The Master's Tools

The one big sign of a healthy production environment...an invitation to bring about genuine change in your organization

I have been playing around with releasing these dispatches on different days of the week. This time: Friday. So far, I haven’t seen a big difference in readership based on the day of release (though I do see a difference with TIME of release). If you have any feedback on when I release these, I’d love to hear from you.

And yes, I know I publish very inconsistently...and having that freedom to post when I wish is part of the attraction for me. No need to feed that back. ;)

Today, I have two items: One is a big telltale sign of a healthy and productive production environment. Another is an essay from one of my Magnificent Noise colleagues, Hiwote Getaneh. I invited her to write anything she wanted about podcasting...and she came back with something that I wanted to share right away.

From Hiwote: “I believe that shifting who we compensate and how we compensate for creative projects would force us to redefine what leadership is and who is suited to lead.”

So let’s jump in...


[ONE THING: LISTENING TO WHAT YOU MAKE]

Since I was a child--even before I worked in radio, I was an obsessive observer of radio talent, stations, and networks. I loved to listen, observe, and then think about what made them great (or not) and why. Eventually, I used these takeaways to inform my work and the work of others. Regular readers of The Audio Insurgent know this is something I still do today, but expanded to include podcasting and digital audio. 

Occasionally I’m asked if there are any common traits seen at great radio stations--unlikely things they all have in common. And there are two.

 The first is work culture. To quote former NPR CEO Jarl Mohn, “If it isn’t happening in the halls, it isn’t happening on air.” Meaning, if the environment and culture of your organization isn’t one that promotes creativity, risk-taking, and excellence--you can’t expect listeners to be excited about the work you do.

The second common trait, and I think this is the real lesson for podcasting today, is that the greatest stations, networks, groups, and organizations listen.

In radio, it always struck me as odd that everyone was working to make one thing: the air signal, and that the station was constantly on in every office and hallway--yet no one talked about what they were making and hearing 24/7. It just went out in the world, and, poof--over. Moving on.

The healthiest and most productive organizations stop to listen to what they make and then talk about it. 

It isn’t a self-congratulatory exclamation like “Wow, yesterday’s show was awesome” followed by silent nodding heads. It is taking time, maybe once a week, to talk about what we made, what a little distance and time has taught us about what we made, and what we are learning about our work and our audience’s embrace of that work.

A few weeks ago I read a post by James Cridland called “Care About Your Output” which tells the story of a podcast that has a drastically unlistenable difference in volume and loudness between the program content and the advertisements. And this has been going on, every episode, for almost ten months. He said (and I literally cheered out loud when I read this):

“If you don’t care about something enough to listen to it, why bother making it in the first place? If you’ve no passion in the product, and don’t care about how it sounds, what are you doing? If this has been an issue for nine months and nobody has noticed - or they have but think it sounds fine - then are those people the right people for the job?”

The day after I read this, I was talking to a friend who works for a daily podcast at a major company--and he reported they have the same problem. Every day. Ads with different volume levels. He has raised the issue with their ops team and management...and nothing ever changes.

And if this is happening with operational issues like ads, what about the actual content? Is anyone listening?

Now think about most podcast companies today. Think about the leaders and executives of those companies. How many of their podcasts do you think they actually listen to? Who at those companies cares enough to fuss? Cares enough to not accept solvable problems? Cares about consistency and quality? Cares enough to listen.

The number of companies with literally hundreds of podcasts each continues to expand, yet I’m willing to bet that few of these execs ever listen to most of their own product, let alone have the headspace to deal with anything they hear.

Podcasting is about passion. It's about having something to say or a story to tell that is so important to you that you’d do it for free. Many...okay most...podcast companies see this as a volume game. They produce as much content as they can afford to produce. They become factories.

Yet, as my Bubble Trouble colleague Will Page says, “As quantity goes up, quality goes down.”

Podcasting isn’t a volume business, it is 100% the opposite. It is an intimacy business. Obviously, companies can create a lot more than one podcast...but when they lose grip of the quality, no volume strategy will patch that hole. That’s why I so frequently advise people to be the best---The Very Best--at fewer things. 

So, does your organization take a pause, listen back, and talk about what you put out in the world?


[ANOTHER THING: BRINGING ABOUT GENUINE CHANGE]

Hiwote Getaneh is one of our producers at Magnificent Noise. She came to us literally by approaching my co-founder Jesse Baker after an event looking for advice for her personal podcast Depth & Candor. She worked for us part time at first, but has grown so quickly and has become a core member of our team.

In addition to being a fun and generous colleague, I find Hiwote such a thought-provoking thinker that I asked her to write an item for The Audio Insurgent with no boundaries. If she had access to a bunch of audio and podcasting people, what would she want to say to all of you…

Bringing About Genuine Change

By Hiwote Gentaneh

Each of us has a responsibility to change the world as we know it. And it is the responsibility of the already empowered to reach out and lift those up around them, not because they feel guilty, but because our collective freedom lies in it.  

