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9 December 2016

How can we solve podcasting’s diversity problem?

It’s starting to look like podcasting’s diversity and discovery problems are intertwined.

By Caroline Crampton

In August 2015, Wired published an article that contradicted the accepted wisdom about podcasting. The headline read: “Podcasts’ Biggest Problem Isn’t Discovery, It’s Diversity”. Charley Locke argued that the rise of cross-promotion as a means of introducing listeners to new shows – primarily within established podcast networks like Gimlet – was preventing otherwise unheard voices from breaking through. Serial got its first boost from being featured on This American Life; Crimetown from Reply All, and so on. “While the helping hands may strengthen the current ecosystem of podcasting, they don’t do much to diversify it,” she wrote. “When a white, male host recommends another podcast hosted by a white, male host to a white, male listener, there’s not much room for a diversity of voices.”

After Locke’s article was published, podcast number-cruncher Josh Morgan looked into just how non-diverse podcasting is. Within his sample of US shows for which he could determine the ethnicities of the host (read more about his methodology here), he found that 85 per cent of podcasts had at least one white host, and just 18 per cent had a non-white host. The proportion of non-white women hosts was even smaller. While these figures aren’t exactly great, they’re not surprising to anyone who listens to podcasts regularly. There certainly are popular podcasts out there with non-white hosts – Buzzfeed’s Another Round, MTV’s Speed Dial and promising British newcomers The Receipts are all ones I listen to – but these are the exception, not the rule. Anecdotally, we know that we have the same problem in the UK as Morgan identified in his data for the US – I just checked the iTunes chart while I was writing this, and none of the top ten shows had a non-white host. Only three of them even involved women.

The part of Morgan’s analysis that really jumped out at me, though, was this: “At some level, these figures may not seem so problematic. For one thing, the proportion of non-white podcasters bears similarities to other forms of media.” What is striking about this is that until the last couple of years, and the so-called “professionalisation” of podcasting, the perception was that the medium largely existed outside of the mainstream media. The barriers to entry are so much lower: you don’t need to have any qualifications or a full-time job at a news organisation to make a podcast. In theory, anyone with a recording device, a good idea and a lot of time to devote to it can make a popular show. So why is the form now replicating the lack of diversity in more traditional forms of media?

This is the question that perplexes Shaun Lau, who hosts the US-based film and social issues podcast No, Totally! and who is campaigning to improve the diversity of podcasting. When we spoke over Skype, he told me that being able to find perspectives via podcasts from diverse voices that were missing from the established media is a big part of what attracted him to the form in the first place.

“Being a person of colour, being an Asian-American, it began to dawn on me that people of colour don’t really have representation in the overall media,” he explained. “[Podcasts] are a way of being able to listen to people of other ethnicities and from other cultures that I hadn’t really been exposed to growing up.”

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As to why the top podcasts remain so white-dominated, despite the medium’s supposed accessibility and the existing availability of shows created by people of colour, Lau identified a number of different factors.

“I see it as a continuation of the way that media is currently stratified. NPR, PRI, public radio in general – they’ve got a brand name when it comes to audio content and it just so happens that’s not a very diverse world to begin with.”

It also has to do with the lack of diversity in existing genres of media that moved into podcasting early, he says, such as comedy.

“Marc Maron certainly broke that, and then you have people like Howard Stern who were pre-existing as someone who does audio content. . . Comedy is very much a white person activity.”

Lau points out, however, that many of the white-dominated podcasts that top the iTunes earn their place there.

“These are great shows – that’s one of the reasons why they’re in the top ten all the time. It‘s not that people are going ‘I only want to listen to white people so let’s make these famous’,” he said. “These are really great shows but again, access to these industries – comedy and public radio specifically – outside of the podcast world it‘s very white. I feel like what’s happened is that it’s taken that ethnic stratification and just layered it on top of this new media form.”

Lau has organised an open letter to podcast distributers, advertisers and media organisations that cover podcasting, urging them to pay more attention to the implications for diversity of their practices, and is hosting a conversation about the issue on Twitter using the hashtag #SupportPOCpods. He told me he was inspired by April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag to highlight the lack of diversity in Hollywood – a campaign which has lead the Academy to invite a far more diverse range of members to join its ranks.

“I don’t see podcasting networks being taken to task for this kind of thing, and as a result, I don’t see them coming out and saying ‘well, we are trying to be more diverse’,” Lau said. “That could be a limit as far as what I read – I don’t want to say that nobody is doing it, because I’m sure that is a priority to some network out there – but it’s not something that I’ve seen.”

As well as networks, Lau’s campaign is targeting the distributors of podcasts – principally iTunes, as the biggest player in the market, but also the likes of Google Play and Stitcher. These are the places that the majority of listeners go to download podcasts, and where they can browse by genre and category to find new shows. This is the area in which platforms can improve their offering, Lau told me, and make it easy for interested listeners to find more diverse shows.

“I would like them to create a top-level genre for independent podcasters of colour,” he said. “And I would like that to not interfere with the current genres that have been proscribed.”

The idea is not that this new iTunes genre would be the only place to find these shows, but rather that it would serve as a way of highlighting diverse podcasts and remove the need to click through lots of genres and take a guess at a show’s level of diversity just from the artwork.

“So, for instance, if a person of colour has a sports podcast, they would be listed in both the sports area and the independent podcasters of colour section,” Lau explained.

Imriel Morgan, co-founder of the UK-based ShoutOut Network – which is comprised solely of podcasts hosted by people of colour – told me that until very recently her shows had struggled to get any promotion from iTunes.

“We had a lot of pushback from iTunes, I don’t know if it was deliberate or just their process,” she said. “We tried to reach out, we tried to get a provider page for the network. . . We had to really forge our way without it.”

The show that Morgan co-hosts for the network, Melanin Millennials, has since done well, and another, Mostly Lit, has been featured in iTunes’ “Best of 2016” round up. Prior to this, though, Morgan says ShoutOut had to rely on social media recommendations and non-iTunes distributors to reach new listeners. Spotify, in particular, has been very welcoming to her network.

“There are really cool things happening on other platforms, and they’re really starting to take notice. I think they value [diversity],” she said.

ShoutOut currently has six shows, and Morgan told me that the network does about 30,000 downloads a month altogether. Their latest listener survey, she said, confirmed that their audience is made up of mostly young British, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) people based in London, the US or Nigeria. “It’s 92 per cent BAME, of which 88 per cent are black, Caribbean or African,” she explained. “I don’t think we could have asked for better stats, because that’s exactly who we were targeting.”

Lau told me that he sees an opportunity for independent podcasts like those on Morgan’s network at this particular moment in time. After the election of Donald Trump in the US, it appears that lots of internet-savvy white liberals are looking for ways to burst out of their social media “bubbles”, and diverse podcasts could help them do that – if only they were easier to find.

“I think it’s possible that white Americans have identified podcasts already as a place where they can get out of their bubble,” he said. “But if I imagine myself in that position and I go to the iTunes store, there is really no way for me to indulge that.”

It’s starting to look like podcasting’s diversity problem and its discovery problem are intertwined. It’s a vicious cycle – with distributors providing a far-from-perfect way of finding new shows, the podcast charts remain dominated by shows from established media organisations with their own diversity problems. Media organisations compiling lists of shows tend to mirror the charts, perpetuating the same issues. It’s time for us all to do better.

Follow Shaun Lau on Twitter @NoTotally and Imriel Morgan @ImiMorgan. Join in the discussion about diversity in podcasting on #SupportPOCpods

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.