Intro from Jay Allison: Producers Leila Day and Hana Baba had what they thought was a simple idea for a podcast: An African American (Leila) and an African (Hana) would compare their experiences living in the U.S. But after launching the pilot for "The Stoop," they found themselves dealing with questions about whether their podcast about black-ness would hold enough appeal to non-blacks to be worthy of support. In her Transom commentary, Leila Day shares what she learned through this process and offers encouragement and advice for other producers who may find themselves in a similar position.
I was wearing my African print head wrap for an entire week. I usually wear it for two reasons: one, because it makes me feel free and empowered, and two, because sometimes my hair isn’t did under that wrap.
Huddled in the kitchen of KALW in San Francisco, where I used to work, my co-worker Hana Baba and I were gossiping yet again about things we’d read on black blogs and what was going down in comment sections. It all came back to this question wrapped around my head wrap. We both wondered, could it be called ‘cultural appropriation’ for an African American to wear African-style fabric and clothing?
Hana is African, from Sudan. I’m African American from Las Vegas. Eventually our back-and-forth became the pilot episode of The Stoop. The title: “Nice tribal wear, now take it off.”
We both felt these conversations had to move out of the kitchen and onto the airwaves. We knew we hadn’t heard anything in podcast form that combined journalism, storytelling, commentary and interviews from both the African and African American perspective. So Hana and I decided to make The Stoop, a bi-monthly podcast around conversations involving blackness in a way that we could help people learn something, feel something, and be entertained.
Early on, the reception was very encouraging. Our pilot got funding from NPR, and we were finalists in Radiotopia’s Podquest. We landed an interview on All Things Considered. The buzz kept us going, but we discovered the process involved much more analysis than production. Even before we made anything, there were tough questions that we needed to answer. Colleagues and podcast network reps would ask “Who is your audience? How are you different from other black female-hosted podcasts? Why would a non-black listener be interested?”
A fellow producer commented that since our show was about blackness, and she’s not black, she knew she couldn’t relate and didn’t want to listen.
I wondered if any of my non-black podcast friends had to define themselves and their audience in the way we were. Would saying “it’s about blackness” mean we wouldn’t have white listeners? If this project stayed in a public radio sphere, would we be creating something for a demographic that is barely black?
And could we stop thinking about all this stuff and just finally make the thing?
Making the thing is always the thing...
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I was noticing there was this default acceptance for other more mainstream podcasts, but when creating a podcast like ours, dealing with stories about blackness, it already seemed we would need to justify and defend why we were even thinking about doing our thing.
I spent over a year overthinking this and trying to phrase my responses in the right way, gracefully, without exploding. It inspired one of our upcoming episodes, on the so-called ‘Angry Black Woman’.
Now my response is simply this:
We are different because blackness is not a monolith. I’d love for you to listen, but if it’s not your thing, then I hear you.
I realized something had happened in the podcast space, and we were caught in the thick of it, like swiftly and subtly, the something had created these ‘blackegories’ (black categories). . . With two female black hosts came the assumption that we had better be hilarious, like the other popular black women-hosted pods. Already subtle stereotypes were being formed. Before we even made anything, we were compared to two podcasts in particular, 2 Dope Queens and Another Round, simply because we are black women podcasters.
Adizah Eghan, the managing producer for the podcast You Had Me At Black , tells me that she thought a lot about these questions, too. “I always thought, when I made my own show, who is it for? Am I talking to black creatives or my white friends? But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There is no way that everyone’s going to like you. Let go of that dream and find a common thread of our human experience that’s what makes it good is knowing we all share it.”
I See Brown People.
As a kid, whenever a familiar brown face showed up in an episode of a show like The Wonder Years, I remember the stir it caused on the side of the couch. My dad would whisper, “Ah, there goes a brotha.” And I would lean in more if a girl who looked like me entered the scene.
Nowadays there’s many more options for people of color shows. It’s exciting. And TV trends have shown that programs built around black themes can attract mostly white audiences.
Programs like Black-ish, Insecure and Atlanta have majority-white audiences, but also significantly higher numbers of African American viewers.
But what’s the deal in podcasting? The metrics aren’t very accessible unless you pay for targeted surveys. Networks and radio stations welcome the idea of having a more diverse audience, but many don’t have a plan to make it happen. If your podcast is trying to build a black audience, you discover quickly that it’s not an ‘if you build it they will come’ scenario. It’s up to you to do the heavy lifting.
For us, that meant partnering with podcasts and organizations with browner audiences. Reaching out to places like Timeline and Al Jazeera to create content attached to our episodes that they could push out.
Woman Up And Be Prepared.
Creating the episodes was the fun part, but we were sidelined by all of these collaborations, partnerships and audience-building elements. This set us back big time. We found ourselves weeks behind in production, trying to manage videos, articles and animations that would eventually help us build our audience.
We had to woman the hell up and get back to the real work. When we did, our episode list came together. . .
Episode 2: Why’s it so hard for some black folk to say I love you?
Episode 3: PAUSE — a celebration of black beauty in the midst of Charlottesville protests.
Episode 4: The problem with “sounding white”
Episode 5: You called me African what?
In the middle of one production cycle, Charlottesville happened. Racial tensions were at a crazy level. The episode we were working on was called, “You called me African what?” It was about Hana being called an “African booty scratcher” by other black kids when in elementary school.
We always knew that some episodes would shed light on tensions between the African and African American communities — a sensitive topic, for sure. We laid out these episodes a year ago, and now we had to scramble to create something else. Would the timing ever be right?
We took a breath. Overwhelmed by the news and the intensified racial tension all over the country, we climbed into our respective closets and tracked an episode called “Pause.” I mixed it that day. We included two pre-produced features that we had made for other outlets, stories that calmed us down. One was about a group of young girls who praise-dance in their church, the other was about a musician who returns to Africa and learns more about herself. Sometimes you have to listen to your gut, and make that be the only thing you listen to.
Making a podcast is one of the most exciting projects that you can do. It’s full of all sorts of annoying and wonderful surprises — and in my case, a lot of realizations about what’s possible. Learning that it’s all right to mess up, it’s all right to be confused and it’s okay to do your thing.
Here are my big lessons:
- Know early on how to answer the question of who your audience is, and stand by it.
- Understand that working with networks and organizations without a diverse listenership means that you will have to do the work: partnering with organizations and other podcasts, not just to grow your audience but to reach your intended audience.
- Ask for feedback from a broad group, but prioritize your target audience.
- Be prepared to change things at a moment’s notice.
- Stand behind what you are doing, and resist being pushed into a category. Create your own.
In the end, it’s all about what direction you want to go. . . and for me, it’s forward, with my head wrap and my microphone.