On Supporting People of Color in the Audio Industry

There have been a lot of changes, big headlines, and ground-rumbling in podcast-land lately. For me, one of those earthquake moments was Phoebe Wang’s speech at Third Coast. I wasn’t present, but I was following as soon as I saw the first tweet that said she lit the entire room on fire. Phoebe Wang, who won Best New Artist for her piece on The Heart God + The Gays”, delivered a powerful acceptance speech that included a call to action to hire people of color to positions in your company, especially focused in the audio industry, which is predominantly white.

Go read the speech. Take some moments to digest it. I’ll wait.

One of the things I started considering was the way major podcast networks and production companies — whether some form of indie or not — support their employees and creatives who are people of color. I specifically went and looked at various companies’ and networks’ social media and podcasts to see what they were saying and how they were saying it: was it just words, or were there also actions? Were there even words to begin with? I was thinking of places like Radiotopia, How Stuff Works, NPR, Night Vale Presents–not that these places are being called out here, but that these are the levels of presence and types of podcasts I was thinking of.

I do believe that these types of networks and companies have a larger burden than a solitary indie podcast or even, perhaps, and un-funded independent network. This doesn’t mean I’m saying the latter has no burden to think about equitable and just inclusion for people of color; that’d be ridiculous. But I do think we need to expect different levels of capacity for them, especially since the former type has so many more resources and funding at their disposal. Large networks and companies have a better and bigger platform, with more press and a larger audience–and they’re also consistently the places with the worst movements towards meaningful work in hiring people of color for their job positions, and in accepting pitches for podcasts from people of color as well.

So what do I think they should be doing to support people of color, with the understanding that I think that everyone should be doing this, indie and otherwise alike. The form that they each take will be different by financial and production necessity, but everyone needs to do better.

First, quite simply to echo Wang’s point: hire people of color. If the words are “we just couldn’t find a person of color” or “they didn’t apply”, then what’s happening is a lack of marketing and actual intent. Pay them what they’re worth–the wage gap is real, attack it–and think beyond credentials gained by pieces of paper or underpaid internships at famous audio production places.

But the buck doesn’t stop at just “we hired X number people of color; that means we aren’t racist and aren’t supporting racist structures!”. These people of color need to advance into positions of power, and the place where they’re working needs to be aware and active to combat whatever oppressive systems might be at play. Nothing is perfect, especially for a company that, for instance, previously had only white men in power, and in order to help truly diversity and transform a workplace, it needs to be secure. If a workplace or network isn’t demonstrating their commitment to helping fight oppression internally as well as externally, then that’s not a safe place for any person of color to stay in, let alone apply to. Help prevent the backlash they will receive, and support them tangibly when it happens. Don’t assume the people that work there are blameless angels, and have solutions and standard operating procedures already in place for a situation that might be unsafe or harmful to a person of color, both in terms of their health and their careers.  I want these places to just not assume that what Phoebe Wang said doesn’t apply to them–if that’s what anyone is thinking, it probably applies to them.

And finally, it’s not just about hiring people, but supporting their creative work in a visible and tangible fashion. If your podcast network or production house has a podcast that’s been created or features people of color, make sure you are talking about them and their projects as much as you are for those that are created by your white creatives. And this one, this is so important, that I need everyone to listen–I need you to listen. Marketing matters, and the way you market to your potential audience also matters. Your personal Twitter accounts matter just as much as the business account, because you are a representative of your podcast and your business. Make sure you are varying your marketing, and that you’re reaching out to audiences that you may not have been able to reach before with other work. You’re giving them a platform, so make sure you honor that commitment to these creatives. We’ve seen so many major films, for instance, created and directed by women, people of color, queer people, and so on, flop–because their production house failed to market enough, or at all, or correctly, usually because they were already under the impression that it was going to fail, because of the centralized presence of a marginalized person. A self-fulfilling prophecy, one that people will then use to say “see, people actually don’t want these stories, so we should stop funding them.”

And that’s a sign you need to market them more and better. If you’re worried that will happen, fight it. Talk with the creators about the best way to announce their podcast and talk about it; make sure they’re in conversation with the graphic designer and the social media manager; don’t let the voices of those who would say it’s all just politics get in the way of being the best ally you can actually be.

Maybe you’re saying, “god, Ely sure does talk about this kind of stuff a lot.”

I do. I won’t stop talking about it. I want to help people examine their own choices, and also examine the choices of the media they consume. I want to check myself, and grow to be a better supporter and ally, always. And this industry is not there yet. We aren’t in a post-racist, post-oppressive industry; change has to happen. For change to happen, for it to be long-lasting and transformative change, we need to keep the conversation going. So, please: don’t stop talking about it, do better, and hold those around you to the promise to do better too.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #18, October 22, 2018.