find them, they’re often overshadowed by the diversity challenges facing the world today,” meaning that these positive stories rarely receive the same amount of attention as those published in the major networks. The voices of the black and brown people who produce and curate the stories aren’t being amplified. That leaves podcasting, an industry in its infancy, making the same mistakes with which Hollywood insiders now find themselves reckoning.
The moment Cabral and Wallace recognized this lack of amplification of voice is “when we decided to put our heads together, tap our networks, and use our platform to show women and girls breaking barriers, overcoming stereotypes, and celebrating diversity through their accomplishments, organizations, and commitments to paying it forward,” says Wallace.
The Brown Girls Do podcast was inspired by Wallace’s daughter, who wanted to do ballet—an art form that historically has, and presently does, shut out black and brown-bodied people. The slightest of cracks are beginning to appear in a dance form that once seemed impenetrable. Misty Copeland is an astonishingly talented ballet dancer, for example, and she’s also the first black woman to have been made a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. How many others were never given the opportunity to try?
This is why Wallace began podcasting. Brown Girls Do features black and brown women who are in career fields where they are underrepresented. They share how they maneuver in spaces that are not always welcoming, but focus on showing the diversity of interests and career possibilities for young black and brown girls everywhere—occupations where they are both excelling and pushing back against preconceived expectations for their lives.
They remind their listeners that: “Brown girls do music … brown girls do work in their communities … brown girls do design … brown girls do corporate America … brown girls do film.” The list of possibilities for these young women streams ever forward, accented by interviews with women who came before them and made it possible.
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Their March 8, 2018 episode focused on diversity in the arts, and their guest for the hour was producer Kady Kamakaté, who works in film. She has completed work on multiple web series and has made commercials that play on sites like YouTube, but says she “harbors aspirations to do work on feature films.” On the show, Kamakaté speaks about how she felt drawn to production as a profession. As a producer, she sees far more career opportunities because it is much harder for black and brown women to break into prominent acting roles in Hollywood.
Kamakaté says that she continues doing the work because she wants to change the way Hollywood operates, and push the boundaries of what can be possible for all the young girls who will follow after her, though they may never know the name of the woman who helped pave their way forward. Guests on the young podcast have even included Imriel Morgan, the host of Wanna Be and the founder of the United Kingdom’s ShoutOut Network, a podcasting network that seeks to accomplish overseas what LemonDrop Media hopes to achieve here in the U.S.: creating room for those locked out of predominantly white media spaces.
The co-founders and hosts of shows on the LemonDrop Media network are not alone in their endeavor to create more space for black and brown podcasters. Maya Francis, a black woman who hosts the podcast Slant, is also the co-founder of the podcast network Critical Frequency. The tagline for the network? The tongue in cheek: “a podcast network for everyone else.” Francis is hyper aware, as a black woman with experience in journalism and the media, of the underrepresentation and lack of access to traditional media spaces for people of color.
“A lot of these popular monetized and successful podcasts come out of legacy journalist institutions,” she says, and if the podcasts spring forth from the same reservoir of traditionally white voices, they will create the same systemic imbalances seen in traditional forms of media, keeping the podcasting industry at the very beginning of a cultural battle for representation. She hopes to use the Critical Frequency network to “elevate the voices of folks who are underrepresented in media and provide access” and support to hone their skills.
Jesse Garcia, a former appointee of President Barack Obama and current host of The Jesse Garcia Show podcast, is also working to change the landscape of stories the big networks deem worthy. He served in the the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Communications during his appointment, where he met “Latinos who were doing all this amazing work—work that basically helps this government run—and they’re not the ones being highlighted on CNN. They do all the work, but they never get the glory.” Garcia uses his podcast to highlight Latino people who toil away in the shadows. He hopes his show helps provide recognition to them so that all the praise does not go “to the anglo executive director, who goes to the major news,” with nary a word of thanks to the brown faces and minds that made it possible.
Ronald Young Jr., a self described “liberal Christian” and black man who hosts the podcast Time Well Spent, says he speaks on behalf of an “intersectionality that is marginalized and not marginalized at the same time.” In that, as a Christian, he might have a bit more freedom of religion than others, but as a black man he is constrained by the stereotypes society thrusts upon him. Even as Young grapples with this in his episodes, he also spends time having discussions with women he says he “over-pursued,” before hesitating, and then clarifying, “Actually, they told me ‘no’ and I just didn’t want to hear it.” He hopes that by putting himself on blast in this way, and allowing these women the platform to showcase the ways he could have respected their “no,” it will ensure that men who hear his show will not engage in the same sorts of behaviors. Young is attempting to create change.
