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.