In Praise of Expanding Podcast Diversity

Podcasts have broadened radio beyond its traditionally white male point of view and attracted a more diverse audience in the process. . (Photo: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock)

Maybe it's because my grandma and I used to listen to books on tape during long road trips, or maybe it's because I'm an auditory learner (about 30 percent of us are), but I'm a podcast junkie. There's something so wonderfully intimate about hearing a story told aloud — either right into your headphones or projected into a car or room — that sucks me in every time. Lucky for me, we are living in one of the golden ages of aural storytelling. (This is certainly not the first — for millennia before we had writing systems, this was the only way of passing information along.)

Like blogging and vlogging (video-blogging), its digital precursors, podcasting has led to a significant increase in both the number and types of people who host shows and are featured on them. In the days before podcasting, most audio programs were hosted through FM or AM radio, which had high barriers to entry. But now that anyone with a voice and smart idea for a show can put together a podcast and upload it to iTunes, there's a lot more room for variety. And variety there is, in age, gender, sexual orientation, race and religion — including voices and accents you might not have heard before on the radio.

Diverse voices, diverse audience

Young urban woman using phone app and wireless headphones to watch DIY videos.
Now that anyone with a voice and smart idea for a show can put together a podcast and upload it to iTunes, there's a lot more room for variety. (Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock)

I've noticed that there are some days when I listen to several podcasts and all the voices I've heard are women, from my favorite Supreme Court reporter, Dahlia Lithwick, to Sruthi Pinnamaneni on "Reply All", to authors reading their work on The New Yorker fiction podcast. Unlike the radio that I grew up listening to, there are lots of women podcasters.

With more diverse podcasters, a more multifarious audience has followed. "According to 2016 Edison research, podcast audiences are becoming increasingly racially diverse, with non-white listeners increasing from from 32 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2016," writes Sirena Bergman on Mashable.

This ultimately benefits everyone: "By having diverse perspectives on air and behind the scenes, you're asking yourself different questions," Laura Walker, the president of New York Public Radio, told Mashable. And when you start asking different questions and telling stories with new points of view, you get more and better stories — which benefits everyone.

For example: What do guests share when transgender rights activist Janet Mock interviews celebs on her show, "Never Before?" It's not the typical famous-person chatter about their next project.

Non-media types welcome

man listening to music with headphones
Noise-canceling headphones can block out unwanted sounds. (Photo: A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock)

Importantly, the idea of "diversity" is more than just about what people look like — or even sound like. After all, you can't necessarily tell someone's race, sexual orientation or religion just from hearing their voice. While this is a strength of podcasting — to get hooked purely on someone's words and voice and perspective — it's still a narrow field in one way: It's self-selecting. Whatever their background, podcasters usually have some kind of storytelling or media experience and/or education.

Some podcasting companies, like Gimlet and Panoply — but also the old-school powerhouses like NPR — are trying to find and include non-media folk to tell their stories. "The Moth" has long done this brilliantly by going to places where people undoubtedly have plenty to share — from prisons to local watering holes — to find those who have great stories but who might not think about putting themselves out there without encouragement.

Other examples include Anna Sale at WNYC's show "Death, Sex & Money," and Lea Thau on "Strangers" who feature long-format stories from ex-cons who have served prison time for crimes they didn't commit to women who found themselves with no job and no skills after their husbands left. Both of these shows allow those people to speak for themselves, with minimal interruption, in refreshing opposition to how their stories are usually covered.

And of course, there are niche podcasts galore covering UFOs, fishing, super-short stories, and almost every random interest and usual obsession — that's diversity too. The point is, there's room for all of it — and more.