Open your podcast app, and without working too hard, you can probably find several shows that center BIPOC voices. Still Processing from the New York Times. The Nod from Gimlet. Latino USA. Mogul. This Land. See Something. It’s Been A Minute. Code Switch. But one that’s missing, may also be the most influential: Another Round.
Hosted by Buzzfeed writers Tracey Clayton and Heben Nigatu, each episode drew from the cultural, political and social worlds of these two women. There was no effort made to make the content accessible to broader audiences, rather, the expectation was that the listener would do the work of understanding. This was a new paradigm for podcasting, one that divorces itself from a white perspective, one that was at once vulnerable and confident, and one that set the stage for similarly framed podcasts from a non-white perspective.
The #FreeAnotherRound hashtag made the rounds on Twitter recently after it was revealed that the hosts were given ownership over the ‘intellectual property’ of Another Round, but not the back catalogue of episodes. This sparked a broader conversation about ownership over the work of BIPOC bodies and minds, and how these creators are valued. In this case, it seems Buzzfeed did little to invest in the show or its hosts, but when the show was a success took the spoils and demanded more work.
What’s the value of old episodes? Though it’s growth has been tremendous, podcasting is still a very young format, and one that has yet to find a reliable monetization strategy. Advertising on podcasts works for shows of a certain audience size, but often those advertisements are recorded into each episode, so a new listener exploring old episodes may be hearing advertising that’s years old. Only the first week listeners are being monetized, anyone that listens later than that is probably hearing stale ads.
One way to get around that limitation is to insert advertisements not at the time of publication, but at the moment of download. In this model, an automated system auctions off an advertising unit just before a user downloads the episode and then inserts that copy into the recording as the file is being prepared for download. In this model, every listener that hears an episode, either today or ten years from now, will be monetized.
It’s not unfair to say that most listeners don’t listen to podcast episodes multiple times. But some podcasts have ‘evergreen’ content, episodes or segments that are so valuable that they merit multiple listens and revisiting. Another Round has that ‘evergreen’ status.
Early in planning school, we talk about table setting; not dessert forks, but ensuring that relevant people are at the table for any discussions. This falls under public engagement and stakeholder analysis, which compel this work based on the notion that a project will be more successful if the people impacted by the project have an opportunity to speak.
In a bad public engagement process the only engagement is the perfunctory public meeting with an empty gallery. A terrible public engagement process is when the only people at the meeting are those explicitly invited by the developer. And this isn’t about an inherent adversarial relationship between developers and the public, and it certainly isn’t fair to blame the absent voices; bad public engagement falls on the planner and the municipality. They are the ones mandated to reach out to stakeholders, including the general public. When municipalities feel content to fly a sign and put a print ad out in a local daily, public engagement will suffer, and projects will be worse for it.
This concept of table setting is closely related to the ownership discussions over Another Round. For BIPOCs, ownership has been something strived for but not expected throughout most of American history. This is about bondage, sure, but also homes, jobs, the vote, family, cars, furniture, security, education; these are all things promised by the American dream, but that dream is unfulfilled for many. It took nearly 60 years for the work of black, female mathematicians at NASA to be recognized and celebrated. Is it really any surprise that it took two years for us to hear about how mistreated and under rewarded two black, female writers were at Buzzfeed?
Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti may have set the table to include Clayton and Nigatu, however, that doesn’t mean they provided the duo with the context they would need to successfully negotiate, nor the realized value of their work. In planning, there is a movement to compensate participants in public engagement, particularly those from marginalized communities for whom attending a public meeting or engagement session may mean loss of work hours. This isn’t patronage or patronizing, it’s about recognizing that the contributions by these members may be valuable, but that the barrier is higher for them than for the retired land owner that doesn’t have work or child care challenges, and so is free to make a six hour meeting in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday.
Peretti knew the type of work Clayton and Nigatu were doing, and often highlighted the importance of their work in reframing perspectives around black life, but at no point did he translate that into the simple action of asking the writers what they wanted or needed. By all accounts, these brilliant women didn’t feel supported, let alone rewarded for their work.
How might a long time resident of a predominantly black community feel when a luxury townhouse development slides in next door? How might they feel when a bus line changes despite local organizers pointing out how that’ll impact poor commuters? How might they feel when a highway cuts straight through their neighborhood, or a factory moves in close by, or a pipeline, or a stadium, or an office tower? There may have been an agenda published on the municipalities website, but did any one go to the community and ask? If not, why?
The presumption of ownership follows white residents.
The presumption of ownership often follows white residents. If they speak up at a meeting, it is unlikely anyone will question whether they own their own home or rent. That same presumption isn’t likely to be made about BIPOCs, but even if they are renters, does that make them any less owners of their community?
In my neighborhood, I have been to dozens of meetings and I don’t think I have ever seen anyone from the low-income rentals nearby, but half a condo complex came out to protest a new rental block that was proposed. They were all white.
A lot goes into the delta in participation between owners and renters for public engagement efforts; there’s the fundamental reality that a renter is more likely to be time-constrained, and thus unable to attend a meeting, but also the soft-bigotry of against renters that devalues their contributions.
As described in a recent Rewire post on the long term impact of racial covenants, “there’s a belief that renters are tumbleweeds, just blowing through a neighborhood with no real commitment to it.” This view is reflected in the fact that, for tax purposes, municipalities maintain an up-to-date list of all land owners, but rely on landlords to distribute public notices to tenants. Is your landlord likely to go out of their way to inform you about their own development plans? Is there really no way for a municipality to maintain its own list of renters?
The result of this soft-bigotry is a knowledge gap between owners and renters, and a participation gap that is even wider. Buzzfeed didn’t do the work of informing Clayton and Nigatu their IP options, nor did they solicit their input; municipalities don’t do the work of informing huge swaths of the community, nor do they actively solicit their input.
There’s a belief that renters are tumbleweeds, just blowing through a neighborhood with no real commitment to it.
For Buzzfeed, the result is surprise that their exploitation comes across as racist and greedy (cuz it is). For municipal leaders, the result is surprise that their decisions come off as serving the wealthy owners and developers, and ignoring everyone else.
The answer, which listeners of Another Round could tell you, is to actually center these voices. For voices that have always been heard and prioritized it’s enough to put up a flyer on the side of the road. For the rest, planners and municipal leaders have to actually do the work of understanding non-white, non-landowning perspectives. They have to recognize the value these voices have in planning processes, and the importance of bridging the knowledge gap by holding informational sessions to build awareness of the planning process, and the community’s role in it.
And here’s a quick way to gain a life’s worth of insights from non-white communities: recruit them and invest in them. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotamayor once said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Though the comment drove some conservative Senators apoplexy, her point was so valuable: different perspectives yield richer analysis. If every one in a room largely shares a specific lived experience, their ability to empathize and value different perspectives will be hampered. Building a staff that is representative of the community it serves isn’t about PC culture, it is about investing in the staff that will best be able to see the value in the diverse voices that make up your community.