Jan 25, 2016
People in Your Neighborhood: Jenna Weiss-Berman
Before meeting Jenna Weiss-Berman, director of audio at BuzzFeed, I’d been told by a mutual acquaintance (Jazmine Hughes, an editor at the New York Times Magazine), that Weiss-Berman was the “Shonda Rhimes [of podcasting], but white and slightly less impressive.” And while perhaps a description like that needs no further elaboration, I’d be remiss in not starting off with a little more info on Weiss-Berman, who, as the head of all things podcast at BuzzFeed, has been responsible for the ground-up development of the wildly successful company’s audio arm, and has quickly made her mark with incredibly successful shows like Another Round, hosted by Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton (guests have included Hillary Clinton, Valerie Jarrett, and Chirlane McCray), and Women of the Hour, hosted by Lena Dunham. Recently, I spoke with Weiss-Berman about working at BuzzFeed, Imposter Syndrome, and her personal podcasting dream. (Spoiler: It involves Tori Amos.)
You have a dream resume for someone in your line of work (NPR, WNYC, etc), but before this interview formally started, we were talking about Imposter Syndrome, and feeling like you haven’t “earned” your professional position. Why is that do you think? When you’re so clearly qualified?
I feel like so many women have Imposter Syndrome forever. It’s such a women problem, that we don’t necessarily feel like we belong where we are. I’m in a really male-dominated industry, podcasting. And I have times where I’m like, “Ahh! What am I doing here?” But I guess I started to realize that the world is run by pretty mediocre white men and that if they deserve to be where they are then I definitely deserve to be where I am. So I don’t think I have Imposter Syndrome anymore! I’m actually like, “Oh, I’m pretty good at this, and I deserve to be here.” So that’s fun!
Yes! So, tell me a little bit about what you do that’s so fun: What does it mean to be the director of audio at BuzzFeed?
BuzzFeed only just started podcasts; we launched them in March. When I started at BuzzFeed, they didn’t have any podcasts yet. They basically brought me on board to start them. I had very little direction and it was kind of like “Good luck! We’ll hire you a couple producers and we’ll see what you can do.” But we’ve just had a really great year. We have a very tiny team of all ladies. We all met in a women’s radio group called Ladio. I’ve been kind of plucking them up one by one.
What’s it like to be a relatively small part of such a hugely successful—and numbers-driven—machine? Especially when podcasts are not generally a medium that has the virality of other BuzzFeed content.
The numbers are very low compared to a BuzzFeed written post. When I started at BuzzFeed I was really clear with them that virality was never going to be my main goal. I had been in public radio for 9 years before but the reason I really wanted to work at BuzzFeed was that I saw how committed they were to bringing in new audiences; from the beginning I was excited about the idea of bringing in new audiences to podcasting. This excited me far more than working for already established podcast audiences. So, you know, we could have tried to come up with monster hits—and we did make one with the Lena Dunham show, which also brought in a lot of new audiences too—but the main goal from the beginning was particularly to bring in young people and people of color who’ve generally quite left out of podcasting. If you look at the top 20 iTunes podcasts, usually about 18 out of 20 of them are posted by white guys who are in their 40s.
All of whom are speaking not only from a specific gender and race, but also from a similar socio-economic background.
Yeah, all highly educated and pretty wealthy. And it’s that way because podcasts really got their start and got their popularity because they were really just repackaged NPR shows, so they brought the NPR audiences. And I love NPR! I think they do a lot of great stuff, but I just felt that everywhere I worked before BuzzFeed wasn’t as focused as they needed to be about bringing in new audiences.
And what’s so great about BuzzFeed is… well, maybe it’s not unqualifiedly good, but it’s certainly the better part of capitalism, is that while NPR is targeting the same types of people, places like BuzzFeed know that the future is in expanding markets. And they’re telling these new audiences that they are valuable in a way these people don’t usually hear.
Yes, that’s it exactly! I’m always thinking about this. The fact that it’s a for-profit company and the fact that they look at diversity in terms of “this is good for business” is essential. BuzzFeed’s feeling is: If one out of five people in the US is Latino and if you don’t have Latino writers on your staff, you’re missing a huge part of the population. So it’s actually really refreshing to look at how BuzzFeed views diversity, which is not like a public radio thing, like “Let’s assemble a group of white people to talk about why it’s important to hire a person of color.”
Like how Twitter’s new head of diversity is just another white man. It feels shocking but that’s how it’s always done. But it’s totally missing the point, and means Twitter is losing out on a whole cultural conversation.
Right! I think being somewhere that really talks the talk without patting themselves on the back all the time, that’s very refreshing. I’m very pro-BuzzFeed.
I started to realize that the world is run by pretty mediocre white men and that if they deserve to be where they are then I definitely deserve to be where I am.
