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June 2, 2016, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What does the intersection of race and culture sound like? NPR’s Code Switch is looking for the right mix

“How do you have a conversation about America that’s not about race? It’s fundamental to the way American life is organized.”

By the end of my conversation with Code Switch reporters Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, it wasn’t clear who was interviewing whom. I’d wanted to talk to them about the long-awaited podcast that Code Switch, NPR’s race and culture outlet, was launching, but when I got on the conference call the conversation tumbled around frenetically at times as if we were in a brainstorming session. Meraji and Demby were casual, reflective, and frank — even apologizing for replying in ways that came across as a bit canned, though their answers were far from that.

The new Code Switch podcast will add yet another likely popular show to NPR’s arsenal, which will also soon include the long-awaited second season of Invisibilia. Recent PodTrac rankings revealed NPR to be the ruling giant among publishers, with a unique monthly U.S. audience of 7.2 million (and 61.8 million downloads globally — but do read the caveat about these rankings here). But Code Switch also intends to bring in an audience that’s “browner, younger, and more female” than NPR’s traditional listenership.

“There’s obviously an appetite for coverage of race and culture,” said Demby, who cut his teeth on the race/culture/politics/everything site he founded, PostBourgie.com. But there’s also an imperative to talk about this stuff.”

The transcript of our conversation — which includes Meraji and Demby questioning me instead — is below, lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Shan Wang:: People — and I admit to being among those people — have been asking for a Code Switch podcast for a long time. I was excited for it. Why’d you guys make me wait?! Why did it take so long?

Shereen Marisol Meraji: We can’t speak on behalf of NPR, but I feel comfortable speaking for myself and Gene: We did really want to do this right when we launched. That was part of our excitement in joining the team, that we would have a podcast and we would launch it when we launched the desk. I can’t say why it didn’t work out that way.

We’re on so many platforms. We have a blog. We’re doing the radio thing. We’re very active on social. We’re a small team, and doing a weekly podcast was a lot to add on to all of those platforms. We just didn’t realize how much work it would be to be a multi-platform venture. Gene and I did do a pilot, but the timing wasn’t right; we weren’t fully staffed up. We waited so we could grow our audience and figure out how doing all of this work could be a little bit easier than it felt in the beginning. And I think three years in, we’ve got that under our belt, and we’re ready to add something new.

Gene Demby: A couple of years ago, Shereen and I went to to report on Bluefield State in West Virginia. It’s the whitest historically black college in the United States. It’s 90 percent white. We came back with all this tape and reporting. We tried to then fashion a super, super, super beta pilot for the podcast. And even then, it was hard to see how we could’ve done it sustainably. Our first episode was a good first pass, but it worked in part because Shereen happened to be here that week.

Meraji: Yeah — we’re bicoastal. I was in D.C. for three days and was like, let’s just try this! We were super excited. We were down. We were in West Virginia, and we’d gotten hours of amazing interviews, and I’m like, can we do something with that now, since we do have all of that tape.

The two begin excitedly trading story ideas until I interrupt with more questions.

Wang: Who is this podcast for, exactly? From listening to the previews in the trailer and so forth, and hearing you guys explain some of the terminology around what you’ll be covering — what is “codeswitching,” and so forth. How down to the fundamentals will the podcast get, or need to get, especially given that you’re covering all these different groups?

Meraji: We’re constantly grappling with that question. How do we make content for our audience, which is much more diverse and younger than a traditional NPR audience, and make content across racial and ethnic backgrounds, not just within the black-white binary? We’re trying to talk about immigrants, we’re talking about Latinos, we’re talking about mixed people. And we don’t want anyone to get lost.

If you’re doing an entire piece that’s about something in Asian pop culture, how do we make sure our black and Latino audience that are fans of Code Switch are also following along in the conversation, but also make sure that the people who are familiar with the topic don’t feel like argh, they’re just telling me what I already know? It’s a constant battle, and I don’t know if we’ve hit the right balance.

Demby: Like Shereen said, this is something we’re going to have to constantly navigate.

Here’s the way I think about it. When you watch The Wire, you’re jumping around to all these different places, and maybe at first you don’t understand the jargon of the police, and you don’t understand the jargon of the corner boys. But you watch it, and you start to figure out what they mean. In context, things start to make sense.

There’s some stuff that will make itself plain if you listen for it. But the other side of that is, you can’t be opaque to people. So how do you have a conversation about these topics that exist in a cultural location, that’s really specific, and have a conversation hopefully for those people who live in that specific cultural location — but also for all the rest of us out there who are interested but also don’t have that vocabulary?

Meraji: My fiancé is Mexican. I said something in a piece about Nollywood. And he said, what’s that? I didn’t explain in the first iteration of the piece that it was West Africa’s version of Hollywood in Nigeria, nicknamed Nollywood. And this guy took critical race at UCLA! You just never know what people are going to know and what they’re not. My mom didn’t know what codeswitching was. My mom’s not super academic. She had no idea what that was, and she does it all the time.

