Everything You Make Is An Engine

I listened to a discussion Wednesday night in Brooklyn called Diversity In Public Media and Podcasting, which involved a big and very distinguished panel: Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings from For Colored Nerds (and she makes Sampler at Gimlet now); Nadia Reiman from StoryCorps; Daisy Rosario from Latino USA; Mitra Kaboli from The Heart; Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton from Another Round; Carolina Guerrero from Radio Ambulante, and the moderator, Mark Pagan. 

That’s pretty good, right? You’d listen to those folks talk, right? Yeah, me too. It was two hours including the Q&A, and it could have gone longer and been fine. 

It goes without saying that I am not an expert in diversity in public radio and podcasting; I was there to listen. But it got me thinking about something related but different, which is that the people I admire the most are the ones who are best at keeping in mind that everything you make is an engine. 

What I mean by that is that anything you make – a podcast, a book, a TV show, a business, really any endeavor that you undertake – is not just the thing it is, but it’s also an engine that powers, directly or indirectly, other things and other people. And that’s more true the more success you have. The best example I can think of is Saturday Night Live, about which I would say that it’s an incredibly uneven television show on the whole across decades, but it’s one of the most important engines in the history of American comedy. It generated power, but then it also took that power and used it to make other things go – and while that’s related to the show itself being good, it’s a slightly different thing. 

Another example I hope won’t give you too much whiplash: David Carr’s stuff was amazing to read, but after he died, what I think people learned a lot more about was how seriously he took the idea that the power that was generated by what he made and by the career that he created could make other things go besides himself. And as to diversity (can we say “inclusiveness”? Thanks!), while he himself was a white male journalist and his work itself would always be refracted through that lens, the engine could benefit a lot of people, and that’s why such a fascinating group still talks about owing him a debt of gratitude. 

And one of the things that accelerates inclusiveness, I think, is when people who make things realize: your thing will always be your thing and will always reflect your work and your spark and your particular mix of (you can hope) talents. You can (and should) (and really must) make it reflect what you think is important. But on top of that, not instead of but in addition to it, it’s on the engine side – who you listen to, amplify, talk to, advise, reassure, retweet, reply to or quote in conversation – that you serve a whole different function, sometimes quieter but more crucial, as a creative person. I’ve been throwing around the number – aspirationally for myself, you understand, since see above I am not an expert – that if you’re an extremely privileged person, 80 percent of what you do to improve the inclusiveness of whatever industry you’re in should be invisible. I don’t say that to suggest you should actively hide what you do, but to suggest that whatever you do that people can see, try to do four times as much that they have no reason to see. I don’t know if those are the right numbers, but do you know what I mean?

It’s good for the thing you make, in and of itself, to make you proud – it’s good for you to make it absolutely as good as it can possibly be and to make it special and to make it reflect what your values are. That’s your number-one job, because … that’s your number-one job. But there’s another whole part that’s the engine: When things work, when people pay attention and you’re in a position to help somebody else get their movie produced or their show made or you’re just in a position to give advice to somebody who says How do I do what you do?, that’s that engine. It’s not a matter of showing off how much pull you have, but the thing is an engine no matter what; you can choose to do nothing with it or something with it, but if you do nothing with it, that’s a choice, right? Or if you only do for yourself? That’s certainly a choice.

The people I admire most (and this includes a lot of people on that panel but also lots of other people I know) are the people who are the best at saying, “This is the thing I made and the thing I’m making, but at the very least, what I do and say will affect what other people believe they can do and say,” and who are the best at taking that seriously.