This interview was first published on 10th September 2020 on Pods 4 Africans.
Selly Thiam is the host & Executive Producer of the award-winning AfroQueer podcast, which tells the stories of Queer Africans from across the continent and diaspora. Her work in African podcasting and narrative storytelling has been pioneering. This can be seen through her founding of None on Record, a digital media organization documenting stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Africans, and AQ Studios, a podcast production company and a network of original shows from the African continent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
We talked the creation of AfroQueer, the reasons why we don’t see more narrative podcasts on the continent, her experience of the Google Podcasts creator program and why giving back is a key part of her mission.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Q: Where did the idea for the AfroQueer podcast come from? How did it start?
A: We actually don’t really remember how it started [laughs]… Someone on the team walked in [and said] “Why don’t we do a podcast?” And then we were like, “yeah.” […]And then we started producing it. That’s kind of what happened. It was just us deciding to start something. Let’s put it that way.
Q: And the podcast appears to be a continuation of work you were already doing…but just doing it in a different format?
A: Pretty much, because a lot of the stories we were going to tell are stories that we’d already known for years. Or involved people that we already had relationships with because of other work that we’ve done.
We’ve been producing content around LGBT issues for many years. None on Record started as an audio-based project where we were collecting oral histories from Queer Africans around the world. So that started in 2006. And that pretty much launched my career into public radio when I lived in the US. It was kind of our beginnings and then we expanded our programming into training other people on how to produce content. So a lot of the initial trainings for LGBT communities were audio-based trainings. And then we moved into video documentary …
…Documentaries are a lot more time consuming. They require a bigger budget. We wanted to produce something, and we wanted to be able to do it a little bit faster than what we would normally be able to do. And so that’s how it started really.
Q: Why did you choose to focus the podcast on the LGBT community in Africa?
A: It was in line with what we actually do as an organization. And that just made sense. It would be strange for us not to do that first because of the work that we do.
I think it’s important to tell these stories because they’re often untold and they’re often ignored. The mission of None on Record itself is to bring more Queer African narratives into the mainstream as much as possible. That has a two fold impact. It means that Queer Africans can see themselves reflected back in society and in a community… But it’s also so that people can also see and listen and hear stories that come from Queer African experiences and have a better understanding of those experiences. Because I think sometimes the media, and the media particularly on the continent, does demonize LGBT people. And so it’s a counter to that.
Q: Can you speak to me about the early days of trying to put the podcast together and selling the idea to people?
A: Because we already fundraise for None on Record activities in general…that’s what we’re known for and that’s what our funders know us for. So instead of funding a film documentary, we’re going to use this money to fund season one of AfroQueer. So we didn’t spend too much time actually really pitching it to anyone. Which I think is good because it’s kind of a testament to how much they trusted that we can pull this off.
I think that was kind of an unusual circumstance. It was a blessing for us because we really got to focus on making the first season. I’ve produced podcasts before. My background is in radio production on National Public Radio (US)… But we were now a team where people were enthusiastic but maybe didn’t have a lot of radio experience. We had to spend the first season really figuring out how we wanted to tell the stories and what was our voice and what made an AfroQueer story. So it was really great to have that first season be just about the creation of the podcast.
Q: That’s pretty uncommon?
I talk to a lot of aspiring podcasters, particularly here on the continent. The first thing people always ask is “how do you monetize a podcast?” And I’m like, you can’t monetize something that you haven’t made yet. I always say that it’s really important that you actually have a good show. You have to find a way to make the show that you want to make. And then you figure it out from there.
Q: Does it work if you consider monetizing before production?
A: I think it could work where people put the business model first before production. I think it’s possible to do that. It’s just that in terms of the kind of the content that we create, we need space to make sure that we are making something that is authentic to our voice. Or if we’re co-producing a podcast for another team, it is authentic to their voice.
Q: Can you tell me the difference between AQ Studios and None on Record?
A: So AQ Studios …I can’t say that it’s the for-profit arm of None on Record, but it is the for-profit sister of None on Record (laughs). AQ Studios is being created to be our overall general production house. It will be where a lot of our podcast content will be produced. And maybe in the future other kinds of work.