I think a lot of BuzzFeed staff is! Or is definitely perceived as having an almost cultish devotion, which leads to some understandable cynicism, but also, if people who work there are really that happy, it says a lot.
People seem genuinely happy. It’s also the most challenging place I’ve ever worked. Most other places I’ve been are audio-first places, so they know the resources it takes. Like, WNYC just started a new interview-format type show, and they hired 10 producers. On Another Round, we have one producer. We’re super-scrappy and I’m so proud of that.
It’s also fascinating because, within the context of BuzzFeed, which is long past the point of being a startup, your department still is.
It feels like it’s own thing basically—with the support of the company, of course. But I’m working doing all sorts of things. I’m doing things like working on contracts, like, I worked on Lena Dunham’s contracts. I’m doing legal, financial, editing, so I”m kind of running a whole shop. I’m exhausted! But it’s fun. It’s me and my awesome team.
What have been some of the challenges?
We have to hustle really hard. When I was working on the Lena Dunham show, I was working through weekends for months. Basically, getting BuzzFeed to understand the resources we need. I’ve never worked harder and I’ve never cared about anything more in my life work-wise. I’m constantly thinking about it and losing sleep over it. Like, what can we do next?
What about the biggest rewards? The moments where it all feels like it’s paid off?
There are so many things actually. We’ve been shocked by how much Another Round has blown up. It’s hosted by two black women [Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton] who are also BuzzFeed writers, and one of them had never even listened to a podcast before. When we started, we recorded a few awkward recordings and podcasts we never used. But usually when you’re doing radio you try and find your “radio voice,” and it was really important to me that we never went after their “radio voice” that it was more like here are two people who have a lot to say and a lot interesting stuff to talk about and let’s just let them speak about it, basically. And it just caught on really quickly. And the really cool thing about making shows for new audiences is, once you find those audiences, they get really excited that there’s a show that’s made for them. [Heben and Tracy] get fan mail all day long now. Beautiful emails, like one saying, “Thank you for validating the fuck out of my blackness.”
Another amazing thing was, after a few months we started getting approached by people about being on the podcast, instead of us having to ask them. And then, six months in, we were doing really well and the audience was growing and we got an email from Hillary Clinton’s team that said “Hillary wants to be on the show.” And we all just started screaming and were like “What are you talking about? Is this real? Is this a joke? What’s happening?”
And now I think it’s sort of quickly become a place where people come when they have a message they want to send to young black people. And Hillary Clinton was really awesome. She was really down and game for whatever [Heben and Tracy] wanted to talk about. And I was amazed at their bravery. They asked her “Bill Clinton really fucked over black people. What do you think about that?” They just went for it with her. And now, this hasn’t happened yet, but we got an email two weeks ago from Shonda Rhimes saying that she wanted to be on the show. And the respect from the podcast world is really great!
What do you think makes a good podcast host?
I can tell you what makes a good podcast producer! I think what I realized is that I’m not interested in speaking on podcasts. I’m totally… even just doing this interview makes me nervous.
You have a great voice though! Very soothing.
Maybe I should do a yoga or meditation podcast. I do have a dream podcast called “Talking Tori” where we eat yakitori and talk about Tori Amos.
I feel like you should probably do that at some point.
Yeah, I should. And I want to end with Tori Amos as the last guest. But generally, I’m just not interested in hearing my own voice. I’m much more interested in amplifying other people’s voice. And I realized that this is what makes a good producer. Because I’ve worked with other producers who would rather be hosts and a lot of them end up being hosts… or not being hosts. But you can tell when someone just wants that. I think being a good producer is about really listening and really figuring out how can I make this person who already sounds good sound even better, and really help them get their message across. We do that in pre- and post-production. There’s a lot of editing. That’s something I think a lot of people don’t realize about podcasts. They think it’s just two people talking and you take a microphone and then you take the file and put it on the Internet. But, no. That’s not what I want to do. I think what makes a good host is someone very open-hearted. I think what makes Heben and Tracy such good hosts is that they’re definitely doing a show that targets young black women, but they’re really open and sweet and loving and they never try to exclude anyone.
What are you looking forward to doing next?
I would really like to expand our department more, staff-wise. I just want to continue trying to bring in new voices and new audiences for our podcasts. Someday I’d like to have more of a podcast empire. People get really excited if you have a million listeners for your podcast, but that doesn’t seem like that many to me. I think our sights are a little too low in podcasting. There’s so much more to be done. Like, I’d like to make a show for kids that parents could turn on so they wouldn’t have to worry about screen time. I’d like to do more series, more like reality radio that really follows a family or a person. Kind of like what Serial is doing but not a crime. I’d love to follow a politician who’s probably going to lose an election. I think there’s so much more we could do in podcasting that we aren’t doing yet, and I’d love to try and do some of that.
Find out more about what Jenna Weiss-Berman does by following her on Twitter or visiting BuzzFeed Audio.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen
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