The Need to Foster Community Growth, Novices, and More Stories

When we shift from the onset of a new or novel medium, or method of expression, we build upon the works and theories that came before us, gaining a lot of ground when we start creating from that collective knowledge and thus meeting higher standards.

At least, that’s what we’re conditioned to believe or expect from societal experience. As technology advances and people produce certain quality levels of work with that technology, those become the base expectations of the audience. For instance, as CGI improves, people expect their movies to reflect that improvement and look back on older examples with “wow, this is terrible in comparison” (if I had a nickel for every time someone said that, I could buy my own CGI studio), and so on through experiencing new ways of producing art. Not necessarily “new” as in “never been done before”, but as in something that hadn’t moved to mainstream consciousness or understanding before.

With the rising popularity of podcasts slowly, but very steadily, moving into the mainstream, societal standards for what audiences expect from podcasts has risen in response. Unsurprisingly, it can have a devastating effect on novice creators, and not only in the way people approach reviews or critique, but in the way communities of creators speak publicly about the art and medium, their perspectives, and opinions. The way outsiders and potential newcomers interpret the way communities speak about what they care about online informs them as to the welcoming nature of the community and the safety and security of entering it while being vulnerable. This is especially true for marginalized creators who spend a lot of time, online and offline, being harassed and insulted, and suffering daily from anything ranging from outright hate to microaggressions. And podcasting carries the quirk of digital media where fans and creators live much closer together online, in ways that are much more accessible than the people who made the CGI effects for Lord of the Rings. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a few actions for podcast communities to take into consideration, especially when mentoring, public speaking, and discussing online, specifically involving ongoing care with rhetoric.

Perhaps most importantly, phrasing regarding the “low barrier of entry” should be treated with extreme caution, if not outright removed from the lexicon. It’s an easy grab to explain why there’s so many independent productions, or why podcasting may be more accessible, but it paints a false picture on its own. Especially in conjunction with the raised expectations from public radio and other podcasts with large financial investment, it sets a bar nigh impossible for a regular indie podcaster to clear. This is a lesson that had (and still has) to be learned in other mediums as well–film, comics, music–but it’s time to stop using “low barrier of entry” as a talking point. This isn’t just about having the money for equipment; this is about having access to education, ability to pay for people’s labor, or time and energy to spend learning about audio. This is even about the emotional energy spent by marginalized people once they enter the space. Reinforcing that there is a “low to no” barrier of entry reinforces people’s beliefs that podcasting is easy, and that high-quality audio is easy to achieve.

Our approach to stories often informs discussions within our communities. Binary choices on a story’s merits are often only made to look like they’re binary through the exposure to social norms, ones that have often been drawn by colonizers and those in power. No one’s experience is a monolith, especially as people’s upbringings, cultural backgrounds, and so many other aspects intersect to create nuance and change.  As long as creators are speaking from their own experiences, or have done the careful and empathetic research needed when writing from outside their perspective, approach their stories with kindness. Kindness such as remembering that not everyone is out of the closet or that mental health can vastly change someone’s perspective on what it’s like to be queer. It has to be possible to do more than one thing at a time: to represent and talk about more than one experience as valid, for everyone to be a little bit wrong and a little bit right sometimes.

If you’re creating from outside your experience, I encourage you to participate in workshops like Writing the Other (or buying their book); it’s true that the burden of equitable representation should not rest solely on the shoulders of those who have not seen themselves, but it’s also true that if you don’t listen with an open heart, you may end up causing more harm than good. If you’re interacting with work from a marginalized author that doesn’t line up with your own experience, or that you don’t like, always take a beat to wonder: “could there be someone out there who this could represent something meaningful for?”. I highly encourage you to read this essay from Jeannette Ng, on performing marginalization and identity. She’s talking about the book publishing industry here, but I think it holds true for podcasting as well.  In it, she says,

It is inescapable, the feeling that the industry is sifting through our stories to find the ones that conform most to their expectations, their prejudices, the Single Story that is told about us…[w]hich leaves us in that frustrating position where each of us want the stories marketed as “representation” to represent us wholly, a task that they are simply unequipped to do. No single story can.

We need more stories.

People will always have a first podcast, just like people will always have a first painting, and a first song, and a first poem. The difference is often in when and where those happen; podcasting happens in full view of everyone with free access to the internet. I’m the last person to tell you to not critique someone’s work negatively; in fact, I’d love to see more direct commentary about what works and what doesn’t, as long as there’s understanding that audience experiences may not match up one-to-one. Ma’ayan Plaut’s article on construction criticism is one of the best guides to this kind of work for everyone, podcasters and audiences alike. I want to see us continue to condemn the standards we have not yet eradicated that cause harm, that continually embed themselves into our storytelling and therefore, our perceptions. But in turn, I’d love to see more people encourage new, risky, under-performed methods of storytelling, instead of expressing hate for an older way and maybe cause someone to believe their ideas aren’t good enough. Let’s make 2020 a little kinder towards novices, and truly foster a space where marginalized artists feel both safe and welcomed, and can come in through the front door.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #39, January 27, 2020.