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Yes, Queens

Comedian Phoebe Robinson and a generation of new voices are leading a quest to make podcasting more diverse

WNYC/Ringer illustration
WNYC/Ringer illustration

Three minutes. Less, actually. That’s how long it took before Phoebe Robinson brought up gun violence at a recent live taping of the 2 Dope Queens podcast.

“I’d like to take a minute to acknowledge everything that’s going on in Baton Rouge and Dallas,” she said, referring to the shooting of Alton Sterling and the Dallas shootings that had occurred about a week before.

This isn’t what the audience expected, necessarily. The crowd had come to this sold-out Brooklyn bar for a 2 Dope Queens live experience, which usually means two things: laughter and cheap happy hour deals. But if there was even half a second of tension, I didn’t feel it.

Robinson started to reflect on the need to give oneself a break from being angry and frustrated. But before the 31-year-old comedian could finish her thought, her cohost, Jessica Williams (a former Daily Show correspondent), chimed in with a joke about how the audience was going to recover from such an emotional start. Robinson, short and clad in a green maxi dress, laughed and tossed a line back: “I’m just trying to have a serious moment!”

That’s how this show flows: two friends flipping from the dire (Black Lives Matter) to the ridiculous (the technicalities of FaceTiming your BFF during anal sex) to the sublime (Michael Fassbender). Sometimes they pelvic thrust in unison. Sometimes they get serious. On this occasion, they did all that in the first seven minutes of the show.

2 Dope Queens routinely tapes live every Tuesday night at the Bell House, a Brooklyn event space. The format is simple: It’s part funny, wild conversation between Robinson and Williams — the same one you’d hear them having in a bar, should you be a really lucky fly on a wall — followed by sets from comedians they admire, want to promote, or count as friends. Ilana Glazer dropped by the night I attended. Jon Stewart showed up the following week.

The podcast is an extension of their live stand-up show Blaria Live! Thanks to the combination of Blaria loyalty, Williams’s high-profile gig, and Robinson’s cult following on the stand-up circuit, the show was an immediate sensation, landing in iTunes’s top-10 podcast downloads when it debuted in March. Now the weekly live shows are consistently sold out — about 500 people either crammed onto folding chairs or craning their necks standing in the back. By its strictest definition, WNYC Studios’s 2 Dope Queens is a comedy podcast, but it’s become something else — a space where Robinson and Williams can give frank and consistently hilarious commentary about anything. Sometimes it’s “How can I marry Michael Fassbender?”; sometimes it’s interracial dating. Other times it’s racism or sexism or politics. But all of it is through their filter — irreverent, goofy, incisive, and unapologetically black and female. Twelve episodes and millions of downloads suggest that it’s working.

Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to so many hours of her talking and laughing, but when people ask me if I’ve heard of 2 Dope Queens, I immediately reply, “I’m just waiting for Phoebe to be my best friend.” I feel like she already is — that’s her gift. Her energy never flags during the show — more impressive because she’s prone to random bouts of booty popping.

Her early writing credits include shows like MTV’s Girl Code, which is built on including people in semi-raunchy, intimate conversations. Robinson has mastered a special blend of serious and loose and is now bringing it to a show for WNYC, Sooo Many White Guys. But instead of going broad and funny, as Robinson usually does, SMWG — which debuted last month — is focusing on conversations with women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The premise is simple: ask nonwhite, nondude people what it’s like to be nonwhite and nondude.

“Janet Mock and I talk Beyoncé and how much we love Oprah,” says Robinson. “Ilana Glazer [a SMWG executive producer] and I talk about her parents and queerdom in the world of Broad City. We’re trying to make the podcasting world more inclusive.”

Robinson is one of several black women who’ve used the medium to find success on their own terms.

“I think it’s easier for it to be more inclusive in a way that a lot of industries aren’t,” Robinson says. But more than that, black women podcasters have found a way to finally talk about the issues, experiences, and facets of culture they haven’t been able to freely discuss in mainstream media. In doing so, they’re including an overlooked audience in the conversation they (we) need to have right now.

Podcasting has a long-standing tradition of being made by and for the white-male demographic. According to Stitcher, a podcast delivery app, in 2013 men hosted 71 percent of the service’s top podcasts, and its audience was 62 percent male. More recent numbers from a 2016 Edison Research report, The Podcaster Consumer, hints that the audience is widening — women now make up 44 percent of the podcast audience. But it’s happening slowly.

“Newsrooms in public media are still overwhelmingly white. And so the people who are being groomed with the skills to make podcasts are coming out of places that are mostly white,” says Gene Demby, of NPR’s Code Switch, a race-focused blog turned podcast. “So there is this whole universe of really well-done, deeply produced podcasts out there that share the DNA and sensibility of, say, This American Life. But [there’s] also the white-people-putting-on-other-white-people-they-know problem you see everywhere else. [And] the issue of just how staggeringly white public radio’s audience is.”

