If you’re a fan of podcasts with a storytelling bent, chances are you’ve heard Jenna Weiss-Berman’s work. As one of the most sought after audio producers borne out of the recent podcast boom, 32-year-old Weiss-Berman has racked up production credits on a ton of shows including The Moth, WNYC’s Death, Sex, and Money, and the Longform Podcast.
After producing her tail off for nearly a decade, Weiss-Berman was approached by the almighty Internet timesuck, BuzzFeed, to spearhead their brand new podcast division back in late 2014. Naturally, making the jump from working mostly on public radio programs to a multi-media empire was a big transition for her. But what impressed her more than BuzzFeed’s billion-dollar valuation was their idea that a non-diverse staff is bad for business.
“I worked in ‘mission driven’ public radio for almost ten years,” says Jenna. “And yet the for-profit corporation I’m at now has by far the most progressive views on diversity of anywhere I’ve ever worked.”
Instead of aiming to make her podcasts go viral, Weiss-Berman's goal from day one was to create shows that featured voices rarely heard in an industry dominated by white men. Last March, Weiss-Berman helped launch Another Round, a bi-weekly talk show hosted by two female, African-American BuzzFeed writers, Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton. Six months later the show, which had gone viral by then -- Weiss-Berman says each episode is downloaded “many hundreds of thousands of times” per month -- received an email from Hillary Clinton’s office asking if Nigatu and Clayton would consider interviewing the presidential candidate. Turns out she was a huge fan of the show.
Jenna and her five-person podsquad at BuzzFeed have been busy this year, starting several new shows, including Lena Dunham’s five-part podcast series Women of the Hour, which reached number one on the iTunes chart and was six times as popular as any BuzzFeed podcast to date.
How did you become interested in audio?
I was raised on NPR, it was always on and I ended up running my college radio station at Oberlin. Then I got out of college and I couldn’t just get an internship like rich kids do. I love public radio but it has a diversity problem. I think so much of that problem is about the fact that so many people start as unpaid, or almost unpaid, interns and the people who rise through the ranks are rich white people. If you don’t pay your interns how can you expect to diversify your staff and your content?
Because you have to be able to afford to be an intern.
Exactly. I couldn’t afford an internship so I started working at a law firm as a collector. Then I heard of this new company called StoryCorps in Brooklyn. I was there for like five years and then I went to the Transom Story Workshop in 2012 and learned how to do actual technical editing. Everything got amazing from there. I think I got into this at the exact perfect time. I almost feel like I’ve gone into mechanical engineering or something. There are so many amazing opportunities right now in podcasting and it’s happened so fast and there are not enough people to fill these jobs at all.
You eventually went on to become a producer at The Moth and then worked for NPR?
I took a temporary production job at NPR in DC on this show The Hidden Brain. I was there for two months and NPR was like we’ll know in a year or two if we’re going to make this into a show and I was like, great, I can’t wait around. So I went back to New York and took a part time job working on The New Yorker podcasts and on Death, Sex and Money. I also started a podcast for The Believer magazine called The Organist. I love working and I knew that I had to hustle really, really hard. I wanted to get my name on as many podcasts as I possibly could.
What does it take to be a good producer?
I think part of what makes a good producer is someone that doesn’t want to be on the other side of the microphone. I don’t have any interest in speaking into a microphone. I don’t particularly like my voice, I trip up on things a lot, I get really anxious, but I love making other people sound great. I also love creating shows and coming up with tons of different ideas for shows. I know a lot of producers who would really prefer to be on the other side of the microphone and it ends up being a really big problem. When I’m hiring producers I’m always looking for somebody who doesn’t want to get famous.
How has working at BuzzFeed been different from working for public radio?
I love public radio but I’ve worked at so many places where they would basically assemble a task force to talk about how to hire people of color and that’s not how it’s done. And something that’s been really refreshing about working for a for profit company is BuzzFeed has a kind of capitalist view of diversity that I really appreciate.
What do you mean?
It’s basically like if we don’t have a diverse staff we’re missing huge populations. In America one in five people in their 20s is now Latino and so if we don’t hire Latino writers to cover Latino issues we are missing out on that audience. It makes such a difference when you have people from a population write about that population. If you have a show hosted by a white person and you do stories about black people that doesn’t mean that you have a diverse show. It means that you have white people in certain ways shaping the narrative of people of color. There was a review for Another Round on the website the Timbre that I really loved and it was basically like there isn’t a white voice on this show and that’s so rare to hear. People of color have always lived lives where they have to consume white media as though it’s not white media.
How does your own ethnic and gender identity play into the shows you create?
I never want to try and frame myself as some kind of diversity hero. All that I’m doing differently is putting a tiny bit of effort into it. I knew that what I wanted to do more than anything at BuzzFeed was bring in new audiences to podcasting even if it meant that our numbers would be small at first. Part of it I think is really selfish. I get really bored listening to the same voices over and over again. This is something I was thinking about when I was watching Transparent. I never see variations of queer people on TV and to see it was the most moving and refreshing and beautiful thing because I’m a queer person. I think the idea that we can make media for people who are often overlooked is really exciting.
What types of podcasts do you think are missing? What types of shows would you like to hear?
I would love to see more short series, not just because Serial has been such a huge hit, but I think that there’s a lot of opportunity to do reality radio. More in depth, multi-piece documentary style. There are so many podcasts that still sound the same and it shouldn’t be that way.