Another Round hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton talk podcast popularity, preparation, and why they (still) want to interview Trump

Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu (Photo: Buzzfeed)

Since bursting onto the scene in 2015 as one of Buzzfeed‘s first forays into podcasting, Another Round has been an immensely popular and justly celebrated show. Hosted by writers turned real-life friends Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, the program abounds with their infectious hilarity and grounded insight, managing to balance important conversations about race, gender, and mental health, with pop culture, dad jokes, and plenty of bourbon.

The pair have welcomed a veritable smorgasbord of high-profile guests onto the show, from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Queen Latifah, as well as introducing to a wider audience writers like Bim Adewunmi and Durga Chew-Bose. Of all their guests though, perhaps none stands out more than when then-candidate Hillary Clinton sought out the chance to appear on Another Round, giving her most honest and humanizing interview of the entire campaign. Equally notable was the manner in which Nigatu and Clayton pressed the Secretary, showing more interviewing mettle than basically any other journalist on the campaign trail. This was most evident when the pair pointedly asked her whether she and her husband had fucked things up for black people in America. It was a galvanic moment for the show.

We at Constant Listener were lucky enough to get a chance to catch up with the undisputed queens of podcasting ahead of their live show in live Chicago show—produced in partnership with WBEZ for its Podcast Passport Series—for a wide ranging chat about everything from misconceptions about their process, to the role that podcasts play in marginalized communities, and there’s even a sprinkling of Tom Hanks in there for good measure. It was an absolute delight, and we hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


Constant Listener: I’d like to start by looking back just a little bit. Now that you’ve been the show for over two years, can you give some sort of perspective on how the experience has been for you? How do you feel that it’s changed you, and how do you feel you’ve grown in doing it?

Tracy Clayton: Something that I’ve learned, or something that I’ve noticed in myself is that the process of making the show is prompting me to be more vocal in my life outside of the studio. Like, just letting people know what I think and what I want, and not being afraid to ask for stuff and demand things. Because those are things that you have to do when you’re making a show and you want it to be good. You have to have standards and you have to open your mouth to speak. So learning how to do that in the studio helped me to do it outside the studio.

Also we get a lot more free liquor now.

Heben Nigatu: [Laughter.]

CL: Oh my gosh, of course!

TC: It’s not enough.


On the pair’s commitment to authenticity


CL: Having been a listener since the show’s debut, I would say you know one of the strongest qualities is that it’s committed to always being true to itself. You know, you and Heben are entirely unimpeachable in your voices.

TC: Oooh, you can put that on a T-shirt.

All: [Laughter.]

CL: In a recent episode with Marcus Samuelsson, Tracy said something about popularity that really had caught my attention. You said, “When you start a thing—and that people love it and it grows—it becomes harder to kind of check and police it.” Were you in some way letting on about Another Round when you were saying that not just about [Samuelsson’s Harlem restaurant] Red Rooster or other cultural entities?

TC: I was thinking specifically, in addition to Red Rooster, the experience that I was calling upon was a blog I used to have called Little Known Black History Facts. I mean, it still exists I just don’t keep it up anymore. It was basically just a monthly project where I would make funny memes about the unsung heroes of Black History Month. And that was something that started off very small and kinda good and pure.

HN: Pure internet memes. It was like here, let’s celebrate the person who first put their hands in the air like they just did not care.

TC: Like just good, clean fun. And it went that way for a couple of years and then after that people started to make their own memes and a lot of them were homophobic and just…in really, really bad and poor taste and I was really bent out of shape about it for a while. But then I was like, you know what, this thing has outgrown me and anything I can do about it. So, at some point you just gotta learn how to let your baby go out into the world and hope that people don’t ruin it too much. I think it’s safe to say we feel the same way.

CL: I think that the thing that stuck with me was the idea of cultural tourism you know and I was wondering if you think that there’s a segment of your audience that listen for that reason.

TC: Probably.

