You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.
― Shirley Chisholm
Recently, all 7 hosts of the SHEletta Makes Me Laugh network dedicated episodes to #CopingWithCOVID19, discussing topics like #BlackBusinesses and #BlackBodies. How did this initiative start?
SHElettaMakesMeLaugh.com was founded because diverse voices couldn’t get heard in mainstream media in Minnesota. There is little to no diversity on the radio, in television newsrooms or at the daily papers. So black folks kept calling me asking if I could help them get on TV when there was a problem in their community or if there was a big event or celebration happening, they’d want some pre-coverage to promote it, so they’d e-mail me to try to help them find someone to put them on TV or on the radio or in the newspaper.
They were calling me, because believe it or not, in 2020 we have television news stations in Minnesota that don’t have ONE black reporter, newsroom manager, or anchor! Isn’t that sad? I applied over and over again for on-air television jobs only to get offered behind-the-scenes producer roles. I tried moving up in the ranks at the Entercom Minneapolis radio station where I work, only again to be offered something behind the scenes with little or no power to give a voice to communities that felt like they were being unheard.
The only time TV cameras come around is when something bad happens, so when celebrations arise, they aren’t covered in the local news. I got tired of begging news directors and reporters to put my people on TV only to be rejected, so SHElettaMakesMeLaugh.com was formed. When COVID happened, my sister Darcea, who hosts the Life After Loss Podcast, said in our weekly staff meeting that this virus was decimating black people’s bodies. She had all these horrible facts and statistics that proved and backed up her point.
Then Jason Clopton, who hosts The Teen Whisperer Podcast said how his case load had increased because people were seeking mental health support for their children. And I was getting dozens of calls from parents who have children with autism, because with schools closed, their special needs children didn’t have access to therapy services. We just thought it was the right thing to do for everyone to put together a podcast about how COVID 19 is impacting the black community.
We are doing the same thing with the death of George Floyd, the black man who was killed by Minneapolis Police in May. Every single show will be dedicated to how Mr. Floyd’s death has impacted the black community across the country, but especially in Minnesota. On his Mommy & Me Podcast, my son Andrew tackles the topic of how angry and frustrated young black men are having to live in fear of police brutality. On her show Dr. Verna’s Virtues, Dr. Verna Price encourages people to spread kindness by finding ways to help the situation through charitable giving, philanthropy, helping others, and volunteering.
SHEletta Makes Me Laugh includes 7 shows all hosted by people of color, focusing on everything from travel to mental health to parenting. Can you tell us a bit more about the shows in the network?
I am so proud of all the shows on SHElettaMakesMeLaugh.com. The hosts are so talented and dedicated to telling stories that are important to people of color in Minnesota and beyond. All seven shows cover different topics and delve into different aspects of everyday life. They aren’t all serious and politically charged. A lot of them are fun girlfriend conversations and ways to escape the stress of everyday life that we are all experiencing.
Both old folks and youngsters can find a show to relate to. JET Setting Divas are three girlfriends, Jeanette, Evette and Tina (J.E.T.) who travel the world and talk about it on their high flying podcast. Each week they talk about fun, far out places you can get away with your friends. When COVID shut down the travel industry that didn’t stop them from telling travel stories.
They checked in with their favorite B&Bs, restaurants and destination hot spots to see how their businesses are doing in the midst of the pandemic. When they got ready to get back up in the air, the ladies did a live show from the airport to give updated advisories for people who are getting ready to fly the friendly skies.
We have another show called Life After Loss that encourages angel moms and dads after they lose a child shortly after or during childbirth. My sister Darcea Handy hosts that show. It’s a family affair because my 13-year-old son also has his own show called The Mommy & Me Podcast where each week he tackles topics that are important to teens.
World renowned motivational speaker Dr. Verna Price hosts a show called Dr. Verna’s Virtues where she gives people the tools they need to find success in their lives, their relationships, their businesses and their finances. Jason Clopton, a Minneapolis counselor, hosts The Teen Whisperer Podcast where he helps parents find ways to better relate to their adolescent children.
I host the Taking Authority Over Autism Podcast where I provide tips and tools to parents who have special needs children. I help them find resources to pay for therapy, encourage them when schools close down, offer advice on how to navigate the system and sometimes we just plain ole laugh at our kids together.
Speaking of laugh, the foundation of my podcasting platform is “Laughing with Letta,” the weekly show that allows me to get back to my comedy roots. Every week I find something funny to talk about, whether it’s pop culture, politics, or my husband trying to pull a fast one on me and order new underwear without my permission.
Do you have a specific memory of when you knew you’d start your own network?
I was in Los Angeles taping The Ellen Show last summer. I was sitting in my hotel watching the BET Awards, and they were honoring Tyler Perry for being Tyler Perry because he’s THE-BOMB-DOT-COM and has done such amazing work on stage, in film, and television. He said, and these words cut me to the core: “While y’all in Hollywood fighting for a seat at the table, I’m down in Atlanta building my own table.” It was like a light went off in my head.