Demby, who launched his show in May, shares a goal with Robinson: make NPR’s audience “browner, younger, and more female” than the traditional listenership, which he once compared with stunning accuracy to “Utah.”

WNYC, NPR, and Apple’s list of top downloaded podcasts — and yes, even The Ringer’s own podcast network — are part of a persistent, self-perpetuating homogeneity.

“It has an effect on something as small as when a producer or reporter decides to describe a certain term and when they assume the audience gets what they’re talking about,” explains Demby. “Those assumptions we make about our audience is something I think a lot of us have struggled with, even on Code Switch. But it’s self-reinforcing.

“NPR sounds like white people because the people we’re talking to are white people.”

That conversation even has a distinct “white male radio voice”: the dulcet baritone, the crisp pronunciation, a flattened accent that whispers, “I went to prep school in New England but I’m from the Mid-Atlantic region.” Over the years, that voice has grown to include “Crazy L.A. Guy,” i.e., Marc Maron; “Wildin’ Out,” i.e., Ira Glass; and “The Alec Baldwin,” i.e., Alec Baldwin. But when someone imitates the voice of NPR, it always starts with that dominant syntax: White Guy Voice. Last year in an essay for Transom, Chenjerai Kumanyika wrote about trying to find his voice at a podcast workshop he attended: “The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of Roman Mars and Sarah Koening.” He ends the essay by laying out ways to make public radio and podcasting more diverse: in short, just speak your own voice.

Phoebe Robinson (WNYC)
Phoebe Robinson (WNYC)

Phoebe Robinson doesn’t sound like the White Guy. Her voice is nasal. The ends of her sentences drag into vocal fry. She giggles a lot. Jessica Williams doesn’t sound like the White Guy either, especially when she and Robinson slip into what she calls their “black speak.” Nor do Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, hosts of BuzzFeed’s Another Round, or Crissle West from The Read, a popular weekly culture podcast she cohosts with Kid Fury. Aminatou Sow, the black half of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, is reminded of her non-NPR voice regularly.

“Some of the mail I get is people saying, ‘Oh, you should be more articulate, or you should talk like this,’” says Sow. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m an ESL student and I didn’t learn English until I was 17. My parents paid a lot of money for me to speak English like this. This Valley Girl accent you hear? I paid for it. Deal with it.’”

It’s a tidy little metaphor that demonstrates how other voices — literally — are starting to break through. All of these shows have started to appear in various iTunes podcast top-10 lists.

“It’s a very liberating medium,” says Paula Szuchman, WNYC’s vice president of on-demand content and a producer on Robinson’s show. She compares it to what early YouTube web series were to traditional TV shows. “That became a medium where people like the creators of High Maintenance or even somebody like Steve Buscemi can experiment on these nascent platforms. Podcasting is proving itself to be a great place to experiment and innovate without the confining hurdles that you need to go through to get your work heard elsewhere.” Szuchman, to her credit, has spearheaded the push to create shows that spotlight more diverse conversations at WNYC.

“This is huge for black women in particular,” says The Read’s West, whose podcast launched in 2013. “We haven’t heard a lot of black women’s unfiltered, real, raw voices before. Not in this volume.”

Black female voices — or basically any kind of voice outside of the status quo — are lacking representation in more traditional modes of media. (In 2014, for example, black women comprised only 2.19 percent of traditional newspaper newsroom staffs.) Which is why black women in particular are drawn to podcasting: There’s no guardian at the gate. It was a common thread that connected many of the people I spoke to for this story: The hosts knew they had important/entertaining/worthy-of-your-attention things to say. Thanks to the friction-free world of podcasting, they didn’t have to wait for someone to give them an assignment or a space to say it.

“I feel like what’s been great in the podcasting world is that if you have a microphone and a laptop, you can record it,” says Robinson. “There is an element of, ‘I don’t need to wait for a white guy to notice me at a show and then give me an opportunity.’”

This is true of all podcasters — from the teenager who wants to break down his game of Dungeons & Dragons to a woman investigating the judicial system by revisiting a forgotten murder (hey, Serial!). But it is particularly significant to black women, because there are so few venues where they can talk about their unique experience.

“We didn’t have to convince somebody else in power who is usually not in your peer group,” says Nigatu. “We don’t have to convince anybody to listen to us or to convince anybody to give us the microphone, because we can give ourselves the microphone.”

Adds her cohost Clayton: “So we don’t need white people anymore. Bye!”

