In honor of Pride month, we thought we’d check-in with some podcast insiders about LGBTQ representation in the industry. We were lucky enough to connect with creators, producers, hosts, and journalists all invested in the podcast space over Slack to explore queerness in podcasting.
Kathy was not able to join us on slack, so we’ve added the answers she submitted by email throughout the piece.
Molly Woodstock (they/them) is the creator of Gender Reveal, a podcast made by and for trans/nonbinary folks. They are a journalist and a gender educator and consultant. Twitter: @mollywoodstock and @gendereveal
Eleanor Hyde (she/her) is the executive producer if Unwell, a fiction show set in a small Ohio town with a ghost problem. She produces Unwell with HartLife NFP which previously created the long-running epic science fiction podcast Our Fair City. Twitter: @unwellpodcast and @eleanorhyde
Josh Gwynn (he, his) is a producer at a Pineapple Street Media and has made shows like Tales of Your City with Netflix, Making Gay History, Strong Black Legends with Strong Black Lead, Never Before with Janet Mock, and Still Processing for The New York Times. Twitter: @regardingjosh
Elena Fernández Collins (they/them or she/her) is a podcast journalist and critic who got their start through developing a specialty in fiction podcasting. They regularly write for The AV Club and The Bello Collective. They are also the submissions editor for Radio Drama Revival. Twitter: @shomarq
Wil Williams (they/them or she/her) is a podcast journalist and critic. They write for outlets such as The AV Club and Polygon. They are a line producer on Radio Drama Revival and founder of Podcast Problems LLC, which runs their site Wil Williams Reviews, as well as a Discord server for podcasters and the podcast collective Hug House Productions. Twitter: @wilw_writes
Kathy Tu (she/her) is the co-host and co-managing editor of Nancy. Prior to Nancy, she worked on Radiolab, The Memory Palace, The Mortified Podcast, Masterpiece Studio, and others. Kathy was not able to join us on slack, so we’ve added the answers she submitted by email throughout the piece. Twitter: @_kathytu and @NancyPodcast
How do you all feel about the representation of queer voices in the podcasting industry and how it’s changed in the past 5 years?
Molly Woodstock: I think that independent podcasters are making really wonderful queer and trans content with virtually no resources. I don’t think that larger companies and organizations are meeting the demand for authentic LGBTQIA content.
Wil Williams: I think queer representation has come a long way — in very, very specific regards. Welcome to Night Vale started just about seven years ago, and I remember the fact that the main romantic plotline featured two men (including a nonwhite man) was a huge, surprising selling point. The same could be said for the main romantic relationship in The Bright Sessions. Seeing queer representation behind the scenes, like Mischa Stanton being one of the most prominent producers in fiction podcasting, has been really exciting.
However, I think there are some places that — even within fiction, which is a fairly queer space right now — need much more representation, and I worry the space is already resting on its laurels.
Elena Fernández Collins: I’ve only been deeply involved in podcasting for a little over two years, but I’d say that even in that small span of time, I’ve seen a lot more podcasts not just geared towards, but explicitly stated as being created by and for queer folks. But all those podcasts are by and large, like Molly just stated, independent podcasts with little to no resources.
The ones that I do see gaining that attention from larger, financially backed companies, trend towards being stated as white, cis, and American. The problem of finding queer podcasts and hosts that are not from the US, the UK, Canada, or Australia is a real one that can’t be understated. We need more things like Afroqueer being supported on a larger scale. Podcasting can’t be pigeonholed into the United States; this is a big problem in media entertainment in general.
Wil Williams: Afroqueer! And I loved Adventures in New America, a big production by big names (Night Vale Presents, Stephen Winter), featuring a black lesbian in the main cast.
Kathy Tu: We’re just starting to get the nuance that we deserve, instead of being cast aside as niche or one-note. That has been good. But at the same time, representation for LGBTQ+ is largely dominated by queer men and women, and very few of color. So, again, it’s getting better, we’ve got so much more room to grow.
