How Andy Mills followed the rules of audio and why we want to break them

We need to challenge the very notion of gatekeeping itself.

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If you work in audio, you’ve probably heard about the current reckoning surrounding New York Times’ producer Andy Mills. If you’re not, here is a short summary:

  • In December, the Times retracted “the core” of their 2018 hit podcast Caliphate, and members of the narrative audio community began speaking up publicly about Andy Mills, the lead producer behind the show.
  • Andy has demonstrated abusive, harassing, and inappropriate behavior toward colleagues and women in the field throughout much of his career.
  • Recently, his former employer Radiolab acknowledged their failure to address his behavior “fast enough” while working for their show. And yes, the New York Times knew of this behavior soon after they hired him as part of the “small team that founded an audio department and created their flagship show The Daily.”
  • Nevertheless, Andy has ascended the ranks of audio and journalism, leading the production and storyboarding of Caliphate, the podcast-that-won-and-recently-lost-its-Peabody, and despite the recent bout of attention that his behavior has received, he continues as a Times producer/reporter. He recently stepped in for Michael Barbaro as guest host and continues as a Times producer/reporter, seemingly untouched.

As the discourse around Andy Mills grows, I’ve had too many thoughts and emotions to force into one Twitter thread. I am a white woman who just cusped 30, a member of the audio industry, an aspiring creator, and in a position of institutional gatekeeper: entering my fourth year as Artistic Director at Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, host of the annual industry gathering for narrative audio producers. Alongside my colleagues, I’ve long been committed to supporting producers, and I believe in audio storytelling as an emergent art form. But this belief cannot be separated from critical — and often uncomfortable — self-reflection of our industry, including the necessary conversation around Andy Mills.

Narrative audio is an industry still wrestling with its nascent popularity. Our hierarchies are familiar, but also relatively new, emerging from a public radio industry created in the last 60 years by overwhelmingly “white, highly educated, well-off baby boomers.” The roots of power and influence are still visible. In the interest of shaking them, and in the hopes of encouraging needed dialogue, I humbly offer my observations, thoughts and questions to this moment:

I have only interacted with Andy Mills a few times; I’ve transcribed tape for a few of his projects (including for Caliphate) as a 20-something freelancer, we’ve emailed about audio events, and I’ve met him in person once. “I thought she was so hot when I met her,” he said of another audio producer, when I told him she was my friend. Since then, and like so many others in the field, I’ve known of Andy by his words and actions, heard through the whisper networks of audio: Are you single now / You’re too pretty for your pitches / We don’t really hire women / women don’t know Protools. Sometimes he’s seemed to me like audio’s very own Mr. Tansley from the world of Virginia Woolf, intent to convince us: “women can’t paint, women can’t write.”

This kind of behavior is exactly what has fueled my colleagues and I to push for institutional change at Third Coast (change which has not been easy but is certainly deliberate, and a continuing evolution). And I stand with the dozens of producers enraged by Andy’s behavior, and those he has harmed over his career. What is being done about it? Do all of Andy’s colleagues currently feel safe working with him? Will the New York Times take steps to ensure that they do? How can we as a community get true accountability for bad behavior and make sure this doesn’t happen again?

These are the questions many of us have been asking. But the waters surrounding Andy’s story are murkier than that. When we speak of accountability and consequences for Andy Mills, we also need to talk about the same audio institutions, culture and community he’s succeeded in and been enabled by (including, at times, my own). In other words: if you believe in propelling forward the medium of audio storytelling, you necessarily grapple with a question of gatekeeping: where and how is power harnessed in our industry? And how do (white, cis, predominantly male) people like Andy Mills get so much of it? What else does this example reveal about the most urgent ways we must change the culture of audio?

Andy Mills’ words echo so pervasively in part because he has successfully emulated the most powerful model of a narrative audio producer. I am part of a generation of producers that came up believing that in order to make “A Great Audio Story,” you probably needed approval from a specific, celebrated few: a handful of nearly all white men made successful through the hierarchies of public radio. I respect many things about what these few created, and the paths they carved, which we still travel. But their power and influence in the field remains symbolic and outsized, and we need to name exactly how.

Central to our industry’s myth of “A Great Audio Story” is the tradition of Ira Glass’ This American Life. Its primary ethos is of objective, journalistically rigorous truth married to supremely listenable storytelling. The show has certainly evolved, but here is the origin story of the charming, white, usually male narrator. Here is the historical reliance on a white audience who can only be guided by that narrator. Here, “a sensitive, hesitating, transparently liberal male — has become equally ubiquitous today,” as Rebecca Mead wrote in her piece “How Podcasts Became a Seductive — and Sometimes Slippery — Mode of Storytelling” in the New Yorker. In other words: a public radio ‘nice guy.’ A white guy. The voice — the sound — of our industry.

