So we have a policy on The Mash-Up Americans that we wouldn't. We don't explain like food things to people. I'm never going to tell you what kimchi is because if you don't know what kimchi is that's really your problem. And also you can google it. And so we feel very very strongly about that.
That’s producer and co-host Rebecca Lehrer explaining what she calls the “explanatory comma” and why her team doesn’t use it.
In this conversation, three producers discuss how recentering conversations isn’t just about shining a spotlight on voices that are often marginalized. It’s also about letting those voices tell their own stories…in their own way.
I’m Tanzina Vega, and this is Werk It: the Podcast, a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event.
Rebecca Lehrer: Hello. My daughter is in preschool. But I will not use preschool quieting tactics. Hi, my name's Rebecca Lehrer and I am the co-founder of The Mash-up Americans and the co-head of podcasts at Hello Sunshine. My other co in those things is right there. So she'll tell you a little bit herself. So I just wanted to introduce you to our panel today. Blair is not here because, you know, schedules. But we are here and we're just talking about that. We're not talking about diversity, but we're talking about telling our stories, us at the center. Not relative to anybody else but relative to ourselves. So that is it. And we do that in a bunch of different ways and all of the stuff that we are producing. So I'm going to start with my mash up. My name is Rebecca Lehrer. I'm a Salvadoran Jewish American. I'm a mom. I am an entrepreneur. I'm, I guess I'm a podcast producer, and I want to start making podcasts in Spanglish. This is TK Dutes.
Keisha “TK” Dutes: Hi. My mash-up is I am a woman, Haitian-born, in America. Avid non code switcher as much as possible and I love making podcasts for anybody but especially for people of color.
Amy Choi: I am Amy Choi. I am Rebecca’s -- the other half of her brain. I am a first generation Korean American, married to a Colombian Mexican American. I got two mashie babies and I am a podcast producer. That feels weird to say still. Uh, journalist, editor, and I like making and sharing stories.
RL: Okay, so we love seeing your faces and so many people that we love are here. And I think we wanted to talk first about the idea of taking ownership of our stories. You know, how do we share our stories without exploiting ourselves? And I think one of the things I wanted to throw to Amy on is the idea of like how we think about addressing hard issues in this for us, by us. We'll call FUBU for the rest of the -- for all of you guys. But in our, in this sort of idea of what we are producing and the way that we're thinking about content that is really centered on our experiences. How do you, how do you sort of think about it how do we deal with hard things without exposing ourselves too much?
AC: Yeah I think there's a lot of pressure on particularly women, women of color, anybody from a marginalized community, to somehow exploit all the hard things in your life because it makes for a good story for a mainstream audience. And we are just not here for that. I think the importance that we place on being honest and truthful about what is challenging in working in mainstream media, in trying to get our stories heard is that often we just want to share our stories. And I think it's not to pick ourselves apart for an audience or to somehow justify our existence or justify our story or defend who we are. We are simply stating and putting like a stake in the ground: we are here and these are stories worth listening to.
RL: Yeah. I mean, is there something that you've found, TK, it like in terms of responses to your work. Actually, let's step back a second -- can you tell us a little bit about the breadth of things that you do? Because you're telling a lot of amazing stories with you and us at the center and I'd love for you to share it.
TK: Yeah. So currently. Wow. I started at WBAI, so that's like people powered social justice radio. So that kind of never left me. And then from there did my, um, have been doing my own morning show which is three times a week and it's very specific in that like, sure we're talking about current events. But more than talking about current events, we're having social commentary. And when I say like non code switching, a lot to, I just don't, you know. Because when you make a thing that is yours. You talk like on there I talk like I talk to my friends. And all the listeners are my friends. And they -- I don't I don't do extra work. I don't explain people through it. It's can you hear me? And I said what I said. You know so that's what I do on that show. It’s called TK in the AM. And then I produce other podcasts for folks. So I've worked on a Third Rail which is a Brooklyn Movement Center podcast about gentrification and living in Brooklyn, in central Brooklyn. As a person of color. So that's very specific and telling the story of being a black person affected by gentrification in central Brooklyn. So that's like recentering several stories in one. And then I recently worked on the Curvy Cons podcast which is hosted by two women of color and it's about being curvy.
TK: It's about being plus size and I'm a
RL: As we by the way both sat down and were like our pants are too tight.
