Conversations with Friends

The ‘Diversity Hire’ podcast talks about racism in media

American media is not, and never has been, diverse. Every so often the industry releases reports to assess the precise proportions of its homogeneity. The latest came in February: Internal reviews at Condé Nast and Hearst found that, despite several well-publicized hires of nonwhite editors in management roles, the majority of new employees were white. A few weeks later, the New York Times published an internal report, eight months in the making, whose unilluminating conclusion was that, despite “meaningful efforts in recent years toward achieving greater diversity,” the company has remained “a difficult environment for many of our colleagues.” At these offices and elsewhere, the scripts commonly employed to talk about race promise that “achieving diversity” will ensure a future free from oppression. Yet the language is so fuzzily defined, and so removed from how people talk about their own lives, that it’s difficult to imagine what change might come.

For many of those who are the source of diversity—including Kevin Lozano, a twenty-seven-year-old associate literary editor at The Nation, and Arjun Ram Srivatsa, a thirty-one-year-old animator for Condé Nast—the workplace rhetoric rings hollow. As the hosts of Diversity Hire, a slyly named podcast they started last year, Lozano and Srivatsa resist formalities and buzzwords in favor of meandering conversations, capturing what it’s like to work in journalism far more truthfully than any demographic review.

The podcast was conceived last June, amid implosions at Bon Appétit and the Times, as a subversion of the DEI talk Srivatsa and Lozano had been hearing more and more at their jobs. Srivatsa was biking through Brooklyn, where he lives, thinking about how there was no public forum that felt adequate to discuss the crises going on around him, when he arrived at the stoop of a brownstone where Lozano was sitting. The two had first met as colleagues at Condé Nast; Lozano was an editor at Pitchfork at the time, and Srivatsa had landed at the company after graduating from journalism school. For a while, they had been mulling a podcast about basketball. Instead, they decided to tell the story of their industry. 

“Everyone we talk to implicitly understands: diversity is bullshit; workplaces are fucked up; this is not sustainable,” Lozano told me. Diversity Hire would be deliberately freewheeling, digressing on the media news of the day and offering off-the-cuff judgments on J-school (not worth it) and Twitter discourse (also not worth it). The only useful conversations about racism at their jobs had happened not in their offices but on their phones, in group chats, and they wanted to preserve in the podcast the feeling of those conversations with friends. “I have a deep allergy to the way that people talk about diversity,” Lozano said. “If Arjun and I couldn’t reproduce the conversations we had in person it wouldn’t work, because otherwise it would sound like we were diversity consultants.” 

At the start of their first episode, released last June and called “WTF is POC,” Lozano and Srivatsa mimic the upbeat xylophonic intro and even-toned vocal cadence that signal podcast professionalism—and then, with a giggle, they abruptly abandon the act, launching into a dissection of “people of color” as a term taken up by corporations to flatten disparate class and cultural experiences into a single demographic. “It conflates Black experience of police brutality with my experience of my name being spelled wrong on my Starbucks cup,” Srivatsa says. Though they acknowledge the term’s history within solidarity movements, they argue that it appears as often in sales decks as on activist banners. “Is there a term that’s better than POC?” Lozano asks. They hadn’t yet found one. Srivatsa replies: “Maybe that should be the goal of the podcast.”

Since then, Diversity Hire’s formula has been simple: each week, Lozano and Srivatsa invite a person of color—they still rely on the term as an imperfect shorthand—to talk about their experiences working in media. Imagine the Longform podcast, scrubbed of self-seriousness, and rather than discussions on the craft of writing we hear about a different skill: how to build a career within a hostile industry. Guests have included Jay Caspian Kang, Clio Chang, Hua Hsu, E. Tammy Kim, Rafia Zakaria, Doreen St. Félix, Osita Nwanevu, Vinson Cunningham, Jazmine Hughes, and other journalists from various disciplines. By now, Lozano and Srivatsa have logged thirty-eight episodes that track the events of the past year—mergers, union actions, mass layoffs—and that chronicle, through the career timelines of their guests, the culture shifts in journalism over the decades.

