Tonya Mosley is the host of the podcast Truth Be Told produced by KQED and the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. Tonya also hosts NPR's Friday Film Club.
Prior to Here & Now, Tonya served as television correspondent for Al Jazeera America and television reporter in several markets including Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky.
In 2015, Tonya was awarded a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, where she co-created a workshop for journalists on the impact of implicit bias and co-wrote a Belgian/American experimental study on the effects of protest coverage. Tonya has won several national awards for her work, most recently an Emmy Award in 2016 for her televised piece "Beyond Ferguson," and an Edward R. Murrow award for her public radio series "Black in Seattle."
Pocket Casts: Tell me about Truth Be Told and how it came about.
Tonya Mosley: Sure, Truth Be Told is an advice podcast. But what we wanted to do at the onset was take stock of what our audience wanted from a show.
In March of 2019, my producers at the time, Cristina Kim and Sandhya Dirks, began the process of audience engagement. We took an unscientific sample of our audience and the audience that we'd like to capture. We also had several community events, including one at KQED in San Francisco, where we invited people of color from several different organizations and asked them to then invite their circle of people. And through those listening sessions, we were able to come to an idea for the podcast. We wanted to discuss the dilemmas, the conversations, that people weren't hearing anywhere else.
We also found that people wanted a safe space to talk about issues of race and racism and didn’t want to talk about them through the lens of white consumption. So many times in public radio, there are conversations about race and racism but they are for a white audience. And often the segment or interview itself is being done by a white person talking to a person of color. People by and large spoke to us and said “we want a show where we can step in and not have to have those race 101 conversations.”
We're not necessarily talking to a wider audience. If the white audience wants to join, that's wonderful; they can join and listen in on the conversation, but this conversation is for us. So that's kind of how it all came to be.
Pocket Casts: How did you decide what kind of stories you wanted to explore and what stories were they?
Tonya: Our aspirations were to be audience-driven. During those listening sessions, we had breakout groups. We asked participants, “what topics would you like us to take on?” We had it designed school-style where we had a bunch of Post-its and we had folks write down what their questions were. If they were to have a podcast that they could ask questions to, what would they ask? At the end of the night, for each of those sessions, we were able to categorize them.
There were some through lines in all of them; family came up a lot — questions around family, around talking to your family about race, intergenerational conversations. Work was one that was really big — navigating the workplace. Questions about sex and relationships, questions about anyone outside those circles that you deal with, friends, associates, and colleagues. Based on that, we could see very clearly the four main topics that all of these questions come under.
For our first season, we used those questions from the listening sessions as the questions that we took on for each episode. We're in our second season now, and we are starting to receive questions from the audience directly, and this is important to say because we're in many ways, guided by what they tell us they want to talk about as well as what's happening at the moment. So our last few episodes have been tied to this moment we're in now with the protests after the death of George Floyd, coronavirus and how COVID-19 is impacting communities of color disproportionately. We're finding that the questions we're getting are very much in line with the current moment.
Pocket Casts: Are listeners asking about a personal situation or overall worldview type questions?
Tonya: We try to make them very specific, because the universal is in the specific. We get a lot of questions that are universal, but what we ask for and what we end up using in the show are very specific dilemmas that a particular listener is dealing with. The general big heady questions are hard to grab on to and to fully explore in half an hour. We have taken on topics like that in the past. For instance, our first episode was about how to feel joy when the world is burning. But even still, our question-asker was someone who dealt with trauma and death working as an ER physician and at the same time, she was experiencing this amazing joy outside of her job. Is it okay to feel both of those feelings at the same time, hurting and despair for what's happening in the world as well as her own personal joy? I'm bringing that up because in this moment it means so much.
You asked me the question the moment we got on the phone together: “how are you doing?” And I know when we ask each other that, we're hesitant to say we're doing fine or great because of the moment that we're in. There's so much turmoil in the world. So how do you navigate that? If we do take on questions about the bigger picture, we choose ones that speak to everyone in a way that feels resonate to them. But more often we try to get as specific as possible.
PC: How do you create a space for people of color, and how is it different from what content is out there? Some shows covering racism in America give a lot of history and context around how we ended up in a country with ingrained systematic racism; those shows seem to be directed at people who are not affected by that injustice on a daily basis. Are the conversations you’re having on Truth Be Told different, and if so, how?
