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Insider: June 4, 2020

Notes on the past few days

Over the past week, the protests against police brutality here in the United States have intensified, gone global, provoked aggressive (and excessive) government response, incurred policy changes in some municipalities, and directly led to charges of the four police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd. As of last night, the wave of protests — which is distinctly widespread in a way that genuinely feels different, even drawing out crowds in countless smaller cities and towns across the country, as BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen notes — doesn’t seem to be slowing down, even if the intensity of the clashes between protestors and security forces didn’t appear to be as prominent last night.

The protests’ capacity to do all that is fundamentally tied to what effective movements and moments are supposed to do: in addition to occupying the streets, they also occupy the conceptual public square, as composed by, among other things, our media infrastructures, the spaces of our day-to-day considerations and conversations, and our general “mind share.” (Apologies for the corporate-speak, but I do find the term genuinely useful in this context.)

You can’t look away. You can’t ignore it. When a protest works, it is all-consuming.

It’s been quite a week, but then again, it’s been quite a year. Since we busted out a new calendar five months ago — it’s almost been half a year, can you fucking believe it? — we’ve been rocked by two all-consuming events: the on-going novel coronavirus pandemic, and now, the stunning wave of anti-police brutality protests that’s additionally driving broader conversations about racial justice in every other aspect of society. Both of which, by the way, are themselves events that take place within the context of a longer all-consuming event, which is the Trump presidency and the growing illiberality of governments across the world.

It’s long been my belief that what happens above, so happens below. Same goes horizontally. Not to sound overly woo-woo about it, but everything really is connected. It’s my belief that everything’s part of the same story, which is another way saying that there are observable relationships between this community and the broader world. We are occupants of both things; they affect each other. The challenge is one of proportional and representational emphasis: it’s impossible to tie All The Things together, so you must try to tie together the important things. I feel compelled to say this because I’m bothered by the number of emails I received in response to Tuesday’s note that, in effect, told me to “stick to podcast news,” which frankly is a kind of reader email I never thought I’d get. (For what it’s worth, the specific number of emails of this nature: nine.)

Moreover, these all-consuming events are, categorically, Extremely Important Things that drive tangible conversation and impact within the community. In the case of the pandemic, we’re talking about the pandemic as a news hook that’s launched a million pop-up podcasts and dominated the attention of a galaxy of daily news podcasts; as an external shock whose economic ramifications will direct and indirectly reshape the conduct of podcast producers and publishers; as a force that reshapes human behavior, as in the case of the possible decline of the daily commute should the longer-term effects mean a greater push towards remote work.

As for the protests, this moment has triggered considerable meaningful conversations and efforts within the community towards creating conditions for better racial distribution as it pertains to the economic and creative opportunities that podcasting is supposed to be able to provide. Unlike the pandemic, the protests’ most salient qualities are not the external effects it brings into the community, but the way it  dramatically foregrounds inequities and issues that have long plagued the community. It’s bringing to greater light the extent to which the community is importing and replicating the inequalities of older media ecosystems; it’s also bringing to greater light the ways in which podcasting has never really quite lived up to its democratic ideals from the start. Perhaps the most prominent: if one of podcasting’s foundational ideological pillars is the notion that everybody is free to make one, that everybody can publish, that everybody has a shot at accessing an audience, why has podcasting long struggled with being overly white, and overly male? Why is it that, almost two decades since its creation, the most prominent economic beneficiaries of podcasting have been mostly white men?

Again, these are tensions long-felt within the community, but what we’re seeing with this moment of protest — like all moments of effective protests — is the brief opening of a window for radical value-recalibration, agenda-setting, and concession-extraction. The moment will pass, eventually; the hope is that enough line-shifting can happen within the window such that, when things do go back to “normal,” it will do so with some new structures in place and with some advancement in the basics of how we carry out our day-to-day.

Within the context of podcasting, one particularly noteworthy move has been an effort by Renay Richardson, founder and CEO of the UK-based Broccoli Content, to bring forward an Equality in Audio pact, imploring audio production companies to make a pledge towards committing to five specific actions meant to help the community move closer to equality:

Here’s the list of audio companies and creators that have signed it so far. Note that the pact isn’t limited to UK-based companies; I encourage you to sign on.

Other things noticed: a flurry of listen lists featuring voices of color and race as the predominant subject matter. Over social media, the highlighting of podcast producers (and operators!) of color. On the Apple Podcast charts, the bubbling up of shows about race to the top: Pod Save the People, which features the activist DeRay Mckesson; NPR’s Code Switch, which moved to drop an exceptionally effective episode, “A Decade of Watching People Die,” on Sunday; and the podcast version of New York Times’ 1619 project. (Which, honestly, now gives off a slight dissociative effect in the wake of the Times’ decision to publish that morally abhorrent op-ed from Senator Tom Cotton — on the eve of the Tiananmen Square massacre, no less, jesus — which even drew considerable rebuke from the Times’ own staff.) In my inbox, the press releases keep coming about this or that project, mostly unrelated to the moment, though with the opening sentence being something along the lines of : “I hope this note finds you well in these strange and difficult times…” Some publishers write to me to inform that they’re postponing the launch of projects, meant for this week, due to the climate. A few others writing to ask if it would be a good idea to do so. (The answer is yes.) Within some operations, new episodes are delayed due to reallocation of resources; In the Dark, for example, is delaying this week’s episode because the team is helping MPR News report in Minneapolis. Elsewhere, some other non-newsy podcasts have opted not to publish this week, in solidarity with the protests. There are many others that pushed ahead with new episodes, some of which approached the past week’s events on their own terms. There were some turbulence: The Bill Simmons Podcast, for example, dropped an episode on Monday reflecting on the protest that many panned as tone-deaf, even more so after The Ringer Union published a statement about the podcast network’s lack of front-of-mic diversity on the same day. Later in the week, Simmons dropped another episode, this time with Mckesson, which I suppose was something of a corrective. Relatedly, this may turn out to be a noteworthy moment of worker leverage in their relationship with their employer: see aforementioned rebuke from Times staffers over the op-ed situation, as well as a pressure campaign among Spotify staffers to get company leadership to commit substantial financial resources to support racial justice efforts.

Apologies for the slap-dash newsletter. There’s a great deal happening; this is the best I can do for now.