Generation Z, Black youth meet at the intersection of podcasting and activism

By: Madison Greer

In May of 2019 girlfriends Amari Dawn, Janae Price, Rachel Fowler and Nakia Swinton set out to create a space for quirky black women like themselves to come together and listen to experiences they identified with. What started as Price’s failed pitch to her then company Vice Media is now So-Called Oreos, a society and culture podcast with 1,611 minutes of content and a growing listenership.

The So-Called Oreos hosts introduce themselves and define the label “oreo,” a term describing a person who is “black on the outside and white on the inside.”

They are a new kind of podcast host: educated, politically-active Generation Z and Millenials frustrated by the ignorance of their peers and lack of representation in the market.

Podcasts were once considered an exclusive medium reserved for white, technologically-savvy, upper-middle-class men, but the demographics of both hosts and listeners are beginning to change. In 2018, 66% of monthly podcast consumers reported taking up podcasts within the last three years, and 45% of this group was between the ages of 12–34, according to Edison Research’s 2018 Podcast Consumer report.

Despite the wealth of data on listeners, data on hosts is not as easily obtainable.

“We don’t have an accurate idea of who is podcasting,” according to Dr. Jennifer Hyland Wang, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and contributor to the Podcast RE project, a searchable archive of podcasting culture. She makes a distinction between “procasters,” hosts backed by major companies and accompanying advertising revenue, and podcasters, largely independent hosts that podcast in their free time.

Six podcasting companies, including National Public Radio (NPR) and Spotify subsidiary Gimlet Media, produce 32% of Spotify’s top 150 podcasts, as of December 10. It’s no surprise that it can be difficult for independent voices to gain visibility on platforms like Spotify and iTunes that privilege shows with greater commercial potential.

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Graphic created by Madison Greer

The SCO group, like many podcasters, uses a $50 microphone, edits hours of content in Garage Band, and handles promotion and social media themselves, on top of their day jobs. The costs of an RSS (really simple syndication) feed, getting the show on different platforms, and now making branded merchandise add up, and selling advertising space is an ongoing challenge.

Dawn sees some podcasts associated with big names like Vox Media and NPR or hosted by native Instagram influencers as exploiting the market as another revenue stream rather than prioritizing storytelling, attracting streaming platforms and advertisers’ attention, and pushing smaller creators out.

Initially, Price took the idea for SCO as an advice podcast to Vice Media where she worked as an editorial assistant writing about Black culture, but they passed, citing funding limitations.

Dawn suspects that this may have been an excuse to avoid working with Black creators, pointing to a larger issue of representation and support of the Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community in media.

“There are Black people in this space…it’s just that we’re not necessarily propped up in the same way in which other creators are,” Dawn said.

That hasn’t stopped Black teens Jordan Rice and Ambree Robin of Get Into It from sharing their own stories. The pair, now college freshmen, released their first episode in September.

“A lot of our conversations that happened at 2:00 AM would be talking about the trauma that we’ve experienced growing up Black in a predominantly white space…it became very cathartic,” Rice said.

“And we were like, maybe this conversation should be had on a microphone and it should be recorded because if it’s providing us with some sort of therapy, it might help other people feel that same way.”

Like Dawn and Swinton, before they started their own series, they shied away from podcasts as audience members because they didn’t feel welcome or understood in the space. The political and social climate of the U.S., however, has recently spilled over into the podcasting arena following the rise in support for the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, bringing allyship with a side of what many Black listeners identify as performative activism with a dash of tokenism.

Headlines like “8 Podcasts to Better Understand the Black Experience” were ubiquitous across outlets, Spotify’s Black Lives Matter playlist garnered more than 64 million streams, and anti-racism became a buzz word among white creators who dedicated special episodes to reflection and amplifying Black voices.

Robin believes this can come across as disingenuous, especially when white creators walk the fine line between uplifting and overshadowing BIPOC voices.

“I think when they speak, it shouldn’t be from personal experience. It’s not a space for you to be like, ‘Oh, I’m a white observer of racism.” she said. “You should only speak from what you have heard people of the movement speaking on and ensure that you take the time to shout out BIPOC podcasts.”

Get Into It Season 1, Episode 4

Enter Alex Benoit and Will Fang of The Finch Podcast. Unlikely hosts of the show that promises a multidisciplinary approach to complex social issues, the duo are 17-year-old STEM-focused high school seniors who entered the market in April to combat misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alex Benoit and Will Fang introduce themselves and the goals of the podcast.

In response to recent discussions on BIPOC topics, Benoit and Fang began a new series: “Extempore,” devoting episodes one and two to discussing institutional racism and police brutality. Recognizing their identities as allies, they made sure to share their space with experts including University of Chicago, Virginia and Georgia law professors who could provide layers to their analysis.

The Finch was born out of a mix of summer boredom and indignation, exemplifying Generation Z’s unique use of media like podcasts, socials and internet communities as an outlet for their opinions on social issues.

Lakia Williams of Black Feminist Rants knows this feeling all too well. Williams, a college senior studying neuroscience, launched her show in July after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

BFR began as Instagram stories on Williams’s personal account, where she expressed her frustration with the surface-level activism and allyship of her followers.

Thousands of users and celebrities were criticized by organizers like Williams for their contribution to the “memeification” of Breonna Taylor’s death and the now infamous #blackouttuesday in June.

“I think that because of the way these ‘activists’ were portraying themselves, it kind of made it a necessity for young people to educate, especially people who have experiences in social justice,” Williams said.

Black Feminist Rants Season 1, Episode 7

Benoit, paraphrasing politician Julian Castro, shared his closing thoughts on young people’s responsibility to stay curious and share stories that matter.

“We’re told time and time again, that you are the future, but that’s not true. You’re the present,” he said.

“Let’s understand what’s going on because these issues are going to impact our generation and they are impacting it right now. Let’s use that understanding to educate ourselves and educate other people and understand that we are not the future. We are the present.”

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