Tonya: There is a difference between content created for and by people of color versus for a white audience and white consumption. But I think that the difference in how you produce that is taking stock of the white person in the room. What I mean by that is academics often talk about this dual consciousness that people of color have. There are the conversations you have when you are in the room with people who are like you or you feel extremely comfortable with, and the conversations you have when you know there is a white person in the room. It could be the same conversation, but there's a bit of a different framing there. There's a different framing because you know there's someone there who may not get all of the cultural references, the shorthand, even the framing of it in a way that is not speaking to white people but speaking to each other.
This is a difficult thing because when you grow up in a white society, it is almost intrinsically who you are. You are automatically, many times, taking into account the white person in the room, even if there is no one in the room. So right now I'm in my closet, and I host Truth Be Told in my closet as well as Here & Now. When I'm doing those shows, I'm speaking to a large audience and on a subconscious level, I may still be speaking in a way where I know that I'm talking to a white audience, especially on Here & Now because it's a huge audience with millions of listeners, many of whom are white. So on Truth Be Told, we have to take stock as content creators and are cognizant and aware and conscious that the framing needs to be different because we are talking to our people. And if we do offer context, we know there's lots of history that we don't know, but we're not talking about it in terms of trying to educate, but to contextualize our story.
And I also want to say, there's huge value to everyone having conversations about race and racism. I'm encouraged in this time by the fact that there are actually white newsrooms, white podcasts and content creators, who are taking stock of who they talk to on a regular basis, the types of content that they produce, how to be more inclusive, and how to have conversations with each other. White people should be having conversations with each other about race and inequality as well.
PC: I think most content producers would agree that the makeup of your team dictates what and how stories are produced. What do you think a good team looks like, and how do we create good teams?
Tonya: Yeah, so there's me of course, and I'm a Black woman. My producer, Suzie Racho, is Filipino and my engagement producer, Isabeth Mendoza, is Mexican. Previously, in season one, my producer, Cristina Kim, is Korean and Spanish and my editor at the time, Sandhya Dirks, is South Asian. So all of us are so important. I have a worldview and experience, and each one of them has unique experiences based on their identity. So it's important that that is reflected, and it's an important part of our conversations about the questions that we receive and the topics we take on.
If I had a larger staff, I would love to have men of color and nonbinary people working on the show. Who knows if we grow? That may be an opportunity to include more voices, but I definitely think having people who come from different worlds is so important.
One other question that we have not yet tackled and we don't know quite how to do it yet, but it's super important, is disability. There's been a disability rights struggle in our country for so long, and we never take people who are living with disabilities into consideration when we're having this conversation about diversity. But it's so important, and there's so much that I've learned just over the last year about this topic. It’s one that I always want to bring into the room whenever we're having these conversations about building diversity on teams.
PC: When you were originally creating the team, how did you approach diversity? Did you hire with an idea of what the room would look like, or did a diverse team come together naturally?
Tonya: Season one was a unique process in that KQED offered me the opportunity to host this podcast and conceive what it would be, just me on my own. I hand-picked people who were already working for KQED who I felt would be aligned with producing this with me. I knew producer at the time, Cristina Kim, through previous work and I knew what topics she was interested in. I knew how vast her knowledge was on culture and history, specifically the history of people of color in the United States and abroad. She just has a wealth of knowledge and she keeps herself educated, so I knew she'd be a wonderful producer.
And the same with Sandhya Dirks who's done a lot of work on investigations around housing disparities in our country.
The second time around, when I had the opportunity to do season two, both of those people had full time roles on other shows. . We were intentional in saying we want to find diverse candidates. During the hiring process, we were explicit in trying to find and interview people who ideologically were aligned with opening themselves up to the unknown. That's how we came to this current team.
PC: Are the rise in BLM protests and the focus on racism in America affecting the show at all? Did it dictate what content you’ve produced recently or will produce in the future? Do you feel you need to make room for people who are just now coming into the conversation?
Tonya: There's always room for everyone. I know we have white listeners, and I really appreciate them. I think what I'm saying is we are not centering whiteness in this show. And if you think about it, just about all content is centering whiteness. White is a race, so think about that and think about the totality of that. I can go listen to any piece of content produced by white content creators about what might traditionally be considered white culture, and I can understand and be a part of the conversation. In fact, I can enjoy it and be into it and actually be passionate about the topics. I think for people of color, that is the experience we have in this country. Ninety percent of things are created for white people, and we enjoy them too. So this little pocket here of a podcast that is produced for people of color, white people can enjoy it too — but it was made for people of color with them in mind.