And None On Record exists as what it always has been, which is an organization that does the work around narrative storytelling of LGBT Africans. So we still work in communities. We still do lots of trainings. I think when Covid-19 has subsided, hopefully in the next year, we’ll be back to providing community space and screenings and shows and things like that. But you know one step at a time. We have a vision, but it’s also good to stay present to do the work.
And because the year has been so unbelievably unwieldy and tricky, it’s also been nice to be able to focus on AfroQueer and producing content. It was nice to be in development instead of being in the process of implementing something.
Q: What is an AfroQueer story? What are the characteristics of an AfroQueer story.?
A: It takes its cues alot from a journey…from exploration. And to really take the listener through a hero’s journey—the fundamental thing we all learned about narrative storytelling when we’re in school. It’s all about transformation and in this case it’s usually transformation of someone within the story. But it’s also looking at the transformation for the listener as well. So there has to be something [that when the listener is] done with the episode, it makes them feel like they’ve learned something. Or they’ve been able to experience someone’s life in a way that they never would have before.
It’s usually very research intensive as well. So even when we do a narrative story between two or three characters that are retelling a story, there’s a lot of research that goes into that. Because we, as producers, need to have a very good understanding of [the story]. Like which kind of environmental factors created the circumstance? What would be the historical timeline? And I think that goes to a lot of the journalism chops on this team as well. We’re very committed to getting it right as much as we can.
Q: Can you point to an episode that best displays these characteristics you’ve mentioned?
A: Oh gosh.
Q: I know that’s tough.
A: I think “Dakan” [S2, E4] is a good example. “Minneapolis to Mogadishu” [S2, E5] is probably a really good example of that. There’s one that we had do a lot of science research on, which was a really new area for us. It was all about sex testing in professional sports involved in the case of [South African Olympic gold-medalist] Caster Semenya [S2, E1], and a couple of Kenyan athletes here who had high testosterone levels and they were barred from their competitions. These women had spent their lives training. This was their livelihood [and they were being excluded].
So all of those stories require research. Even for “Gibson” we had to go and look at what the UN’s position was at that time. How many people are in the Kakuma refugee camp? Where are they from? Why are they there? So that we can understand what Gibson was trying to articulate from his personal experience. So when we come to ultimately explain to the audience what this place is, we know because we’ve done all the work around that story to paint a stronger picture for people.
Q: There is not much narrative storytelling within podcasting in Africa right now? Why?
A: Honestly, I think it’s expensive. Our show is expensive.
It’s not like This American Life expensive. But if you are an independent company on the continent in a new market and you’re trying to get people to invest in your ideas…doing a research heavy show that requires a lot of travel, and a lot of time per episode and we have a team…We have an organization that backs our show so we have salaried people who work on this.
That’s a very different kind of reality than when people are trying to get into podcasts without resources, right? And so when that happens, from a producer’s perspective, this is what I have to make the best possible show with. That means that the structure of the show is going to reflect that.
So [it could end up being] a conversational show… which I think actually is a really great podcast structure. The way that we do our show is because we are journalists and documentarians and this is how we wanted to tell these stories. But if you create and produce a really good show where you have conversations that still requires research, [you can also produce a great show].
I think when people have more support to produce their shows, we’re going to see people be able to invest a lot of time. Narrative shows are time consuming to make…
Q: How long does an episode of AfroQueer take to make, for example?
A: I think we got it down to a month and a half. And this is for a 25-minute episode.
Q: …This is good for people to know because I don’t think they understand ….
A: It’s interesting because even when the team started, some thought we needed to make the episodes an hour. I’d say, “You don’t understand. That would take an eternity to make!”
I think the issue is that when you listen to something like This American Life, you’re listening to the finished product. I’m using them as an example because they’re a widely listened to narrative podcast [and they have done pioneering work in narrative audio storytelling]. But sometimes they’re working on those stories for half a year or a year. It’s because they have the budget and the time to invest in it.
I think for [the AfroQueer team] now at this point, we have a proof of concept, right? Now we are able to buy time, which is a really interesting concept where people are [offering] resources for us to make a pilot for our next show. And we can take our time to make it. But in the beginning for independent producers, you are hustling to produce something and get people excited about it. And get listeners to invest their energy and their enthusiasm into it. So there’s all that and often without any salary.
