For some reason, the whole mess at Gimlet Media related to the Reply All Test Kitchen series and its fallout, which I wrote about in my last post, has continued to fascinate me. I’ve been reading tweet threats by those involved and related: Eric Eddings, Starlee Kine, PJ Vogt, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Alex Goldman, the Gimlet Union, Emmanuel Dzotsi, and others. As a long time listener, I never quite understood what the Union drive at Gimlet was about. One sees a company by the image they project, and I viewed Gimlet through the eyes of the Startup Podcast and Reply All, through Science Vs and Little Known Facts. This incident has made me realize that what I saw was a facade. More importantly, looking back, it showed they didn’t listen to what they were reporting.
As I noted in my last post, at the time of the starting of Gimlet, Alex Blumberg noted that there were major problems with diversity in Gimlet’s staff. They planned to do something about it. In an episode of Reply All that I cite to this day, they explored why diversity was so important in the workplace: when you hire people from the same background and the same institution, you always get the same view and the same answers. Yet even with that reporting, the recent Test Kitchen series and the subsequent fallout made clear that Gimlet didn’t learn. They hired the team and people from other podcasts they knew: from This American Life and Planet Money and NPR — all of whom had the same views and background and cliques. Just like the Bon Appetit situation they wrote about (at least from what I’ve been reading and hearing), they didn’t give spaces for the other voices. Well, perhaps they did for a short time, but they didn’t last. It was tokenization, not representation. At least, that’s from what I’m hearing and reading. I’m a long time listener, not a podcast. Just like with live theatre: I’m an audience member, which is vital for the industry.
But what is more disappointing is that this pattern of behavior is common across the podcast industry. Helen Zaltzman and the Allusionist podcast left Radiotopia. Why? Zaltzman cited a lack of racial diversity at the Radiotopia: “I have raised this fact repeatedly, recommended existing shows or potential showmakers to approach, questioned the excuses given for why the line-up stayed very white – small capacity and limited resources and insufficient money were frequently cited. So I offered money. And now, in case it makes more space and resources available, I’m removing myself.”
The problem is real. Stephanie Foo wrote a piece in 2020 about diversity problems in public media. It was her third time having to write the article, because people were not learning. She first wrote it in 2015. In the introduction to that article, she noted: “It’s about time that public media came to terms with the fact that it does not serve the public as a whole. More hosts and program directors realize that a market of POC exists — and if they don’t cater to it, they’ll fail to grow their audience. And I’m glad the people in charge are realizing that when it comes to attracting minorities, throwing some hip-hop beatz as a transition between stories is about as effective and transparent as Mitt Romney’s spray tan. Finally, finally, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the solution to our diversity problem is hiring producers of color, and that diversifying your business is smart from a content perspective.” But did people listen? Did they really change their workplaces? Evidently not.
Back in 2015, Wired wrote about the lack of diversity in podcast voices: “Don’t replicate the stale listenership of public radio, and offer yet another way for the same culturally dominant demographic to tell each other their ideas. Rather than build a wider network of white male voices and listeners, let’s take the momentum and support of networks to promote some podcasts featuring everyone else.” There was an article on this in 2016. This was pointed out again in 2017: “Diversity is another huge challenge faced by the podcast industry, according to the report. As of mid-2016, only a few of the top-100 iTunes podcasts — shows like “Code Switch” and “Snap Judgment” — were designed to amplify diverse voices. Most podcast hosts are also male.”
But just as with theatre: diversity in the hosts at the front is only the visible tip. Diversity needs to be throughout: from the researchers to those pitching the stories to those producing to those editing to those marketing to those … The Reply All podcast perhaps said it best back in 2016:
LESLIE says that Twitter’s lack of diversity doesn’t just affect the workplace atmosphere, but it goes straight to the heart of the product itself.
LESLIE: Obviously if you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds building your product, you’re going get a very very narrowly focused product that may do one or two things really well or just may not do anything really well. And if you look at Twitter as a product, it doesn’t a lot of the simple things. It doesn’t do direct messaging well. It doesn’t do media sharing well, right? And if you had people from diverse backgrounds, you may have been able to expand, you know, what what you thought was possible?
GOLDMAN. Let me ask you this how must of your desire to see diverse workplaces comes from the fact that it’s just morally correct to have diverse workplaces versus it will make your product much better.
LESLIE: Yes. The answer to that question is yes. It’s going to, you know, diverse teams have better outcomes, that is, there’s so much has been written on that in the last 30 years I don’t even know why we’re talking about it. And and I think, you know, I hate sounding like, you know, like a total socialist, but arising tide lifts all boats.
Looking back at this transcript, you know what stands out at me? Who did the interview. Alex Goldman. Not PJ. And in the latest problems at RA, who was there arguing for diversity and its benefits and the union. Goldman.
As audience members — as listeners to podcasts — I’m starting to wonder if we are hearing but not listening. The problems with diversity have been there. People have been talking about them for years. They have been writing about them. But I’m not sure we have been hearing. But they have been coming to the foreground now. We are learning about the problems at Radiotopia and Gimlet. It is just like how in mid-2020, we because to learn and understand about the problems in the Broadway theatre, and that we needed the diversity throughout.
So what can we — as the audience — do. I think we need to let the podcasting companies — Spotify, Earwolf, NPR, etc. — know we want diversity throughout. Not a host here and there, but in the research, writing, producing, and technical staffs. We need to find podcasts that exhibit those characteristics and make it know that we are going out of our way to listen to them, and that we want those diverse viewpoints. Although I’m pretty backed up on podcasts, I’m open to recommendations for podcasts that fit this mold.
I also hope that Gimlet uses this incident to do what it does best, and what it did when it started: Turn that microphone on itself. I’d like to see the remaining hosts at RA — Alex and Emmanuel — explore how diversity went wrong at Gimlet, going back to when the problem was first cited in 2015, to when RA touched on the importance of structural diversity back in 2016, exploring the diversity problem in the podcasting industry. They might even be able to salvage some of the Bon Appetit story. But most importantly, I hope they can talk about how the problem is being solved, and being solved in a permanent, long lasting way.