Wil Williams: Something that’s also often on my mind in regards to queer rep is my point about not necessarily knowing. There’s a huge drive for creators to out themselves for the purpose of promoting more queer content and representation, but —and I know this is divisive—I’ve always been so uncomfortable with saying creators have a responsibility to out themselves.
Molly Woodstock: I didn’t realize anyone was advocating for folks to out themselves. That’s wildly not OK.
Wil Williams One thing I love on this front is queer creators actively making resources for each other. An example I love is Michelle Nickolaisen’s Self Taught & Solo site, which will also be a panel at Podcast Movement this year. Nickolaisen is a big, big advocate for how a lack of resources leads to a super condescending way of talking about indie podcasts by queer people.
How does intersectionality affect the voices getting represented, and what voices aren’t getting highlighted enough?
Molly Woodstock: I do feel like the Venn diagram of media folks with resources and folks who want to make radical intersectional queer content are two circles that rarely ever touch. And I think about this all the time every day.
Elena Fernández Collins: Molly, I cannot stress enough how much I agree with you on this point! I think it’s important to take one moment to look at the word “intersectionality” and to understand that it’s about power and how the collision of power and privilege leads to oppression. It’s a framework. I think there needs to be some talk about things like “equity” and “justice” instead when we’re talking about who gets to be highlighted and who is holding the mic.
Eleanor Hyde: Like with so many things when you talk about representation and who gets the mic — it’s mostly about privilege. (I say all this acknowledging that most of that privilege applies to me.)
Molly Woodstock: Yeah, I think it’s obvious that trans/nonbinary folks, sex workers, disabled queers, and non-cis BIPOC [Black and Indigenous People of Color] folks aren’t heard from enough.
Wil Williams: Absolutely. Most people who somehow avoid my face on all of my socials address me as Mr. Williams, for instance. I’ve seen a lot of opportunities I go out for being given to men versus women, let alone nonbinary people, which is one of the reasons even my, admittedly, very quiet enby [non-bianary] coming out was scary. And I’m still, like, a white person with a steady job who is very cis and straight passing.
Molly Woodstock: Absolutely. Even the word “intersectionality” is rooted in the existence of Black women. There are queer and trans Black women in podcasting, but certainly not on many major shows. Still Processing, Janet Mock’s show [Never Before with Janet Mock] and Alice Isn’t Dead being a few major exceptions, of course. They do exist! I just don’t want to say “intersectionality” and not talk about Black women specifically.
Eleanor Hyde: Quick shameless plug moment – our show, Unwell, has a black queer woman as the protagonist.
Josh Gwynn: I think a lot of time when we talk about representation in podcasting — we talk about who is on mic. And when we look at trends and how the industry is progressing, we look at the people on mic. I think we really need to expand that conversation to [those] who [are] in positions to make decisions about the content being created. There are so many different ways and positions to have within radio and podcasting and honestly, a lot of them have more power than the person that is on mic. We really have to look at the production credits — is the team that made this piece diverse? Do they have voices from these different intersections? Do the members of oppressed communities that are on the team feel empowered to say yes and no.
Molly Woodstock: That last question is huge. There are so many huge, famous, successful shows that have queer and trans folks (or for that matter, people of color) on staff, but not in positions of power!
Josh Gwynn: Over the past few years, I do feel that there have been many critiques of public radio and podcasting — lots of requests for more intentionally diverse teams, etc., and a lot of time we can get caught up with the symbolism of what a host represents.
Do you all see the same movement for representation behind the scenes?
Molly Woodstock: I see way more, personally. I feel like every young person in radio is queer. (I know it’s not true, but it’s also not not true.)
Josh Gwynn: And hosts are very important, but so are producers, so are sound engineers, so are composers, so are editors.
Wil Williams: Big ups to The Whisperforge, a fiction collective spearheaded by the wonderful aforementioned Mischa Stanton. The collective is like pretty much all queer, and their newest fiction venture, CARAVAN, was created by a trans person of color and features several QPOC [Queer People of Color] both in casting and writing.
I think in fiction we’re seeing this a little more — but, again, I’m largely seeing this from indie creators, not from actual networks and companies. I think some of that is because there similarly aren’t resources for starting collectives and networks, etc. I think part of it is also that grant money just, like, never hits podcasting. Good examples of how this is being subverted by some key players is the AIR Media scholarships and fellowships, etc.
