Next on Roxane Gay’s agenda: a podcast defined by great conversations
New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay has never been shy about speaking her mind or baring her soul. In Bad Feminist, she interweaves deep explorations of sexuality and race with her favorite bits of pop culture. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body intimately portrays her struggles with body image and trauma against the backdrop of society’s pervasive, oppressive beauty standards. Whether on the page or on her Twitter feed, the unapologetic Roxane shatters misogynist stereotypes and gushes about what she’s reading and watching.
But it took years of coaxing for Roxane to jump into podcasting. With the help of friend and cohost Tressie McMillan Cottom, Roxane launched Hear to Slay, a show that created space for women of color and other historically marginalized voices to share their expertise on subjects that matter. In 2019, the two were named Adweek’s Hosts of the Year.
Now, Roxane steps up to the mic on her own with her newest show, The Roxane Gay Agenda. The show features Roxane “in conversation with guests who have something necessary to say about the issues that matter most to her — and hopefully to you as well.” She’s also one of seven creators featured in Apple Podcasts Black History Month “Six by Seven,” where creators discuss the podcasts that inspire them and curate six can’t-miss episodes they believe the world needs to hear.
Apple Podcasts spoke with Roxane about valuing your creative work, the importance of a preparation-focused production team, and why she’d rather talk to microfamous toothpick artists than huge celebrities.
Apple Podcasts: Hi Roxane, thanks for taking the time to talk. Can you share what your initial road to podcasting was like?
Roxane: I developed a pilot for a podcast some time ago for one company, but it just didn’t work out. People kept asking me when I was going to do a podcast, and I was just like, “When I have 10 more hours in a day.” But then I thought, “Well maybe if I do a podcast with a partner, we can share some of the responsibility and the workload.” The first and only person I approached was my friend Tressie McMillan Cottom, and we created Hear to Slay.
We wrote up a one-pager that we took to a couple of companies. Luminary made an excellent offer. We went with them even though we had some hesitations about how we would find a listenership within it, particularly as Black feminists. We did two years on Luminary before Tressie got picked up as a columnist at The New York Times, so she’s stepping away from the podcast and it’s moving forward with just me as a host.
AP: One creator we talked to, Donald Albright of Tenderfoot TV, likened podcasters to musicians and their podcasts as albums. Is this upcoming season your Velvet Rope? Your Crazy, Sexy, Cool? Your Anti?
Roxane: I think this is my Lemonade. We had our debut album, which was not so good, then our sophomore album, which was better. Now I’m going to have my more-seasoned album where I kind of have a sense of what I’m doing, so I’m able to focus less on the mechanics and more on the material.
AP: How did you identify your target audience?
Roxane: I think my readership was a good place to start. But I certainly hope that people beyond my readership will connect with the podcast, especially now that it’s going to be out on the open market. Women are an awesome target audience. They’re the primary consumers of everything, so that’s good enough for me.
AP: How has your skill set grown over your three years as a podcaster?
Roxane: I think a lot of people think that you can just sort of whip out your voice memo app, record something, and have a podcast. You can do that, but when you look at the top podcasts, they’re all extraordinarily well produced.
I definitely appreciate and love the preparation of background materials in a timely manner. They can really help me elevate a conversation, because the truth is, talking to celebrities is incredibly boring. They’re never going to tell you the truth about anything, or tell you anything interesting.
Instead, I’m interested in talking to experts and people who do really interesting work and have provocative things to say. They sometimes might be famous, but a lot of interesting people are either not famous or they’re microfamous, which is awesome. I love microfame. I want to know about the person who has a bunch of obsessive followers because of the way he paints on a toothpick. That’s my guy.
AP: What advice would you have for someone who’s trying to level up their podcasting?
Roxane: Scripting is important. Most podcasts that sound like people winging it are actually scripted. You want to have a hand in the scripting process so you can render whatever your producers come up with into your own voice. I also think it’s important to do things you’re interested in, because it shows when you aren’t.
AP: What kind of things do you wish you knew when you started?
Roxane: I wish I knew how time-consuming it was. I was very silly and naive when I started podcasting. I thought if I just showed up, the podcast would come. There’s a lot of work that comes both before and after you record.
AP: With your platform and your ability to bring more people from marginalized backgrounds into podcasting, how do you think about the voices you feature?
Roxane: Tressie and I were deeply invested in putting women of color front and center as experts, because the majority of experts you see are white cisgender men who people endow with a wildly unearned sense of authority. I know that Black women are experts in almost everything, and I love being able to include experts at the top of their game who would be overlooked by other shows.
We’ve had this badass Native American journalist, Rebecca Nagle, on our show. We’ve had Dr. Ebony Hilton, this amazing African American doctor from South Carolina, to help us think through COVID and the particular concerns of the Black community. We had Erica Chidi, who deals in Black women’s gynecological and reproductive health. She’s building a community that specifically caters to Black women’s reproductive healthcare needs. To be able to tap into their relevant expertise brings a level of authenticity that’s awesome and our audience really appreciates it.
AP: Do you have any parting advice for creators when it comes to valuing their work?
Roxane: I think women in particular tend to not value their time and expertise. They think, “It’s just me, why would I bother charging someone for this?” Your time matters. Your time is valuable. Money isn’t everything, but I really do believe that if you pay your producer, studio technician, and editor, why wouldn’t you pay yourself? Treat yourself as an equal with everyone in your chain of production, not as the least important person in that chain.
A lot of people asked us why we went on Luminary, and frankly, it was because we were paid what we thought we deserved. That made it worth our while, and it gave us the incentive to put our all into it. So if subscriptions seem viable for you, go for it. You have to start somewhere, and even if you’re making a little, you’re still making something.