They like to fancy themselves as visionaries, but Shereen Marisol Meraji and Kat Chow would likely settle with being called timely. The pair is part of a team behind NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast that examines race, gender, culture and identity in America today.
“America has been ready to have these conversations for a while,” said Marisol Meraji, who pointed to the death of Trayvon Martin and the progression of the Black Lives Matter movement as catalysts for the podcast.
While NPR added the Code Switch team in 2013 to contribute to its shows, it wasn’t until May that those reporters got their own podcast.
“The New York Times is hiring a whole team to cover race,” Marisol Meraji said. “OK, it has do with what’s going on in the news, but I do feel like we’re trendsetters.”
“Three years ago when we started, we were seeing normal human beings have this conversation in mainstream ways, on Twitter, for example,” Chow said, offering that NPR developed the podcast in order to reach those younger audiences. The team, which includes 12 staffers, seven of whom are full time, work across platforms, posting on Facebook, Twitter, writing blogs and airing their show on NPR’s web site and on its radio station.
Although they didn’t have official figures, they noted that fans of the show are generally in their 20s and 30s and span races and ethnicities.
The show’s addition to NPR’s stable not only brings in a younger, more diverse audience from its core listener — who is typically white, male and in his 50s and up — but it also offers a way for that core audience to partake in a conversation that is core to American life today.
For example, the first show, which made its debut on May 31, explored the question of “whiteness” with the political climate as a backdrop.
“We kept hearing about the disaffected white male…the [Donald] Trump supporter who doesn’t feel he can get ahead…he’s asking ‘why are we talking so much about race when I’m feeling inequality in my life?’” Marisol Meraji said.
The duo explained that their show is meant to discuss issues by opening up a dialogue by being inviting and not proselytizing. The method of inclusion has helped the podcast accrue 1.2 million downloads since its launch through July 10.
The Code Switch staff’s mission has only been amplified by the current climate; in recent weeks, the reporters have addressed the viral videos depicting the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the nightclub shooting in Orlando and the Dallas police shooting.
Trying to make sense of today’s climate, Marisol Meraji touted social media and the speed of the news cycle, as illuminating racially motivated violence that has always existed. “What social media has done is bring it out to the public,” she said.
“We’ve never had this kind of technology. That’s what makes it a unique time,” Chow chimed in. “Some of the things like Black Lives Matter, [historically], that is nothing new…but the response time from the media is different.”
When they aren’t chasing the news, Marisol Meraji, who is half Iranian and half Puerto Rican, and Chow, who is Chinese-American, both hope to shine a light on topics such as minorities in media, gender bias, being biracial in America and public education in black and Latino communities.
“We’re just trying to figure out how to do our podcast and get sleep,” Chow noted with a laugh.