For budding businessmen and women in the entertainment market, developing a personal brand is just as important as possessing the creativity to bring said brand to the next level. However, it can prove to be difficult to carve a lane and stand out from others who are chasing similar dreams, especially in the digital age. With YouTube and social media sensations being pegged as go-to “social influencers,” it seems as though there are less alleys to travel down when it comes to reaching a core audience. Luckily, podcasting exists.
Heralded as one of the more personal communication mediums, podcasting has seen a steady increase in listener interest in recent years. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center in 2016, 36 percent of the U.S. population said they have listened to a podcast, up three percent from the previous year. Thanks to the mobility aspect of a podcast, people can listen to a show virtually everywhere, and are able to fit listening to it into their schedules.
There are podcasts that explore nearly every topic. For those who are interested in political happenings, “DecodeDC” could be for you, or if the world of crime-related storytelling is more your speed, you can try out “Criminal.” However, there’s been a slight absence of black voices on the podcasting front with an urban-centered focus. This prompted two hip-hop headed cohorts to give a voice to the growing medium’s voiceless figures.
“There’s always been this perception that podcasting is very hipster or white and that no one else is going to listen to a podcast,” Chris Morrow says of the creation of his urban-centered podcasting company, Loud Speakers Network. “Anybody's gonna listen to something if it speaks to them and [if] it's geared to them. The space is wide open for these sort of podcasts for the hip-hop audience or urban audience.”
LSN was created in 2013 by Morrow and former managing editor at The Source, Reggie “Combat Jack” Ossé, and has moved mountains when it comes to giving the key figures of urban culture a voice. LSN is the home of “The Combat Jack Show,” “The Read,” hosted by cultural commentators Kid Fury and Crissle, and “Brilliant Idiots,” hosted by radio personality Charlamagne Tha God and comedian Andrew Schultz. The network's shows boast over one million combined listeners per month, according to a recent report by Forbes, and frequently appears on iTunes' top podcast charts.
The temperature is fluctuating as per usual in New York, and I’m combatting the blustery weather by finding shelter at Dubway Studios in Manhattan. I’m sitting Engine Room Audio’s tiny crimson recording room affectionately known as “red,” where “The Read” is often recorded. As I fight the childlike urge to move around on my swivel chair, Morrow sits across from me on a brown sofa, super calm, composed and ready to give the scoop on his company. At first glance, you wouldn’t expect him to have such an admiration for urban culture: He’s very tall, caucasian and dons thick-rimmed brown glasses. However, it runs very deep in him, and he cites Big Daddy Kane, BDP and Public Enemy as some of his favorites.
Morrow met his co-creator Combat Jack via Twitter after admiring his Internet radio show for years, and they began a working relationship shortly after. After explaining the value of the medium, Morrow was able to convince Jack to rebrand “The Combat Jack Show” as a podcast. The show continued to gain success, and Morrow itched to take podcasting a step further. He was inspired to create a full-on network after a “Combat Jack” episode featuring Rah Digga and Sean Price. In the episode, the host and guests were discussing their families and being parents, opening their personal lives up to the listeners.
“It was speaking to me and something that I'm experiencing in my life,” Morrow says of the episode. “I really believe that if you make content that speaks to people no matter who they are, they'll respond. There needed to be more than just ‘The Combat Jack Show.’” Thus, LSN was born. Shortly after, Morrow met a young New York City transplant from Miami who already had a fan following—Kid Fury—after a guest stint on "Reality Check" with Jasfly and NY Delight. After talking, he convinced Fury to host his own podcast, which we now know as “The Read.”
Since then, a gaggle of podcasts have found a home at the network. While they’re not all urban or hip-hop centered, Morrow explains that there’s a larger amount of black voices at the studio thanks to inspiration from shows like “Brilliant Idiots” and “The Friend Zone,” hosted by Dustin Ross, Assante Smith and Francheska Medina, a blogger and personality known affectionately as Hey Fran Hey.
“Right now, we're averaging about 77,000 listens a week [for ‘The Friend Zone’], which is pretty awesome,” Medina explains over the phone of her show’s success in its short lifespan. “Everyone at Loud Speakers is a great support system, and the Engine Room Studios is a great team as a whole.”
Medina and several other personalities on LSN had followings before joining the network, which may have been due to their successes outside of the podcasting world on platforms such as radio, blogging and YouTube. To Medina, the transition from YouTube to podcasting was “breezy.”
People are looking and listening to you, so you need to be yourself. —Francheska Medina
“On YouTube, they try to tell you keep your videos short because of people's attention spans. They don't wanna see more than five to 10 minute videos,” she says. “Then on podcasting, they're like, 'Try to get us two hours.' [Laughs] It's very long-winded, so that was pretty much the only change, trying to create enough content to last two hours that will still keep people engaged and interested.”
Morrow insists that a podcasting network made more sense to create than a YouTube channel, due to a more well-rounded experience for listeners.
"I feel like there's a lot of people out there who are already doing that [YouTube], and I just felt like a podcast is a completely, audio, theater-of-the-mind experience,” he explains. “With one eye on video, you're never gonna make the best audio possible.”