PC: Have you gotten any listener questions that relate to coronavirus or the BLM movement that you are taking on in the show?
Tonya: Yes, we have been receiving questions. We are a biweekly podcast, so sometimes we do receive topics that are of the moment that we would take on if we were a daily or even a weekly podcast. But in the next few weeks, we are talking about how to navigate the sense of self-worth for Black children while also being in the moment and teaching them about systemic racism, which I think resonates with a lot of people who come from persecuted communities. How do you navigate and open up this world of racism to young children while also having them armed and aware of the moment? I have a seven year old and I think about this all the time.
We also are taking on the topic of home and what home means. With the great migration of the twenties, thirties and forties, with Black people moving to the north for jobs and opportunity, there was also — through the nineties, up through now — a divestment of those same communities where people of color are moving to other places for opportunity, specifically Black people. What does it mean to be there for your people when you're not physically there with your people. In the moment of coronavirus and the protests, it all kind of plays into this sense of helplessness for many people of color. So we're taking on that topic.
I do want to tell you there are some topics that, as the protests erupted, we had to let go of because we had to step into this moment. One was dating during COVID-19. We had lots of questions about that and maybe we'll be able to visit that in the fall because I'm sure we'll still be in the state of quarantine. But we had to make room for a different conversation.
PC: Who do you think is talking about race and diversity in a real, interesting way, besides yourself?
Tonya: There is a podcast that I love, that is so simple, and yet it is one that I want to tap into every week, Demetria L. Lucas's Ratchet & Respectable. She's a long time journalist and author, and it's literally about an hour to an hour and a half podcast of her just talking. And it's still the most marvelous thing that every Sunday I look forward to when I clean my house. The reason why is because she's talking about topics of the moment, and yet I feel like I'm talking to my girlfriend about them. She has lots of engagement through social media; Instagram is the platform by which she's able to communicate with her audience and she actually answers questions that people might have had during the podcast. And I think it's just a wonderfully simple, but also dynamic way to engage with the audience.
There are others that I like that also receive a lot of praise. I love Sam Sanders’s show It's Been a Minute, and the reason is that he takes on the hard topics and the news of the day, but there is a joy and levity there. It's an inclusive show where he is definitely coming from a point of view as a Black male talk show host, yet he has this wonderful gift of being able to say this is everybody’s show, and I think the audience actually feels that very deeply. I love The Read, I love Code Switch. I feel like Code Switch has always been a mainstay. It just gets stronger and stronger with every season. They've been around for a really long time in lots of different iterations, and I think they finally, at this moment, have gotten their groove. I love The Stoop; it’s very much focused on Black culture, The Nod is great too — I love those two. The Secret Lives of Black Women is no longer; I think they just dropped their last episode a few weeks ago, but that was a really strong one. Those are the ones that just came to mind.
PC: What are you listening to now, and what are your favorite shows overall?
Tonya: I really love all those shows that I mentioned to you. I love Hotboxin with Mike Tyson. I also love Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness — it's not aimed at people of color, but it's for everyone. I'm forever, and will always be, an Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations listener, I listen to that every Sunday as well. I love any of the Slow Burn podcasts; I loved the last season about Tupac and Biggie Smalls with Joel Anderson, and I'm just getting into the one about David Duke.
Then there are ones that I’ll tap into when I can. Modern Love is one; I just love hearing the stories from that column that I used to love in The New York Times. 10 Things That Scare Me; I love it because it's just a nice quick hit of entertainment.
PC: The last thing I always ask is if I missed anything? Is there anything that you’d like to share with our readers?
Tonya: What a dynamic time to be a content creator because there's so much happening in the world, and so many opportunities to be a part of the conversation and offer smart conversation. There are so many choices out there, too. When we look back at this time, I think the things that will stick out for us are the ones that really took a stand to be a part of the zeitgeist in a way that brought value to people. Because it'll be a way for us to gain context and understanding of this moment, say, 50 years from now. I think that's what's beautiful and exciting about podcasts.