Recently there have been a couple of articles written about diversity in podcasting. Charley Locke wrote a piece on Wired drawing attention to the fact that the top podcasts suffer from the same problem public radio does, which is an overabundance of white men targeting an audience of white men.
From the article:
“As the medium of podcasts is on the rise (from 1.9 billion listens in 2013 to 2.6 billion in 2014, according to Nielsen data), listeners still largely fit the profile of “early adopters.” As Jesse Holcomb, associate director of research at the Pew Center, explains, “They’re more likely to be male, young, have higher incomes, be college graduates, live in an urban area.” Significantly, as many women as men listen now, according to an Edison study from 2015, but the number of people who know about podcasts still increases incrementally compared to its target demographic: 49% of Americans are aware of podcasts in 2015, compared with 45% in 2010. This profile is confirmed by Midroll. As Midroll promotes to advertisers (who in turn market to this demographic), 58% of its listeners have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 67% are ages 18-34, and 62% have incomes over $50,000.
“Unsurprisingly, the growing popularity of podcasts among young, well-educated, affluent listeners prompts more shows catering to them. The hosts mirror the audience—or perhaps it’s a vicious circle. While they represent a variety of interests, the producers and personalities on these shows are still monolithically white and male: Of the top ten podcasts on the iTunes Store, all but two are hosted by a white man.”
In part because there is a problem with discovery in the podcasting world, the best way to learn about new podcasts is cross-promotion. So the podcasts that tend to take off quickly and gain a lot of new listeners are the ones recommended or featured on the ones that already have a large audience. The likes of Roman Mars, Ira Glass, and Alex Blumberg and their associated networks can jump start a podcast in a way few other things can right now.
Josh Morgan over at Quartz made an attempt to put some data down on the problem, by taking a random sampling of 1,470 podcasts from iTunes and searching for photos of the podcasts hosts. He narrowed his sample to only those podcasts with hosts based in the US, which limited his final sample to 537 shows.
Here’s what he found:
“I found that 85% of American podcasts I sampled had at least one white host. As shown in the chart below, two-thirds (66%) had a white male host. Altogether, 18% of podcasts had a non-white host.”
A couple of things I want to point out about this analysis:
1. Is a random sample the best sample to use?
A random sampling might not be the best way to talk about diversity in podcasting. There are a lot of podcasts out there, but only around 40% stay active beyond a short run, and comparatively few get any significant listenership. Would it have been more representative to take something like the top 100 podcasts in each category? I haven’t done the analysis, but I suspect the diversity numbers would look even worse if the selection were limited to the podcasts a reasonable number of people are actually listening to in any significant numbers.
If the diversity across popular and unpopular podcasts is roughly equal, then we have more of a supply problem: why aren’t more different types of people creating podcasts? However, if there is less diversity in “popular” podcasts, then there are also discovery and demand problems: why aren’t “diverse” podcasts doing as well as ones that aren’t “diverse”?
2. Determining ethnicity & gender by photos is problematic, and misses “invisible” minority groups.
Morgan determined gender and ethnicity by looking at photos. To be fair, this is probably the fastest and most efficient way to get a ballpark understanding of someone’s race and gender, but it’s definitely not foolproof. In particular, ethnicity is really difficult to peg just by looking at someone, and it’s an interpretation that will change from person to person – your idea of “whiteness” and “not whiteness” doesn’t necessarily match mine. Oscar Isaac, who plays the pilot Poe Dameron in The Force Awakens, might read as “white” to a lot of people, but he was born in Guatemala, his mother is Guatemalan and his father is Cuban. So… is he “white” or “non-white”? You might put him in the “non-white” camp now, knowing his heritage, but would you have if all you had to go on was his photo?
Also, this analysis misses “hidden” diversity questions, which should also be important to include. You can’t tell if someone is gay or straight by looking at a photo, and depending on their gender presentation you are likely to miss if someone is a trans-man or trans-woman.
3. How should we classify ensemble podcasts?
There are a lot of “ensemble” podcasts out there: shows like This American Life and Snap Judgement, which are technically hosted by an individual, but the bulk of the storytelling in each episode is done by different producers. The host is there to link the pieces together, and sometimes they produce or tell their own stories, but often they aren’t the primary voice in the episode.
If we look at the makeup of the staff producers on This American Life, leaving out Ira Glass we find 11 Producers listed on their staff page. Of that 11, based on their staff photos and using the same parametres Morgan did in his analysis, 3 appear to be white men, 7 appear to be women, and 3 appear to me to be “non-white” (your milage may vary, and I restricted myself to his rules of just looking at photos for the sake of an attempt at consistency).
