In 2019, at the height of the podcast craze, tech reporter Aarti Shahani came up with a new idea: a weekly series, called “Art of Power,” featuring intimate conversations with leaders who are changing the world.
Even with nearly a decade of experience as an Silicon Valley correspondent for NPR, Shahani had to pull strings to secure a pitch meeting with a major media company. To connect with the station WBEZ Chicago, she had to ask a friend with deep ties in the audio world to introduce her to its head of podcasting. (Both men, coincidentally, are white and named Steve.)
The station greenlighted the show. Rather than accepting a full-time offer, she brokered a deal that gives her ownership rights and full creative control, allowing her to build a team. Since “Art of Power” launched in March, Shahani has interviewed a diverse slate of American leaders, from former President Barack Obama to labor organizer Ai-Jen Poo.
The whole experience, she said, is indicative of an industry that’s learned to embrace journalists of color but still beholden to a rigid power structure largely allergic to change.
“I give a lot of credit to the white guys who opened the door and a lot of indictment to the system that reserves this space for the white guys,” Shahani, who’s Indian American, told NBCU Academy. “It’s unfortunate that still in the year 2021, it takes a Steve who knows a Steve for talented people of color to get these opportunities.”
Like the rest of the news media, public radio has faced its own racial reckoning in the year since the police killing of George Floyd. Diversity issues have long plagued the industry, but people in power are rarely held accountable. In February, New York Times’ star audio producer Andy Mills resigned after a host of former female colleagues detailed a pattern of sexual harassment in the newsroom. That same month, the hosts of “Reply All,” Gimlet’s hit podcast, stepped down after former colleagues accused them of stunting union organizing efforts.
“The gap between being a beginner to getting your first job is where we lose so many people and so much talent.”
— Yowei Shaw, producer and co-host of NPR’s “Invisibilia”
“It does feel like in the last year for lots of different reasons things have caught fire in our industry,” said Yowei Shaw, a producer and co-host of NPR’s narrative long-form podcast “Invisibilia.” “It feels like finally the dam has broken and the executives are listening.”
She credited the shift to the behind-the-scenes organizing and “courageous truth-telling” that nonwhite reporters have been engaging in on social media. At the same time, she said, low-paying internships, training programs, entry-level jobs and freelance opportunities will continue to keep many young producers—especially those saddled with six-figure student loan debts—from even considering a career in audio.
“The gap between being a beginner to getting your first job is where we lose so many people and so much talent,” said Shaw, who’s Taiwanese American. “We need to create more pathways to get the clips and skills required for getting that first gig.”
The industry’s failure to diversity its ranks has had a tangible impact on storytelling.
“I went into news because it was important to me that radio sounded more like the real world,” said Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, a Ghanaian American freelance editor and producer who formerly produced for KUOW, Seattle’s NPR news station. “The voices I was hearing in positions of authority were never people who looked like me, who had accents like my parents, who were members of communities that mattered to me.”
For Gyimah-Brempong, the incremental changes that grew out of the racial reckoning of the past year have failed to topple the systems that perpetuate abuse against nonwhite reporters. The lack of management training in many newsrooms, she said, meant that the different leaders are simply replicating a toxic workplace culture in which lower-level producers are undervalued, underpaid and overworked.
“I went into news because it was important to me that radio sounded more like the real world.”
— Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, freelance editor and writer
“Individual problematic people have been removed at great cost to journalists of color,” she said. “The amount of lifting for the amount of change is very disappointing to me.”
Some journalists say it’s crucial to think beyond simply changing the mastheads of individual newsrooms.
“I don’t look at the leadership of companies as where revolutionary change comes from,” said Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies and a co-host of the long-form history podcast “Civil War.” “Our solution here isn’t just to train white folks to be more woke. What we want to do is to put in policies that take this out of the realm of their discretion.”
While some stations are diversifying their on-air voices, Kumanyika said, the progress is somewhat lopsided. Many podcasts with a two-way conversation format, such as “Art of Power” and New York Times’s “Still Processing,” are hosted by women and nonwhite reporters. For narrative nonfiction and daily news podcasts, he said, there’s a far less range of voices.
“Sometimes when we talk about diversity we’re only talking about diversity in the top tier,” he said. “We have to put in the kind of structures that will pay and support people and allow them to get the skills they need in some kind of way.”
For aspiring audio reporters from underrepresented backgrounds, Shaw said, it’s important to find a network of mentors and friends early on, through journalism conferences or professional and community organizations.
“These are the people who will have your back and grow with you,” she said. “They’ll help with story ideas, job applications, venting, organizing, laughing and fighting those false narratives [about not being good enough] that you have in your head.”
Ultimately, Shaw said, companies have to go beyond just opening the door for fledgling producers. They should proactively train and help them thrive in their careers, giving them opportunities to eventually become reporters or hosts.
“There needs to be an immediate and long-term mission of workplaces to give more opportunities to producers of color,” she said. “Behind-the-scenes organizing needs to be everybody’s job, not just people of color.”