How “Seeing White” is using audio journalism to critically examine whiteness in America

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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In a time of deep political division, when America’s attempts to reckon with its injustice and racism have surfaced again, many are wondering how things got this way. In his podcast series “Seeing White,” John Biewen answers this question by turning the lens on white people using history, politics, art, and personal experience to create a critical and comprehensive narrative of white America.

After decades working in public radio, Biewen started working for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and launched his podcast Scene on Radio in 2015. For the series’ criticallyacclaimed second season, Biewen, along with editor Loretta Williams and collaborator Chenjerai Kumanyika, decided to dive deep into whiteness – its history, its destructiveness, and its pervasiveness today.

John Biewen spoke to Storybench about reckoning with whiteness in a longform audio series and about the world of documentary-style podcasting.

Could you talk about your experiences working in both the public radio and podcasting fields?

I worked for Minnesota Public Radio for 20 years, although about 8 of those years I was part of American Radio Works, and I worked for a year for NPR in the Rocky Mountain West. Now it’s the major part of my job here [at the Center for Documentary Studies] to make projects that are productions for CDS, and for years I was taking those to public radio outlets. Up until the fall of 2015, when we launched Scene on Radio, I thought of myself as a public radio producer.

I absolutely see podcasting as an extension [of radio]. The work is essentially the same, journalism and documentary work in audio form. But it is a fairly dramatic shift, and there’s this huge trade off. On one hand, you have complete control and autonomy. On the other hand, you start out with zero audience. For Scene on Radio, the audience has grown with our second season, and that’s been gratifying. It’s still smaller than you would get for a national broadcast, but I’m happy with that trade off, and I’m enjoying the liberation of being able to set a tone and to frame the stories and the issues I’m exploring in the way that I’d like to.

In an interview with News Observer, you said that Scene on Radio is “fundamentally different” from what most consider a typical podcast and described the show as a “documentary series, first and foremost.” Could you expand on that?

I’m not saying that Scene on Radio is unique in that regard. A lot of the most popular podcasts that came from public radio are similar–they’re produced documentary-style and [focus on] storytelling–shows like This American Life, Invisibilia, and 99 Percent Invisible. But when a lot of people think of a podcast, they think of listening to two people sitting in front of microphones talking. [Scene on Radio] is not that. It’s going out into the world and following people around and recording scenes, or, in the case of “Seeing White,” it was a lot of talking heads (experts talking into microphones), but it was researched and highly crafted and edited. I don’t want to say that it’s unusual, but in the mass range of podcasts it’s in a relative minority.

What did you want “Seeing White” to achieve? What has the response to the series been like?

“The show turned out to be even more sharply relevant for the historic moment that we’re in.”

It came from a realization, a kind of clarity, about a huge gap that exists between the way the average American, and certainly the average white American, sees this country and its history and the way we see ourselves, on the one hand, and the reality on the other. When you’re a documentary maker, that’s really rich terrain to go to work in. The idea was to hold up a mirror and tell a different story… about American history and about the place of white supremacy in our history and our present society. To the extent that I could bring some listeners along with me, to see ourselves more honestly and accurately was the goal. The response has been beyond my expectations. We were a little podcast with a small audience, and I didn’t anticipate that a series like this would gain the kind of traction it has. But I think that has something to do with the time that we’re in, that the show turned out to be even more sharply relevant for the historic moment that we’re in.

How did you start to structure “Seeing White” as a longform series?

I’ve done quite a bit of longform work. When I worked for American Radio Works, I produced almost nothing but one hour documentary shows that would take months to produce. I envisioned [“Seeing White”] originally as a six or eight part series, but it turned into fourteen parts. And I knew where I was going, I knew that the white affirmative action episode was coming toward the end, and I was going to have to take a stab at an episode about “well, what will we do?” Otherwise, I was just making one after the other, and I had a rough outline of the progression of the project, but my collaborators and I were really just making it up as we went along.

You talk to Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika at the end of each episode, to unpack what’s been going on. How did including that more conversational segment help the podcast?

The origins of the idea were really exactly the way I laid it out in part one, which was that the project could benefit from the perspective of a thoughtful person of color and that I also needed someone to keep me honest. As a white person, I’m a little unreliable in looking at whiteness. And I knew Chenjerai enough to know that there was mutual trust there about our ability to have these conversations. The conversations really helped to create a sense of continuity and cohesion, so that we could refer back to previous episodes and tie ideas together. It was helpful to hammer lessons home repeatedly, which is unusually didactic for the work that I do, but we really embraced that it’s going to be didactic. We hoped that it would be interesting and engaging, but that it’s really didactic, and we’re okay with that.

What advice do you have for students hoping to get into radio or podcasting? How important is a journalistic background?

For someone who wants to do journalistic work in the podcast space, a journalism background is really helpful, because there are skills and conventions about how to do journalism that give you a leg up at getting that job at Gimlet or Radiolab or some place that’s doing journalistic work.

“To get an entry-level job at a decent-sized public radio station now you have to have some experience.”

I got into public radio 35 years ago out of college, without any journalism training, but that was a different time. [Public] radio was small and fringey and not as professionalized. It’s harder now. To get an entry-level job at a decent-sized public radio station now you have to have some experience. It’s a field that operates on a loosely defined apprenticeship system, where the trick is to find some way to make work so that you can show somebody that you can make work. School is one way to do that.

Scene on Radio’s Gear

Eileen Cormier is a student at Northeastern University.

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