by Inda Lauryn
About six years ago when I first discovered podcasts, geek podcasts for and by Black women were few and far between. As podcasts have grown in popularity, there are many more choices available.
Like social media, podcasting can provide an avenue to hear marginalized voices and points of view not commonly seen in the mainstream. Also like social media, it can become an arena in which the mainstream searches for new talent and ideas, sometimes co-opting the work of lesser known podcasts or inviting more popular ones into the fold.
With Black voices, particularly Black geek voices, centering the conversation on their experiences, who gets invited to the mainstream and why does the mainstream latch on to their experiences of Blackness? A look at Nerdgasm Noire Network brings to light many issues Black podcasters face when centering experiences the mainstream does not recognize or find suitable to its longstanding beliefs about blackness.
History of Podcasting
Former MTV host Adam Curry and RSS feed developer Dave Winer are generally credited with the creation of the podcast. They began Daily Source Code in 2004 and Liberated Syndication launched the first podcast service provider by the end of the year. In 2005, iTunes got in on the burgeoning podcast movement and provided native support for podcasts on its service.
Much like blogging, podcasts took off, providing those with access to another outlet. As early as 2004, articles explaining how to podcast circulated throughout the Internet. Just as some blogging became a stepping stone for mainstream exposure, podcasts like the Mommycast garnered six-figure deals for its creators. The Podcast Awards launched in 2005 and included a People’s Choice category.
With the rise of iPods and other MP3 players and services, it comes as no surprise that podcasts took off. Shows were often free and specialized to specific categories. They offered company and convenience to an important type of audience: commuters. They also hold appeal to those like me who work from home.
However, this is not the only attraction to podcasts. Relatively inexpensive to produce, podcasts offer those of us who found our voices marginalized in the mainstream a chance to voice our interests and opinions and find others who share these interests. People of color, queer and trans people, people with disabilities and mental health issues, fat activists and all these intersections and more have entered the podcasting arena.
Mainstream Black-led Podcasts
For some, podcasting has led to more opportunities inside the margins to the mainstream. Perhaps The Read offers the best example of a podcast turning into mainstream success with Crissles and Kid Fury now appearing on Comedy Central, MTV and other outlets. But this type of success eludes most podcasters, especially those who are not already known from mainstream outlets.
Black-led podcasts such as The Read appear to be a fluke in its runaway mainstream success. Other podcasts such as Another Round, 2 Dope Queens and Girl on Guy with Aisha Tyler come from Black women who were already known mainstream media figures so they came with a ready-made audience (and sponsors). Meanwhile, it remains extremely difficult for independent podcasts to break through in a major way, relying on word of mouth and slowly building an audience from the ground up if they are able to sustain.
In some ways, many Black-led podcasts that go on to mainstream success present an ideal of blackness not perceived as threatening to whiteness and white supremacy, hence why The Read’s success is somewhat surprising. The mainstream likes a particular type of blackness that (inadvertently or not) keeps whiteness at its center or at least makes whiteness feel safe and caters to its gaze. Yet there are many Black-led podcasts with blackness in its many forms front and center with no regard to whiteness.
Outside of the Mainstream Podcasters
Enter Nerdgasm Noire Network. Five (now six) Black women began the blog in February 2011. On March 30, 2011, NNN aired its first podcast. Starting out as a live show airing Tuesday nights when the cohosts could coordinate, the show now airs biweekly with a rotating lineup among the six hosts: Melissa Draughn, JP Fairfield, Maria Jackson, De Ana Jones, Jamie Nesbitt-Golden, and Kia. The ladies of NNN discuss everything from politics and social justice to fashion and film. They have featured guests including authors, social and cultural critics and fellow podcasters and even featured special episodes in which they play RPGs (role-playing games) with game creators. They also highlight Black businesses.
Before NNN began, there were only a handful of podcasts focusing on Black geek interests or any nerds of color. Melissa remembers Sci-Fi Party Line as the one that stood out for her, but “I forget how I found them. It was probably through Twitter. They are amazing.” JP also listened to Sci-Fi Party Line as well. She also “listened to The Eclectik Discussion podcast. I found the podcast on twitter and even went on his show as a guest.” Their experiences suggest that the rise of social media outlets such as Twitter helped the rise in people of color finding and starting their own podcasts.
While geek culture has always been part of podcasting, the mainstream had not yet full taken note of the talent and critique that came from this world, especially not with geeks of color of varying intersections. Furthermore, podcasts run by people of color had not yet found a boom with those who focused on subject matter based on their geek or nerd interests.
NNN became one of the first to base a podcast around Black geek identity: “Five geeks. Five opinions. One podcast. Nerdgasm Noire Network. Where we do nerd shit!”