I had been applying for on air hosting jobs at the Entercom Minneapolis radio station I was working for. I applied for the overnight position and didn’t get it. I applied for a mid-day morning hosting gig and didn’t get that either. They were good with me filling in and I was trying too hard, but they wouldn’t promote me and give me my own show.
Here I am, an Emmy award-winning broadcaster with 20 years of experience, two Edward R. Murrow awards and a killer résumé, but I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t a good fit, it wasn’t the right time, I always needed something MORE, until I heard Tyler Perry!
At that moment, I knew that I was everything I needed to start my own podcasting platform. And I didn’t just want to do it for me, in that same speech he talked about “helping someone cross…” meaning when you find success don’t just be successful by yourself, but be a blessing to someone else. So the moment I knew I’d start SHElettaMakesMeLaugh, I called up Dr. Verna, Jason, the travel divas, my sister, my son, and talked to them about having their own shows because I realized there was strength in numbers and together we would be a bigger success than I could ever be alone.
As an Emmy-winning comedian with a 20-year background in news media, did podcasting feel like a natural next step?
Podcasting felt like freedom. I have never been more free in my life. I can talk about what I want to talk about. Interview who I want to interview. Tackle topics that were off limits before. Go as long or as short as I want in an interview.
I can do community initiatives without having to wait for some corporate boss in another state to say it’s okay for me to do a free blood pressure screening for men on Father’s Day following the death of John Singleton. I can do whatever the fuck I wanna do, and it’s beautiful. I wish everyone could be this free doing what they love before they die. It is truly heaven on earth.
As you grew into podcasting, what were the biggest differences you saw in comparison to news media?
Podcasting is freer and has less restrictions. In news, if there is a story you want to do in your community, you gotta pitch it to your boss. Then your boss has to approve it, then you got to hope and pray there is no breaking news, or something happens and they take you off the story and assign you something else. In podcasting I can pick and choose my topics, and I’m free to tell stories I’m connected to.
So many times you see reporters covering stories on the news and they have no connection to it. You can tell. They are out there and couldn’t CARE LESS about what they’re talking about. They aren’t invested in the people or the community they’re reporting on. When I pick a topic it’s something I care about, something important to my people and something I truly believe in. So the conversations are real and authentic and organic. And that makes for better storytelling.
I can actually have a conversation without the limitations of a time clock. In news, no matter how good the story is, you typically have 2 minutes to tell it. I got 10 to 12 minutes to make my points, which gives me a chance to get deeper into what I want to discuss with my guests and my listeners.
We hear that the event She Podcasts made a huge impression. What surprised you about the experience?
I had no idea what to expect at She Podcasts in Atlanta last October. I thought “Oh shit, they’re going to be selling me memberships and signing me up for 9-week enrichment classes and trying to make me buy merchandise I don’t need.” But it wasn’t anything like that. It was a thousand women there, in Atlanta loving on and learning from one another.
They had all these wonderfully informative workshops about everything from how to use social media to build your brand, to how to make money, to how to get more media exposure. I saw all these beautiful women of all different skin colors and all different ages finding success doing what they love with a podcast. They turned their passions into a podcast.
Whether the topic was yoga, business, finances, parenting, relationships, it didn’t matter. They took that passion and talked about it in their own podcasts. See, Tyler Perry showed me it could be done, but She Podcasts showed me how to do it. I went to every single workshop I could and didn’t miss ONE. I took notes like I was studying for the SATs because I wanted to bring that knowledge back home and develop the biggest and baddest kickass podcasting platform anybody had ever seen!
If you could bring one guest (from any time period) into the studio, who would you invite for an interview?
OMG girl, that’s easy: Michelle Obama. I’ve always loved her. Everything about her. She’s a beautiful strong black woman who does it all. She’s somehow able to have a circle of good sister friends, support her husband, is happily married, raising two beautiful daughters, has her own successful career and maintains a great relationship with her mama.
I’d ask her for the keys to her success and get some dirt on our former President, cause I know he ain’t as perfect as we all think he is. She’s holding out on something. I’m sure bites his nails or grates his teeth in his sleep. It’s got to be something we haven’t heard about him before, and getting the scoop on my podcast would be the best.
Podcasters are known for helping one another. Are there particular people who made an impact on the beginning of your journey?
Everybody in the podcasting community is so helpful. I come from the cutthroat news culture, where when a female anchor is out on maternity leave, there are four women in the newsroom trying to take her spot before she gets back. That’s the nature of the beat. It ain’t like that in podcasting. I have yet to meet someone who isn’t helpful or friendly or encouraging.