Looking at Snap Judgement, other than Glynn Washington, we have 9 Producers, 3 of which appear to be white men, 4 appear to be women, and 3 appear to me to be “non-white”.
So… which show is more diverse? Are they equally diverse? How would Morgan have categorized these shows? Based only on the hosts Ira Glass and Glynn Washington?
And even adding Producers into the mix doesn’t really tell us everything we need to know about these types of podcasts, which bring us stores about everyday, ordinary people. Even if we’re happy with the diversity on the production team, are they able to bring in and tell a diverse set of stories? What is really the best metric to use in these cases?
4. How should we classify fictional podcasts?
There is a increasing number of “fiction” based podcasts available to listen to, no doubt in part due to the success of “Welcome to Night Vale”. Should diversity in these types of podcasts be accounted for differently? What if the ethnicity of the characters isn’t clearly indicated? Should we “assume” the character is white unless told otherwise for the sake of numbers? That assumption in and of itself is problematic.
Diversity in podcasts is important, let’s keep talking about it.
I’m not trying to come down too harshly on an attempt to put some real numbers behind what the podcast universe currently looks like, but it ain’t an easy thing to put numbers to. We should look carefully at the methodology, at who and what we’re counting, and make sure we understand what it is we’re defining as “diversity”. I’m not sure what the best way to quantify diversity in podcasting is, but I do know the conversation shouldn’t end with Morgan’s analysis.
I am glad people are talking about this, and was pleased to hear a recent episode of Startup – Gimlet’s flagship podcast – about diversity conversations happening in their own house. More ideas, stories and points of view from a more diverse range of people can only make podcasting better.
And – since this wouldn’t be a proper blog about podcasting without a bunch of recommendations – here are some podcasts recommended by the Skepchick team which – going with the theme – are at minimum 50% not “white dude”. Enjoy!
Did we miss your favourite? Add it in comments: people are always looking for more podcast recs!
Hosts: Amy Davis Roth, A. B. Kovacs, Ashley Hamer, and Brian George
The official podcast of our sister site, Mad Art Lab, where they discuss the intersection of art and science. DIY to create a better universe
Recommended By: Daniela
Host: Elon James White
Award winning Monday – Thursday online radio series featuring the latest in news, race, politics, and pop culture.
Recommended By: Dr Rubidium & Courtney
Hosts: Amy Lam & Sarah Mirk
Bitch Media is a feminist response to pop culture, home to whip-smart writers, artists, and activists who analyze popular media with an eye on gender, race, class, and sexuality. A new Bitch podcast comes out every Thursday: Popaganda is a 45-minute in-depth exploration of themes ranging from stand-up comedy to sex work and Backtalk is our quick, fun conversation about the week in pop culture.
Recommended By: Jamie & Rachelle
Hosts: Hanna Rosin, June Thomas, and Noreen Malone
Audio programming from Double X, Slate’s blog founded by women but not just for women. Part of the Panoply Network.
Recommended by: Daniela
Host: Starlee Kine
A podcast where Starlee Kine solves mysteries. Comedy meets investigation.
Recommended By: Mary
Hosts: Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel
This explores the hidden things that influence human behavior. It’s very much in the public radio style of shows and podcasts (think This American Life, Serial, or Radio Lab), but I personally like it because it combines the storytelling aspects of This American Life with the scientific and fact driven elements of Radio Lab.
Recommended By: Olivia & Rachelle
Host: Jamie Broadnax
A podcast and place where girls of nerd ilk can express themselves freely and embrace who they are. This is not a show exclusively for Black women, but it is a show exclusively for Nerds!
Recommended By: Dr Rubidium & Julia
Host: Nicky Tomalin
A fictional horror story about breaking a coded message that came from space.
Recommended By: Jamie
Hosts: Dr Sydnee McElroy & Justin McElroy
A blend of comedy, history, science, and snark. Dr. Sydnee McElroy picks a topic in medical history and tells us all the way we got it wrong, while her hapless and wise-cracking husband Justin (of MBMBAM fame) happily plays second fiddle. The best sort of comedy podcast, where you learn something along the way. The husband-and-wife dynamic works great here, and every once in a while Sydnee’s teenaged sister Rileigh makes a memorable appearance.