HN: I mean yeah, we definitely have people who are like, “I’m so glad you guys let me overhear the conversation.” It’s very much like they know this is not a conversation they would be in normally or like one that’s in their social circle. So a part of the podcast medium is that allows that kind of listening and hopefully it’s also just engaging and you’re not sort of stopping by sampling and you know…

TC: Seeing what the darkies are doing.

HN: Right.

Both: [Laughter.]

TC: It’s probably happening but I still like…I mean because we get some crazy emails from people who are like, “Oh my god, can I say this word? Can I say that word?” and we don’t respond to those emails because that’s not what we’re here for. So we know that there are people who listen because they want to get the latest rules for engaging with brown people.

All: [Laughter.]

HN: [Imitating clueless listener] “Is this woke?”

CL: Oh god.

TC: But again you can’t really police the people who are listening and whether or not they’re listening for the quote-unquote right reasons or not. So we just keep plugging along and hope that it finds its way to the right hands and ears.


On taking pride


CL: What are your proudest moments for the show?

HN: Something that immediately came to mind was that last week we had a conversation with Roxane Gay where we chatted with her and then replayed an episode we did with her at our first ever live show and that was an episode where I remember I cried a lot.

TC: [Laughing]

HN: And at the time of the recording I was like please edit all of it Take.It All.Out. And I was you know moved to make more wise edits. But like hearing it, knowing that it was going to go out there against the universe, initially I was so hesitant. But this year I was like yeah, you know I cry sometimes, I’m vulnerable sometimes, even on this very show. I do think the show has helped me grow a little more in terms of just what I feel comfortable sharing with people and being vulnerable and stuff like that.

TC: Aww.

I think my proudest moments are the ones that don’t really make headlines or write-ups or whatever. But every time somebody that we’re interviewing says either, “That’s a great question. I’ve never been asked that before.” Or, “This is the best interview that I’ve ever done. Like the funnest interview that I’ve ever done.” Those are the things that made me proud.

Also, I am proud that when we interviewed Hillary Clinton that she came to us, and I feel like that’s not a thing that a lot of people know. They assume that we chased her, but no, Hillary was like “Knock, knock, can I come and hang out?” and we were like, “Well, we gotta talk it over.”

Both: [Laughter.]

TC: But that was a really big point of pride too.

Heben, Hillary, and Tracy Photo: Barbara Kinney with Hillary for America

On a certain high-profile guest


CL: In a bit of a follow up to that, I recall seeing the two of you on MSNBC following the Secretary Clinton interview and you had told Thomas Roberts at the time that you wanted to interview Donald Trump next. Given the chance now, how would you feel about that?

TC: I’d love to interview Donald Trump.

HN: Yeah! Keep talking, come on Donnie!

CL: Yeah?

HN: I have several follow-up questions.

TC: [Laughter.]

CL: What exactly would that interview go like? I mean that would be my curiosity. How would you approach something like that, especially now?

TC: I think we’d just approach it like we approach all of our interviews. There’s an aim for just a fair, honest conversation and even in situations where, because I mean obviously you would have questions that he would not want to answer, at least truthfully. [Laughter.] And in those moments where you can’t get an answer out of somebody or when their response is silence, I feel like that would still be as powerful a moment as him like coming on and like not saying anything at all.

HN: Or! We could play a game with him.

TC: Which we would also do.

HN: Where we try to get him to identify literally any black person.

Both: [Laughter.]

HN: [Imitating Trump] Frederick Douglass.

TC: Yes! Since his achievements are being more and more recognized.

TC: But yeah, we would just approach it like every other interview. You know, we wouldn’t try to make him look any way we think he would make himself look exactly how he is himself.

CL: Would it be a problem that he doesn’t drink?

TC: No.

HN: That’s the least of his issues.


On podcasts


CL: What do you two think is the space that podcasts occupy in society today?

HN: I feel like a lot of people in my circle are still just learning what a podcast is, so I think just letting people know that that kind of conversational space is available for us is like where I’m at and thinking about how to podcasts it into a like a larger society. Like where we fit in with just any old pop culture fare.

