Podcasts and community

Alosh Bennett, Flickr (treatment by CJR)

Tracy Clayton’s laughter is magnificently contagious.

Clayton is the host of BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast, during which she and co-host Heben Nigatu laugh and drink their way through an hour of camaraderie, interviews, and commentary, touching on a range of topics loosely centered around race, gender, and pop culture.

During a recent segment, the hosts invited fellow BuzzFeeder Matt Bellassai to celebrate some overlooked white heroes to mollify those offended by Black History Month. “Next we have Connor Caucasianson,” intones Bellassai, “first person to wear camouflage as a voluntary fashion statement.” The two hosts explode with laughter as Bellisai continues, “First person to wear camouflage with the intention of being seen.”

Clayton spirals into gasping, full-throated, unabashed laughter. 

“We lost her,” says Nigatu. “We lost her forever.”

That’s the spirit of the show: celebratory, slightly mocking, and “unapologetically black,” as Clayton puts it.

It works exceptionally well via audio.

Podcasts like Another Round, which is by women of color for women of color, give communities a new way to, quite literally, be heard. And the podcasting format is well-suited for fostering community. The conversational format has a barbershop vibe to it, in which the hosts are friends talking amongst themselves, rather than an authority representing an entire segment of people. And because audio is more colloquial, it allows hosts to talk authentically, with all the jargon, character, dialect, and in-jokes that aren’t shared with the mainstream.

“We’ve been silent and overlooked for a very long time,” says Clayton. “Now we have more outlets to say the things that we want to say the way that we want to say them, without having to bargain with anyone else for a chance to be heard.”

Nevertheless, podcasts that target a particular in-group must contend with the fact that they also serve as an access point for outsiders to listen in. This plays out differently depending on the specifics of the podcast, the hosts, and the community in question. In other words, the majority/minority dynamics are not absent, but for the hour that Clayton is behind the microphone, she sets the rules.

Mark Oppenheimer is a New York Times columnist, Yale professor, and the host of Unorthodox, a weekly podcast from Tablet magazine. The show, which explores topics of interest to Jews, rarely goes five minutes before someone breaks out a Holocaust joke. It’s a code of some sort, a way of indicating, We’re among friends here.

But Unorthodox is interested in appealing to a wider audience, says Oppenheimer. The show is loosely divided into three segments: “News of the Jews,” an interview with a Jewish guest, and a second interview with a guest “Gentile of the Week.” The third segment was conceived as a way to include others and be less insular. “We’re welcoming in people who are not part of that group and we’re giving them access, in an accessible and non-threatening and non-offensive way.”

For Another Round, which is directed at a community that is underrepresented in the media, having a microphone is an end in itself.

Clayton says she thinks of her audience as her “girlfriends,” listeners who tend to be “black or brown, late-twenties, early-thirties.” Listener feedback confirms that the show appeals to that demographic, according to Clayton. “Black women feel represented and validated.” The show launched in March 2015 and immediately resonated, making it to many “Best of 2015” lists, and featuring guests like Hillary Clinton and Ta-Nehisi Coates. While the show officially covers “race, gender, and pop culture,” it’s really about everything that interests the hosts, which as of late has included career advice (a regular segment), Settlers of Catan explanations, Stephen Colbert love, and not commenting on Macklemore’s White Privilege II.

One remarkable aspect of the show is the hosts’ treatment of race as both central and matter-of-fact, so that identifying as black is empowering, not confining. “We literally just show up and get to be ourselves,” says Clayton.

Clayton says email she receives from white listeners tends to express gratitude for being allowed to listen to a candid in-group conversation. It’s like being a fly on the wall in a barbershop and hearing what the guys say when they think no one is listening, she says. While she’s happy to have white followers, the show is not for them, she contends, and they don’t influence the content or tone of the show in any way. “We are not concerned at all with being palatable to white folks,” she says, “because it’s not who we’re making the show for.”

Good Muslim Bad Muslim is another podcast hosted by a female duo, and catering to minority community. The two hosts, comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh and writer and activist Taz Ahmed, take on issues of importance to Muslims in America, like Donald Trump’s statements on Muslims abroad; the saturation of the term “Muslim” to mean everything from Middle Eastern or Arab to terrorist or refugee; how to celebrate Muslim Christmas; and, of course, dating.