Recommended By: Daniela & Rachelle
Hosts: Brandi Brown and Bill Stiteler
Brandi Brown and Bill Stiteler take a look at the independent black cinema movement that started in the 1970s.
Recommended By: Dr Rubidium
Hosts: Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow
Best friends Ann and Aminatou discuss whatever is on their mind in the way best friends do. They are candid, casual, enthusiastic, snarky, and great fun to listen to. Home of the “this week in menstruation” segment, where no other podcast dares to go.
Recommended By: Rachelle
Host: Lea Thau
Hard to describe, but the basic idea is true stories about how we’re all more alike than we think we are. She did a series called “Love Hurts” about dating and breakups that was just gut wrenchingly good.
Recommended By: Amanda
Host: Karina Longworth
The history of Hollywood’s golden years. This podcast is a heavily-researched work of creative nonfiction. Every reasonable attempt is made at accuracy, but quite often when it comes to the kinds of stories we explore here, between conflicting reports, conscious and unconscious mythologizing and institutionalized spin, the truth is murky at best. That’s kind of what the podcast is, ultimately, about.
Recommended By: Jamie, Olivia, & Courtney
Hosts: Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton
Hilarious takes on culture & politics from two badass women of color. Guests include everyone from Uzo Aduba to Hillary Clinton.
Recommended By: Courtney
Hosts: Glynn Washington + Ensemble Producers
If you love This American Life you’ll love Snap Judgement – you may even love Snap Judgement more. Washington exudes storytelling: where Glass is public-radio pithy, Washington has vocal style that breezes into the room and feels completely natural, completely in the moment, in a way Glass just never quite does. With Glass, you know you’re listening to his radio voice. With Washington, you feel like the person he is, is really there with you. The people and stories this team shares with us is unique, varied, and often surprising.
Recommended By: Rachelle
Hosts: Baratunde Thurston, Raquel Cepeda, Tanner Colby
A diverse cast of hosts discuss the ways we can’t talk, don’t talk, would rather not talk, but intermittently, fitfully, embarrassingly do talk about culture, identity, politics, power, and privilege in our pre-post-yet-still-very-racial America. This show is “About Race”.
Recommended By: Jamie
Host: Andrew Ti
Mostly comedy, but also a bit of culture/politics. It’s literally just a guy (of color) and a weekly guest answering listener questions about whether things are racist. Funny, and interesting. Not always answers I agree with, but almost always questions that get me thinking.
Recommended By: Olivia
Hosts: Brittany Luse & Eric Eddings
BFFs Brittany and Eric humorously deep-dive into the uncool topic of their choice while testing the outer limits of their friendship.
Recommended By: Rachelle
Host: Linda Holmes
A lively chat about books, movies, music, television, comics and pretty much anything else that strikes a nerve, all in a weekly roundtable from NPR. Features “Monkey See” blogger Linda Holmes and an occasionally rowdy cast of characters.
Recommended By: Daniela
Host: Mia McKenzie
Mia McKenzie tackles current events, from activism to pop culture, from a radical feminists of color perspective.
Recommended By: Julia
Hosts: Alice Bradley & Deanna Zandt
Author and social activist Deanna Zandt gets together with author and weirdo Alice Bradley to talk about depression, anxiety, and all the other ways our brains can play tricks on us. They discuss what helps, whether it’s medication, meditation, or binge-watching Netflix while eating an entire wheel of cheese.
Recommended By: Olivia
Host: Rose Eveleth
Flash Forward is a podcast about the future. Each week Rose takes on a possible future scenario — everything from the existence of artificial wombs, to what would happen if space pirates dragged a second moon to Earth. Previously known as “Meanwhile In The Future”, it recently got a name change and moved to the Boing Boing network.
Recommended By: Rachelle
Host: Sarah Koenig
Serial is the podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig, that took the world by storm last year. Serial tells one true story over the course of a season. They follow a plot and characters wherever they go. Each week they bring you the next chapter in the story, so it’s important to listen to the episodes in order. Highly addictive.
Recommended By: Daniela & Courtney
Hosts: Rabia Chaudry, Susan Simpson, and Colin Miller
Most everyone already knows Serial (see above), but if you want a deep, deep dive into the Syed case that investigates every corner, looks at every technicality, and dissects the evidence from every angle, you’ll enjoy this one. The first 2 – 3 episodes are a bit rough — they are lawyers and not podcast producers after all — but they find their groove remarkably fast.
Recommended By: Amanda & Rachelle