Safe and SoundHow Podcasts Became Audio Enclaves for Black Women

Illustration by Sacrée Frangine

This article was published in Sanctuary Issue #85 | Winter 2020

We all know someone who knows someone who has a podcast, wants to start one, or obsessively listens to them. Though podcasts existed long before 2014—the name was coined as a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast” in 2004—the release of NPR’s true-crime podcast Serial that year made them a widely popular medium. In 2018, Apple reported that there were more than 550,000 active podcasts on its platform, and the number just keeps growing. Part of the appeal of podcasts is that anyone with a smartphone or tablet can listen to them anywhere—at the gym, during a long commute, and lounging around the house. There’s also a relatively low barrier of entry into the field; access to a microphone, audio software, and a place to host content makes it possible for almost anyone to start a podcast. This easy access has proven to be useful for groups that have historically been excluded from mainstream and traditional forms of media.

Lestraundra Alfred, who hosts the Balanced Black Girl podcast, and Diamond Stylz, cohost of the Marsha’s Plate podcast, both purchased their own equipment to start independent podcasts. Black listeners and creators, who according to a 2018 Edison Research study account for 12 percent of monthly listeners, are a large part of this podcast boom. (Ten percent of monthly podcast listeners are women.) Spotify, which has hosted two bootcamps to increase the number of women of color hosting podcasts, often refers to a study that finds that 22 percent of podcast hosts are women, with that number being even lower for women of color.

Podcasts can be an intimate space for both listeners and hosts, especially when the host is Black. Arizona State University professor Sarah Florini, who has written about the Black hosts of a select group of independent podcasts, finds that Black listeners respond to a vocal style and language that’s looser than “the NPR voice” typically found on public radio. In her 2015 article “The Podcast ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’: Black Podcasters, Alternative Media, and Audio Enclaves,” Florini cites The Black Guy Who Tips and This Week in Blackness! as examples of podcasts that use common Black cultural references, have a loose format, and seek to replicate popular Black community spaces like hair salons and barbershops, noting: “Research on mobile listening has shown how users often rely on headphones to create an aural ‘cocoon’ that sonically insulates them from their surroundings.” Meanwhile, for the hosts, podcasts are a space where they can speak to audiences who share and reflect their values, beliefs, and culture. For some Black listeners, the appeal of these shows lies in the familiarity of the format and the cultural language hosts use.

GladRags

There’s a Story in Your Voice

It’s crucial for Black women and other marginalized folks to have nontraditional media spaces where our experiences are centered, because most mainstream media outlets tend to overlook us. Though Black women make up a small number of both podcast hosts and listeners, their contributions reflect our layered identities and perspectives. Blackness is not a monolith, and Black women don’t have singular interests, perspectives, or backgrounds. Podcasts reflect a multitude of our perspectives, ideas, and voices. “I want to hear my homegirl,” Diamond Stylz says. Marsha’s Plate, which Stylz cohosts with Mia Mix and Zee, explores issues impacting trans people of color. The hosts are based in Houston, so it was important for them to showcase their Southern roots in each episode: “We country. We from fucking Houston. That’s what makes us who we are.”

Stylz’s desire to hear the voices of regular Black girls in the podcasts she listens to is shared by other hosts, including the two self-proclaimed “womanist race nerds” who host the Bronx-based show Tea with Queen and J. The hosts refuse to code switch on the air: “We just talk and sound the way we sound,” Queen says. “Even though it wasn’t a conscious decision, it added value to what we did. Everything that Black women do adds value to the shit they do.” J. adds that they’re intentional about not editing out certain parts of their speech patterns. “Depending on where you’re from, [some] Black girls [make] a certain clicking sound before making a point or after saying something,” she says. “We don’t edit it out as much because there’s a story in that sound.”

Marsha’s Plate is an ode to the important work being done by Black trans women. The podcast’s name is a tribute to trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, one of the most influential figures of the 1969 Stonewall Riots that helped sparked the movement for LGBTQ rights. Stylz says that the title is also a nod to Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table. “It was about being at a feast you didn’t prepare. We were tired of it,” Stylz says. “The podcast is our potato salad—us bringing a dish to the table.” The idea for the podcast came after Stylz became frustrated by how trans people were represented during the 2016 presidential election: “When a trans person would be interviewed, they were usually white, and they were being asked about the bathroom bill. There are a lot more things that we can be asked about that aren’t as shallow as bathroom bills, such as healthcare, housing, [and] discrimination.” Stylz, who’s also an influential YouTube host, channeled that frustration and cocreated Marsha’s Plate.

Though Black women make up a small number of both podcast hosts and listeners, their contributions reflect our layered identities and perspectives. Blackness is not a monolith, and Black women don’t have singular interests, perspectives, or backgrounds. Podcasts reflect a multitude of our perspectives, ideas, and voices.

Not being beholden to ratings or corporate ownership also helps Black podcast hosts expand the range of topics they’re able to discuss, as well as narrow the focus of their shows, so they reach their ideal audiences. Bottom of the Map, a podcast about Southern hip hop cohosted by Christina Lee and Regina Bradley, is an example of a niche program that targets a specific audience. “We don’t necessarily have to think about absolutely everybody who exists in the entire world,” says Lee. “We’re just thinking about the folks we actually want to speak to.” Bradley agrees, noting that their perspective—she is Black, Lee is Korean Vietnamese—is often missing from mainstream discussions of hip hop. “Women will always be at the center of our conversations. If I can find women-of-color experts, we will talk to them first,” Bradley says. “I want [the podcast] to be a space for folks to just dig deeper and move away from these outdated and played ideas that only men can talk about hip hop.”

