Interview with Lisa B. Thompson and Richard Reddick on Their New Black Austin Matters Podcast
Black Austin Matters, a new podcast from KUT and KUTX Studios, aims to give voice to the daily experiences of Black Austinites, while deepening mutual understanding throughout the broader Austin community. We spoke to its hosts and co-producers, College of Liberal Arts faculty members Richard Reddick and Lisa B. Thompson. Reddick is a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies by courtesy and in Plan II Honors as well as a professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education. As of August 1, he will become the Senior Vice Provost for Curriculum and Enrollment, Dean of Undergraduate Studies. Thompson is the Bobby and Sherri Patton Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Advisor to the Dean for Faculty Mentoring and Support in the College of Liberal Arts.
Kacie Vanecek is the Administrative Assistant at The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
KV: What was the impetus behind this podcast project? How did it come to be?
RR: Ah, the legendary story… In June of 2020, the folks at Austin Justice Coalition and Capitol View Arts got together and painted “Black Austin Matters” on Congress Avenue. I had no idea who was behind it, but I saw it popping up on social media and thought “this is a great chance for us to have a conversation!” So I tweeted out “to whom does Black Austin matter?” And I tagged all the folks I know to see who was gonna say it matters. I was asking a question provocatively but also to engage people. And the day went by, and nobody responded. And it was one of those lead balloon things. I thought people would be all over it. Later in the evening, I got a response. Dr. Thompson can take over and tell you what happened then.
LT: I saw it when he first posted it and I thought “hmm, let me sit back and see how this goes.” I had some ideas, but I didn’t want to go in hot. As the day wore on, I thought “what the heck, just go for it.” Something that’s bothered me for a long time is that the media in Austin will cover things about Black folks when there’s a crisis, when there’s a “problem,” when there’s trauma. But we also have opinions about everything the rest of the time, not just about “Black stuff.” So I tweeted back at him, “yes, but it should be a sustained conversation,” and I tagged KUT in that tweet. Then Matt Largey, projects editor at KUT, emailed us that night and the rest is history.
RR: Immediately after that, Lisa called me and said, “let me do the talking here.” Because Lisa is so talented and so experienced in the media space, I said, “okay, sounds good to me.” Within a week we had microphones and zoom recorders and we started the process. It was completely beyond any expectation I had, but I am not surprised because Dr. Thompson and I have collaborated many times, informally. We always have a good time. I think we do a good job of building on each other’s ideas, and that’s typically how we do things. One of us has an idea and the other will say, “here’s some spice to put on it,” and we always end up with something better than we originally had.
KV: What are your long-term goals for the podcast?
LT: Right now, we have the first season mapped out. We’ll revisit after it ends and see where we are and where the city is. Right now we’re having so much fun getting to know our neighbors and sharing our neighbors with other people. The goal is to have conversations with our Black neighbors, friends, colleagues, people that we find interesting, and the public. It’s not about Black history month or teaching you about Black people. It’s about us having conversations with people we want to listen to. My priority is getting to know and share the wisdom, hilarity, strategic thinking, advice, and personalities of the Black Austin community that often go unnoticed and unheard until there’s a moment that people want us to contribute, which is often when the community is under duress.
RR: Yeah, it never gets old. I think the first time we heard the drop with our preview, I was like “that’s really cool.” And now it’s more frequent, during the pledge drive, they’re saying “give to KUT so you can hear Black Austin Matters.” Wow! We have arrived. We did not come in with podcasting expertise and Matt, and Miles Bloxson, our producers, are teaching us on the fly. We’re getting to a point where we know what we’re doing, allegedly. It’s interesting, because for faculty members it’s very easy to be “experts” on things, but all we’re doing is having conversations. We’re asking questions, bringing up points. We have so many fascinating stories in the city to tell. If we had taken the approach “this is going to be the luminaries in Black Austin,” it would eventually run its course. But we are interested in great stories about people we know because of our interactions with them, people who are making an impact, and people we just run into. People tell me, “oh I knew about this person, but I didn’t know they had these kinds of experiences.” They ask, “Why did you end up talking to Joe Harper? What’s the story behind that?” He’s my barber, that’s why.
LT: It’s really important to us that the podcast is not about what Du Bois called “the talented tenth,” or simply the Black leadership of Austin. Everyone’s voices are important. I didn’t come from people who are considered Black leaders, but they have fascinating stories, fascinating lives, and important things to say about everything from A-Z. I want to include all those voices.
KV: What are you hoping listeners take away from all these conversations and different voices?
RR: I think we have our own ideas about it, but every listener brings their own vantage point. We’re making this for the community, but other folks are engaged in it as well. I meet people across the country who are digging the podcast. Some people just saw it in the media, or have family in Austin, or just heard about it. We’ve always been about making sure we’re centering the Black Austin community as the audience, but we also welcome anyone to listen and learn. That’s been the most exciting thing for me, that people in our community feel validated by hearing these stories because they are about people they know. We did a KUTX DJ spot on a Saturday, and people said they were listening to it and now want to go find the podcast. We are infiltrating in interesting ways, and I love the way that people are finding us. Some find us intentionally because of interest in Black community issues, some just turn the radio on, some are told by others.