TK: We had a Curvy Con conversation. What they're doing they're having a FUBU conversation. And my role as a person that is not plus size is to let them, like, to let them express themselves and talk to the curvy crowd. I'm not making them talk to skinny people and understand what being a big girl is like. I'm not making them talk to white people to make them understand what being a fat black girl is like. I'm not doing any of that. My job as a producer is to make sure they tell the story of being curvy girls in black skin. And what does that sound like in their voices.
RL: I'd love to just take a pause or just for one thing is -- wow, this got so much less bright which is nice for my very terrible eyes -- is this idea of the explanatory comma. And I think that's something we think a lot about at The Mash-Up Americans and in a lot of the work we're doing at Hello Sunshine. Again, who's your audience and do you what do you have to explain to them so that they get it? And what can you just assume that they'll figure out? Or that they already know because it's made for them? So we have a policy on The Mash-Up Americans that we wouldn't -- we don't explain like food things to people. I'm never going to tell you what kimchi is, because if you don't know what kimchi is that's really your problem. And also you can google it. And so we feel very very strongly about that and there was a great conversation on Code Switch several years about this -- ago about this. But they produce on NPR, right? And that's a lot of that goes on Morning Edition or you know All Things Considered. That's a different audience that might need an explanation. We're not producing for that audience. We're producing for ourselves. You're welcome in. Listen in. But we're not producing this for you, we're not going to explain it.
Now when we produce with our show How It Is, which is a storytelling show. One of the things on that is that we allow everybody to identify themselves. So it's a really, really important thing. So a few you know like. You know as an example is we had this extraordinary writer Kayla Whaley tell a story about her #MeToo experiences as a disabled woman and feeling alienated from the entire movement. Frankly. And she tells the story, but we don't have our host identify her, any of her hyphens - her disability, her as a writer. We’re just like, “This is Kayla Whaley” and then Kayla tells her own story and how she defines herself now. I can't speak to the disabled community, but I know that there is a conversation about “Am I a disabled person or my person with disability?” That's for Kayla to say. Not for me to impose on her or how she defines herself. And that's a really, really important part of how we see centering our stories on ourselves and on the people that we’re kind of giving platform to, which is part of what we see our opportunity to do, which I think are saying about like the curvy girls. Like, you may not exactly be that, but you know you can elevate their stories and help them get it out to the world exactly as they want to tell it.
TK: Yeah. And I'm like that usually explainer thing or even like the identifying thing is like at Thirst Aid Kit where I'm currently at now, which is a BuzzFeed podcast. You know, I could put some shady thing in there about Buzzfeed, but whatever.
RL: That’s an explanatory comma. Buzzfeed, a company, comma.
TK: Well, a lot of times, fans or listeners of the show of Thirst Aid Kit will be like, “Well, why don't you have more queer people on, right?” And we do. And the thing is their name is, their name is Jamie or John. And we go, “Welcome my friend Jamie or John, the writer at” and if they don't identify themselves, you know, like we don't have to. It's up to them, too. Like, how do you feel when someone goes “Oh hey, Sally, writer at Vulture, also a gay person.” Like the fuck! Jesus Christ,
RL: We’re not supposed to do that?
TK: You know so like “TK, our resident black”. No. That’s how y’all sound! So don't do that. The other thing. I mean.
AC: Well, I think the other thing -- Thank you, TK, my black Haitian friend.
TK: See! I love it though.
AC: Well, that's because I think the other point of this, too, is that when we talk about making stories for ourselves and we celebrate those identities. As -- it is awesome that you black and Haitian, and that you are here and telling your story; not, like, “This is TK and also she's this thing.”
RL: That is fundamental to you you are and how you see the world and how you tell stories.
AC: And I think we always are asking ourselves the question: how do we get more people invited to the party? Who is in the room? And when we say “we” who is we? When we say “they” who is they? Because if if somehow we can't. A) If we're not honest about that. And like really do some interrogating in our own creative minds in our own producing minds about who we want, suddenly somehow everything that Rebecca and I do ends up Latina and Korean.
RL: Sometimes I’m like we're the only place that has too many Koreans on their podcast.
AC: Right. Even for us, when this is like what we do all day long, to fall into a tunnel, a cave, a something, where we're only seeing things through our lens. So it has to be very intentional. So we ask ourselves, again, all the time who is the we. Who is the them. Who is inside the room and who is not.
RL: Yeah we had Soledad O'Brien on our podcast last year and if you should -- just please follow her on social media because she is so into throwing shade these days. And it's like, I'm really living for her Instagram-ing her own tweets. But that's another thing we can talk as a protocol, whether that's OK. But I don't Twitter, so it's good for me. So one of the things she talked about what a lot of things is this idea of when she is making Latino -- and I think I talked about this last year as well -- but when she was making Latinos in America, I believe that's what it's called. But you know people in the room being like, “Well they like and they like. And they.” And she was like, “They is ME! And no and we don't. Like look around and understand it.” And the other piece that she talked about which completely changed everything for me, and it's part of this identifier piece, is how you set people up really really matters. Like “deficit framing” is what she talked about. This idea of like the way you talk about, “Well, she struggled through these things and then made it here” that you would talk about very differently -- if you're honest -- when you're talking about a young black woman than if you were talking about a young white man. Even if the story line without that would be very similar.
And I think it's a really critical opportunity we have as people with platforms, as people who are storytellers, as people who get to elevate other people's stories to remember that like wait, are we. Why are we including that information? What are we trying to get from it? What are we trying to elicit from our audience without kind of pandering or like minimizing it?
TK: And I mean lowkey. We as, you know, we as marginalized people and people of different cultures,ethnicities, genders, and gender identities we tend to sometimes -- lowkey -- we buy into that too, right? Like, we deficit frame ourselves. We learn early that we can get rewards from the dominant culture. Like, if you look at writing your college essay right. If I write about my downtrodden, you know, and I became a basketball star and look at me now. You know, that I was a basketball star.
RL: Were you a basketball star?
TK: No, and child -- we’re not going to talk about that time in my life. But, you know, like we learn early that if I tell this story about how downtrodden I am and, that the dominant culture. And let's just go ahead and like we just have to name it. Because we’re out here. The dominant culture, generally, we're talking about white culture, right? And we're talking about, you know -- So when you're in the room ask yourself whether you're if you're able bodied in a room full of disabled people and you're talking a certain way. Am I part of the dominant culture, right? Yes. As an able bodied person, if you know. So just think about these things. So we tend to put ourselves in deficit framing as well and we don't recognize when we're doing it and we don't recognize when we're perpetuating that story right inside of our own stories.
RL: Well, that's the idea of the kind of the Bechdel Test, too, right? Like we're talking to each other not relative to, about men. We're talking to each other about something else. And I think that's what we know we're doing in our real lives. But -- wait, just as a side note: I just want to talk about what Thirst Aid Kit does speaking of talking about men.
AC: Yeah it's my favorite podcast.
RL: If you hadn't heard that Jenny the one about All The Boys I Loved Before, just imagine me walking down the street, fully blushing, and screaming when they kept putting Peter Kavinsky voice on. So I think one of the things that you do beautifully on that show is recenter women's sexuality. And it's not relative to anything else. It's not relative to men's sexuality or being attractive to somebody else. I'd love to hear a little bit about the kind of origin of that and how you see it as you're kind of making it.
TK: So I'd like to just start off by just saying it's definitely a group effort.
TK: It's something that started way before I got there.
TK: Shout out to Julia and the team like we all -- And then that's also a testament to coming to a workplace where certain conversations didn't have to be had. Right. We didn't have to have the conversation of “Oh man! It’s too many white guys. We’re talking about too many white guys.” Sometimes this is like, “Yo, look let's look at the roster. It's we're not paying attention to a certain group. We need to pay attention.” Like certain conversations like it's, in workplaces you have to force them. “Well, you know, we had too many white guys on here.” Nope. At BuzzFeed when we were the Pod Squad in full, we just were like, “Oh yeah. This is real. Let's time -- it's time to talk about other people you know.” So at Thirst Aid Kit recentering the story of women's lust or -- and it's a very openly like the two whole. Shout out to Bim and Nichole they are two cisgender heterosexual women and they let you know that up front. And they let you know that they can't speak for any other category, but they will invite other people to come speak on it themselves. And that's how we recenter those populations, so that they too can have a good time listening to the show. And also being that we don't you know like we're not going to say oh gay writer blah blah blah, that person gets a come on in thirst for whoever. And we've had situations where you know, yeah, the person is queer. And guess what they thirsted for someone opposite gender. And so you wouldn't even know it. That's the thing. So letting people be, letting people have their thirst and lust, and also letting them express that and not interfering with it is part of also like re-centering the story.
