Where do we begin? We’re not even halfway through the year, and already it feels like 2020 has carried enough historical intensity to fill decades. The novel coronavirus pandemic has been enough to begin with, but the year has also seen several other events that would’ve been seismic in any other context: the Trump impeachment, the UK formally leaving the European Union, China-Hong Kong, so on. And lest we forget, this is all happening in an American presidential election year where the stakes have never felt higher.
Now, of course, we find ourselves in a breathtaking moment of political mobilization that’s washed over the United States and the world. Sparked by yet another series of police killings of black Americans — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — hundreds and thousands have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality, racial injustice, and the severe structural inequities that have disproportionately harmed black communities for generations. The past two weeks have been, and continue to be, a blur: rivers of people, shows of solidarity, skirmishes with police, pressure campaigns against government officials, boiling point struggles over the fundamental culture of certain institutions.
It would be an understatement to characterize this on-going protest movement as “effective.” In addition to successfully extracting specific policy outcomes in several cities, the protests have also overwhelmed the public square for two full weeks and counting, to a point where the pandemic has been pushed to the back burner even though its severity hasn’t changed one bit.
The podcast world, as an extension of the media landscape, has reflected this all-consuming moment in several interesting ways. To begin with, you have the Apple Podcast charts, which mirrors the digital consumption charts in other media — like the Amazon best-selling books list and the Netflix trending module — in the way that podcasts about race, or featuring race as a primary theme, have bubbled up its ranks.
At this writing, you can find the New York Times’ 1619, NPR’s Code Switch, and Crooked Media’s Pod Save the People jostling about the top ten, tucked in between The Joe Rogan Experience, Crime Junkie, Call Her Daddy, and The Ben Shapiro Show. Meanwhile, COVID-19 podcasts, with the exception of NPR’s Coronavirus Daily and CNN’s Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction, seems to have mostly fallen out of the Top 200 entirely. As always, keep in mind what the charts are supposed to be: a measure of heat more than bigness.
(I have to say: it’s been quite a while since I last gave the Apple Podcast charts serious consideration; there seems to be considerably more conservatively-oriented shows charting effectively than there used to be, which makes the current foreground of podcasts about race all the more pronounced, even incongruous. Anyway, moving on.)
Another noteworthy phenomenon within the charts: the resurfacing of older, sometimes long-completed shows about race. NPR’s White Lies, for example, which played out its seven-part season last summer, has floated back up to the middle of the charts. John Biewen’s Scene on Radio is back in a strong charting position, presumably propelled by revived interest around his fourteen-part 2017 collaboration with the scholar, artist, and podcast producer Chenjerai Kumanyika, “Seeing White.” Floodlines, The Atlantic’s series about Hurricane Katrina that dropped in March, is back in the mix. About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge, which was released from March to May 2018, can now be found charting around the hundred mark, but in the UK charts, the podcast has been hovering at the top for the past week. Renay Richardson, who produced About Race (and is now the founder of a joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment, Broccoli Content), told us that the podcast has pulled around half a million listens in its first year of release. Last week alone, the show got around 265,000 listens.
These surges are likely fueled, in part, by those podcasts being featured in recent listen lists published by various publications, meant to guide their audiences towards media that could help them learn more about this moment and race in America more broadly. A partial list of those lists: WBUR, the New York Times, NPR, Oprah Mag, Today.com. I think I’m supposed to be putting one together myself for Vulture, and should that come to be, I will likely do so haunted by Lauren Michele Jackson’s words, who asked in a recent Vulture essay within the context of books: “What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?”
Beyond shows about race, the protests have also driven sustained coverage across the robust crop of daily news and politics podcasts. What’s been particularly interesting, at least to me, is seeing how the arguments around de-funding or abolishing the police have been thrust into the spotlight. I’ve long been partial to the policy arguments (surprise, surprise), but I’ve always tucked it away in the same mental bucket that houses something like, say, state-subsidized healthcare: a policy dream that’s well outside the American Overton Window. Indeed, it’s been a surreal experience to hear those arguments refracted through the lens of various “mainstream” newsy podcasts — a testament, perhaps, to one of the possible goals of protest movements: to push previously under-emphasized ideas and priorities into the public sphere (in part via media channels), to force serious consideration of its nuances, and to accelerate the normalization of those ideas.
This moment is also shaping up to be significant for how it’s opened considerable space for conversations about inequities in numerous other areas of society. Most visible and pertinent to this newsletter, of course, are discussions about inequities in media systems and workplaces; the podcast world first and foremost. Long characterized as disproportionately white and male in composition, podcasting has also come to suffer familiar concerns of unequal distributions of opportunity, particularly when it comes to black producers and other producers of color. The problem, in sum: anybody can publish, sure, but as podcasting continues to industrialize and corporatize, the increasing question is whether traditionally underrepresented demographics will have fair opportunities to participate in its gains or whether it will look like every other established media industry that’s come before it. This has to do, in part, with the flow of capital: who gets adequate investment, support, and resources for new podcast businesses, projects, and ideas. But for the most part, this has to do with workplace fairness and culture.
On that note, one thing that’s been striking about this moment is the extent to which podcast producers of color — along with media workers of color more generally — are speaking up against organizational harm and inequity. For instance… well, see for yourself:
This moment also has, I think, a distinct momentum that can possibly lead to tangible outcomes. Perhaps the most prominent and successful effort in this regard — that is, driving specific commitments towards better practices in the audio community — has come from the aforementioned Broccoli Content in the UK. Last Tuesday, Renay Richardson, Broccoli Content’s founder, brought forward an “Equality in Audio Pact,” which challenges podcast creators and companies to pledge commitment to five specific actions meant to push the community towards greater equality.
Those five actions are: (1) Pay interns / No longer use unpaid interns; (2) Hire LGBTQIA+, black people, people of colour and other minorities on projects not only related to their identity; (3) If you are a company that releases gender pay gap reports, release your race pay gap data at the same time; (4) No longer participate in panels that are not representative of the cities, towns, and industries they take place in; and (5) Be transparent about who works for your company, as well as their role, position and permanency.
Some may argue that these are small asks relative to the full gravity of the inequities. But as Richardson tells us, these actions were designed to be, as a baseline, doable by companies of any size. And the push seems to be translating into outcomes. At this writing, over 100 companies, shows, and producers — on both sides of the Atlantic — have signed, including BBC Radio, PRX’s Radiotopia, and Somethin’ Else. Hopefully, there will be many more.
We’re going to switch over to Caroline now, who spoke with Richardson recently for insight into how the pact came together. We’re running that piece in an “As Told To” format, because… well, because we can.