Noorbakhsh describes herself as an “alcohol-drinking, pig-eating, premarital-sex having Muslim,” and refers often to her white, atheist, occasionally vegetarian husband. Both she and co-host Ahmed have been published in Love, Inshallah, a collection of essays by Muslim women on love, marriage and sex. In the book, Noorbakhsh describes telling her Muslim Iranian father about her then-fiancé, and Ahmed, who was raised in a Bangladeshi Muslim household, writes about bringing her punk musician boyfriend to a traditional Desi (South-Asian style Muslim) wedding. 

The two launched Good Muslim Bad Muslim in January 2015, and the show has emerged as a rare space for Muslim self-expression, during a rather treacherous year for being Muslim in America.

For Noorbakhsh, acknowledging the plurality of the Muslim experience, and dismantling the relatively new fiction of a monolithic Muslim community, is of fundamental importance. In a segment during their January show, while talking about Dolce & Gabbana’s new line of luxury hijabs and abayas, Ahmed points out that only some Muslims have money. “Are there some Muslims?” asks Noorbakhsh sarcastically. “Aren’t there just one Muslimogre? And we’re all inside of his body?”

Other segments on that show included Fatwas, “Good Muslim Awards,” and a drinking game that doubles as an indictment for the way Hollywood portrays Muslims. It involves drinking every time one of the following Muslim tropes makes an appearance in a movie or TV show: goat herds, sand dunes, Allahu Akbar, Muslim prayer call, or a turban.

Noorbakhsh says the sense of community among Muslims is somewhat imposed on them by the hostile climate against them. “The common denominator now is confronting and coping with the hate,” she says.

That sentiment is reflected in the podcast. Noorbakhsh says her primary audience is her co-host. They also launched their show with listeners who were already familiar with them. For Noorbakhsh, that listenership was mostly made up of young people in mixed relationships, because of her one-woman stage show All Atheists are Muslim about her mixed marriage. Ahmed tends to attract young Bangladeshi women. More generally, though, the show appeals to people who are fed up with hate against Muslims.

Both Another Round and Good Muslim Bad Muslim revel in humor that often dips into social and political commentary. In Another Round, the relationship with the majority serves as more of a backdrop, while in Good Muslim Bad Muslim, a good chunk of time is dedicated to challenging and critiquing the wrongs of the majority against Muslims. 

Good Muslim Bad Muslim takes its name from a hashtag Noorbakhsh started, playing off the idea that while fellow Muslims sometimes consider non-practicing Muslims like herself “bad,” mainstream American society finds assimilated Muslims “good,” and vice versa. It’s a revealing name, highlighting the complexities of navigating identity as a minority—expectations from within the community collide with stereotypes imposed by outside communities, along with pressure from both to conform.

Navigating identity is always multifaceted, but it can be particularly charged for people with a platform, who serve as ambassadors between communities. It’s a risk, says Oppenheimer, that comes with the gig. “Part of the job of the podcaster,” he says, “is to figure out, How do I break out of that ghettoization?” 

For Clayton, it isn’t the first time she’s been in the position of point-person. “It’s a thing that I’ve gotten used to just by virtue of being the black, or the brown, person that other people have access to,” says Clayton. “When you happen to be one brown face in a sea of non-brown faces that are doing a particular thing, then of course people want to come and talk to you about your experience.”

While she remains insistently herself, she doesn’t shy away from the fact that her show reverberates, throughout her audience as well as society at large. “I’ve realized the importance of black girls having control of the microphone,” she says.

Discrete Muslim voices are rare in the media, certainly in the podcasting world. Most other podcasts “for Muslims” are religious in nature, so Noorbakhsh and Ahmed are breaking several ceilings simultaneously. Nevertheless, it’s important to Noorbakhsh to be an individual, not a token, which for Muslims in America can be a fight in itself. “I remind myself that I don’t speak for all Muslims,” she says. “I just speak for myself.”

These three podcasts form a spectrum. Good Muslim Bad Muslim talks to a community that feels threatened, and therefore combines self-expression with responding to a hostile majority. Another Round focuses on self-expression and independence from the majority. Unorthodox, meanwhile, serves a presently less-threatened community, and therefore has the luxury of opening its doors to others.

Clayton and Nigatu complete each hour of Another Round with a titular “round,” for someone or something they want to celebrate that week.

So on that note, here’s a round to the hosts, producers, and creators of these podcasts and the many others like them, who bring their unique humor, perspectives, and voices to the maelstrom of media. Podcasts aren’t a silver bullet to the lack of diversity in mainstream media, but it is a medium in which for the duration of the show, at least—everyone but the hosts can shut up and listen.

Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa