Interview: Kat Chow and Shereen Marisol Meraji of NPR’s Code Switch

Washington, D.C. - March 02, 2016: Members of NPR's Code Switch team CREDIT: Matt Roth

Washington, D.C. – March 02, 2016: Members of NPR’s Code Switch team
CREDIT: Matt Roth

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Privilege, stereotypes, representation—these are ideas that I think about a lot as a person of color, and while I’ve written about and discussed them quite a bit (especially at The Mary Sue) there are lots of questions that I’m still wrestling with and want to know more about. Enter NPR Code Switch’s recently launched podcast! The episodes, which come out every Wednesday, brings together journalists of color, storytelling, texts, and lots more to tackle these tricky conversations.

I got to speak to Kat Chow and Shereen Marisol Meraji of Code Switch about how they put together their podcast, what goes on behind the scenes, and how Code Switch approaches stories in a new and fresh way. I’ve linked some of the episodes below, but you can head over to Code Switch learn more about their journalists, their mission, and to queue or download episodes!

TMS (Charline): Can I just say that I listened to the most recent episode and ending it with “This Land is Your Land” (“Esta Tierra Es Tuya” by Sones de Mexico Ensemble) was the best move ever?

Shereen: Thank you! We were like, “let’s find the song, but an irreverent version” and it was beautifully irreverent.

TMS: So, in the first episode Code Switch brought on professors to talk about how they curate and frame conversations around race and these ideas. Is that similar to what Code Switch is trying to do? To give people the tools to talk about race and to equip them for these conversations?

Shereen: I think that’s part of what we’re doing, yes. We are not professors so we’re making it more accessible to a broader audience, I’m hoping. We’re trying to strike that balance between giving the tools in a smart way, but trying not to be too academictrying to be more down to earth.

Kat: And also, going off of that, we’re all brown people of color. We’re trying to figure these things out too and a part of our process is learning as we gobut also trying to include our listeners or readers or people on Twitter in that process so they can figure things out with us. And I think that’s what, I hope, makes this fun.

TMS: So is that the target audience for the podcast, people who are also thinking about these messy questions? I think anyone can benefit from listening, but did you have a group in mind?

Shereen: I think that is our target audience: people who are engaging with us now. But I really hope that we’ll be able to broaden that and bring people who wouldn’t normally seek out this kind of content, you know, content about race. It’s only our second episode, so we’ll seeI don’t want it to just be the people we engage with all the time.

Kat: I agree with that. I mean, one of my goals and I know one of the goals of all of the members of Code Switch is to help people think differently about things. So in one given story, there’s room for us to engage an audience that knows a lot about, say, whiteness studies and the studies of whiteness and then people who are new to it, too. The nice challenge of starting a podcast is that there’s a lot of room for us to play with how we meet all our really different audiences.

If you look at the format between our first episode and the second one I think that kind of reflects how we’re trying to play different styles and that speaks to how we have different things we crave listening to ourselves and that reflects who we want our audience to be too.

I really do feel like the stepping off point is the audience we’ve created over these last years, people who are playing with us in this space—they’re our first priority I’d say, but we really want to evolve and broaden that.

TMS: So, we had a piece on TMS recently by Cameron Glover who runs a podcast called Nerds of Prey, and something she says is important about having a podcast is that her voice “can’t be interrupted.” What do you think is really special about the podcast medium as opposed to an article, or something else?

Shereen: The conversation can keep going. I’m going to say something, because I got some criticism on Twitter for the “POCs in the Outdoors” podcast and it was, “Hey, you had a whole podcast of POCs and you didn’t engage with Native people” and I was like, “that is a valid-ass criticism,” number one, and “Thank god we can do this again next week, and the week after, and the week after, and it doesn’t all have to be wrapped up with a nice tight bow at the end like an article is or a radio story is.” We have the space where we can be like, “Yes, our bad. That was not cool and we’re going to address that.”

Kat: And also, every single episode we do doesn’t have to be the authoritative thing on whatever subject we’re addressing at the time. Oh my god, imagine how long of an episode that would be? It’s cool because what we do on our blog and our radio stories is we think about these broad, broad themes. Like, if it’s representations on TV, Shereen wrote a story about the Sex and the City in Ghana and it was basically about representation in a different light—but we try to do that in other threads too and those are ways that we all build on each other’s works to get at other ideas and themes.

Shereen: And it was ongoing. It never ends! The podcast and the beautiful thing about podcasting, I’m going to say one more time, is that it could be a 17-minute episode. It could be an hour long episode. We can say, “And next week we can say we’re going to revisit this part of it.” It just feels so wonderful.

Kat: There’s so many different rabbit holes we can go down and the hardest part is that we just have to narrow them down and make them workable.

TMS: So how do you choose the themes of the episodes? I imagine you have so much to pick from—things that are timely, things that are maybe less timely, there’s so much out there.

Kat: If you heard one of our meetings, they’re just so…how would you describe us?

Shereen: It’s like a workshopping space, where everyone is coming with everything. It could be a conversation they had with their friend on the street, it might be something they read on the news, it might be the death of Muhammad Ali—and everything just gets kind of brought to that meeting and gets wrestled with. And then I think whatever at the end, everyone was like, “That was awesome. We just talked about 15 things in this meeting, but that one thing about whiteness that you said, or white privilege—that kept the conversation going the longest. Maybe that’s the thing we should go in on for the next episode.” It’s not a scientific process.

Kat: It’s like, “Oh, I think I read this thing 5 years ago” or “ I think I listened to this thing that’s slightly related and a thing that asks x question or y question” and it’s rambly but it’s fun.

Shereen: And if it gets us excited, then maybe it’ll get our audience excited. And then sometimes stuff just doesn’t work because of technical issues and we have to do something else.

TMS: How’s the reception been to the podcast so far?

Shereen: I feel like it’s been good.

Kat: Yeah, our Twitter mentions are completely destroyed in a good way. I can’t even really keep track of it anymore. We get anything from, “Hey, we’re so glad you guys finally have a podcast and it’s really awesome I finally see myself being represented.” I’m responsible for checking our [email protected] email and the amount of listener emails we get, I’m kind of like, “Wait, where have you guys been the last 3 ½ years? I didn’t know you had so many feelings about what we do!” The podcast really brought them out of the woodwork.

Shereen: Which is good, and it makes me nervous. So far it’s been really good, but I am kind of a glass-half-empty kind of person so I’m always like, “When is everyone going to hate us?” But so far, it’s been all love—knocking on wood.

Kat: To be fair I think we have people who are like, “Why are you guys talking about race?” but we’ve always had those. Since, also Code Switch has had an audience for 3 years now, what’s interesting is that there’s people on Twitter tweeting at us asking “Why are you talking about race?” or other things because they’ve seen this and I’ve seen our readers and listeners who’ve been around for a while step in and start engaging in conversation. It’s usually pretty civil and it’s interesting to see a community back you up like that.

TMS: So, since this is The Mary Sue, what are you geeking out about right now? What are you reading, watching, listening to that’s exciting?

Kat: So I am a really really big fan of a writer named Nicole Chung. She was most recently at The Toast which is still around for the next few weeks.*

TMS: I follow her on Twitter, she’s amazing.

Kat: I just love everything she’s writing. She’s guest editing a lot of pieces at Catapult and she just got a book deal. I love Nicole’s work and I think it’s phenomenal and the conversations she leads online—they’re very special

TMS: Yeah, I was actually just reading a piece on The Toast right before this about financial aid at fancy schools and going through emotions.

Kat: I think it’s so important for people to talk about that! Another person I’m geeking out about is Ali Wong the comedian and her Netflix special Baby Cobra. It’s funny because her humor is so dirty, but she’s so pregnant. But she talks about her husband’s debt in a really honest way, where he’s this guy who went to a fancy business school and everyone kind of saw him as this pedigree dude—but she’s the one with the TV money clearing his debt.

Shereen: I’m getting married and I’m having a DIY wedding on top of doing something for Kelly McEvers’ podcast and doing Code Switch so I’ve just been geeking out on Pinterest DIY wedding stuff. We made our own chess board dance floor and we’re making jam. And I’m reading Half a Yellow Sun now, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book which everyone should read.

TMS: So, something I’ve been thinking about a while now is how a lot of the conversations that come to the forefront of, say, news coverage and social media isn’t really that new. So when we talk about representation in film, many of those things have been said decades before but the numbers aren’t that much better. I don’t know if there’s really an answer to this, but how do we have conversations that keep going and aren’t so repetitive? You brought up how relevant Peggy Mcintosh still is which is great for reading and dialogue, but not that great for America.

Kat: I mean, I feel like a lot of our work is kind of stepping back and looking at how that history has or hasn’t changed. One of our very first projects in 2013 was this Twitter account called Today in 1963. So, we started with the idea that in addition to doing phenomenal radio stories we would also try to tell stories in a different way—online and in these different space. So we created this Twitter account and we livetweeted events from the Civil Rights Summer as if it was happening today—in 2013. And we knew that so many pivotal things happened: the Birmingham church bombing, the March in Washington, JFK’s assassination and it was crazy, because what that was an exercise in for me was realizing how history is reminiscent in the way that media specifically talks about things and hasn’t really changed too much. But, there were a lot of events where there were racial protests in ’63 that felt so reflective of what was happening in 2013, and people were writing in and saying, “Wow, it doesn’t feel like things have really changed.” But instead of writing a radio story, or doing a thinkpiece about that, we were able to show that in a way that felt really experimental and I think that is something Code Switch plays with.

TMS: The idea of jargon in the first episode sort of touches on what I was thinking about, like talking absent of jargon or repeating things that have already been said for so long in the sense that while someone might be hearing it for the first time, that larger conversation doesn’t seem to move forward.

Shereen: So, how do we engage people to behave differently?

TMS: In a way, yeah. I think the idea of the “good white/woke person” is a part of that. The idea that you become aware of something and talk about it and you’re like “OK, I’m good.”

Shereen: I think the jargon part of it is very close to my heart because one thing I have to do in my reporting, what I’m drawn to is getting the voices of people who are living their lives and experiencing life being brown. You know, maybe not writing thinkpieces and teaching it in universities. I think the more you can get away with, or getting academics out of the conversation—and I know that’s funny to say because our first episodes had academics in it—but the more we get away from recycling the same words that maybe stop having meaning. Like intersectionality.

Kat: Problematic, appropriation.

Shereen: I just feel like the best way to do that is to get out in the world—to really experience life with people. That’s the great part about being a reporter is being out all the time in different communities and not just talking to academics. I hope we can bring that to the podcast more and more and that will maybe get us away from the ease of the jargon.

TMS: I might be lacking self-awareness saying this, but there is something a little predatory about the think-piece machine that is the internet and the way we cover stories.

Shereen: What do you mean by that?

TMS: Like, how things are just lifted from twitter, and writing things for clicks. People not engaging with communities that they’re writing about when covering stories that probably require a bit more nuance and thought.

Shereen: That’s why I feel like this team is really strong because we are going out there, and we’re engaging with the communities we are talking about whether they are “our own people” or not.

TMS: Absolutely, and I think that’s how you tackle, as you call them, those “messy conversations” in an engaging way. Is there anything we should know about Code Switch that we haven’t covered yet?

Shereen: I think we want feedback—as much as it’s scary. I think that we are open to growing and evolving and you just can’t do that without hearing what you’re doing wrong. Of course, we love to hear what we’re doing right, but it’s probably more constructive to hear how we can do better. I think sometimes when we do talk about Twitter it can be, “Yeah, let’s go! You guys are the awesomest!” but we also welcome constructive feedback, and I think we want to do better. We want to, if we can, improve upon each episode

Kat: And I think one thing that we have always talked about that we’re so aware of is that we’re all new to the podcasting space and our formats are changing and we’re also learning so much about each other
as coworkers and people in this work family. I feel like it’s going to be really different next month, but hopefully in a good and interesting way as we get more comfortable with everything.

Shereen: -and with each other and with people giving us some constructive criticism.

The Code Switch podcast is looking to be a highlight of my Wednesdays, and the journalists behind it are funny, smart, and dedicated. If you’re looking for a new podcast, or ways to engage more with these tricky, complex, and important conversations I absolutely recommend checking it out!

*Earlier transcript mistakenly said The Toast is no longer around. It is!

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