Faces of NPR: Gene Demby
Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. Today we feature Gene Demby, Co-Host of Code Switch.
Name: Gene Demby
Title: Co-Host, Code Switch
Twitter Handle: @GeeDee215
Where you're from: Philadelphia, PA
As a Black man at NPR, how did you find your footing? And who did you look to as a mentor to help you?
The people who were my mentors were the people who started the team, like Lynette Clemetson, who is no longer here, along with Keith Woods, who co-created Code Switch. Lynette and Keith were like mentors who a lot of people talked to about stuff, professional stuff, personal stuff. And my old editor, my very first editor, Matt Thompson, who is at The New York Times. They were my peers, but obviously they were much further along in their careers. I looked up to them and they could be real with me. They were so helpful working out editorial questions, but also personal stuff. I didn't know how to navigate a building like this. And it was the most high-profile role that I'd ever been in, and that came with a lot of challenges. They pulled me aside when I was messing up, and they also helped me see around corners that I couldn't see around myself. They were like, "Hey, just so you know, this is stuff you need to be mindful of." And it was stuff that I wasn't always thinking about.
A lot of people in this building, especially young people of color, don't feel like they have those people. And I feel like I got such the opposite experience when I got here. I know that there are all these difficulties that come with working here. But I have one of the rare experiences where I felt like I had people in my corner. And I think there's something wrong if that's not a thing that you can scale or replicate for other people. There's a real problem in the building that we don't have more people who feel like they've been enveloped in that kind of support. They have to string it together on their own, if they even get it together at all.
What is your goal with Code Switch?
One of the dopest things about reporting anything for a while is that you develop a body of knowledge, like a corpus of fascinations that your listenership, when they've been listening for a while, know that you're fascinated with. So a lot of times you're learning with your audience. What I want to do, because we basically have a new team in a lot of ways, is to tell more sophisticated stories. The kind of race stories that people were expecting when we started, with stories like the first Black x, first Latino x, what does it feel like to be the only blank in blank space — we're past that. I think there's much more provocative stories that we could be telling about the way race works in America.
We want to challenge our audiences more with our work, like trying to reevaluate some of the ways we talk about race. Even people who know better often stumble, or we often get complacent in thinking that we arrived, like you hit the final boss of being conscious. And it's not true. All of this stuff is constantly shifting under our feet. All of these terms that we throw around, all these people asking these questions like, is Asian-American even a category that should exist? Because we're talking about over 40 different countries who share no languages, don't share similar politics, don't share similar political histories. People are asking these big questions about identity that have ramifications for all of us. And I think it's worth us pulling at them and seeing where those conversations are going. That's one of our big goals. How do we capture the way these conversations about race are changing?
What do you think makes a good Code Switch episode?
Our best episodes are really chewy. You can't just go by; you have to sit with it. You have to sort of think through it. You might start the episode like, "Okay, I came into the episode thinking this, and I left the episode not being able to think that anymore." Like, "I can have a bunch of feelings about this, but I've been presented with this news, these stories and this information that requires me to move a little bit." I think those are the best episodes.
My favorite episode where we dealt with that was an episode about Black Republicans. It was so funny because [a lot of listeners on Twitter were] like, "I ain't trying to listen to this, man." And then people came out of it like, "Huh?" People were really mad at me, like, "Man, you had me empathizing with these people and I didn't want to!" But Black Republicans tell us something really important about the way Black people do politics. And I think that it was a really good episode because it was about identity, but also we had a lot of pop culture in it, a lot of very smart people who sounded like regular people. And we're just talking and chopping it up, talking about all these really big ideas about political identity formation. (But nobody says political identity formation in it.) We're just having this fun conversation that is making people think about the ways they think about stuff. And I think that's like the best version of our show. Chewy, not talking down to people, funny and relevant. I think we do that a lot, and I think our goal in the next iteration of Code Switch is to find a way to do that more often.
You have a big following, and you have a big platform. Do you feel a responsibility or pressure to convey a certain message or take a stance?