It’s also kind of an academic term. My Puerto Rican grandma wouldn’t know what it is. Not that my grandma is going to be our audience.

Demby: Why couldn’t she be our audience? Also, I think to know what codeswitching is, you have to know how to toggle, to live a life in different spaces.

We are the audience. The people who live where we live. People who care about race, who also care about pop culture. Who are younger, who care about politics. People who think about race in a way where it’s not incidental to things. There are a lot of younger audiences who start from that position. Just as a lot of people are starting from a position where, say, “feminism” is part of their vocabulary. That’s where we’re starting from.

The stuff we know about Code Switch’s numbers: our audience is browner, and they’re younger, and more female, too, than NPR’s audience. The thing about podcasting is that a lot of people end up becoming fans of things that are not pitched at them. I hope that happens to us — that people who don’t think of this as a show for them, but like the way that Shereen tells a story, or the way Adrian does reporting, end up listening.

People like to listen to the conversations other people are having. They like to be flies on the wall. If we do that well, we can create a space for a lot of different people.

Wang: How do you figure out what to cover in the podcast, what goes online, and how does that all interact with the stuff that goes on-air as well? Have you figured out how this will all work across the platforms?

Meraji: They’ll all feed into each other. The first episode came out of conversations around what’s going on in the world right now. In the election cycle there’s been a lot of talk about the disaffected white male, and so Gene was like, why don’t we do something about whiteness? What is whiteness?

Gene worked it out in social media. We did interviews. It’s in podcast form, and hopefully it will also live in a smaller version on one of the newsmagazines. And then we can continue that conversation online again in social media, asking people what this sparked in them, what other conversations we should be having about whiteness.

We’re hoping all the parts of this ecosystem feed off each other. Sometimes we’re going to have a blog post that did really well, and we’ll talk about it on the podcast. Sometimes we might have a social media chat that went really well that feeds into an idea for the podcast. Sometimes we’re just going to have an idea amongst ourselves, but we want to talk more about it, so we bring it to Twitter. And then hopefully a portion of the audio will end up on the newsmagazines. But we’re not wedded to that.

Demby: From the beginning, we’ve always been a multi-platform team. Something that might start as a blog post will become a different kind of conversation for Morning Edition or All Things Considered or Weekend Edition. That’s probably going to keep happening. Sometimes Shereen does stories where you’re like, damn, I wish that was more than —

Meraji: Three minutes and thirty seconds.

Demby: Some of our episodes will let her tape breathe. Let’s talk through this. If there’s a story where we can go in the weeds, and it’ll get to 17 or 20 minutes, let’s do this.

Meraji: That’s what’s so exciting about having a podcast. The other exciting thing about our team doing this is that we’re such a diverse team. Hopefully there will be something here that completely speaks to you and your experience, because our team is so diverse.

Demby: Our team comes from really different cultural experiences.

Meraji: Very different!

Demby: The black people on the team, for instance, we’re of very different generations. Shereen and Adrian are both Latino. Shereen is biracial, though, and Adrian is Mexican American. Those are different cultural experiences. Tasneem and Kat Chow are Asian, but Tasneem is South Asian and Kat is East Asian. Kat is from Connecticut.

We have a lot of arguments amongst our team. The disagreements can be surprising, when the person who says something is sometimes not the person I would expect to say that thing. There are also generational lines that demarcate — Shereen and I might make our early 90s hip hop references and everyone just looks at us and are like, what are you talking about?

codeswitch-itunes-podcast

Wang: So everyone will be involved in making the podcast?

Meraji: Gene and I are anchoring it so that everyone doesn’t have to feel the burden of having to do this every week and also do everything else, but also to provide consistency for the audience. You’ll hear a different voice from the team every week, in addition to Gene and me.

Wang: You talk about the diverse cultural backgrounds of the team members. How about their backgrounds in terms of audio versus text — do the members come more from radio, for instance?

Demby: I think it’s half and half at this point?

Meraji: Karen Grigsby Bates has written several books, she’s been a print reporter for several years, and she’s now doing radio and has been doing it primarily for the last ten years. She’s very fluent across mediums. I love her voice! I think it’s very sexy.

Adrian was a writer before he became a radio reporter. He’s fluent on both sides of the aisle. Kat has been doing a lot. She’d worked with Invisibilia. She did a radio reporting internship. Gene’s been doing PostBourgie, the podcast. We’re fluent in both languages.

Demby: Originally the demarcations were more stark. Shereen and Karen and then Hansi were the radio people, and me and Kat were the digital people. But that’s not how it works at all now.

Meraji: I did web video in another job in another life. Right? It’s insane. If you’re of a certain age, being in the digital space is just the space you’re in, because that’s what the world is. When we came back to NPR and started this desk in the beginning, there were some silos — these are the radio people, these are the digital people. Sometimes you feel like this is all semantics — isn’t everything digital these days? Anyway. They’ve trained us all now to be doing all things, across all platforms.