TC: And I also think that for people who are living in the margins, who have silenced for so long, podcasts then become more than just something to listen to, they’re more than entertainment because it’s how you are seeking out the representation that you don’t get on TV or in magazines.

You know when you don’t have to convince somebody to give you a microphone and you can just do it yourself then you don’t have to fit anyone else’s mold or standards of the type of person that you’re supposed to be or the type of woman and a black person that you’re supposed to be. So. I think for people in the margins they are super important as far as like identity and all that jazz.

HN: I also think urban radio in general is hugely popular so it’s not at all like a difficult shift to ask people to move it to the internet and listen, or move it to their phone and listen, you know?

TC: Mhmm.

HN: So it is its own distinct social, pop culture space but it also shares so much of what we already have in terms like that oral tradition, radio tradition, et cetera.

TC: Mhmm.

CL: Right, absolutely, I mean it’s easy to follow Charlamagne Tha God from The Breakfast Club to The Brilliant Idiots perhaps because you’re already primed to enjoy his podcasts.

So because podcasts have never been more popular than they are right now I am also curious if you’re mindful of the sphere of influence that you hold? Yours is a very popular show, that much cannot be overstated.

HN: Mua-ha-ha-ha-ha.

All: [Laughter.]

HN: Sorry for my cackle.

CL: Has that popularity changed the way that you operate? You know, whether in doing the show, or in thinking about approaching the show, or in booking guests for the show?

TC: I think that it has given me a confidence boost in the sort of guests that I think about getting I mean from the very very first day I was like no ass is too big, we were sending emails to Oprah and Beyonce, even though we knew that like me might not get them. But the more people hear the show and the more notable names we get like tweeting at us and stuff you know it’s a nice little confidence boost. Like, ok, LeVar Burton knows who I am. You know, chill out.

But as far as how it has changed the way that we make the show we are sure to listen to our listeners who tell us like what they need what they like, and what they didn’t. An example of this is in the beginning we used to sign off I think every show or nearly every show by saying drink some water and…what, how’d it go?

HN: [laughing] To call your mom.

CL: Right, to call your mom or your people.

TC: Right. It used to be, call your mom. But as it got bigger, someone sent us an email and she was like, “Hey, I know that this is not about me, and this isn’t a change you have to make, but I just wanted you to know that like not everybody has a mom.” I think she had either just lost her mom or she wasn’t talking to her mother and she was like, “It’s just kind of triggering to hear you guys say,” you know?

CL: Oh wow, so that’s why it changed.

TC: That feedback is so helpful because that was a thing that we changed and it was easy to change, we didn’t mind it. So the more listeners we get, the more we listen to the listeners.

CL: What about you Heben, is there anything that you feel that you’d do differently given the popularity of the show or even the changes that have occurred in both of your lives?

HN: I can’t think of anything in particular. What Tracy said is definitely true, we definitely keep track of sort of like feedback or general notes. But that’s just sort of how we operate.

TC: Yeah, like I don’t think there will be a case where we reach a certain number of listens or we have such-and-such notable person on the show, so we like change and get all Hollywood. I mean we still make the show the way that we made it on the first day. Which is hour-long meetings, sometimes, brainstorming. You know, just in the trenches as usual.


On the process of making the show


CL: Is there a lot of preparation that goes into every interview then?

TC: Yeah! I think we do…I know that we do a lot more preparation and prep work than people think we do and we know this because, for a while there was like a couple of articles that people were writing about how easy it is to make podcasts, and somehow they thought it was a good idea to reference us in those articles. And we had to be like listen, you are not doing your research as a journalist if you think that all we do is bop into an office, sit down and talk, and then turn around and go home.

We dive into people’s social media streams, and we scour the internet, and we listen to interviews, and we see what’s already been done so that we don’t do it over again because nobody wants that. That doesn’t make good content. We do a lot of prep work. I think that Heben and I have a good…we balance each other in that she tends to over research in some cases while I would be the one to under-research.

HN: Accurate.

TC: [Laughter.] That balances us out a lot but we also do a lot of work. We work hard for the money.