The thing that's important to me is that I qualify everything. Whenever I'm talking, I'm not saying all Black people feel the way I feel. I have a very specific experience. I grew up in a poor, single- parent family in Philadelphia – and I'm actually no longer poor now. So I have to position myself so you know that what I'm saying is informed by those parts of my story. It's really important for me that, because I'm in this position, I'm always underlining the fact that all this is shaped by class. Like when we talk about police brutality as Black folks, if you look at the kind of Black people who get killed by the police that become national news, these are poor Black people. And so sometimes some of us professional Black folks with college degrees and post-college degrees maybe need to sit down a little bit. I mean, in our reporting, we're telling these stories of Black folks and people of color who are often in distress. And that's not everybody. Yes, all Black people are experiencing racism, but they're not all experiencing the kind of racism that's going to get them killed. They're experiencing racial profiling, experiencing that it's hard to be at this private school and be the only Black person. But it's different from being the person on the receiving end of stop-and-frisk.
Whenever I try to situate myself in these things, I'm like, "There's a whole bunch of stuff that I know personally that makes the story more complicated." I don't think it's really useful to just be another middle class Black person weighing in on a controversy unless I'm complicating that conversation in some way. We owe it to ourselves to try to be as full and nuanced about all these conversations as we can, because where else is it gonna happen?
In a Q&A, you shared that you wish people knew how hard it is to do a good podcast. How hard is it really? And what does it take?
So, put it this way. We got 10 people on our team right now, which is the most we've ever had, and it's still a struggle to get a podcast out every week. Anybody can get a mic and have a conversation with their friends. But you've listened to those podcasts before, right? Unless they're like your friends, you're not trying to sit with somebody for 45 minutes. It actually requires a lot of planning. It requires a bunch of editing. Everybody needs an editor. It's really hard to find a way to have a conversation with someone that can hold people's attention for 30 minutes, plus. And it takes a lot of scripting. Our scripts for a 30-minute episode might be like 15 pages long. We might have done three 45-minute interviews with experts, and you might hear literally four minutes of them total throughout the episode. It takes a lot of work.
I actually don't know how people do this on the side. My friends and I had a podcast a couple of years ago that we tried to do. We're all working journalists, and it was really hard to do that, too. I remember my wife got mad at me because I was editing one of our episodes on Valentine's Day. It took me like nine hours.
No, you didn't!
I know. I would not do that again. But it took like nine hours getting all that audio together and putting it together and cutting stuff out. It was just a whole thing. I can't believe she married me after that.
So I do want to pivot into family life a little. You're a new father, right? What's the best part of being a father?
All of it. Every single part. Every single part of it is amazing. It is the dopest thing that has ever happened to me. I was talking to Michel Martin about this. The thing that keeps surprising me is how intense you can feel. I keep waiting for it to calm down, and all my boys are like, "No, this is how it is. Like, this is how it's going to be." I was talking to my boy Chenj the other day and his daughter Eni is talking. She's like two and a half or three, and she's talking and asking questions. He's like, "If you think your son is cute now, wait 'till you see this. Wait until he is asking questions." So all my boys have been talking to me about this. And Michel was saying this too, and her kids just graduated high school; they're in college now. So it always feels like that. And my friend Kasia was saying, like, "It makes your parents make so much more sense." Like, oh, this is why you're crazy! This is why you act the way you act, because you can't think rationally about me!
Picking him up from school is the best part of my day. I mean, I go to his room and wake him up. I open his door. He, like, pops up from his crib. He might be whining a little bit. And he starts giggling immediately when I walk into the room, and I pick him up and I kiss his cheeks and we dance to New Jack Swing while getting ready for school. And it's just like, this is the best part of my day. I'm just so excited to see who he's going to be. And I feel so blessed to be here. I just can't believe it. It was a long road for us to get here. And it's been doper than I possibly thought it was gonna be. I thought I was going to like, enjoy parenting. But I love this. I love being his father.
That is the cutest thing I've ever heard in my whole life. What have you learned about life since becoming a father?
I'm not naturally a patient person. But I feel like so much is less urgent now. So much stuff is less urgent to me now because it's not more important than my time with him, with my family. I feel like he's mellowed me out in a lot of ways. Also, one of the weirdest things that I wasn't anticipating is that now I like everybody's kids. Also, I'm not the most logistically inclined person, but I've become the person in the house who makes sure we always have diapers and always have extra baby soap.
I didn't grow up with a father in the house. So one of things that's really important to me is that my son grows up in a house in which he sees two parents working together to solve problems, being affectionate with each other, talking stuff out. And some of that stuff is actually happening easier than I thought it was going to be. It's actually very easy to love up on my wife. This is the kind of relationship I want him to see in the world, so it means I have to show up in all these different ways. I knew I had to be more intentional about it. But he makes it very easy to want to be the best version of myself all the time.
