The first-ever podcast hit the internet in 2003. Radio Open Source, a show about global politics (and ideas through an American lens) hosted by WBUR Boston’s Christopher Lydon, is still going strong. In the years following Lydon’s first show, the nascent medium was dominated by the kinds of aural signifiers typically associated with public radio: jangly intro music, measured pauses, a mildly distinct voice. It’s Terry Gross’s purr; it’s Ira Glass at his most earnest and all-knowing; it’s Sarah Koenig’s nervous giggle when accepting a collect call from Adnan Syed. For more than a decade, that was the standard: white hosts telling stories to an audience that reflected what they saw when they looked in the mirror.
But thanks to this conversational medium’s natural ability to express its show creators’ identities—in addition to the ways that producing podcasts sidesteps broadcasting’s traditional power structure by placing control directly in the hands of the creators themselves—podcasting has become a valuable platform for once-marginal voices. Shows like For Colored Nerds and Call Your Girlfriend offer dynamic takes on anemic Oscar selections, Michelle Obama’s greatness, period snacks, millenial anxiety, and “the aesthetic value of peak Eddie Murphy as quasi-feminist praxis,” while also smashing preconceived notions about how a podcast should function.
As the hosts of FCN and CYG explain, shows made and produced by women and people of color are gradually breathing new life into a previously static format.
“We choose our own lanes; we don’t have to participate in traditional media to be heard.”—Aminatou Sow, <i>Call Your Girlfriend</i>
BRITTANY LUSE, co-host, For Colored Nerds: Part of the reason why you start a podcast in the first place is because, on some level, you just talk too much. Our podcast, in and of itself, started as an extension of the conversations we would have with each other; it was like taking the discussions we had all day long on Gchat and putting them on wax for other people to listen to. When Eric first proposed the idea about two years ago, The Read was the only podcast that I really listened to on a regular basis. As we started to make our show, podcasting became a part of the cultural tableau in a way that wasn’t there before. There was StartUp, Bodega Boys [formerly titled Desus vs. Mero], Longform—those were the shows I began listening to a lot.
Beyond making sure that other people hear it, we don’t feel like the show has to go through some amazing transformation for it to be what it wants it to be. The fact that people are finding the conversations valuable means we can focus on trying to get [the shows] in the phones or on the desktops of people who will listen.
ERIC EDDINGS, co-host, For Colored Nerds: For people of color making podcasts, the fact remains: it’s difficult to gain listenership, especially organically, if you don’t have access to the resources of a network. We get a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s crazy to me to think that—not even in the context of, like, Twitter—people were at a social function talking about our show. That speaks to how we have to [continue to] work to make sure that our stories are heard, shared, and get that traction. Discovery is actually the challenge; that’s the thing that people are trying to figure out.
Obviously, [we’ve grown and] we know more people are listening now, and that’s not something we completely ignore. We take this into account, but we try to make sure that we’re discussing things the way that we know, and that’s from the lens of two young black people. We just started getting criticism—luckily, we don’t feel moved at all to act on that. Some questions are interesting, and we will try to incorporate them into the show, but we want to make sure that we’re not changing the gaze, and that we’re centering ourselves in terms of how we’re framing the conversation. Which is what we thought was sort of initially missing [in podcasting]. If you’re not focused on everybody else in the medium, your show will be pretty authentically you—which ours is, and it’s relatively unique.
We have an episode called “Dear White People” where this family wrote to us about their desire to move to the South Side of Chicago. They were a white family, and their reason to do that was to combat their own privilege and lack of understanding; they wanted to connect with a community. We wrestled with it a lot in the episode. We ultimately decided to devote a show to it because, in regular daily life, I wouldn’t get a question that extreme. Though we talk about and dissect culture—about race and how we fit into the world—we are by no means experts, and we would not necessarily consider ourselves qualified to give you advice on where you should move, especially in that particular scenario. But we answered it knowing what we know. We recognized that we had a platform, and that it was an opportunity to discuss the role those types of [experiences play in our world] and how black people internalize them.
“We recognized that we had a platform, and that it was an opportunity to discuss the role those types of experiences play in our world.”—Eric Eddings, <i>For Colored Nerds</i>
AMINATOU SOW, co-host, Call Your Girlfriend: For over a year, our producer Gina Delvac—who has a background in public radio—had been bugging us, like, “You guys should do a podcast.” This was in 2012 or 2013. Every time, Anne [Friedman, my co-host,] and I would laugh and say, “Yeah, that sounds great but I don't know how to do that.” We were unclear as to the mechanics of how it would work. Around the same time, I had started listening to more podcasts—I’m low-key obsessed with them—and noticed that all of my favorite ones were with men. I was talking to some dude-bro about it at a party, and he was like, “It’s probably that men are better at it or something.” And nothing will make me do something faster than if you tell me that a woman can’t do it. Hearing him articulate that [turned into] a 2 a.m. phone call, like, “Hello Gina, we are ready!”
I love Marc Maron’s podcast [WTF]; I listen to it all the time. If you asked me what my favorite podcast is—any year, any day of the week—I will say This American Life. But that stuff is there, it’s not going away; they’re serious institutions. That’s what’s really happened with this kind of democratization of podcasts: you have more variety, you have different things to choose from, and it’s validated a different kind of art form.
For me, it was really important to have representation. When I started doing this I couldn’t name you one black woman who was hosting a podcast—either because others weren’t there, or for my own personal ignorance. Now, I can name 10.
The magic that we have within the show, you can’t really replicate that to another format. We’re very unapologetically ourselves. There’s no posturing. There’s also something about the fact that women have really strong friendships and relationships with each other, and in pop culture that representation is lacking. I think that people genuinely like to see that. But if I’m really honest—the thing that makes our show the best is that everybody is a fucking eavesdropper. People love to hear other people talk to other people.
And I’ve learned so much from listening to other shows like For Colored Nerds. It’s just been really eye-opening. There’s an amazing kind of magic, when you’re like, “OK, there’s black ladies on the airwaves. This is cool.” And they’re part of making content, have different opinions, and see things in different ways.
I’m obsessed with listening to Tax Season, on Loud Speakers Network. It’s hosted by this guy Taxstone; he’s problematic for many reasons and he’s a protégé of [Power 105.1’s] Charlamagne Tha God, but his podcast is insane. There’s transphobia, there’s a ton of misogyny, but he’s an ex-felon who has a really popular podcast. Nobody’s gonna give that man a radio show, but Chris Morrow, the CEO at LSN, was like, You’re a great personality, here, have a show. Taxstone has such good insight, and for as much as I disagree with a lot of his disposition, he says things that are so crucial and clutch and true. I can’t even deny that shit. Listen to the episode with him and Bobby Shmurda’s attorney; they start breaking down the penal system in this country and your brain is just exploding. I was like, “NPR isn’t gonna give me this—never.”
Podcasts are right now. I don’t want to say that they’re the future—this wave is good. It’s interesting to see the ways they replicate some of the awfulness of everything that’s happening in media, like who gets press, who gets exposed, and what people are listening to. But at the same time, the future is that we get to make. We choose our own lanes; we don’t have to participate in traditional media to be heard.