In Search of Podcasting’s Straight Outta Compton

Do podcasting and public media have that moment that rallies audiences of color?

The N.W.A. music biopic Straight Outta Compton blasted through first weekend expectations with a $50-million-plus take at the box office. That number and the triumph of hip-hop’s legendary anti-heroes are remarkable stories for many reasons. However, what is most striking to me is what the film means to people on a personal level.

In the weeks leading up to and even into its release, Straight Outta Compton quickly became a collective memory and experience, even for young people of color who weren’t alive for the group’s heyday. The film was worth longform and casual reference in media targeted at African-Americans and Latinos. At my gym, Straight Outta Compton was the topic on everything from the sports shows to the locker room. You couldn’t help but read something online about the film. My Instagram feed quickly filled with variants from the Straight Outta Somewhere generator — the memes where you can insert a picture and phrase to the iconic graphic, and be everything from Straight Outta Houston to Straight Outta Palak Paneer. People adopted this experience in a special way.

I’m not a hater in the least. I’m thrilled to see when an audience takes up something because it means more to them than a movie or a song or a book, but inspires them in atypical fashion. If anything, I wonder what podcasting and public media can learn from this, because this kind of interest means our ascent and growth.

As someone passionate about mass communication and podcasting and public media in particular, I could not help but be struck by just how fascinating this evolution has been for a film like Straight Outta Compton. As I watched this spontaneous expression by music fans unfold, several questions came to me about how podcasting and non-commercial media — the latter which has historically struggled with diversity and the former which is on its own road to diversity — could be referential to people of color, America’s emerging majorities.

What is podcasting and public media’s singular experience that engages or could engage communities of color? And do we even have one?

Obviously, there is a particular historical and cultural memory about N.W.A., and Straight Outta Compton taps into that place for a lot of people. How do podcasters and public media producers engage in such a way? How do we get people, and especially audiences of color, excited about the stories we share?

I struggled to figure out what the public radio flashpoint may be that moves the needle for audiences of color. Perhaps it was the debuts of Latino USA or Snap Judgment, where public radio seemed to pin many hopes early on. A good exposition could be written about how Michel Martin’s masterful Tell Me More was the program that broke barriers and changed perceptions. In many regards, though, public radio may not yet have that story that listeners of color remember and make themselves a part of, notably after time has passed.

Podcasting has more examples of programming that creates excitement about young audiences of color, but there is always space to grow. Podcasts like The Read are perhaps the best known. They utilize social media engagement and conversation to create ownership with audiences. It’s quite a marvel. And I wouldn’t be surprised if these instances are remembered just as fondly in 20 years.

How do public media groups create this sort of attention among diverse communities?

Straight Outta Compton has clear advantages that podcasting and public media don’t have, in addition to lots of marketing money. The world certainly loves an anti-hero, and N.W.A. was a group that typified the term during its reign. Today’s movie has two high-profile, albeit largely faded from the charts, hip-hop artists in Ice Cube and Dr. Dre using their star power and history as a focal point.

I’ve wondered how podcasting and public media can plumb their own histories, if there is access to them, or can create such, I’m further reminded of the weight of a person’s testimony, be it their own relationship with a memory, a recording or what was happening when first exposed. People sharing their stories becomes viral in its own way, helping popularize something in a manner no marketing campaign can truly buy. I’m convinced that, for a good percentage of fans, the strength of those stories and memories drove their passion and interest here.

It is unwritten whether and how podcasting and public media draw that kind of excitement among diverse audiences. It’s a question I wonder about often.

How can podcasting and public media lead conversations that are circulating in communities of color?

While it was hardly a rule, in my observation at least, Straight Outta Compton was a conversation starter among African-Americans and Latinos, and noticeably absent among whites. Perhaps it’s the crowd I’m in, but maybe such an occurrence was not all that odd, for a key reason.

How filmmakers tapped into current events in telling this story bears reflection, and is a lesson for podcasting and public media to help us share our own expertise. This serialized N.W.A. has largely been excised from criticisms of its era, such as misogyny and glorifying violence, and recast as the generation’s Woody Guthrie, speaking against and the target of official misconduct and oppression. With the anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder by former police officer Darren Wilson upon us, race and law enforcement are common themes in the news cycle. N.W.A. remixed in this manner at this time prompts discussions America is still struggling to have.

These themes are common currency, in my observation, in communities of color, and less so in Anglo ones. To its credit, such debates are happening more frequently in podcasting than public media. Public media certainly has its limits, due to funding and other issues, but my hope is always that it can more assertively engage audiences of color by talking about matters foremost of the public agenda. With the public media podcasting realm particularly, the space to lead the discourse remains wide open.

Looking over recent statistics, a case like Straight Outta Compton is unique as film goes. For good reason. It tells an uncommon tale. And there’s an opportunity for public media and podcasting — both of which are discussing diversity, in different ways — to learn from the uptick in community engagement. My hope is we can pick up a few lessons in the interests of not only the singular stories, but for a better media, and a better democracy.

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