So you said also that you want to be more present. Have you been able to, and what does being present look like to you?
On a really basic level, my down time. I think I spent a lot of time either reading or tweeting, and I just don't do that now. I tweet far less. One of the things that's so funny is like, after my wife and I put him down every night, I look over at her, and she's looking at pictures of him. We're together every night in a way that we weren't before, because we just had all this stuff going on. And now we both are home for bedtime and bathtime. One of the wildest things that I think is really bananas, is how quickly everything changes. I feel like he just got here, but it's been 10 months. He's going to be walking soon. He's crawling on stuff. He has all this hair. He's babbling. He can express things, like I can tell when he wants something. Yesterday he handed me a toy and I handed it back to him, and then I put my hand out and he came back to me, and I'm like, "Asa, can I hold that?" And he put it in my hand. I was like, "Oh my God, you could not do that a minute ago." He couldn't sit up three months ago, but now he's crawling. He's everywhere.
One of the things that I'm thinking about all the time, like every day, is, "There's going to be a time like a couple of months from now when I'm not going to be able to remember what it was like before you were talking, before you could walk, when you were just crawling around." I just feel like I'm really, really cognizant of the fact that, when you think about a baby, it's like, "Oh, they could be crawling forever." But no, it's actually only a couple of months. He wasn't crawling in July. He's crawling now, but he's already trying to walk. He's going to stop crawling very soon. I'm like, brah, the baby part is already slipping through my fingers. I'm like, let me be as present as possible. That's it. Like, I'm just trying to soak it all in, because one day he will be a snot-nosed 12-year-old.
Final question, do you code switch?
Oh, all the time. It's funny because I've been trying to figure out how my son is going to sound. My wife is from California and she's Indian, and I am Black and from Philly. And our son is going to be a Washingtonian, he's gonna be a D.C. dude. So I'm always like, "Oh, he might have one of them weird-ass, funny D.C accents." I think as you get older, if you are a person who code switches, like somebody who speaks one way at work and speaks one way at home, as you get older there's a space you occupy all the time that's kind of right in between all those things, and you actually toggle less. I think it's more like your relaxed home voice and your office voice just kinda merge. And so I'm always kind of wondering, like, the way I speak around my son is going to be so different than the way my mom spoke around me. And I don't even realize that I'm doing it. I remember one of my exes was like, "You sound so different in a barbershop than you do when you talk to me." And I was like, "I do?" I didn't even realize. I wasn't even cognizant that I was doing it. This is just the way I thought I talk normally.
But it's weird, because I feel like I've had to change the way I speak so deliberately to be on the radio. I wasn't a radio person. I wrote essays; I was a print reporter. I remember when I first started speaking at NPR, I would get feedback from listeners, some of which is racist, but also just when people were like, "Oh, you talk too fast, you eat your words, you drop your Gs." That's heavy stuff. But I had to learn how, if I'm talking to somebody, the most important thing for me is clarity. How do I sound like myself? And also, am I easy to follow? Like, if my aunt hears me on the radio, would she be able to follow me? I'm sure she would. But maybe I do need to slow down. And the way you talk on the radio when you're recording is different. Especially when you get in front of fancy NPR microphones and you're in a quiet, sound-proof room, and you can hear everything in your voice that you don't like. It's weird, even your posture changes. I've seen people who I know come in chopping it up, and then they get in the studio and suddenly they're all stiff and formal. There's just something about the space. It's very strange. And so I feel like I have to code switch for work all the time.
It's weird to think about when you code switch, because a lot of us do it. And it's another thing when you start to go places and people recognize you because of your voice. Or you meet people and they know the podcast and they're like, "I heard your voice, and you sound like you!" It's very weird. It's a very strange thing. Like in our sign off on the show, I say "be easy" because I actually say that. "Be easy, yo, be safe." People are always surprised when I, in real life, dap you up, "Yo be easy." They're like, "You really say that!" And then you just become more cognizant of the way you talk and speak to people. The way I speak on the radio has changed the way I talk in general, in all these really surprising ways. I've had to learn to perform conversations for work. And so I feel like I've gotten better in real life at being more performative in regular conversations. It's such a weird thing.
Edited by: Kelsey Page
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