Behind The Podcast: A Conversation with Strange Fruit Hosts Jaison Gardner and Dr. Kaila Story
Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Pop Culture, and Black Gay Life, is an irreverent weekly podcast that combines thought-provoking discussion and humor to navigate complex subjects. Recent episodes have covered a wide range of topics including sexual fluidity, mental health, and black elitism. Hosts Jaison Gardner and Dr. Kaila Story have an undeniable on-air chemistry that makes even the most difficult subject matter enjoyable to listen to. We chatted with them about Strange Fruit's beginnings, representation in podcasting, and the continued evolution of their show.
(Note: Some answers have been lightly edited for readability and flow.)
1. How did Strange Fruit begin? How did you meet and discover your on-air chemistry?
I met Jai when I first got to U of L in 2007, when he was enrolled in my Black Lesbian Lives course. We immediately started hanging outside of class and discovered our mutual love of the film Paris is Burning. He introduced me to everything Louisville: the other scholars and activists I should meet, important institutions I should be familiar with, and organizations I should think of joining. We became fast friends, and he even taught me about southern hospitality and charm.
We actually didn't know that we would have such great chemistry on the radio at first; we just knew that our friendship dynamic was awesome and we were thrilled when we were approached by Laura Ellis and Gabe Bullard to do a podcast. Laura, who had been the producer and engineer for the WFPL Show "State of Affairs," asked us to be on the show about the history of drag, and she saw our chemistry immediately. Jai named our podcast and also decided what format we should work from.
So, Kaila and I are always interacting with one another on social media, even when we are in the exact same house or same room. After a particularly entertaining Twitter exchange between the two of us, a mutual friend tweeted that the two of us needed our own show. The woman who is now our producer immediately retweeted that tweet and said, "It's funny someone should say that. WFPL wants to give you two your own show!"
The on-air chemistry that we have is simply our friendship being recorded and broadcast. We are always speaking on the phone or talking in person about the very same serious and silly things we discuss on the show. We keep one other laughing but we also challenge one another in our thinking, and so it's cool that our listeners have responded well to what is simply us being us.
2. Your show often jumps into controversial topics, including recent episodes that touched on sexual misconduct in Hollywood, racial trauma, and the "White Racism" college course. How do you decide which topics you'll discuss? Do you ever feel any topic is too edgy or controversial?
We actually have never felt that any topic is off limits to discuss. Both Jai and I pride ourselves on being engaged citizens, and because we are actually BFF's in real life and speak on the phone daily, we usually begin talking about the week's events naturally and then Jai usually says, "let's talk about this topic on this week's show!" Both of us think it's necessary to talk about those hard edged and controversial issues that face the many communities we belong to.
We source some of our show topics from what's going on around usÔøΩ what's making headlines in the mainstream news or on social media. We also love to chat with authors of interesting books and thought-provoking online essays/think pieces. Often times, folks will pitch show ideas to us, or ask us if they can come on the show to talk about an issue or a project.
In our first 2 or so years, the majority of our guests were local (Louisville) folks, but that's changed these last three years. We have a perfect balance of still being a homegrown show with local charm, but one that also has national, and even international, appeal. Shout out to our listeners in Africa and Australia.
3. We've read that some podcast hosts/TV show hosts have "hate listeners", who listen every week just to offer negative criticism. Do you have any listeners like this, and if so, how do you deal with them?
(laughs hysterically) I don't think we do, but maybe we do!?!? We have had listeners criticize our perspective on a topic or disagree with a particular position we discuss, but have never really been critical of the overall show. When we have had "hateration/holleration" though, Jai has always been excellent at addressing it. He's much more gracious in his responses than I would ever be!
There was one guy who have us a 1-star rating on Facebook because he was mad that Doc called police German Shepherds "racist dogs" during a discussion about their use as police attack dogs during the Civil Rights Movement. But he also acknowledged that he had only ever listened to one episode of the podcast. Overwhelmingly, all of our listeners have been respectful and engaged, even when they hold a different perspective or opinion than one or the both of us.
4. What's the craziest response you've received to an episode?
To me the craziest responses have always been when we have discussed police brutality and/or Black Lives Matter stuff. Also, some folks actually have tried to check us on our show's title!!! As if Jai and I weren't extremely thoughtful and/or careful when Jai picked the name of the show.
Yes, the only off-the-wall comments we get are usually related to our podcast being named Strange Fruit, and that usually comes from Twitter. I guess most folks are too lazy to click our pictures or our website link, and they just presume we are white folks who have no idea that the title of our show is also the title of a popular song about lynching. And they act so affronted. And then once I break down for them who and what we are: radio silence.