With the mainstreaming of geek culture(s), geek and nerd podcasts emerged throughout the podcast landscape. However, only a handful ever get acknowledged in the mainstream when it comes to “Black Podcasts You Should Be Listening To,” “Awesome Podcasts Led by Black Women You Will Love” and the like. Nerdgasm Noire Network is rarely if ever among them despite practically pioneering the Black geek podcast five years ago.
The ladies of NNN welcome the surge of podcasts featuring geeks of color since their show debuted. Maria says, “There has been a huge boom since I began listening and after I began co-hosting. It’s just exploded. Even mainstream media is paying some attention.” JP agrees, “The community has definitely grown. We never had an expectation of being popular and having a lot of listeners. We wanted to project our voice as Black Women out into the world.”
Melissa also says she is seeing “a lot more podcasts that feature us now and it is great.” She mentions that she and her friends started the podcast “to create an outlet to discuss geeky things. [And it] seemed fun.” JP elaborates that the podcast meant to “create a fun space to talk about geeky things. We talk regularly over social media and Mel brought up the idea of doing a podcast. So, we thought it was a cool idea and went full speed into it.”
In fact, many podcasts got their start with friends getting together to have a little fun and discuss their passions. Shows such as Spawn on Me focuses on the world of videogames while Metal for Brains keeps an eye on heavy metal and sometimes indie rock. Yet podcasting became a bit more for some. As Maria explains, “I wasn’t around for the creation, but it seemed to me a place to discuss geeky things from the point of view of several Black women. To create a space an inclusive, intersectional black woman geekiness.”
The ladies of NNN never really expected much to happen with their podcast besides creating a safe space for Black female geekiness. However, many people do use podcasting as a format in which to jumpstart a much larger platform and garner mainstream attention. But with podcasting more or less resembling the Wild West, it can be next to impossible to make the transition, especially for Black women in podcasting. As previously mentioned, Black women-led podcasts like Another Round, Girl on Guy with Aisha Tyler and 2 Dope Queens come from women who already had something of a mainstream presence, so their podcasts were not exactly grassroots efforts. They also had something that still eludes man Black women-led podcasts: a brand.
While the mainstream has indeed paid more attention to various areas of geek culture, Black women in geek spaces seem to have a harder time gaining recognition for their contributions and participation in geek culture. For the mainstream tends to only like certain types of Black women in terms of respectability. Only a certain type of Black woman is palatable. And mainstream misogynoir acts as a gatekeeper to prevent Black women not seen as palatable out of geek spaces. Furthermore, when people think of anything to do with blackness and geekdom, Black women are seldom if ever the first thought for anyone.
Make no mistake: podcasts can be big business like any form of media. Over the weekend of July 6-8, Podcast Movement 2016 took place in Chicago. Film director Kevin Smith and Another Round’s Heben Negatu and Tracy Clayton delivered keynote addresses at the gathering. NPR announced a push to find new talent, podcasts and radio shows outside its network. Diversity panels brought up issues of opportunities during their sessions. No doubt the power of the podcast has made it to the mainstream, particularly when it comes to looking for the next best thing. And the next best thing often comes from within Black-led arenas.
Melissa explains that the question of marketing Black geek culture as a brand with respect to respectability or palatability depends on “who is defining what is respectable and palatable. I feel that if you have to compromise so much then it is no longer Black geek/nerd culture. It becomes something similar. It becomes something like a Kids Bop version of the real song. It also implies that there is something non respectable or palatable about Black geek/nerd culture. Can it be complicated? Yes. But if you are interested enough to listen then you are interested enough not to need a cleaned up version of it. If you need to make the song something different than what it is then maybe that song isn’t for you. It’s okay if that song isn’t for you.”
JP echoes Mel’s concerns about marketing Black geek culture: “I’m uncomfortable with the branding of Black geek/nerd culture. Who gets to determine who’s respectable or not? We’ll get into this cycle of gatekeepers deciding the rules and only those who possess more privilege will be seen as valuable.”
These are the lessons many Black women such as Tanya DePass has learned and what eventually led her to create the organization I Need Diverse Games and her subsequent podcast Fresh Out of Tokens. However, before this, she was a guest on NNN, eventually creating her own podcast almost as a joke with her co-host. With the show, Tanya and her guests discuss the many intersections that color their experience with gaming including sexuality, disability and gender identity. The podcast has also provided a space for others such as Sammus, a Black female rapper whose subject matter often explores her geek identity but does not receive the type of mainstream attention as, say, Childish Gambino.
The intersection of Black, woman and geek is still a foreign concept to many, especially when those intersections meet others such as disability, sexuality or skin tone. NNN has taken all these factors into consideration into its show.
However, the point of the podcast has never been to explain or make these intersections “acceptable” to a mainstream audience. Instead, the show has always focused on centering the voices of the marginalized with no apology. Perhaps the devotion to this focus has played a factor in why other Black-led podcasts have managed to break into the mainstream or at least garner more attention.