Kathy Tu: My experience has been that there is a thirst and a hunger for queer narrative podcasts such as ours, but it really requires buy-in from larger networks in order to do the work that we do. Narrative podcasts take a lot of time and energy and sometimes money. So there needs to be an investment in these types of shows to keep them going. But it’s not any different than the investment in any other type of show. There just has to be investment.
Wil Williams: I do also think that queer creators seem sort of pigeonholed to make “queer content.” Not every podcast featuring queer creators is a “queer podcast,” but they all seem to be marketed as such.
Molly Woodstock: Wil yes! iTunes was promoting Rhea Butcher’s baseball podcast on its short Pride playlist, which felt odd to me.
Wil Williams: Like, I don’t know, let queer people talk about bad movies like all the straight white cis men out there without saying, “This podcast is for the queer people, folks!”
Molly Woodstock: To your point, Josh, I have seen “queer” shows with a team of straight cis producers, editors, etc. that sort of drag down the queerness of the show. In my personal experience, I haven’t heard of many LGBTQ producers, editors, etc. being able to overrule something misguided that a straight cis host is trying to do. I’d love to be deeply wrong about this.
Josh Gwynn: With this new project that launched with Netflix, Tales of Your City – it was really important to me that we one, worked with queer independent podcasters and storytellers, and two, tried to be as intentionally inclusive as we could — to your point Molly.
But that’s the thing — I think a lot of people think these problems will fix themselves if we just hope to be better people, and that can’t be further from the truth. Progress has to be intentional. Diversity has to be intentional.
Eleanor Hyde: Yes. We did a lot of work on this when we were casting and staffing Unwell. And it takes work. You can’t just say “I would like a diverse and representative team” and then hope those people show up.
Josh Gwynn: Right! You have to do the work and that work is hard. It doesn’t just involve staffing but it also involves making sure the people that your staff are empowered.
Molly Woodstock: Yes. There’s no point in having folks around if you’re going to ignore their input or make them feel unsafe.
Wil Williams: This is something we’ve seen a lot of conversation around in the fiction space. Of course, as people put out casting calls with intentional inclusion, they’re also getting tons of harassment and blowback: “Why does it matter if you can’t see the voice actor?” etc.
Eleanor Hyde: It matters. I don’t want to assume everyone reading this knows why. I’m going to try to explain why I think it matters.
For our team it matters in two important ways. One, we want people who listen to our show to feel like they are represented by the story being told. That requires diversity. And two, when we have people with diverse life experiences helping us to create the work, we make better work. They bring insights that I wouldn’t get if I was working only with people like me.
Molly Woodstock: Yes to number two. Well, both. But I think number two is overlooked often.
So I don’t have a staff, but I’m a biracial person who is very intentional about making sure that my show is never more than 50 percent white guests. And sometimes that takes a lot of extra work, but who cares? It’s the most important part of the show.
Wil Williams: Molly, Elena and I did this for our programming at Podcast Movement. It was extra work, kinda, but like . . . not even really, to be honest. And in my opinion, it shouldn’t be that hard if you’re surrounding yourself intentionally with diverse voices all the time.
Molly Woodstock: For me, it’s harder because (very broadly generalizing) white people have PR folks who are scrambling to contact me, whereas BIPOC folks are often overbooked and can’t do a little podcast interview for free. So it’s not that I can’t find them, just that they’re busy!
Elena Fernández Collins: On Wil’s last point, if you’re finding it really hard to think of a queer Black woman that you work with, or listen to on a regular basis, maybe think about why that is, and then go out and intentionally change it. Face the fact that you are going to get uncomfortable with your own failings, and then find where you can be doing better and just… fix it.
Eleanor Hyde: I think this is the right moment to tell my story about seeking and casting a non-binary person to play our non-binary character.