RL: It also feels particularly subversive, I think, to let women to -- not let because we're re-centering this -- but to just be sexual and own that which is the reality of at least how my friends talk about these things which is like. And to hear them be like “oh gosh we did Google how old he is to make sure that appropriate.” Yeah it was it was. I felt I felt so. It was a perfect example of how the intimacy of audio and the reflection of your own experience, but by two people who are who have thought through it and have also, are incredibly -- just like they could put it into a context -- is like how powerful that can be. Yeah and not and not like too intellectualized but they're also so smart. So then it's it's like it's just wonderful combo.
TK: There's a lot of levels of like vetting and like, is this appropriate? And who are we talking about and who are we talking to before a person gets to even be considered what we call a thirst object on the show. Like sometimes, I'll suggest someone and they'll be like “Google them. Problematic.” You know. And that's it.
RL: You guys another one to recommend is the Hollywood Chris's. That's a really great thing to dive into there. I think one of the things I still wanted to get to in this sort of section of the conversation is like responses from other people about our work. And I think, Amy, you know, some of the kind of ways that we've had to push back on -- You know what I'm going to say. Yes.
AC: Well, sometimes white people don't get it. Yeah. And that includes our white distributors or white networks and our white bosses. And sometimes they don't. And my internal response is always I don't fucking care. But the better response is, I think, to understand that for us, while we are not in the business of explaining ourselves and we are not in the business of defending our stories or defending the import of our stories ever. We are also not in the business of shaming people for not getting it. So I think what we always try to do is to make sure that, as creators, across the board what we're making is excellent and so we can always stand on that. And on the quality of the work that we're doing. Knowing that, sometimes, it has to be twice as good. That said, I think a lot of the response we get is to add more explanatory commas which is a lot of like, “Well when you say, you know” -- I can't even think of a --
RL: Or it'll be like “why don't you have the white -- other point of view” and we’re like what?
AC: There's a lot of radio out there with other points of view.
RL: Yeah, also like there are no white people in Crazy Rich Asians and that's a really good ass movie.
AC: I think that that is one core response that I think we, when we are producing original work for The Mash-Up Americans, that we sometimes butt up against. And now that we are independent, have a lot more freedom, and we have found that our audience really resonates with that. And then I think when we are putting our producing hats on for Hello Sunshine and for our other partners, often there's a thought that it's easy, right? Like that getting a really diverse roster of top talent is easy. Or that getting a you know somebody that checks all these boxes for them is easy. And we're saying it's not. And when you hand us a list, saying you want us to make a mashie show for you and all of your suggested ideas are all white straight men, you also have to do some work. And or we're we're going to push you to do the work, because that's why, it's somewhere in your heart, you know you want something different. You just don't know how to get there. And so we can't -- we try not to scream in our heads, too much. Sometimes it happens. But I think that's, those are often the two larger challenges that we get to our work.
RL: And I think one of the exciting things about the work say at Hello SUnshine which is women-centered is that we get to apply our mash-up lens there. So it's like a very intentional casting and a broad definition of womanhood, too. And that is a very, very -- it's like it's very important to us and to the company that we are doing that work. You know I think I want to hear, TK, a little bit about kind of the audience and the audience love and how how the kind of feedback, you get particularly on Thirst Aid Kit, but I'm sure on the other shows as well, which are so specific.
TK: Yeah. And to your point, Amy, about like having to make other people understand this thing right. So like we at Thirst Aid Kit bring receipts everywhere we go, you know. Screenshots, e-mails, voicemails, so our listenership is very active in that. And child, they send us stuff. One lady says she fell off her treadmill listening into it, you know. Then you get folks that are emotionally, they have an emotional response and you just thought you were making a fun show about lusting out loud in pop culture. No. You don't know who's listening. And when they write that, that's receipts for me. So I might not be able to make you understand it from your dominant culture point of view, but I can bring, I can bring you 10 e-mails right now or 150 tweets, if you just use the hashtag, that show people being affected.
RL: People write fan fiction!
TK: They write fan fiction, like, they use their creative muscles because they listen to a thing. First of all, prompting people to do that is a big deal. Yeah right. And like we don't ask. They just send us stuff like, and we’re like, damn. And then, like we just had a couple that they listened as a couple and they asked if we would ,if the host would propose, give them a mutual proposal on on the show. So we did that for the first anniversary episode. And so like that's the stuff that -- OK I might not be able to make you understand what what female driven or female driven thirst looks like in pop culture. But I can make you understand that a ton of other people get it. And these are your customers and these are the people you want to click on things. So don't worry if you don't get it. I'm bringing you a show that brings mad numbers and that brings you clicks, so chill.
