According to the 2020 Census, Austin’s population is 6.9% Black — a decrease from 12.4% in 1990 as the city’s Latino and Asian populations continue to grow. To Richard Reddick and Lisa B. Thompson, the changing demographics mean it’s more important than ever to understand the city’s Black history and culture.
Reddick and Thompson are doing just that with Black Austin Matters, a new podcast they co-host for KUT. The series launched Jan. 5. Each episode is a conversation with a member of Austin’s Black community, from well-known people like Chas Moore, founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, to everyday people like barbers and Black people working at technology companies.
“So not just the leaders, not just the people on the front page, but folks who are working nine to five, raising families, trying to get a job, having a job … all those kinds of experiences that make up the complexity and totality of the Black experience,” said Reddick, associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.
Episodes are 30 to 40 minutes long and will be released the first Wednesday of each month through the end of the year to complete season one, with a second season planned for 2023. Eight-minute segments of the interviews also air during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on KUT.
From tweet to podcast
The city of Austin itself planted the seed for the show when its transportation department painted “Black Austin Matters” on a downtown street in June 2020. In a tweet, Reddick asked “Black Austin Matters to whom?”
Thompson replied and tagged KUT, which started a conversation with Projects Editor Matt Largey.
Thompson, a playwright and professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT Austin, said KUT was a natural place to produce the show. She grew up listening to KQED in San Francisco and raised her son on public broadcasting.
“What we’re trying to do is have a great conversation and get out of the ivory tower and have this public-facing engagement, not as faculty members but really as citizens of Austin,” Thompson said. “We’re not there as UT professors, and NPR is just part of my life.”
Reddick said his initial vision was to do more immediate content that would speak to what people in Austin and elsewhere in the country were feeling as Black Lives Matter protests took place in summer 2020. However, Thompson and Largey convinced him to take the long view and a more holistic look at what it means to be Black in Austin.
In developing Black Austin Matters, they were also careful not to replicate In Black America, a nationally syndicated weekly show produced by KUT that profiles people who have advanced the quality of life in Black America. Black Austin Matters is intentionally much more local, Reddick said.
Though Thompson and Reddick are both at UT Austin, they had not worked together before starting Black Austin Matters. They quickly developed a natural rapport that comes through in the episodes.
“We work together at UT, but we have different social lives and different artistic lives,” Reddick said. “Parts of our Venn diagram overlap, but there are places outside of that we don’t know anything about … and that’s what makes the show fun for us. We get to learn from our guests as much as listeners do.”
As scholars, Reddick and Thompson also see the value in capturing conversations for the historical record, which they did in the series’ first episode with Wilhelmina and Exalton Delco, two of Austin’s civil rights pioneers. They interviewed the Delcos, both in their 90s, at their home for three hours last year.
“We heard all the stories and all the funny things. They talked about the things that were challenging,” Reddick said. “To me, the real wonder of this is that I hope it invites and provokes folks to say, ‘I want to know more about these people, and I’m going to learn more about what they do.’”
Speaking to Black listeners, not for them
KUT producer Miles Bloxson rounds out the production team. Bloxson is an Austin native and brings her own experiences as a Black resident of the city to the table. She weighs in on guest selection, edits interviews for clarity and manages the show’s Instagram account.
“I think we got 300 [Instagram] followers in a week and a half. My phone is blowing up every time we post and everybody’s reposting it,” Bloxson said. “I’m hoping that not only does the podcast teach everyone about Black culture, but also that KUT will gain more listeners from it and more listeners who don’t look like the typical NPR listener.”
Thompson and Reddick said Black Austin Matters is primarily a show about and for the Black community. They’re hoping that their networks and the networks of their guests will help spread the word among the intended audience, particularly those who are not already tuned into KUT.
The series also marks a step on KUT’s path toward producing more community-centered content. It comes after a year and a half of diversity, equity and inclusion work that includes plans to diversity staffing, music and other aspects of the station’s programming.
“Historically, there have been stories and the production of editorial content that is geared towards this community,” said KUT Executive Editor Teresa Frontado. “But in a lot of cases, it was speaking to them, as opposed to being a collaboration and being something more grounded in the community. And for the last two years, we’ve been very actively trying to change that.”
Frontado hopes that eventually projects like Black Austin Matters will become the norm for KUT, not something the station has to craft deliberately.
“As an executive, that’s what I want my newsroom to take away,” Frontado said. “We’re upending this traditional model, and we’re learning how to listen. We better serve our communities if we take the time to do so.”
A vision for a better Austin
During his interview on the show, Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition said that Austin has an opportunity to get things right when it comes to racial equity and justice. The city is growing rapidly, particularly its population of young people who can chart a new path for inclusion. Thompson and Reddick agree with that sentiment and hope it comes through in Black Austin Matters.
“Texas is more complex than people want to believe … and Austin has so many amazing people here from all walks of life, all races and sexualities,” Thompson said. “We have a chance to have honest conversations and push things forward. I’ve seen evidence of that in my own life with the kind of conversations I’m having with my neighbors and friends of different communities.”
Reddick was born in West Texas and moved to Austin when he was in high school after living in England and other parts of the U.S. in a military family. He said he’s been in the city long enough to see that its best days could be yet to come.
“I always say Austin reminds me of the kid in the class who has all the potential in the world but is squandering it,” Reddick said. “The resources as far as the influx of people coming into the city constantly with new ideas, a world-class university, beautiful arts and energy like that — we have the possibility to create the beloved community that Martin Luther King talked about, right? It could happen here.”