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Accounting for Everyone

A new survey project focused on podcast workers, with an emphasis on BIPOC women.

Illustration by Aude White, who is trying not to kill her plants this year.

You are, as they say, what you measure. This is a well understood and commonly circulated idea, but I tend to favor the flipped proposition: You can’t fix what you don’t track.

For Twila Dang, the thing she’s hoping to track is the general condition of BIPOC women in podcasting: the nature of their experiences, the problems they face in their respective workplaces, the friction points holding up the recruitment pipeline and preventing them from advancing in their positions, and the frustrations driving them out of the industry altogether. As a woman of color in the audio business herself, she’s acutely familiar with the challenges met by her demographic peers, which is why she’s working to press the point and make them more visible.

Under the banner of Matriarch Digital Media, her Minneapolis-based independent podcast network, Dang organized a survey project towards that end, and last week, the survey was rolled out to the public for the first time seeking respondents.

Sponsored by the Knight Foundation and WoMN ACT (previously known as the Minnesota Women’s Consortium), the study intends to begin by conducting a landscape analysis of who’s working in the podcast industry overall — which is to say, you should consider filling out the survey, regardless of your demographic — before proceeding to run more specific analysis on the collected data that’s focused on the respondents who identify as BIPOC women.

The information produced by this survey will be much welcomed, as there hasn’t been all that much research done on the state of workers in the podcast industry to date. As far as I can tell, the last noticeable effort was undertaken by WNYC as part of the Werk It Festival, the public radio organization’s conference event aimed at women in podcasting. That took the form of a focused salary survey whose findings remain incredibly useful, but there remains so much more about the experience of workers in the podcast business left to be uncovered. “All of our research in the industry tends to be about who listens,” said Dang. “We don’t talk at all about who works in this business.”

The survey itself isn’t very long, probably taking most people no longer than ten minutes to fill the whole thing out. Question clusters run along a few different lines, but the one that stands out to me in particular revolves around the nature and volume of job responsibilities in relation to the respondent’s title and compensation. Given the rising discourse around burnout and the consistent undervaluing of producers, I’m very interested to see what comes out from that section of the study.

The scope of the survey is meant to cover a wide range of experiences, from full-time employees working at various organizations to individuals working independently or in small teams. This is appropriate, of course, given the still-flexible nature of the podcast ecosystem where big publishers and solo operators continue to compete in the same pool. “We need to know that it’s not just, like, the fifteen big companies making podcasts today, but also the many people who are basically doing what I’m doing,” said Dang. “My company is small, but we make money and we actually employ people. We’re part of that discussion about the pipeline.” Further worth noting: The survey additionally intends to capture responses from those who work in roles outside of creative production, like marketing and sales.

When I asked Dang why she felt compelled to pursue this survey project, she talked about a few dynamics within the podcast world that have increasingly become a point of concern for her in recent years, as the industry continues to grow and attract participants from adjacent media businesses, often legacy types. 

“I got into podcasts because I couldn’t make any movement in radio,” said Dang, who also works at Minnesota Public Radio as a host and producer. “And a lot of what we know about traditional media is that it’s not about you. It’s about what they envision in the seat, or in the chair, or behind the booth. If they don’t see you as an option, you’re not going to get a shot. I was starting to see that happening in podcasting, and I hated it.”

She added: “As the industry started to expand, we’re seeing lots of people coming in from other parts of the media — it was ‘oh, longtime producer at this station, or that longtime television producer.’ It leaves no room for the rest of us, and what I knew from my experience as a woman in podcasting is, a lot of the ‘rest of us’ were women, and a lot of those women were women of color. So I just thought, ‘Can we have a conversation about that?’”

Collaborating with her assistant, Lauren Fisher, she initially envisioned the survey as a localized project, somewhat smaller in scope. Her thinking shifted when the Knight Foundation reached out and eventually pledged $20,000, which was just enough to fund the study. The money allowed Dang to recruit professional researchers — Brandeis Marshall, PhD; Thema Monroe-White, PhD; and Danielle Veal — to help design and build out the survey framework.

“They helped us take all of the ideas and turn them into an actual structured set of questions that we can use as a starting point,” said Dang. Fisher, who also works as an administrator for Matriarch Digital, currently operates as the project manager for the study. (Everyone working on the project is being paid, it should be noted, except for Dang herself.)

Dang frames the survey as a first phase of sorts, noting that the materialization of future steps will likely depend on whether she’ll be able to secure more funding. At the very least, though, she intends to produce a white paper on the first set of results from the data collected in this landscape-analysis stage. She has plans to present the initial findings at the upcoming Podcast Movement conference, to be held in person in August. 

However things shake out for the future of the survey, the information that this first phase hopes to produce will already be valuable. On a very basic level, this kind of data, publicly circulated, could provide a strong and visible starting point for workers in the podcast business — BIPOC women and otherwise — to independently map and make assessments about their working conditions. This, in turn, could contribute to the ability of workers throughout the industry to better advocate for themselves, both individually and as a collective.

“When you don’t know enough, you might not feel confident about your value, and that impacts your response when people start asking how you should be compensated for a given project,” said Dang. “A lot of these organizations prey on that. They expect you to be grateful that they gave you an opportunity, which means that you shouldn’t ask for more.”

In the past, this kind of information was typically circulated, if at all, through informal, private networks. But the trouble with informal networks disproportionately functioning as a primary source of such information in non-union contexts is that the worker has to know it exists in the first place. And then they have to find their way into those networks, which isn’t necessarily easy for everyone. It’s also not equally accessible, differing in frictions based on geographic origin, class, where you went to school, and so on.

A public-facing survey like this one would mark a solid step towards opening up that type of information for more people, and, as Dang argues, the focus on BIPOC women is foundational to setting the tone for better system-wide outcomes.

“I have a mentor who always tells me: You have to be thinking about who the most vulnerable people are in your organization, because if you know who they are in your organization, and you figure out how to protect them, the entire organization will improve because everyone will be protected,” she said. “We don’t do that in our industry. We don’t do that across most industries. But with podcasting, we have the opportunity. It’s still growing. It can still define what it wants to be.”

To find and fill out the survey, go here.