At least once a month, I’m sent a tweet that goes something like this: “A group of guys is called a podcast.” Sometimes, though, it’s tweaked like so: “A group of heterosexual guys is called a podcast.” Or: “Two or more white guys = a podcast.” You get the gist. If not…
Even I’ve been guilty of co-opting the format:
The earliest version of this tweet came from writer Alana Massey, who in 2016 — a year that industry analysts suggest was the moment podcasts became mainstream — tweeted: “A gathering of two or more average looking white men is referred to by biologists as ‘a podcast.’” Massey’s tweet (which has since been deleted) was retweeted over 3,000 times and liked more than 13,000. Moreover, it spawned hundreds of other tweets like it that continue to go super-viral. Earlier this year, for instance, Lauren Duca tweeted pretty much the exact same thing to similar results:
As a person of color who has made and produced podcasts since 2015 — including No Country for Brown Men, which won a Diversity in Media award — I’ve long been confused as to why we think the medium is a hobby only for heterosexual white guys who wear plaid shirts.
Like so many other people of color, my decision to make a podcast came from being told I didn’t have enough experience to work in traditional radio. The low barrier to entry in podcasting (all you need is a SoundCloud account and a pair of headphones to make one) means it’s always been attractive to under-represented groups. According to Podcast Insights, nearly 40 percent of all global podcast listeners are non-white, and while men are still the primary podcast consumer, they’re only marginally so — that is, more than 40 percent of listeners identify as women.
Earlier this year, Edison Research, an investment and advisory company, found that of all mediums, podcasts weren’t only the most diverse, but also the one “that best represents the ethnic and gender make-up of America.” And as Splinter’s Charles Pulliam-Moore notes, podcasts hosted and produced by black women regularly top iTunes and other podcasting platform’s charts, with shows like 2 Dope Queens, The Read and About Race regularly attracting tens of thousands of listeners and frequently selling out their live shows.
When I ask my female friends who have made jokes about podcasts being the vestige of frustrated white men, I receive fairly similar answers. (None of them wished to have their full names revealed because of the potential of harassment from podcast men.) “I’m a huge fan of podcasts, and I listen to at least five a week, all by brilliant, smart and funny women,” says Sarah, a 25-year-old culture writer. “But when I think about podcasts, as a culture thing, the first image that pops up is of a bunch of guys drinking [beer] and shouting over each other on a microphone. I’m not sure why, but my guess is that when I first heard about podcasts, they were all to do with [soccer] and sports generally.”
Priya, 28, who works in publishing in New York, adds, “When my friends talk about podcasts, they always talk about shows like Chapo Trap House and Jacobin, which are very male [orientated]. And I think that image is reinforced when male friends I hang out with get really into these shows and their humor. I’ve never seen women get that intense about leftist podcasts — or podcasts in general.”
As a co-host of the British leftist podcast Trashfuture, a show hosted and produced by four guys in a basement (again, including myself), we’ve had our fair share of critiques over how male our podcast is, not just in the composition of hosts, but also the subjects we choose to talk about and the crude/absurd jokes we get away with making. When I ask our producer, Nate Bethea, about whether our show is a prime example of “male podcasting” — a low-effort conversation between four cisgendered men with relatively few consequences to consider — he suggests that the meme has less to do with podcasting itself and more with left-wing social media spaces.
“There are a lot of white dude podcasts for sure, and some of that probably stems from the fact that a lot of shitposters are white dudes too,” he says. “Straight white guys don’t face anywhere near as much abuse online as women, non-white people or trans people. So in most cases, it’s not that scary to voice your political opinions online when you’re straight and you’re white. You might get some pushback, sure, but no one is going to threaten you.”
Basically, the lack of these threats might mean that for straight white men, a podcast poses little in terms of stakes. “The medium can facilitate this sense of entitlement,” says Nastaran Tavakoli-Far, the host and producer of the Gender Knot Podcast and a BBC radio host. Though Tavakoli-Far says that podcasting has been revolutionary in spotlighting marginalized voices, she adds that women and minorities still face an uphill battle when it comes to hosting platforms like iTunes, Acast and Stitcher. “If you aren’t considered mainstream, you’ll be seen as a ‘niche’ podcast,” she says. “You’ll be categorized and framed in a way that lowers your chances of being promoted to the front page or chosen as a noteworthy podcast.”
Because of this selectivity, she adds, “The big podcasts, which are well-funded and contain a lot of advertising and sponsorship, become shows where white guys, sometimes who all have the same name, end up dominating the charts and are more likely to be listened to and grow. Meanwhile, under-supported shows made by women, people of color and other [under-represented groups] have to fund themselves or they struggle to stay running.”
To that point, Wired writer Charley Locke found that podcasts hosted and produced by white men were statistically more likely to reach broader audiences who are young, affluent and college-educated. Quartz’s Josh Morgan all but confirmed Locke’s findings and went even further, arguing that in the increasingly commercialized podcast industry, white men who host popular shows are likely to gain the lion’s share of total podcast listeners. In turn, advertisers continue to funnel more resources into them, as opposed to shows hosted by women and/or POC with smaller, less affluent audiences.
Simply put then, for podcasters of color, the inequalities of their industry are a lot of the same ones they face in the wider world. “Most things are based on white men being leaders/in power/having influence,” says Tamu Thomas, the host of THREE-SIXTY, a podcast that tells the stories of “busy women in their 30s and 40s that want to simplify life and create space for everyday joy.” “When I started my podcast, I was advised not to use a picture of myself because it could limit the number of people who choose to listen to my podcast if it was recommended in a search. I know people who have used a hand model or text only for this reason. There were also assumptions about the quality of the podcast and the pressure of being pigeonholed into topics such as pop culture and music reviews. Anything that doesn’t fit within the Eurocentric, patriarchal ideal is perceived as less than, and this lack of access is further amplified by the darker your skin is.”
Still, Thomas has no plans to stop podcasting. “I’m not interested in battling for a seat at someone else’s table,” she explains. “I’ve created my own thing like many others, and we’re creating our own rules and our own audiences.” As such, she believes that as podcasting platforms expand, there will be more space for non-white, non-male podcasts to grow and dominate the market.
Besides, all that white-guy competition is a joke anyway.