What’s the key to success when it comes to podcasting? Authenticity and being 100 percent yourself.
“The main advice I always give is just be authentic,” Morrow says of what he tries to get his network’s stars to understand. “Authenticity is always the most important, and I think that really refers to all aspects of the show, not just the content, not even the advertisers.”
“People are looking and listening to you, so you need to be yourself,” Medina says. “You want the information to engage them and keep them excited. It makes it a lot easier to talk about something that you're genuinely excited and knowledgeable about.”
Authenticity helps hosts advertise their brand and aid in highlighting products they align themselves with in a more personal way. This also helps other companies benefit in promotion if the hosts are selective with their advertising. "The Friend Zone" is sponsored by companies like Tristan Walker’s Bevel shaving system, and Aaptiv, an audio-fitness app. While both companies align with the show’s focus on health, personal wealth and hygiene, listeners are still provided with relevant pop-culture references and comedy to boot.
“You really shouldn't spend a minute talking about something if you don't mess with it,” Morrow explains, stressing the importance of selectivity and authenticity. “A, because it's disingenuous, and B, the audience will know, and they're not gonna buy whatever it is you're selling, and the advertisers won't come back.”
Although the aspect of being yourself is important not only on the podcasting front, being authentic can certainly come with consequences. “When you do speak on your life, people are taking notes,” Medina says “We can feel like oversharing is our way of connecting, but actually, it can sometimes work against you.”
Daryl Campbell, affectionately known as Taxstone, is the host of his own LSN show, “Tax Season,” where he offers listeners with an “unfiltered” take on life in Brooklyn. He came under fire in January 2017 for possible involvement in a 2016 shooting at a concert at Irving Plaza in New York. His DNA was found on the weapon used at the scene, and he plead guilty to possessing a felony firearm and receiving a firearm in interstate commerce. In mid-July, he was indicted and charged for second-degree murder. If convicted, he could receive a years-long stint behind bars.
During our interview, Morrow said that Taxstone was in “a positive mind state” regarding the sticky situation.
“It’s gonna be a long process, and we'll see what happens,” he said briefly. Despite the controversy, Morrow insists that the ability to be more raw when it comes to certain topics is what makes podcasting so interesting. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, he suggests, but make sure you’re using decorum and discretion when it comes to certain topics.
“Certainly there have been moments where the general public gets upset [with openness]. There have even been moments within the network where people have definitely butted heads,” he explains. “People have had problems with a lot of the things [Andrew] Schultz has been saying on “[Brilliant] Idiots.” I definitely disagree with him sometimes, but the guy's telling you what he thinks, and that's what we need right now. We kind of need everybody to put their cards on the table and be up front, and I think Loud Speakers has really been at the forefront at that.”
Is there a future in podcasting? Both Morrow and Medina say that the medium absolutely has staying power, just as long as the hosts of the shows stay motivated to create compelling content that people would be interested to continue listening to.
“Creatively, the reward [of podcasting] has been stretching myself on a personal level,” Medina says. “You have to prepare the production of these shows every week, two hours or so worth of material. It's helped me become a lot more efficient as a creator, a lot more organized. It’s also taught me to be a lot more in-tune with the world and the collective conscious to see what people are discussing, what people are concerned about. As long as we're still having fun and enjoying it and able to come up with inspiring, compelling conversations, funny ones, all the different layers, then we'll continue to do it.”
The innovation of podcasting has helped Medina elevate her brand, which we’re sure podcast hosts can attest to be true. “Your brand isn't always gonna translate to every platform, and for all of us ["The Friend Zone" hosts], it has,” she says. “It's been a series of great choices for us, and that's been pretty exciting because my brand has definitely doubled since I started podcasting. If you can amplify the conversation, I say go for it. It was probably one of the best decisions that I've made.”
“There's never been a podcast network like this before, none of us have created anything like this before,” says Morrow regarding the incredible response to Loud Speakers and its shows. “There's been some bumps in the road, and I think, just on kind of a philosophical level, the key is to always be open about that.”
Morrow is often “amazed” about how big the network has become in such a short amount of time. “I joke that I feel like I'm keeping this together with bandaids and paperclips, and every day is a new adventure, but I think to a lot of people, Loud Speakers is this very real entity,” he continues. “I'm thrilled that people feel that way. I think it's true for the hosts too, it's kind of been a little bit of a challenge to wrap our heads around the impact.”
As for the future of the network, Morrow hopes that they can expand the studios to other markets, from Los Angeles to the U.K., who he says are “very engaged” listeners of the network’s shows. He is also interested in giving podcasts with a “narrative structure” a home at LSN.
“Hopefully in 10 years, it's just going to be we're telling more stories and we're telling them more compellingly,” he explains. “When we started [LSN], we started it because we loved doing it, we didn't think we were going to make money, we didn't think anyone was going to listen. Sometimes, we just have to remind ourselves that this is real and that it’s impacting a lot of people.”