Robinson calls her show Sooo Many White Guys as a tribute to her days as a stand-up comic — she was often the only black woman performing on a lineup on any given night. When she was given the chance to curate a night of stand-up in January during L.A.’s indie comedy festival Riot LA, Robinson made damn sure to stack it with as many nonwhite guys as she could fit in a two-hour slot. “I did two shows and I think I had 10 comics in total, of all different races, sexual orientations, and backgrounds — and it went really well,” recalls Robinson. She also made damn sure the title of the show was both a fuck-you and a side-eye. Hence, Sooo Many White Guys.

Robinson, who is from the Cleveland area, has been doggedly carving out a loyal following in the New York comedy scene since 2008, when she started doing stand-up and taking improv classes at UCB East. “I was thinking about it,” she tells me during a phone interview. “I’ve been doing stand-up for eight years, and 95 percent of the shows I’ve done, I’m the only woman of color on the bill. I tried doing ‘female stuff.’ The guys in the audience were, like, cringing … ”

When she turned 27, she had her Lemonade moment. “I was really like, ‘Oh, yeah, life is real. It’s not a game anymore,’” she says. “I think 27 is that age where you go, ‘Oh, shit!’ People are getting older, people are buying houses, people are going through real stuff in a way that when you’re in high school it might all just seem like, ‘Whatever! I’m going to be young forever.’ At 27, I started thinking about what I really believe in and what I want to speak out about. And I think by thinking about that and having a blog [the aforementioned Blaria] I really came into my own as a feminist.”

Coincidentally, that’s the year Robinson started to experience success. In 2011 she was a finalist on NBC’s Stand Up for Diversity Competition and was a headliner on the accompanying comedy tour. She became a regular at major comedy festivals. In 2014, she teamed up with Williams to turn Blaria, (description: “seeing the world through the eyes of a Blaria (Black Daria)”) into a live show, Blaria Live! and Blaria Live! are a prototype for both 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys. On the site, Robinson romps through pop culture, news, reality television, and Lifetime movies. A hilarious and vulgar post about a Time magazine article defending breastfeeding sits comfortably next to a post about Trayvon Martin’s tragic shooting in 2012. She approaches both topics with the same critical eye, the same voice, the same comedic touch.

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (WNYC)
Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (WNYC)

That was just the start of what we’ve come to rely on Robinson to provide — funny and precise cultural criticism and a black, female viewpoint. And now she’s fully cemented in that role — appearing on late-night shows like Late Night With Seth Meyers and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, and outlets like Vanity Fair and New York magazine, among others. So she and Williams decided to launch 2 Dope Queens and use it as a platform to say, “Watch out world, we’re black, we’re funny, and you need to pay attention.” Robinson has a book coming out in October — a collection of comedic essays called You Can’t Touch My Hair.

But Sooo Many White Guys, which airs on Tuesdays, has a completely different mission than everything else she’s done thus far: It’s not primarily a vehicle for laughs.

Sooo Many White Guys is not centered around, ‘Hey, love, let’s talk about this new thing you want to plug for a half hour.’ It really lets me try to get to know people in different ways and hopefully shed a light on them with the audience — but a different sort of audience than typical interview shows.”

The show, which is five episodes in, is accomplishing something altogether different from her show with Williams. “I’m getting my James Lipton on,” she says, affecting her best white-man imitation. She’s kidding, but the conversations are deeper.

Take the debut — one hell of a debut episode — in which Robinson and Minneapolis rapper Lizzo (neé Melissa Jefferson) talk hair, their current “lewks,” Lizzo’s music, and Prince — but not before they talk about Philando Castile. Robinson introduces the conversation like this: “The shootings happened and it just felt like everything is just crazy right now in the world and it just — nothing makes sense.” For the next six minutes, Robinson and Lizzo talk about how they feel. That’s it. Just two black women talking about how it feels to be black women right now. “I was born a black woman and this system in this country will never let me forget that,” Lizzo says during the episode. “Don’t throw away my perspective.”

No matter your point of view — as a black woman, white guy, trans activist; whether you’re Janet Mock or Nia Long (both guests who will appear on SMWG this season); no matter the subject, Robinson is in the position to make people listen.

Robinson’s new show is symptomatic of something undeniable in the world. It’s impossible not to talk about gun violence, fear, the need for self-care, or a certain kind of PTSD that comes with reading the news and seeing photos of another slain black person. The black female experience can include lengthy conversations about Hiddleswift, too, but it isn’t authentic to shy away from talking about bigger, harder matters.

“When you are a black woman, you face all types of really screwed-up oppression and situations in the world … these are the conversations that we have when we’re alone, by ourselves,” says Another Round’s Clayton. “You know, when we’re at happy hour, [we] talk to our girlfriends about how things are really fucked up.” Clayton says she’s found that the podcast finally gave her a space to address things that BuzzFeed’s “super-white” audience didn’t necessarily want to read.