My co-producer Jeffrey Gardner is non-binary and we had talked a lot about including a non-binary character played by a non-binary actor. After writing season one we had some characters that we felt needed to be a specific gender (for example we wanted Dot to be a mom specifically). And we had some characters that we felt didn’t need to be a particular gender. I think we had three characters that we opened up for auditions that could have been non-binary. We let the actors who came in to audition apply for the roles that they were most interested in.
I had a hunch about which character I thought would be our non-binary character and I was totally wrong. Ultimately Kathleen Hoil’s performance of Abbie was so wonderful. Once we cast Kathleen in that role we went back to our writers and we re-wrote the season to support Abbie being non-binary.
Elena Fernández Collins: I can hear so many people going “you rewrote the season?” Yes, they rewrote the season, because that’s how that should work.
What can curators, producers and the podcasting industry as a whole do better to be inclusive? What does failure look like and what does success look like?
Josh Gwynn: Create avenues for queer folks and POC to participate. There’s no reason folks should be able to exploit free labor out of free interns in 2019.
Molly Woodstock: Yes, I think that including a diverse array of queer and trans voices and making sure that they’re being heard and respected and promoted and well-compensated and all of that, is a huge part of it.
Kathy Tu: Hold shows with big followings accountable for the things they say and the stories being presented. Audio is an intensely personal medium, and it has been used in the past to spread hatred and fear. Hold people accountable for the things that they put out there.
Elena Fernández Collins: Failure looks like you thinking you’ve “achieved” diversity. That’s not how that works, that’s not how any of this works. There isn’t an endpoint in sight where you go “I’ve done it, I’ve solved diversity for my project.”
Success looks like you constantly critiquing yourself, accepting critique, implementing change, and like Josh said earlier, being intentional!
Molly Woodstock: Can we talk about money? There are so many amazing trans podcasts, and none of them (that I can think of) are professionally produced or given any kind of meaningful budget. I raise all of my funds through Patreon, but I’m taking money from trans folks who can barely pay rent and it makes me feel absolutely awful. But I don’t know how to convince cis people that they should fund trans media.
I forgot Janet’s show again. I’m sorry! [Never Before with Janet Mock] is the exception.
Josh Gwynn: And I do think that there’s an issue with the single narrative. I’m super proud of Never Before with Janet Mock. Never Before might be an exception to what you were saying, Molly, but having one exception isn’t what progress looks like. Progress isn’t one.
Molly Woodstock: Also… let’s say, for sake of argument, that not every show can afford to hire 5 LGBTQ people right now. You can still hire consultants and experts (ahem) to train your staff and/or read your scripts and make sure you’re not accidentally being awful to queer and trans folks! I’d love to see mainstream shows do this. So many of them are so trans-exclusionary because they don’t know more about this stuff. And I can’t convince them to let me teach them.
Wil Williams: Yes! We talk up sensitivity readers and paying them all the time in the fiction space.
Elena Fernández Collins: Yeah, not only sensitivity readers, but cultural consultants as well, which is somewhat different. And we are big on getting them paid.
Molly Woodstock: if you can’t pay your rent with it, it doesn’t count.
Elena Fernández Collins: I can’t pay rent with 800 exposures a month.
Finally, What podcasts are you listening to right now?
Elena Fernández Collins: I am a huge fan of Radio Menea, a podcast that explores Latinx music, and I’ve been marathoning older episodes. I’ve also been super loving Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services (created by queer POC, urban fantasy about a witch trying to save her business from sabotage) and Station to Station, a weird espionage science-fiction podcast from the same production collective as Starship Iris.
Eleanor Hyde: What I’m listening to these days (some queer some not): The Strange Case of Starship Iris, a fiction show that is essentially Firefly if everyone on the ship is queer. And nicer to each other. Mabel, another fiction show. Ghosts, weird houses, the fae… I think? It’s poetic and a wild ride. How to Survive the End of the World, the Brown sisters talk about community, storytelling, survival… a lot of things. I find them deeply insightful and supportive.
NB was a limited run series on BBC Sounds about nonbinary identity, and I’m so so so happy that it exists! It’s a treasure. Also I haven’t been listening to Queersplaining enough, but I’m excited to see more narrative nonfiction trans content.