Today I want to propose some new ways of thinking about how the current reckonings around race, and diversity and inclusion can help podcasting grow and service more people than ever.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

My best resource for re-imagining anything (including my personal evolutions) are the works of Black feminist thinkers. Audre Lorde is one of them. The quote above comes from her essay, The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House

This line rings so profoundly true at this particular moment in history where we all find ourselves questioning what it means to carve a new path forward. When we suddenly create Diversity & Inclusion positions in our organizations instead of facing the pollution of our personal and organizational belief and operating systems, all we’re really doing is rearranging the furniture in a house that was built on quicksand. That is the bad news. But the good news is that all of us are equipped with imaginations that can help us create a totally different reality moving forward. 

Even though Audre Lorde’s essay was written in reference to academia, I’d encourage you to take a minute to click the link above and think about how her writing may apply to podcasting as you read through it. There are four really powerful concepts that stand out to me in Lorde’s essay:

  1. Sustainable creativity comes from our willingness to acknowledge our interdependence.

  2. We need to move away from dividing and conquering and towards defining and empowering.

  3. Embracing and understanding our differences is a powerful place from which to build community.

  4. We are responsible for understanding and dismantling the unwritten rules of the society that we live in.

If we used this framework to re-imagine podcasting, in what ways would our industry be different? In what ways would we be different? Let’s take a moment to think through how we can use podcasting as a tool to build connection, trust and visibility. 

As a starting point, we live in a world where we believe that creative products are born out of exploring concepts and ideas that are new to us, and then re-shaping those ideas through our own lenses. Yet I believe the current “work for hire” framework common for full-time staffers and freelance contributors stiffles ideas and makes our organizations less diverse, less interesting and less innovative.

So what if we decided to share every creative project with the people who inspired them in the first place, making cultural appropriation a thing of the past? In what way would that change our organizational structures, how we work and who we work with? As an example, if your team is working on a story about how the Cherokee language is endangered, could you not only hire a Native American producer, but also be open to new structures where your producer could potentially continue to earn money from this project as the story (or broader project) continues to earn money?  

I believe that shifting who we compensate and how we compensate for creative projects  would force us to redefine what leadership is and who is suited to lead. In the example above, the producer hired for the role would be the creative lead on this particular project or story. And I imagine that because she was hired for her expertise and/or lived experience, working with her and giving her the space and tools to lead would also push us to question what values and skills we’ve over-indexed for and which one we’ve taken for granted. This is how I think Audre Lorde would want us re-imagining the future. 

Following this thread, I’d like to challenge you, as a leader in your organization, to think about how your recruiting strategy would shift if you decided to value and hire creatives whose lived experiences fuel new ideas and audio products. So instead of just hiring a Black producer for every story about Blackness, you could intentionally recruit a Black producer who actually has experience with the kind of story you are covering. And once this producer joins your workforce, you could ask yourself (and them) how you might create an environment where they aren’t simply expected to “fit in,” but where their ideas and knowledge are deeply respected. This would mean that you’d have to create a workplace that is open to letting your differences and their unique insights contribute to the culture of the workplace you share.  

Alternatively, how would your organizational retention strategy change if you were to believe that each of your current and prospective employees were not just contributors to your vision, but that the differences among you can be defined and then used to strengthen what you are creating together. To put it in more visual terms, imagine if each person in your organization was holding a different colored string. How much more beautiful would the fabric of your organization and its products be if you let everyone’s different colors shine? And not to mention, a delightful by-product of this would be incredibly innovative podcasts that don’t sound like echoes of one another. 

How would your business model change if you created a culture that valued difference and independent action and thought? If we believe that our differences fuel our creativity because accepting differences expands our worlds, would your salary structures still be based on how many years of experience each individual has? Is there room to reconsider what skills and credentials warrant promotions and raises?

On this note, the concept of intellectual property has been one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around over the last year. The idea that if I come up with an idea, I have to claim it as mine so that nobody else profits from it feels like a product of patriarchal thinking: we are encouraged to divide and conquer and demarcate everything as yours vs. mine. But how would our industry be different if we moved away from that model and towards one of defining and empowering? Could we still give credit to the originators of ideas while empowering others to build upon those ideas? If you are an existing or emerging leader in the industry, my question to you is - how might you re-imagine your business model to be more equitable for the people within your organization? What kind of work would your teams make? How would they get compensated for their ideas? What new hires would you make? How does this concept of defining and empowering change your strategy for growth? 

The hard thing about imagining is that we have to push ourselves past the comforts of current practices and into the discomfort of a totally alternate way of thinking and treating the work of our co-workers and contributors. And without practice, this can feel virtually impossible. In our current reality,  our lives are run by racist and patriarchal philosophies that often go unquestioned. Even when we think we’re being fairly progressive, we forget that racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia are the waters that we swim in. These philosophies have shaped who we all are at a fundamental level. They’ve shaped everything from who we revere and who we ignore to how we define the value of our businesses.

2020 showed us many things - and to me, the most important of these, was that there is no such thing as a lone ranger. Everything you touch affects me and everything I touch will inevitably affect you. Climate change is showing us this. A global pandemic is showing us this. Global marches for racial justice showed us this. So my push for  re-envisioning how we shape our industry is for one primary reason - we would ALL be better off if we decided to give the current system a total reconfiguration and started forging paths that empowered everyone


Okay, that’s it for this dispatch.

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Make great things. I’ll be listening.

--Eric