West observed how those conversations have shifted for her and Kid Fury. “When The Read started, we intended for it to be a comedy show — and if you listen to some of the earlier episodes, they are overall a lot more light-hearted and completely full of fluff and goofy shit. Until George Zimmerman got off for killing Trayvon,” she says. “I think after that point there is a real shift in the show becoming more political. I remember feeling specifically that night that something in me had changed and I was never going to be the same naive person that I was before.”

A strange thing happens when people put on headphones and push play on a podcast. They shut up and listen. “As Heben always said, ‘It’s really hard to hate-listen to a podcast,’” says Clayton. “Nobody is going to sit down for 45 minutes to an hour and then be like, ‘I hate this. I’m going to listen to the next episode.’”

You’d think any show that spoke about feminism or race at length would be a troll breeding ground — like fruit flies coming for a bowl of overripe apples. Just look at the vitriol Leslie Jones received just for being black, in a movie, and on Twitter. But Robinson doesn’t hear it. She’s been able to freely discuss anything that would normally earn someone death threats on Twitter: interracial dating, offensive things white people have said about her hair, celebrity gossip, chunky menstruation — all without fear.

“[Sooo Many White Guys] is a place where people can listen to two black ladies vent or just show the complexity of the black female experience,” she says. “I have been very good about not paying attention to negative responses, to the trolls who don’t want to hear about the feminist’s point of view because my opinion is always like there are hundreds of podcasts out there. Go find a different one.”

“I think there are all these subsets of black folks who haven’t had anyone directly speaking to them and all their particular identities at once — the many, many quirky black women with deeply feminist politics and who love ratchet hip-hop, for example,” says Demby. “There are now all these podcasts out there that speak to them and don’t treat them like those parts of themselves are irreconcilable with each other. That’s a powerful thing, to hear people talk to you who live where you live. I honestly don’t know if this could happen in another medium.”

Aminatou Sow echoes the sentiment: “I think that for a lot of people, especially for people who are not black, they are genuinely, like, pleasantly surprised that ‘black women have interesting things to say.’ And for those of us who are black it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been saying this forever.’”

“I remember saying to Kid Fury, ‘I don’t think anybody is going to listen to this because black people do not listen to podcasts,’” says West. Her worries might have been justified three years ago, but that’s not true now. However, the organizations that track data for podcasts still have a long way to go: The 2016 Edison Report on podcast listeners tracks age, gender, income, devices, methods of listening, and even “social media brand usage.” But not race.

But don’t rest on your liberal laurels just yet, hazards Nigatu. “I think maybe it is an exciting time to be a person of color making stuff, but I always feel the need to remind people that, like, two victories does not a revolution make,” she says. “We got a long way to go, and people forget that our show and 2 Dope Queens are not categorically similar in terms of what we talk about. Theirs is a comedy show. But people lump us together versus the million white-guy podcasts that exist that get to have this kind of individuality, you know?”

Forget the numbers, Sow says, forget the best-of lists, forget all those traditional ways of validating something — the proof of success is in the audience.

“I think that the live shows are a huge corrective to the lie that minorities don’t listen to podcasts. Go to the live shows and see the impact of black people podcasting. When I look at a podcast like The Read — and I went to a live show of theirs in San Francisco — the reception is phenomenal,” says Sow, who now lives in New York. “I’d lived there for two and a half years and I’d never seen this many black people in my entire time there. If all these people are saying a show like this isn’t viable, they are fools. Look how many butts they put in seats. The shows are lit.”

At the 2 Dope Queens taping I attended, there was a DJ spinning party tunes, and things felt so rowdy and joyous you’d think it was 2 a.m. on a Saturday. The taping took place on a Monday at 6 p.m.

Should Marc Maron (and all the many white guys) be scared?

“No!” exclaims Robinson. “Love you, Marc, and I would love to be on the show sometime.”

“I’m just really jazzed about the future,” she continues. “I really am just, like, focusing on it just being equal. I’m not necessarily thinking about, like, ‘Oh, we got to get rid of the guys.’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, we got to bring more women to the forefront and more people of color to the forefront.’”

At that same 2 Dope Queens taping, Robinson and Williams ended their set with a brief speech. Robinson grabbed the mic and spoke with the same gravity as she had at the opening of the show: “I know this audience is like ‘Ira Glass’ and then like us. I know that some of you like Beyoncé and some of you like the Shins. But thank you for treating us just like you’d treat the Shins.”

Which is to say, giving them the same respect they’d give any white guy with a microphone.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Paula Szuchman’s title and the day Sooo Many White Guys airs. Szuchman is vice president of on-demand content, and the show airs on Tuesdays.