Amplifying New Voices

Rowdie Walden, Photo Courtesy of Spotify
Rowdie Walden, Photo Courtesy of Spotify

How Spotify’s Sound Up initiative is elevating underrepresented voices in podcasting.

It all started in 2018. Natalie Tulloch was working as a lead on Spotify’s studio content team when an organization called Podcasts in Color reached out, asking if she could provide space to host an event for black women in podcasting. “We ended up extending the brunch to include all women of color, and ended up facilitating these women and having a really great panel of tips and tricks on how to break through,” Tulloch says.

The success of that initial event made Spotify want to think bigger, and Sound Up, an accelerator program to amplify different underrepresented voices in podcasting in various markets throughout the world, was born. Now the Sound Up Lead at Spotify, Tulloch worked to expand the program after the initial brunch. “We wanted to create something like any podcast training program that you’d pay good money to attend for a week," she says, "with this curriculum-style theory in the mornings and these kind of practicum-style afternoons where we’d bring in speakers and have it be more interactive,” she says. On the final day, the program finished with a pitch session where participants presented their launch-ready concepts, and the Sound Up team picked three that they thought had the most well-thought-out plan and the most potential for success.

The program took off, fielding 18,000 applications for just ten spots in the U.S. the first year, and Spotify soon expanded the program internationally. “Our minds were just like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to need a bigger boat,’” Tulloch says, adding that they've now expanded into multiple markets, including the U.K., Germany, and Australia. “We want to reach all types of creators.”

To meet that goal, Sound Up is going global for its third year. Over the next two months, Sound Up will launch four-week virtual programs in the US, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, and the U.K., with each market focusing on a specific underrepresented group, whether its women and non-binary podcasters of color in the US and Sweden, or LGBTQIA creators in Germany.

Though the program will be going virtual this year due to Covid-19, over four weeks, participants will still learn about storytelling, audio production, and be granted the opportunity to workshop their ideas through recorded and live sessions with experts and local talent. In an effort to ensure that all accepted participants have equal access to technology, Spotify will be providing computers, WiFi access, and podcast recording equipment to all. US applications will be open through June 25.

We sat down with one creator, Rowdie Walden, a participant in the Australian iteration of Sound Up which focused on First Nation storytellers. Ahead of the launch of his podcast, Search Engine Sex, we talked about the program, his career, and the necessity of making the audio space more diverse.

Spotify for Podcasters: How did you become interested in audio? Did you have any background before your involvement with Sound Up?

Rowdie Walden: When I left high school, I studied film and television production and then got an internship off the back of that and worked in TV for about 10 years. I was doing a whole bunch of jobs, but toward the end of my career in TV, I was writing and producing for a late-night comedy show here that's similar to Last Week Tonight. So, I’ve always been in the media industry, but Sound Up came up and an old colleague of mine sent it to me and was like, “You should do this. You've just gone freelance. What else have you got going on?" And I was like, "Yeah, look, you're right. Freelance seasonal work comes and goes, so I've got to try something to do." I had this idea bubbling in the back of my mind for a while.

What was that idea?

I'm quite interested in how the internet or how algorithms know a lot about us through our search history. I found all these data about what people were googling when it came to sex and relationships. I think I was drawn to podcasting for this idea because it has that anonymity to it. You alone in your room or on your phone is very similar to listening to a podcast on the back of the bus. You might not want other people knowing that you're listening to it—that sort of one-on-one private thing I thought lent itself really well to this topic.

The show is called Search Engine Sex. I'm calling it the sex and relationship podcast you've been searching for, because we're finding the answers to those most Googled sex questions. Every episode we break down the search-engine data story, and then I have a guest on and we try and find out why people might be turning to the internet for this question, and then really quickly try and answer the question, because I think the internet isn’t always the best place to be getting medical or health advice. We try and explore the questions a bit further.

What was your experience with Sound Up like?

Coming from a media background, I’ve been to development things before. But Sound Up was completely unique. It was basically a boot camp, but the way the U.S. team spoke about audio and the texture of audio and what color it was, it was completely foreign to me. I was sitting there going, “What the hell have I gotten myself into? The color of my podcast? It’s audio. It doesn’t have a color.” I really struggled with it in the first couple of days. But throughout the week, it was basically one of the best experiences. [At Sound Up] we had the U.S. team, but then they also got a whole bunch of indigenous Australian podcasters come in and talk about their process and the things that they had learned.

I think the biggest takeaway for me was the practical skills. They gave us recorders and they taught us how to record audio; we had someone come in and teach us how to edit it all together, and then at the end, we had to make a trailer. So, you walked away with more than just the idea—it gave everyone the confidence that they could realize their idea and now they have the skills to.

I think it’s a big thing for indigenous media because at the end of the day, it’s important for us to have our voice in a lot of different genres and a lot of different areas. I think that's what Sound Up gave the indigenous podcasting space in Australia. It was like, if you want to have a podcast about elevators, you can have a podcast about elevators. What's important to you, and what do you want to talk about?

Why is it especially important to diversify the podcast space?

It sounds cliche, but I think it’s all about visibility. If there's no access point for you in television or news or print, podcasting can be a really efficient way of making a diverse and accessible place for people. I'm not just talking about young kids. It's like, if you're a middle aged Native American woman, where do you turn for your media, or where do you turn to for your entertainment even?

We can have an indigenous person hosting a podcast about sex, and it doesn't need to be this cookie-cutter diversity thing that we see on TV or on news at all. I can still be representative of other people seeing themselves in these topics or in these ideas or in these spaces.

—Katie Ferguson