HN: I think that was also, with regards to conversational podcasts. That people don’t—it’s not like we’re putting on like a news podcast, where people would know there was work involved. “It’s just these two girls having a conversation…How much work could it be?”

 


On Tracy’s obsession with Tom Hanks


CL: Tracy, is there every chance that you’ll have Tom Hanks on the show.

TC: You gotta ask Tom Hanks that. I’m ready. I was born ready.

HN: [Addressing an imaginary Hanks] You’ve got a book coming out this fall, sir. We’re ready and waiting.

TC: Yeah, I downloaded his app that turns all of my phone fonts into beautiful typewriter fonts.

HN: He has a font?

CL: Well, he is a typewriter fanatic.

HN: Oooh, I did not know this.

TC: I downloaded the app before I even knew what it was. Like duh, obviously.

HN: Wow. Wow.

TC: But yeah, if you talk to Tom Hanks, please tell him that I am ready. To explain that he is secretly a black man.

CL: It’s one of my most favorite things I’ve seen, that collage of him that is floating around social media.

Definitive proof. (Photo credit: Nichole Perkins)

On branching out


CL: To sort of pivot, I wanted to say I really enjoyed the episode, “I Got Indian In My Family” that you did in collaboration with WNYC’s Only Human.

TC: Oh, thank you.

CL: In following that, are there other ways that you thought of stretching the show’s format ever? In the future?

TC: Yeah we’re always thinking of ways that we can switch up show format, get outside of the studio, do some video stuff. And just really sort of tinker around with different formats and genres. All of that stuff. I get bored really easily so we have to keep me from getting bored.

HN: Yeah we’re doing some new video stuff in our live show tomorrow. We’re going to be doing some more man on the street interviews.

TC: Maybe some scripted stuff.

HN: A little more scripted stuff.

TC: Maybe a mixtape?

HN: Maybe a fictional situation, oooh.

TC: Yeah, we’ve got lots ideas and stuff up our sleeves.

HN: We do get bored easily.

All: [Laughter.]


On the personal listening tastes


CL: ;Are there shows that you two listen to right now? I mean I understand you’re probably quite busy, but do you yourselves engage in podcasts as well?

HN: I honestly try not to. It’s just gotten too hard to keep up and it just keeps my mind clear but every once in awhile it’ll be like, “Oh, everyone’s talking about this thing, check it out!” I love specific episode recommendations because I’m always overwhelmed by feeling like, “It’s too much, I can’t start another podcast!”

TC: I do not have this problem because I barely listen to podcasts. I’m not allowed to say I don’t listen to podcasts anymore because I listen to like six of them now. But all of the podcasts I listen to are true crime, and that’s not an exaggeration. Especially shows like My Favorite Murder, the Misconduct podcast is a good one, Casefile is a really good one. And most of these are all shows hosted by women, which is not a mistake.

HN: Imagine voluntarily listening to a man talking…

All: [Laughter.]

TC: Follow-up question, how dare you?

CL: I mean that’s almost too perfect a button, I kind of want to leave it on that. But I do have one final question.


On what’s next


CL: Would you ever want to take this show somewhere into another realm?. I mean you do live shows often, but you know, we do see podcasts that are growing beyond, like Bodega Boys giving rise to Desus & Mero on VICELAND—which you two have been on as well. Do you ever think about something like that? Does podcasting have a big enough reach for you and what you’re doing with the show or is it more a means to an end?

TC: We are always hungry and we are always thinking about what’s next, even as we’re focusing on making the podcast even bigger and better. We’re always thinking about what other arenas we can take our conversation and our platform into, because hopefully when we do that then the representation that people feel when they listen to our show will then follow us into other genres, whether it’s TV or Sirius XM radio, whatever.

HN: [Laughter.] Yeah. Long story short, we’re plotting and scheming. The beautiful thing about podcasts is that you can sort of come together, do it and step away, work on something else, and come back together and still do it again. So I feel like, both in our individual projects and together, we’ve definitely got a few things cooking.