Disrupting Narrative through Media Funding: Are podcasts a democratizing medium?

Are podcasts a democratizing medium? The question at the core of this session is one that resonates with my old journalist’s heart (though it’s been many years, once a journalist, always a journalist). This session shared the story of the Barr Foundation’s pilot investment in PRX media and a podcast training initiative that helped launch podcasts such as Out of the Blocks, Afroqueer, and Bottom of the Map.

As an inveterate, old-school print reader, I was late to the podcast party. It was eye-opening to learn from Kerri Hoffman of PRX that podcasts have really only become a normalized form of media within the last five years. With the advent of technology improvements for ease of access and the maturation of more and more excellent content, podcasts are reaching a new peak of high adoption rates. As the industry grows and gains traction, another question emerges of whether community voices will be elbowed out by big media entities and market forces.

When I worked in the independent media sector, as editor of ColorLines magazine, we were perennially challenged to raise philanthropic funding. Frequently, we pointed out the way the rightwing funded their media infrastructure and invested in media production as fundamental to cohering and advancing their ideas. Later on, as newsrooms continued contracting and consolidating and local news reporting dwindled to nearly nothing, I was part of efforts by media veterans trying to figure out how to monetize grassroots journalism outside of the paywall and the corporate media structure.

Today, after four years of Trump, one of my biggest concerns for our country is the alternative reality and disinformation bubble that is at the core of the divide between millions of people. This is the biggest fact in American life right now, splintering our ability to have common cause on any of the major problems of our time, and no one knows what to do about it. I don’t have any answers about what to do with this genie, or why so many people (including many of my relatives) are drawn to toxic, fear-mongering content whether through their YouTube channels or rightwing radio stations. The one truth I return to, however, is that we all need to make meaning of the world. Increasingly, most of us don’t have real-world interactions, much less actual conversations about politics and civic affairs, with people different from us. This is something I appreciate even more about my time door-knocking in Arizona, and the few conversations I actually had with undecided voters in their doorways and driveways. Something about those discussions, however brief and unresolved, where we looked each other in the eye and honestly shared how we thought about the issues most important to us, stand out in my mind now—both for how rarely this happens and how it felt like a breath of air for democracy.

I’m not sure what to do about the disinformation propaganda machines, but I do know that we need more storytelling and more humanizing voices in the public sphere. We need the ability to claim the history of America from the perspectives of communities that have been marginalized and invisibilized. The Black in Appalachia podcast is part of the Black in Appalachia Initiative, which highlights Black people’s history and contributions throughout Appalachia. They tell stories of migration stories, of the “sundown towns” such as Corbin, Kentucky where Black folks were not allowed after sunset, and also contemporary stories about local politics, organizing efforts, and art. Faxina was started by Heloiza Barbosa, a former housecleaner and writer, to tell the stories of Faxineiros, Brazilian immigrants who migrated to the U.S and work cleaning houses.

“What is podcasting? It is an artistic medium, so supporting them is nurturing a generation of artists by lowering the barriers to entry,” according to Giles Li of the Barr Foundation. “Podcasting is a form of storytelling, an outlet for marginalized communities to share their experience. It creates more opportunities to center those who have been decentered, and creates more media diversity, more types of conversations. We’re investing in infrastructure for a participatory democracy.”