Q: And I think also what you’re speaking to is that, whatever your format, podcasting is work. There are a number of podcast that eventually stop after a few episodes or seasons. Why is that?
A: People are sometimes surprised by the amount of work that goes into producing a good show. I think also when you are doing something without pay, sometimes your life supersedes the podcast a lot of times. I know that’s been the case for a couple of podcast producers I’ve talk to.
Q: Which is fair. Life happens.
A: There’s a lot of variables that make it hard for the longevity of a show and I don’t think that’s just a problem here on the continent, actually. I think there’s a lot of independent podcasts in the states that have one season and then life happens.
But when you start a podcast, I think it’s also really important to think about what it is that you want to do. If you’re starting a podcast because you really want to get your voice out there and you want to get your story out there, and it’s not necessarily about money…I find that people who approach it that way tend to have a lot of longevity because again it’s a passion project.
But if you are trying to have that podcast pay for itself eventually, I think it’s really good to be honest about that from the beginning. Because I think it helps you to dig deep and really make some very strategic decisions about how you’re going to do your work.
Q: Will you be coming out with more original podcasts?
A: AQ studios will be. Right now None on Record is focusing on a lot more of the philanthropic work that we do, which is training activists and doing digital media trainings with people from all over the world. AQ Studios will be coming out with new stuff soon.
Q: You were part of the first cohort of the Google Podcasts creators program with PRX. What did you learn from that experience?
A: The cohort itself was just really amazing. And so that was always the best part.
I think for us it wasn’t so much that we wanted to learn how to make a podcast. I think we were very clear that we were expanding our network. We were going to bring this show into this very American podcast space. And also one of the more established and celebrated podcast spaces. And then we were going to network like crazy (laughs). And then we were going to leverage that to get more listenership for our show, and more collaborations for our show. And then we were going to leverage that to also help the next set of shows we were going to make. We were really clear.
Q: It’s smart. It’s strategic.
A: We already knew that it was going to be very difficult to change our voice. We knew what our voice was. We were going listen to all the feedback, especially a lot of business feedback. That was really important to us like. It wasn’t so much about the production feedback for us as much as it was about the business of podcasting, the new innovations in podcasting… Those things we needed to know, because we had aspirations for our show. And we always believed that the show would grow as we had more space to make the show.
I urge everyone who ever does these kinds of programs that they have that kind of approach. Because I don’t know if you can ever learn how to make a podcast necessarily in six months, which is how long those fellowships last. But you can learn who is an incredible sound designer and network with them, and extend that relationship beyond that six months. And so it’s always about your expectations and what you want to get out of stuff.
Q: You’re highly invested in giving back and teaching and training whether it’s with the podcasting or the LGBT communities that you work with. Why is that important to you?
A: As the founder of this organization, it’s really great to to work with like-minded people who believe in this as well.
But the main reason why is because what we’re seeing in the US is a great racial reckoning. It’s kind of painful not to be there while it’s happening, but it’s also a relief not to be there while that’s happening. Because I remember how exhausting it is to be in the US as person of color and a Black woman.
There was not always a lot of support for what I was trying to do, you know? And the visions that I had. I’m a Senegalese woman. I’m also African American. I grew up in different countries. I have a very specific experience of the world.
But working at National Public Radio and PBS and all these other places that I worked in the early parts of my career, it was very clear to me that these kinds of stories were tokenized, but they weren’t really always appreciated and given the space that they needed. And what we’re seeing now is people taking a lot of these like public media spaces to task. Whereas for someone like me who decided to leave the US and establish companies and organizations on the continent, the way that I could flourish when I didn’t have to deal with white supremacy was extraordinary. I mean it was hard, but I didn’t have that extra layer of asking permission to tell my story all the time.
So [I choose to give back] and support people to do this work from that experience. If they have the tools and skills then people can tell their stories. And they can do it within their own communities and their own societies.
And so that’s where our philosophy for our training and mentorship [comes from] and why it is such a huge part of all the work. Even the for-profit part of our media company. And I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
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