The full name of our show is "Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Pop Culture & Black Gay Life." That title serves as a sort of double entendre. The first and most obvious is that we are two Black folks living in the South discussing issues of race and racial injustice. But also, growing up in the South (and probably up North, too IDK) folk referred to gay people as being "sweet" or "fruity." We are both black and queer, so it was a perfect fit!!!!
5. For most podcasters, they dream of booking a major sponsorship or well-known affiliation. Strange Fruit is produced in conjunction with NPR. How did this partnership come about, and what advice can you offer to podcasters out there hoping to find this kind of success?
Both Jai and I are avid social networkers. After we had recorded the "History of Drag Culture," for "State of Affairs," the show's producer and engineer, Laura Ellis began following us on our social networks. She thought we were insightful as well as hilarious and approached us about a doing a show. My advice to aspiring podcasters would be to keep doing them. Keep speaking truth to power. Keep living their authentic selves on and offline, and someone is bound to notice.
A lot of folks ask us how we pitched ourselves to an established platform, in hopes of doing the same thing. Fortunately for us, we didn't have to pitch anythingÔøΩ they came to us. All that to say, be authentically and genuinely you on your podcast and hopefully the right folks will take notice. But even if a major platform never picks you up, treat everything you do for your show as if it were the most popular thing in the world. Provide a good product for your listeners, be thoughtful about sound quality and editing, think about ways that you as the host or interviewer can improve (for me it was not talking so fast, and also working to avoid vocal fillers and interrupting Doc when she's talking), and use social media to engage with your listeners.
6. How do you feel about representation in podcasting? There's a huge conversation going on right now about diversity in Hollywood and in music. Do you feel there's more of an opportunity for diverse voices to shine in podcasting?
I do. When we started recording Strange Fruit in 2012, podcasts weren't really a thing. Now there are so many dope and diverse voices out there, and both of us are so pleased that the podcast medium was created to connect individuals and communities together that might not ever connect in real life.
The best thing about podcasting, much like with blogs and Facebook Live, is that it allows the everyday citizen to become a content creator. Podcasting is diverse, even though national visibility might not reflect it. I need more black queer podcasts to get brighter shine.
7. Aside from Strange Fruit, what else are you involved in? Where else can we find your work?
I've been teaching at the University of Louisville for about 11 years now and outside of our podcast, I am an associate professor of Women's & Gender Studies and Pan African Studies. I'm also the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality Studies at U of L. I am Former Co-Coordinator of The Fairness Campaign and a former editorial board member of Modern Louisville Magazine. I am a current member of the Louisville Pride Board and if anyone is interested in the book and other essays I've published, they can check them out here: http://louisville.edu/wgs/faculty/kaila-story.html
I've been a community organizer, health educator, and social justice activist for about 20 years now. I am a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Louisville and a former board member of the Fairness Campaign, Kentucky's LGBTQ organization. I just joined the board of Louisville Pride Festival, and I continue to organize around a variety of issues throughout the city. I am a frequent event moderator and workshop presenter on social justice issues, especially the intersection of racial justice and queer liberation.
I am a past opinion columnist for LEO Weekly, Louisville's alt weekly. Some of my past columns can be found here: https://www.leoweekly.com/leo_author/jaison-a-gardner/
I am also a co-founder of Louisville's House Ball scene, and we turn 16 this year! Here's a really cool feature on it, that includes me: https://www.leoweekly.com/2017/01/about-face/
8. Podcasting is starting to attract major attention from advertisers. A few recent articles have touted podcasts' ability to effectively sell products to listeners. How do you feel about advertising in regard to your show? Yay or nay?
It's a nay for me. I'm more interested in informing listeners about communities, individuals, and activists that are making our world a better place than I am in selling products for multi-million-dollar corporations.
Chile, show me the money!!!!
Just kidding! Because we are produced by public radio, we don't have advertisers. We have underwritersÔøΩ folks who help underwrite the costs of our show because they believe in what we do. Either way, we would only ever have underwriters or advertisers of organizations or companies that we actually believe in and support. Or if we were allowed to advertise products, it would only ever be stuff we actually tried out and liked.
9. We've also seen podcasts break into other mediums (i.e. 2 Dope Queens moving to HBO for 4 February specials). What's next for Strange Fruit?
We would love to do an HBO special or something like that!! I think we would translate well on television. We're both super cute and fun on and off the radio. We both think the TV needs our faces and voices.
Who knows what's next for us? We've been so lucky to be able to do this together, as best friends, for five years. I want us to do it for another 20. I definitely think that transitioning to television would be a perfect fit, as we are both social commentators. Doc is a phenomenal professor and she has a wonderful ability to make information accessible and engaging to her students and others who learn from her. More people need to see and hear from her.