Using mini-audio documentaries and podcasts produced by residents in Katlehong township, this project sought to explore the precarity and resilience of Katlehong residents. The participants were instructed in the theory of storytelling and its practical applications through the production of mini-audio documentaries.
This month, for Global Media and Information Literacy week, we’re exploring the research and storytelling possibilities of podcasting. What role might podcasting play in the stories coming out of South Africa? How can podcasting diversify these stories and what future does it have in the so-called “least connected continent”?
We recently worked with the African Centre for Migration Studies at WITS University and the Leratong Centre in Katlehong to lead a five-day podcast training workshop. The project was intended to tap into the stories of Katlehong youth and give them the tools to narrativise their experiences and share their stories.
In this niche, carved out in a community hall with strangers and intermittent power, participants made room for grace. They told stories about township life, about masculinity and violence, about vulnerability and fear.
We parked in the lot of the community centre and set up our presentation materials in a cold room, navigating the spotty loadshedding schedule. Our days were spent listening to Pheladi teach the art of the podcast to the students and us. By the end, the stories were swirling around the room.Kiran Glass, Documentarist.
We heard young men talk about dating and finding work, about coming of age in these times of economic and political turmoil. Their stories belied the prevailing image of violence and anti-social behaviour surrounding township men, focusing instead on mental health and socioeconomic anxiety. What emerged was a narration of a different kind of masculinity, among other things.
These stories aren’t new per se but now, via the internet, they can travel, converge and change like never before. The affordances of new technologies both disrupt and uphold flows, bringing new information to old audiences and old information to new audiences.
Podcasts in particular, easy to produce and relatively cheap, have the potential to serve as vehicles for individual and community storytelling. They can be made at home or in the park, on the street or in a community centre. Thus, they emerge from within the very worlds they narrativise. Plus, in Africa’s historically aural-oral tradition, podcasts are easily “interwoven into the fabric of listeners’ daily lives as they carry voices into their homes, their cars and their workspaces” (Van der Merwe 2021, pg 131).
In conditions of uncertainty and precarity, the participants of our project told stories of daily life, they brought kindness and compassion to our conversations. Sessions filled us with a sense of buoyancy, of hope. As anticipated, their stories reframed many of the pertinent issues residents of Katlehong face everyday and this new perspective enriches the wealth of stories available to us (full episodes linked at the end).
A Modern Commons?
“… Podcasts as multiple public spheres that can form identity coalitions around racialized community needs while inviting open listenership and education across knowledge and context boundaries online.”Donison 2022
Now, it’s one thing for us to gather these stories of Katlehong residents but another thing entirely to share them, to introduce them into the wider podcasting ecosystem.
On the continent as elsewhere, mobile technologies and the proliferation of the internet has been met by a variety of responses. From those who heralded these developments as liberatory and democratising to those who have emphasised the corruption and misinformation that abounds on online platforms.
The duality of podcasting, which is both public in the way of Web 2.0 and private because it takes place on people’s personal devices and at their whim, makes it a somewhat unsettling medium. Half hustings, half fire-side chat.
It’s flexibility means listeners can choose whichever episode they like and listen to it wherever is convenient. The format is great for both short- and long-form content. It draws academics, politicians, journalists, artists, musicians, and more. There seems to be something for everyone.
“The podcast no longer relies on a mass media model where the goal is distribution to the widest audience possible; instead the podcast is designed with a niche audience in mind […] Such specialised distribution produces small but strong, committed audiences that are deeply invested in both the show and the community.”Van der Merwe 2020
That said, although anyone can make a podcast that doesn’t mean everyone does. Some fall through the cracks and their stories remain untold.
In our project, for instance, women’s voices were lost. Some of the most interesting stories never ended up being recorded and documented because of a lack of resources and time. As is usually the case, the first thing to go when funding or resources fall short are the most marginalised perspectives.
It is important, then, to pay attention not only to those whose voices are loudest, crudest, and most headline-grabbing but also to the gaps. Whose voices are missing and why? How can we elevate those voices and make the medium accessible to them? If, indeed, they’re interested in that.
Podcasting is like anything else, an expression of sociocultural and political life. It will prioritise that which society prioritises but within this medium there is space for new ideas and new voices, for transformation.
For the residents of Katlehong, it may serve as a way of strengthening the community, reclaiming masculinity and other misrepresented identities. Podcasts drawing on age-old oral traditions might be used to reimagine the promise of post-Apartheid South Africa within the township and draw individuals together around shared narratives. Weaving music, speech, and other sound effects, stories can come alive and reach across distances to bind people together in very intimate, almost tactile ways.
The internet is a haven for stories of all kinds, from the edgiest of so-called conspiracy theories to a mother’s record of her toddler’s firsts. The popularity of any one story is not a measure of its truth or it’s quality, though it might tell us something about the collective mindset, about a community’s anxieties and hopes.
With an awareness of the space and the possibilities of the medium, those of us working with underrepresented communities might find new ways of collaborating and co-creating. We’re excited to forge new kinds of connectivity with this medium in a time when connectivity is on everyone’s mind.
Thank you to Iginio Gagliardone, Pheladi Sethusa and Kiran Glass for lending their time and voices for this piece.