When I was looking around at other podcasting platforms, there are two right here in Minnesota that stood out: Lemonada Media, run by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Kramer, and Matriarch Media run by Twila Dang. These are two powerhouse podcasting platforms run by women! I was so encouraged and frightened all at the same time.
See, in news, you don’t share your ideas because someone else might steal them. So I called them, but I went in skeptical that they would share their tricks to the trade and give me the tips I needed to launch a successful podcasting network. When I met with Eli Kramer, who helps his wife run Lemonada Media, he basically gave me the blueprint to how they got to where they are.
He talked to me about building a good foundation, quality content, and consistent shows. We laughed for hours like old friends. I took about 10 pages of notes. Then Twila embraced me like a sister and gave me some practical advice about the struggles of black women starting a media empire. It never felt like competition, it felt like family helping family. That’s the thing about the podcasting community that’s different than news: Everybody wants to see everybody else succeed.
Your teenage son Andrew has his own show on the network. How has it been to collaborate in the studio?
Andrew and I are perfect foils. That boy knows how to push his mama’s buttons. He’s got IT! Whatever IT is, he has it. He’s smart, quick, funny, charming and has so much personality it’s oozing from his pores. No matter what I say he’s got a quick comeback. If I tell a joke his response is 10 times funnier than anything I could even think of, and I got a damn Emmy.
I ain’t saying this just cause he’s my son, cause I got three other kids and they ain’t got IT. This boy, my son Andrew, is going to be a star, so remember his name. He’s THAT talented. The thing we have to get diligent about is his work ethic. Because he’s got that gift, he doesn’t have to work too hard to put on a good show. That means he’ll skip right over his pre-show prep work and just turn on the microphone and start talking without developing his ideas, good content, and a direction for which he wants to take each show.
I have really clamped down on his pre-show prep work so that he’s doing his research, he’s looking things up, he’s developing questions for guests that are meaningful which makes for better shows. One of his most recent guests kept gushing over how prepared he was, and I think those compliments fueled him to want to do more thought-provoking shows that require him to do a little more work on the front end. If I can get him to work a little bit harder on the front end, the sky's the limit for my boy. But that front end work, ooh child, that’s, that’s a biggie right there.
Cameron Goes to School, your best-selling children’s book, supports kids and families affected by Autism spectrum disorder. Did podcasting lead to writing the book?
The book and the podcast came together at the same time. The podcasting platform launched February 1, 2020 in honor of Black History Month. The book came out April 1, 2020, in honor of Autism Awareness Month. Thank God I’ve had a busy 2020. I originally wanted my first book to be Taking Authority Over Autism, which is the title of my podcast on SHElettaMakesMeLaugh.
But when I was talking with my publisher at Beaver’s Pond Press, she didn’t like that idea at all. She had fallen in love with my children. I have four kids: Andrew is 13, Brandon is 7, Cameron is 6, and Daniel is 5. Brandon, Cameron and Daniel all have been diagnosed with autism. They’re the cutest and most lovable children you’ll ever meet.
Lily Coyle, the publisher and co-author of Cameron Goes to School, developed an amazing bond with my daughter and felt the first book I wrote should be about her. So we started talking about Cameron’s amazing journey trying to come up with topics. When she was first diagnosed with autism at two years old, experts said her case was so severe that she’d never be able to learn.
Well, fast forward four years and a lot of answered prayers later, and Cameron has tested off the spectrum and is in a classroom with her regular-developing peers with no special supports. Lily thought her journey to kindergarten would be empowering for children on the spectrum, especially girls, and offer hope to parents. She was right! The book has been a blessing to so many little black girls who have autism.
If you could change one thing about the podcast industry, what would it be?
It all boils down to money. I’d love to find a way to make MORE money for myself and my fellow podcasters. Right now we’re doing some great work and amazing community outreach projects, but we aren’t putting food on the table. I want to be able to hire a staff and pay my people what they’re worth based on a steady stream of income. See, I’m not a financial person. I am a creative. So I’ve gotten busy creating this amazing podcasting platform to celebrate people of color. Now I just gotta figure out how to pay for it.
As SHEletta Makes Me Laugh continues to grow, what vision do you have for the future?
I want to do more community outreach programs on a large scale. I want to partner with other podcasters from across the country to help underserved people live their best lives. Whether it’s online autism workshops or mental health summits for teens or business seminars for upstarts, I enjoy connecting people to resources and information.
When George Floyd was murdered, folks connected to our local sports teams were calling asking me how they could help because they know I’m out in the community every single day making a difference. I was able to put them in touch with churches or nonprofits that were helping people rebuild their neighborhoods.
When there is a problem with my people I like to try and help to solve it. For me, podcasting ain’t about just talking in front of a microphone, this is a platform to make positive change in the lives of other people. That’s what it’s all about for me. The more people I can help, the better.