I remember reading this Rebecca Mead piece. It pissed me off because it’s true. I was uncomfortable with the awful accuracy of Mead’s words: this style of narration is so recognizable, it has become normal. Not only that, it is respected, often green-lit and readily fundable, especially as audio storytelling bumps abruptly into the capitalist logic of on-demand media. And even while the audio industry becomes more diverse, as more shows are made by BIPOC producers, by women, by queer people, we recognize an ideal of audio mastery shaped in the form of the well-meaning white liberal: white men, and certainly the white women who have benefited from this power, too. And its influence looms. Far too much of what determines a person’s audio career right now can be traced to whether or not they have made it through the gates kept by these elite few.

That’s exactly why, I think, Andy Mills got a job making Caliphate in the first place: he’d launched from Chicago to New York City (with a Third Coast Best New Artist Award) and risen as a well-known producer at Radiolab, known as something of a mentee to then co-host Robert Krulwich. It is this very Radiolab-tinged industry stamp of approval that got him a coveted job in 2016 at the newly-created audio unit of The New York Times, where few knew the “right” way to make a podcast.

This is a dangerous game bigger than one toxic player. When we attribute too much power to a small group of individuals, and when the credentials they infrequently bestow to their few apprentices mean so much, we leave ourselves vulnerable. It isn’t so surprising, then, when this small elite group fails to use their full influence for good and change, or are unable or unwilling to see past their blind spots. And it makes sense that such a system could reinforce the conditions for someone like Andy Mills to harm and impede others around him.

One more example of this symbolic power in audio comes to mind: not too long ago a Canadian producer told me they’d once had an argument with the acclaimed host of This American Life, and thought: “I’d never be able to get anything in the U.S. if Ira Glass hated me.” Are we really settling for a paradigm which insists that only by grazing the elbows of a few elite men (and women), working for them, supporting their projects, might you too eventually get a shot? Is the goal to play the game, just as Andy Mills did, ultimately gaining the confidence, institutional support, and professional clout that allowed him to derail and demean so many people’s careers without consequences?

To be clear: I’m not arguing to knock these powerful individuals from their platforms; I am challenging them — and all of us — to use our positions of relative power in radical new ways. For the last few years, my co-workers and I have struggled deliberately to do just this, and the work is by no means over: to imagine new creative blueprints, new points of entry, new credentials and new routes to success. To disrupt legacies of exclusivity, institutionalized racism, and complicity. To build a culture of inclusion and accountability.

My questions to fellow gatekeepers are: how can you challenge the very notion of gatekeeping itself? Instead of expecting others to join you, how can you follow them?

I’m not the only one who wants to overturn the hierarchies of the audio game.

There’s a growing community of producers — notably, producers whose voices have long been underrepresented, and even intentionally silenced by some — who are demanding systemic change. This growing, porous community of institutions, individuals, collaborators, friends, colleagues, veterans and newcomers are committed to propelling the audio industry forward through disruption. This is the group of former Conde Nast audio producers who just this week published an open letter with the mission to “spark some conversation & change in the audio industry as it grows… there’s a chance to do things differently.” These are the creators of the POC in Audio site, who spent a year of unpaid labor putting the database together, as well as: seriously brave emerging makers like Tuck Woodstock and Liza Yeager who have called for change on one of the industry’s biggest stages, journalists like Sandhya Dirks who has long been naming listening as an act of power, audio activists like Renee Richardson who created an unprecedented Equity in Audio Pact for production companies, veterans like John Biewen who use the podcast space to demonstrate critical and self-reflective anti-racism, the hundreds of audio laborers organizing at media organizations, including at public radio stations with historically toxic working conditions like WNYC, where Andy Mills ascended the ranks.

This is a community of people asking: how can we change an industry that is, at once, beautiful, inspiring and collaborative, while also messy, stifling and, at times, still deeply misogynist and racist? And how can we make work from the possibilities of audio, still undefined? How do we make this work the future of the audio industry? And who will invest in this vision?

There are so many people in this shifting audio community: knocking down gates and seeking entirely new, fertile ground to root this work. Hear us.

There’s a question that’s been haunting me while I’ve been writing this: Why did you want to make art in the first place? Why do you still want to make art now? For me, I think it’s because I cannot rid myself of the nerve to want to be heard on my own terms. And to believe that this kind of expression should be possible for every single person. Especially for people whose desire to express contradicts the muffled silence we’ve long swallowed. This is true not only about women, but about all the marginalized people, especially BIPOC, whose own experiences are told for them or about them. With so much of our cultural storytelling assigned to a powerful, homogenous few, the basic act of forming language or expression for our own lived experience can be unduly difficult.

We don’t need to be taught how to make ‘good’ stories. We need the space, resources and community to make them.

A note about authorship: I wrote this piece with a lot of support from some of the best collaborators in audio & beyond. The following opinions are my own, but are inspired by years of conversation, action, and evolution with my co-workers at Third Coast — which is still ongoing.

i love audio, dogs, cheese, my mom // tweet @mayags

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