RL: And I also think that one of the other pieces that rings true to me about that is that when people are authentic to their selves and their stories, it resonates with a lot of people. And I don't know about like dominant like in that case. Like if. And I just don’t care if white men listen to Thirst Aid Kit, frankly. They should because they get a lot out of it.
TK: They’d get so many tips and tools.
RL: But I think it does happen that is that our shared, the shared pieces of our hyphens come through. Right? And that's what we're like, The Mash-up Americans started, right. Is it Amy and are my hyphens are different hyphens. But we were both first gen American, we were marrying people from different backgrounds, we're trying to figure out what that means what's important to us. And we have totally different relationships to our families, but we're navigating things similarly, which I'm sure you are, TK, too, as a first gen. And that shared thing allows us to kind of hone in on each other specifics in a really amazing way. And I think it gives like longevity to this kind of storytelling. And it makes me relate to all that -- ‘cause it's just done so well. Like, I'm a lusty woman.
AC: Yeah yeah yeah. Well I think also you know when we first started Mash-up, we were looking out into the world for something that reflected us and it didn't exist. And so we took advice from the great Mindy Kaling and said: why not us? Why don't we do it? And I think one of the main problems -- and we had both had long careers in media -- which was that, like here was the story. Right? Here is like this big old vertical it takes up 89 percent of the air and the space. And that was the story. And then like here's a vertical that's the black story. Here's a vertical that's like the Spanish speaking story. And then like maybe there was like a queer, maybe an Asian, like there is back there.
RL: There isn’t, no.
AC: Back there. There was not really any vertical. We were like, What? We have been trained to also to believe that that the white dude story was the story. When actually if we cut across, again, and looked at like what we were actually talking about, we could get into our details and um, -- tell more universal truth if we could actually get rid of the stupid verticals.
TK: As listeners, real quick like -- I think listeners have to understand that they can ingest these stories, right? Like, if I listen to your show and I'm following the thread of of culture or if I’m listening to a show that's hosted by like Jewish host talking about their grandma giving them chicken soup. Like I understand that as a grandma giving chicken soup. Not as a Jewish story. And I think when listeners are coming to something, they see X faces and they go “I can't relate to that.” And I'm like “Bro, yes you can!” I literally like -- I was born, I lived a life, and I'm going to die. And like if we all go from there, that's a general truth that in this room we all share. Right? We're all born -- hey high five! We all have that in common. We're all living some hard shit -- got that in common. And we're all going to die. So like, Yo! We friends. You can listen to my show! And you know.
RL: I think that what also resonates me about what you're saying there is this like -- I think a lot of us in storytelling space came from either journalism organizations or journalistic backgrounds. And I think that sometimes there's a sense of like faux neutrality that we feel like we have to have. And we don't have to have that, because our whole selves and our experiences inform the way we see the world, and make for more valuable stories. And are incredibly, like, they will and are making the world better. And as we said earlier we're not counterculture. We are the culture. So we're here. We're telling our stories and we like really excited for everybody else to catch up. But I think that's how I'd like to end. And I think. Anything else you want to share about, you know before we wrap up? I'm impressed. Look at that.
TK: Yeah. Look at us. On time.
RL: The countdown. Yeah that you guys want to share?
AC: I literally thought that that was the actual time and the time. Not -
RL: We're very tired. But I think, yeah, I think that's where we wanted to sort of end up. Which is that we're there can be joy in telling our stories and standing the truth for things that matter. And defining our own path is not about diversity. It's about truth.
TK: And I would say, like if you're like if you're a listener of one type of podcasts or a type of book or whatever it is, your media right. And it comes from a different culture than yours or you want to suggest it to a friend that's not of your culture, suggest it. As my hosts, one of my co-hosts of Thirst Aid Kid says: Say it with your whole chest. Suggest it openly, freely. Don't worry about if they'll be comfortable with it. Like yo if there's good content in there and value, that's all that counts. Say it with your whole chest. Don't be like, “Well, they're a librarian and I don't know if they'll be into this raucous thing, but I find it fun. Don't explain that shit. Just share it. Share what you like, like what you share. Yes.
AC: Amen. I would just say welcome. Come join us. It's fun.
All: Thank you!