While listening to podcasts tends to be a solo activity, the shows can still help people build community, as Queen and J. point out when talking about the relationships they have intentionally built with fellow Black women podcasters. “Could we be Tea with Queen and J., who constantly talk about dismantling white supremacy and building community, if we come into podcasting and move alone and move in isolation and are not working in community and doing things with other Black women within the space?” J. asks. Queen and J. are an integral part of Stylz’s podcast community. “I didn’t do any of this on purpose. I didn’t seek out this community. But it’s like the universe said ‘Boom!’ when I decided to create a podcast,” Stylz says. “[Queen and J.] have included us in their community and [given] us access to opportunities. They have been intentional in including and centering Black trans women.”

This inclusion often takes the form of appearing as guests on each other’s shows—along with the hosts of the other podcasts that make up what they call their “Black Baddie Brigade”—and sitting together on conference panels. Berry Sykes, creator of the online podcast directory Podcasts in Color, echoes the sense of community that she’s felt from Queen and J.: “They got that I just wanted to help. They’re the first people I felt really enveloped me like, ‘We have a podcast. We know you’re not trying to come and steal our idea. Let’s help each other.’” And because cross-promotion is crucial in amplifying podcasts, building community with other Black women–hosted podcasts helps everybody.

A Space For You and Me

A sanctuary is a protected space that provides safety, solace, comfort. Such a space allows us to shut out the busyness of the world and go within. A sanctuary offers space for vulnerability. Black women deserve these kinds of spaces—where we can be ourselves, be around other women who look and sound like us, and share our experiences with people who understand. For some podcast hosts and audiences, these shows have provided that kind of respite. The intimacy of podcasting has contributed to the idea that these shows can serve as a safe space for both podcasters and listeners.

Listening to podcasts is a big part of 29-year-old Chicagoan Jasmyn Thomas’s self-care routine. “It’s more of a ritual for me,” she says, one that includes “sitting down, being still, and listening to those that are like-minded and conversations that are grounded and open-minded.” The intimacy of podcast listening likewise appeals to 29-year-old Atlanta native Kinyatta Dodson, who is intentional about the podcasts she listens to. Most, if not all, center Black culture and Black women, she notes: “[Listening] provides a holistic type of care for me…a space that I may not really have in the real world. Hosts are like friends for me because a lot of my closest friends are not [in Atlanta]. It’s like I’m able to have my friends close to me through listening to these podcasts. And I do believe that my friends and my friendships are part of what I consider a sacred space.”

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The content that pours from our headphones and speakers not only caters to Black women but intentionally centers us. Let’s be real: How often do we find spaces that celebrate our nuances, ask us tough questions, and treat us as serious subjects? Christen Smith, host of Cite Black Women, started a movement of the same name after the painful experience of having her work used by someone who did not cite her, and launched the podcast in order to have fleshed-out conversations with other Black women scholars about their work. “One thing you’ll notice about our podcast is that we only interview Black women. We’re all about centering Black women’s voices,” Smith says (though she notes a lone exception when a Black male scholar took part in an episode). “I’m trying to help us understand that if we’re going to take citations seriously, then we have to take that call of Black feminism seriously and recognize that everything that we do should be acknowledged and taken to heart. That spirit is all through it.”

I’m Glad I Got My Squad

For Black women who are fans of podcasts, the shows provide a space to experience a multitude of Black voices. “I enjoy hearing all kinds of Black voices, whether it’s comedy or something serious,” says 29-year-old Brittiny Clark, who lives in Minneapolis. “I feel like I have access to different points of view and different kinds of Black people, which I love.” Podcasts have helped 25-year-old Joy Melody Woods, of Austin, Texas, feel connected to Black communities. “Podcasts made me feel like I was back with my friends,” Woods, who recently relocated from a predominantly white area in Iowa, explained. “A podcast may be talking about a movie or episode that just came out. I felt like I had an opportunity to join in the conversation with folks.”

Other listeners I spoke to echoed Woods’s sentiments: Podcasts help them feel like they’re a part of a larger community. “It makes me feel like I’ve talked to people all day, even if I haven’t,” says 36-year-old South Texan Maneka Brooks. “Academia can be isolating. I don’t live near my close friends. I listen to podcasts to feel connected or feel that people understand me.” The low stakes involved in simply listening are also appealing to Kenya Samuels Gray, 42, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Gray has a weekly rotation of podcasts that she listens to during her hour-long commute to her job. “It’s my time to be myself. I don’t have to respond or laugh or talk to anybody. I don’t like to listen to podcasts with other people in the car. It’s my time, my peace of mind.”

Creating a community has been an unexpected bonus for Balanced Black Girl host Lestraundra Alfred. “[There’s] this community aspect of listeners, of women in my area, people rallying around the message [who] want to genuinely connect,” Alfred says. She has responded by creating both virtual and physical spaces to cater to the needs of her listeners. “You can have intimate connections with people, even if you’re not having a one-on-one conversation. Connection with people who are like you, who see you, who hear you, who understand you is really where safe spaces come from.” In a world that has very few spaces for us, podcasts that lift up and celebrate Black women listeners are a welcome breath of fresh air.

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by Briana Barner
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Briana Barner is a PhD candidate living and raising her family in Texas. When she’s not reading all the books, she enjoys listening to podcasts, good music, and traveling.