LT: I hope people realize that the story of Black Austin is bigger than just this notion of Black Austin disappearing. We want Black Austin Matters to give the audience a better sense of who Black Austin is and of the diversity of our community. Sometimes we’re busy in our own lives, in our own cocoons, and we don’t stop to check out people from different faiths, different sexualities, different ages or generations. This is a way to bring in the new. We’ve interviewed people in their 80s and 90s, as well as people who are younger. There’s not enough time for us to cover all the different aspects of Black Austin. The main thing for people to understand is just how complex, diverse, and interesting the community is.
KV: What are each of your roles in this project? How do you choose who focuses on what?
LT: We never defined our roles. It happens organically. We’re different; we build on each other’s ideas. If Rich asks a question, I’ll follow the thread and vice versa. We do have help with shaping the arc of the interviews. We send potential questions to our producer, Miles, who puts them in an order that makes sense, so it’s not like we’re trying to completely craft a narrative arc while conducting the interview.
RR: As researchers, this is what we do for a living, so we’re used to engaging with subjects and talking to them, but this is a different kind of work because we’re trying to get people to tell us stories. We’ve been lucky because thus far the stories have just come out, and usually, we know some really exciting things about the subjects to begin with. Part of the research process is we find these folks’ social media accounts, what they’re doing, and what their positions have been, so we can always start with that conversation. And there’s usually a nugget in there of “I bet nobody knows this about you…” and it’s usually about what they do with free time or where they’ve lived. We usually start with those stories. Then there are questions that beget other questions. Sometimes we skip the question we planned and instead follow up with a different question because they just dropped some knowledge about something. And we usually have thematic things we want to pull out. If we’re talking to someone in the health care profession, for example, we want to talk about health disparities for African Americans. But we also want them to feel comfortable and to share what they want people to know about what they’re doing. Thinking about our interview with Dr. Sonja Franklin, she talked a lot about being a business owner. We came in with the framing of her being a doctor, which is definitely part of her story, but her being a Black woman business owner became a very salient part of the discussion. We expected that to happen a little bit, but I was surprised how central the topic became; it was really insightful. We both walk away from the interviews learning more. To me, that’s the biggest thing about this project. We are the learners in this space. We are not Professor Thompson and Professor Reddick; we’re just students asking questions. That’s where most of the fun happens. We have these fantastic revelations as Black Austinites for our friends and colleagues to share.
LT: It’s a love letter to Black Austin from us; it’s as simple as that. We’re not representing UT as much as we are representing our neighborhoods, families, friends, and the city. I came here a decade ago and feel like this city has lovingly opened its arms to me, and I want to give something back to Black Austin that’s lasting. What’s really striking are the things that come out of this that we didn’t expect at all, besides the support from people following the show. We didn’t expect we would be creating an archive of Black Austin, a snapshot of Black Austin in this moment. If Black Austin grows, this is a snapshot of when that began. And if the decline that people keep talking about continues, then it will be a different snapshot. I hope it’s the former and not the latter.
KV: Is there anything that either of you would like people to know about the podcast that we haven’t already talked about?
RR: A big shout out to our production team: Miles, Matt, and Antonette. People think this is just us sitting down, but we have producers there; it’s very much a team thing. What’s interesting and exciting for us is the way it’s grown. I foresee more growth. In the fall, we’re giving a lecture to undergraduates here at UT and I’m looking forward to getting people excited about collaboration. I am a serial collaborator, that’s my life story. Lisa as an artist is the same way. This podcast is only what it is because of a collaboration, and then we were open to more folks collaborating with us. I hope it inspires people to collaborate in the arts and in media and scholarship. We are also working across gender lines. Lisa is a West Coaster; I am more or less a native Austinite. All these different synergies make this fun to do. The great thing is, I bring 50% of the ideas, and sometimes Lisa is like “I’m not feeling it,” so we go back and figure out a solution, which is always better than whatever original idea was put forth.
LT: What’s great is that we are deeply curious. It’s also nice after being in the classroom, often as the center of attention, to shine a light on someone else. Everyone we bring in is interesting. We also want people to know that if they haven’t seen a particular topic yet, it’s coming. We get a lot of suggestions, so many that we can barely keep up with them. I think the suggestions are gestures of love and appreciation for the podcast. Give us a second, we’re only four episodes in! All the suggestions also speak to the excitement, urgency, and absolute starvation that the Black community has endured in terms of media coverage in this city, and the media not addressing stories to us or addressing our needs.
RR: To close it out, I think it shows the community. People realize it’s our thing as a community, not just Lisa and Rich’s. We are steering the ship, but there’s a lot of folks saying, “we need to go this way.” As Lisa said, to the people asking, “why haven’t you done this yet?” Hold on, we hear you.
We bring people with intersectional identities. They’re not just one thing. Joe Harper is not just a barber. Sonja Franklin is not just an eye doctor. They’re parents too. Chas Moore, he’s a huge sneaker head, he loves watching Frasier—things you’d never find out. The dimensionality that we bring, that our interviewees bring because they just talk about themselves and what they do—it’s so fun to hear that.
To Lisa’s earlier point about giving dimensionality to the whole story of Black existence, not just “here’s traumatic things that have happened to folks” or “it’s Black history month let’s talk to folks.” It’s “here’s what I eat, here’s what I do for fun,” and you’ll hear those interstitials where we just kind of break into side conversation that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but it feels natural. It’s exciting to have that kind of conversation. It’s a lot of fun and it’s an honor to be a part of this process. We are creating an archive and we’re creating something that’s historical, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it. LT: The show is a love letter to Black Austin but it’s also a gift to both of us. We’re getting as much as we’re giving, probably much more than we’re giving.