When you open up a typical podcast app, it doesn't take long to get an idea of what makes for a Very Good Podcast™ in the eyes of most curators—content from public radio stations, comedians riffing on bad movies, and pundits dissecting Trump's Twitter beefs.
But when you actually listen to the podcasts, it's difficult not to notice that, save for a few, the vast majority of the shows being highlighted are hosted by white people.
The explosion of podcasts in the past few years means listeners rely on curators and distributors to guide their selections more than they ever did. Which unfortunately means that podcasts of color remain significantly less visible. If you were to put together a playlist solely of shows podcasting apps promoted, you could easily get the impression that creators of color just haven't really taken to the medium. But that simply isn't the case. Podcasters of color have been out there telling stories from their own perspectives for years now—it's just that there haven’t been mechanisms in place to amplify their voices.
Last month, San Diego-based podcaster Shaun Lau published an open letter to podcast distributors like iTunes, Google Play, and Soundcloud arguing that there were a number of key steps they should be taking to draw more attention to independently-produced shows. A "podcasters of color" tag, Lau suggested, could be the first step towards helping a larger audience discover new voices that otherwise rely on sheer luck or word of mouth.
"A top-level genre for independent podcasters of color [would increase] ease of discovery for those looking to engage directly with people of color," Lau explained. "This genre should coexist with, rather than replace, current genre assignments; in other words, a sports podcast by people of color should be found in both the 'Sports' and 'Podcasters of Color' sections."
Lau began his podcast, No, Totally!, in 2013 in an effort to stay in contact with a friend who’d recently moved across the country. When I spoke with him, he described the pivotal role podcasts played in the shaping of last year’s election and how, in some ways, the whiteness of the podcasting space factored into how both hosts and listeners read the political landscape.
“Liberal white America wasn't paying enough attention to people of color,” Lau said. Voices of color, he insisted, were an integral part of accurately understanding just how real a possible Trump presidency was and, because they went largely ignored by many mainstream news outlets, their warnings fell on deaf ears.
Even in podcasts that weren’t strictly about politics, like The Read or About Race, “people of color were attempting to sound the alarm, because we've had specific histories with the kind of rhetoric we saw from Trump and the responses engendered at his rallies, for example,” Lau said. “I think that looked alien and fleeting to white commentators, and they covered it that way.”
But for all the promise of podcasting, Lau said, the medium is still plagued by gatekeeping issues that are built into distribution channels and people’s perceptions about who podcasts are for. When you scroll through a list of the best new podcasts of 2016 and repeatedly see the same group of shows hosted by celebrities, it can be difficult to buy into the idea that podcasts are really the open, inclusive medium everyone makes them out to be.
“The vast perception of podcasts is that they're for famous people to speak in an uncensored setting or for the sake of convenience if one misses an NPR live broadcast,” Lau said. “As people of color have been talking about for decades, this kind of system defeats any kind of meritocracy that might arise to reward people, regardless of their race or financial status, who simply produce good content.”
Good content targeted to a specific audience is the foundation of Jamie Broadnax’s blog, Black Girl Nerds. She started it back in 2012 after she realized there wasn't an online community for black women like her with deep passions for the geekier parts of pop culture, like comics. What began as a vibrant Facebook group quickly evolved into an active blog and podcast about the goings-on in film, television, and and books. Five years into creating the BGN brand, Broadnax is launching her second podcast, Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro, featuring black women discussing black superheroines.
When I emailed with Broadnax, she told me she doesn't buy into the idea that we're living in the age of Peak Podcast—that there's still plenty of space out there for new podcasters. The key, she said, was to commit to the idea because it's something you believe in.
One of the major factors of Broadnax's success has been the relationship with her social media audience: The medium allows her to speak to them directly in real time. But while those channels of communication have helped Broadnax grow BGN, she told me it's also helped her understand just how many of her black female listeners previously shied away from podcasts because they felt so unrepresented by them.
"To be fair, there are podcasts hosted by people of color that do fairly well," Broadnax said, pointing out that both BuzzFeed's Another Round and WNYC's 2 Dope Queens are hosted by two black women. “But for every two shows hosted by people like us there are 20 white shows that get attention through legacy media outlets."
Now that we’re entering the Trump era, where some of the most powerful people in the country align themselves with white supremacists, the presence of non-white voices will be more essential than ever.
We need to hear “the actual voices of marginalized folks, and particularly those with distinct vernacular, e.g. Black Americans and AAVE [African American Vernacular English],” Lau said. “It's going to be important for us to hear those voices for the next four years if we hope to develop the kind of empathy that many of us believe is in short supply across the country.”