This is also not lost on the ladies of NNN. Both Maria and Mel agree that there are certain types of Black podcasts the mainstream latches on to. Maria says, “I think [mainstream media] latch onto podcasts that have more studio production, aren’t so staunchly on a social justice tip and probably curse less. Podcasts who fit more into the idea of ‘respectability.’ Thanks to nearly everyone having a smartphone, podcasts have a unique ability to create community of marginalized voices. The ability to create a podcast is one of the most democratic uses of tech, but if it’s not NPR polished, mainstream media won’t take you as seriously.”
Melissa adds that the mainstream also focuses on the Black geek podcasts that “everyone agrees is popularly nerdy.” The mainstream has always had a fascination with blackness and tried to define it in its own terms. So it comes as no surprise that mainstream media pick up on Black podcasts that fulfill its preconceived notions of blackness. As Maria explains, ”I think they (mainstream media) treat it like any Black Culture phenomenon. They think it’s cute, cool, hip and they’re trying to think of ways they can make money off of it. They don’t think of why it was necessary to create in the first place.”
Yet while some Black geek podcasts have grown in popularity and have made the transition to mainstream media, NNN remains unfazed with no plans to change its original mission. JP says, “[I] don’t really feel mainstreaming affected NNN that greatly. We are still considered very niche and unknown. I’m glad that it’s allowing a lot more voices to be heard. [I] would love to see more diversity in the mainstream podcast space.”
Melissa declares, “Honestly, I’m not 100% sure that [mainstream media picking up on Black geek culture] has greatly affected us. I would hope that it has opened doors the gatekeepers chose to keep locked and then that perhaps helped people find us.”
In fact, Melissa states that NNN “has definitely grown over the past few years. There has always been a collaborative feel about the community and that hasn’t changed.” She adds, “I am personally proud of NNN and the space we’ve carved out in Black geekdom. NNN has given me that and a sense of being in a community I didn’t grow up knowing [this] existed. It is because of NNN that I try new geeky things and I have an increased feel of confidence.”
JP also expresses pride in what the podcast has created. She states, “I’m so proud of the space we created with NNN. I was able to talk to so many Black Women and Femmes from different walks of life and discuss our interests. It made me realize how important having this space is to me and other Black Women and Femmes.”
Even though NNN has grown and evolved since its inception, it has not changed its initial intention of creating that inclusive space. It has not catered to mainstream perceptions of what palatable Black geek culture is. But for fans of the show, it has provided a more well-rounded and complicated view of what Black geek culture is. As Melissa says, NNN has shown that “you can be more one thing. Hell, we are. And… striving for geek cred is a pointless endeavor.”
Podcasts such as NNN may not meet mainstream standards of what is considered “respectable,” but this is what makes the show so essential.
As the ladies point out, mainstream media have a way of flattening Black-led arenas to preconceived notions of what blackness “should” be or at least a nonthreatening view of blackness that does not challenge preconceived notions. Its very presence makes NNN a subversive platform for Black women. Opinionated Black women. Keeping its focus on this mission has allowed the show to survive various experiments with format and segments while maintaining its core base.
This is a good thing as far as allowing podcasts like NNN to stay free from the restrictions the mainstream likes to put on those who do not fit in. Because it means one important thing:
Whiteness and white supremacy do not control the narrative.
In fact, NNN makes it a point to challenge whiteness from every angle and eschews the white gaze. For instance, with NNN, each host brings her personality and identity to the show, an identity that extends into their social media presence and other real lives. Anyone who follows the NNN hosts individually know that they all speak up frequently on social justice issues and not just when it directly affects them. In other words, the women you get on the show are the same ones you get when you meet them in person or online. In other words, they do not perform for the sake of a brand.
JP best explains it: “Our identity is a part of who we are. My identity isn’t a brand but my life. There are so many parts of who I represent as a human being and it’s impossible to separate it to make someone else feel more comfortable. NNN strives to be a safe space and allowed others to love themselves inside and out.”
NNN does not offer an aural voyeuristic experience for the listener. Instead, the listener must meet the ladies of the podcast on their own terms. No one goes out of her way for the comfort of Miss Anne and Mr. Charlie looking for the “authentic” Black experience.
Perhaps ultimately this is what separates Black-led podcasts that get accepted into the mainstream fold from those that still must wade the waters with loyal followers and the sheer passion for what they do. Podcasts feel much like the early days of Internet access before large conglomerates figured out how to take control, so it is yet to be seen who survives a few years from now as podcasts possibly become even more regulated than they are. If their previous track record has shown anything, NNN may just be one of the survivors simply by remaining true to itself.
For marginalized voices, podcasts cut out the middleman. Podcasts helped those of us with marginalized identities find our communities and focus on issues outside the lens of the mainstream. While navigating the waters of the podcast world, some will make their ways to the shore of the mainstream while others will continue to wade the waters, sometimes without the lighthouse to guide them in.