Wang: In some ways it feels like an increasingly crowded space. Lots of outlets are starting to spin up specific digital spaces for this kind of coverage of issues around race, though it sort of should be an issue that pervades all categories of news coverage — like entertainment, politics, sports, whatever. How do you guys think about differentiating?

Demby: We’d be dishonest if we were like, there aren’t any marketplace reasons why you see that in a bunch of news organizations. There’s obviously an appetite for coverage of race and culture. But there’s also an imperative to talk about this stuff.

New outlets have a sports section. You could say, sports is a lens through which a lot of us make sense of our society. You have business desks: Finance and economics are ways to understand society, too. How do you have a conversation about America that’s not about race? It’s fundamental to the way American life is organized. It makes sense for any newsroom.

Meraji: This space isn’t that crowded. It’s just that people are doing it now, so maybe there’s more attention on it. It’s great there’s more people playing in this space. It’s great for us. We’re not alone. There’s a lot more excitement and interest and attention on this kind of coverage.

I have to say, when we started even three years ago, it was hard to drum that up. And it was hard, as someone who was trying to get stories onto the NPR newsmagazines, to sell a piece. Whereas now, are you kidding me? They’ll take it! So it’s helped us in a way that we’re in this time and space that seems crowded. But I don’t think it’s crowded. More! More! More!

Demby: There’s no definitive way to tell these stories. You need as many possible eyeballs on it as possible. There should be a lot of people playing in this space.

Wang: Do you have a fixed structure for the podcast every week? Will there be specific segments, longer narrative pieces, will it be an interview, a roundtable?

Meraji: We’re going to try it all.

Demby: We’re excited about it, but we have a lot of anxiety around it, too. One of the things you have to do is, you just have to launch. It’s like the launch date for a website, or for anything, really. You can have all these plans, but then you put it out in the world, and the audience is responding to something else. Maybe we’ll find out we need to do things differently.

We’ll see what works and what doesn’t when we do our post-mortems after episodes. The way we sound on day one should not be the way we sound on episode ten.

Meraji: This is not, we’ve been working on this one episode for six months, and now it’s ready! This is not sound-designed like Invisibilia. We are going out rough and rugged. But with the same smarts that we have. But it’s not going to be this polished piece of pearl.

Demby: Look at that alliteration! Mmm.

Meraji: We want to be able to evolve and be various things. That’s what we are as a desk. We are various things. We do want to give you something polished. We do want to give you something of the moment. We want to take a chat that came out of social and call up some of the people involved and get them to talk about their feelings on the subject and make it rough and dirty that way. We want to try fancy longform reporting. Why not?

Demby: That’s what I’m most excited about — the opportunity for Shereen, Adrian, Karen to do some really compelling 30-plus-minute stories. There still aren’t that many places in podcasting where that happens, outside of the obvious places like RadioLab or This American Life. We could be in that space, too, if we had some longer lead time to do those stories.

Shereen just went to this school in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, that’s closing. That story is a specific one that butts up against race. There’s a lot you can tease out. I want to hear what that sounds like when it has room to breathe, when we meet all these kids in the school. What does this mean for the community?

Meraji: What’s interesting about that story is that Gene’s already written about that — what does it mean when a school leaves a community, specifically a black community. He’s done something for PostBourgie about it. How do we take all of this, and mash it up on the Code Switch podcast?

Meraji starts asking me what I want to hear from Code Switch, and what I like about my favorite podcasts. I mention enjoying the roundtable or gabfest format. I also mention not loving aggressively uplifting stories that involve race.

Demby: The funny thing about thing about having a roundtable is that it sounds like it’s the lowest lift. But it’s actually a lot of work to make something like Pop Culture Happy Hour sound the way it sounds. Even though these are people who are friends and talk all the time and have a rapport, it still takes work to make it seem like a conversation.

The thing about trying to do a roundtable-style podcast about race is that this is really, really —

Meraji: Touchy. Sensitive.

Demby: Even when I tweet, I have to fact check stuff all the time. If you misstep, it’s not that you’ll get blamed. It’s that the consequences of telling the story correctly matter to people. You want to be as fair as possible.

So many times before I tweet I’m like, oh, I have to dig on my shelf real quick and grab this book. Did this thing happen the way I remember it happening? Even if it’s just a pop culture thing. With Beyonce’s Lemonade — if someone makes a reference to a thing, you probably have to end up fact-checking it. So we’d have more time, if it’s not a roundtable, to think it out a little more. To nail those things.

Meraji: The thing that’s really exciting about the podcast, especially as someone who’s working on the radio side of things: In three and a half minutes on the radio, they expect us to put a nice tidy bow on something incredibly complicated, whereas with a podcast, you can leave it where it is. We don’t have the answers. This is messy. We’re going to keep revisiting it. And now we have a space to do that. The blog is that space as well, but now we have an aural — I guess you could call it — space to revisit that.

Photo of the Code Switch team (including former Nieman Fellow Walter Ray Watson second from right) by Matt Noth for NPR.

POSTED     June 2, 2016, 10 a.m.
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