There are others still, outside of these communities—people who are white but are making an effort to create space within media and elevate these voices. Jeremy Beaver is the founder of Listen Vision Studios on Georgia Ave. NW and has been in business for two decades. He’s also the founder of WLVS radio. Over 95 percent of the shows that come through the studio are hosted by black and brown people of varying genders, orientations, and interests.
“Every month is Black History month at Listen Vision,” he says with a laugh. Beaver admits that when he first began his outreach efforts, people in the community didn’t trust him, but he kept at it. He points to his own background as a Jewish man as the reason he finds it so crucial to find a way to assist people of color to break through into a media landscape that is not actively seeking out or listening for their voices. He even goes so far as to quote the legendary civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who frequently told her white counterparts that their freedom was directly tied to hers, and they would not find themselves truly free until they ensured her freedom as well.
Podcasters of color whose shows are hosted by black and brown-dominated networks often report being able to be the entirety of themselves, and not the slice of themselves that might be found on some of the major podcast networks where they talk only about issues that deal specifically with race. (Though the shows that discuss race are still sorely needed.)
Megan Johnson, a black woman, is one such podcaster. Her show isn’t exclusively about race, but the fact that she is black does inform her critique and worldview. She is one of the co-hosts of the podcast Epilogue: A Book After Party. The entire premise of the podcast? Well, it’s the conversation people have after finishing a book, much like epilogues in novels meant to satisfy readers who aren’t ready to leave the lives of the characters behind. Johnson views her podcast as a space to be herself, and is wary of major podcast networks where the majority of shows have white hosts. Johnson worries that, on top of major networks like Gimlet, Panoply, and NPR failing to create meaningful space for black and brown podcasters, she would be forced to perform or act in a way that isn’t true to her.
She says that with some of the bigger networks, “there would probably be a slight bit of shuckin’ and jivin’.” Shucking and jiving refers to the actions enslaved black people would take, within the United States, to avoid angering the white men and women who owned them. This history has extended, in some respects, into present times where black and brown people code switch and speak in a dialect more palatable to most of their white peers in business spaces. A dialect that, for some, is not what they heard growing up in their family homes and communities. It was, and still is, a way to remain safe, but it also means denying who they are in the presence of white people. Johnson continues, saying that she fears that, “at some point, my blackness and however it comes across would be asked to be toned down and my views as a woman would be asked to be toned down, too.”
That is a fear that Jasmine Sullivan of The Brown Liquor Report shares. She goes by Jas Hands on air. “They don’t want to hear us tell our stories the way that we do—the way we tell them by default of our lived experiences,” says Sullivan as she gets ready to record an episode, popping open a styrofoam container of chicken wings so hot that the condensation collected inside the lid has dripped down onto the still crisp skin, run from the bottom corner of the container where the sizzle of oil melted through, and pooled on the tabletop. “This is a safe space to say what’s on our mind.”
She’s one of the co-hosts of The Brown Liquor Report, along with DJ Blackshah (Antoine Bland) and The Count (Micah Young). The Brown Liquor Report is at once hilarious, thought-provoking, and filled with the types of cultural inside jokes that speak to what the hosts view as the frustration at being a black person in a world that leeches creativity from black culture, while demanding the silence of its creators. Their conversations invoke the feel of late summer afternoon cook-outs, where people play spades and fireflies dance in the waning light, and black aunts and uncles sit around picnic tables, red solo cups in hand, dispensing wisdom and knowledge to the younger family members who are eavesdropping. The hosts of The Brown Liquor Report carve out a space of their own within the world of podcasting, and one that opens the door to listeners with similar experiences.
“It is about freedom,” says Richardson as he looks up and leans back in his chair, finally satisfied with equipment set-up. The microphones. The recording devices. The computer that will capture it all and allow him to edit it later before uploading it to the internet for the world to enjoy. He would not have to carry his equipment with him into the heart of downtown D.C., in the small room he and his co-hosts rent to record The Brown Liquor Report, if they were part of a major network that would give them the space to exist as themselves.
He catches my eye, rests his chin upon his palm, and says, “Without us and other non-white podcasters you lose texture and nuance. Everything comes out the same. It all sounds the same, and how do things change for the better if you’re only listening to the same people?”
Millien of LemonDrop Media says, “Part of my passion of telling our own stories is that when black and brown podcasters do become popular, people say, ‘Oh they’re special.’ Us telling our stories is to prove that these people are not the exception. These people are the rule, and we want to get those stories out there so that it changes the narrative around people of color and women.”