One of the joys of Diversity Hire is hearing the ways that writers and editors cast off the deadening obligations of leadership. At the close of every episode, each guest is presented with what Srivatsa describes as a “trick question”: “We ask the question that our corporate media leaders constantly ask us,” he begins. “What can we do to fix the lack of diversity?” It’s an experiment in aggregating calls to action, and every guest has a different answer: freelance; unionize; fire the bosses; fill jobs by random selection. What all the answers have in common is that none is a satisfying solution on its own—which reveals the pitfalls of seeing diversity as a problem to solve and people of color as the ones to solve it. What can we do? “Nothing,” Iva Dixit says. “Stop thinking of diversity as some noble quest.” St. Félix shares a widespread sentiment: “You created this problem, and you want me to advise you on how to fix it. I didn’t make it!” And Chang imagines a world free of such questions, where she has a dream job as a “junior staff writer—with no responsibility.” 


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From left: Kevin Lozano, O’Malley the cat, and Arjun Ram Srivatsa.  Image courtesy of Diversity Hire.


It may come as no surprise that Lozano and Srivatsa have a poor opinion of their field. Asked to describe the media in a few words, they respond: “A nepotistic privilege party.” Still, a party’s not all bad. “I often call New York sexy jail,” Srivatsa told me, of the particular professional bubble that he and Lozano occupy. “I think the conditions we’re working under in our industry are terrible, and we’re constantly confronted by the fact that this is a failing industry within a failing economy, but we can still have fun while we’re here.” 

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, too, that they both love their jobs, having been drawn in to the media sphere by the glimmering promise of creative fulfillment. Srivatsa is originally from California’s Bay Area and describes his parents as “successful immigrants.” He attended a state university, then worked as a musician and an artist before going to journalism school. Lozano grew up in a working-class household in Queens, attended a prestigious liberal arts college, then “tripped into media.” Their shifting class positions and the privileged place they occupy within the journalism world are the subject of frequent interrogation on the show. “We are consciously negotiating what it means to be two non-Black POCs who talk about diversity,” Lozano told me. “There are things we won’t totally understand about the experiences of other people and other journalists, and we have to be honest about that.”

The journalists who appear on Diversity Hire have been something of a self-selecting group: successfully employed, many at established outlets, and self-assured enough to talk publicly about themselves. Srivatsa has observed that the media is “filled with elite people who went to elite colleges”—and even among the bipoc guestlist, that reality is reflected. After some months of doing the show, he came to a startling realization: “Everyone we’ve had on went to a private school.”

Even so, Diversity Hire has been more successful at talking about racism and inequity than other attempts, most notably “The Test Kitchen,” an investigative series about Bon Appétit that ran on the Reply All podcast. For two episodes the series, which appeared in February, rigorously relayed the stories of editors of color at Bon Appétit: how they were mistreated and undercompensated compared with their white colleagues, denied paths for career advancement, and tokenized. The moral of the story was a convincing one: diversifying the masthead is an empty gesture if larger systems of oppression remain in place. The series was widely acclaimed—then suddenly aborted. It turned out that Reply All’s producers had wielded power unjustly within their own company, Gimlet Media, by aggressively attempting to prevent employees from unionizing. The twist neatly showed an irony of the journalism world—that racism in media, once storified, becomes a product, too, and can be sold regardless of a company’s commitment to workplace ethics.

Part of what makes Diversity Hire work is that it doesn’t try to create a single narrative about what it means to be a person of color. “To have better conversations around race is to recognize that people have very specific subject positions and backgrounds that explain how they view themselves and situate themselves in the world,” Lozano told me. Srivatsa put it another way: “Diversity is a joke.” (He means this literally—the two have a shared aspiration to make Diversity Hire a comedy podcast.) So what to do back at the office? Forgoing obfuscating rhetoric like “diversity” would be a start. Talking to friends helps, too. Until we have better language to describe our experiences, best to have fun trying.


ICYMI: Media companies haven’t made newsrooms inclusive. Can unions?

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Camille Bromley is a story editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

TOP IMAGE: Courtesy of Diversity Hire