Arts

Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings of ‘For Colored Nerds’ Play for Keeps

On a cold afternoon in late February, Eric Eddings, a podcast producer and host, texted a pre-emptive apology to Brittany Luse, his friend and longtime creative partner. “Hey, I’m about to do this, I’m sorry,” he wrote.

Then he published a series of tweets that blew up both of their lives.

In the tweets, Eddings, who, with Luse, cocreated and hosted a podcast about Black culture called “The Nod,” came forward with allegations of harassment and racial discrimination at their former workplace, Gimlet Media, a podcast company. The specifics of the allegations — involving two of Eddings’s former colleagues who worked on another Gimlet podcast called “Reply All” — were personal and complicated. But their broad outline traced several of the biggest issues facing major media companies today, including the overwhelming whiteness of staff, the off-duty conduct of star reporters and a growing labor movement.

Eddings, who knew from experience that addressing racial injustice at work could create intense blowback, wondered at the time if he had irradiated his career. “I had been really nervous about what might be next — or might not be next — if I spoke up,” he said, in a recent interview.

But what actually happened was at once more hopeful and more daunting.

This week, Eddings and Luse are back with a new podcast, “For Colored Nerds,” their first since leaving Gimlet in January 2020. The series, a playfully erudite conversation show about hot topics in Black culture (the history of “passing,” Lawrence from “Insecure”), is a reboot of their first podcast, which they ran together independently from 2014 to 2017.

This time, “For Colored Nerds” is co-produced and distributed by the podcast publisher Stitcher, owned by SiriusXM, with Eddings and Luse retaining full ownership and creative control. The deal, uncommon at major media companies, who tend to guard potentially lucrative intellectual property, was the result of a conversation that began when Stitcher’s former chief financial officer, Sarah van Mosel, saw Eddings’s Twitter thread. The company separately hired Eddings as its director of lifestyle programming.

For Eddings, 35, and Luse, 34, the new arrangement meant much more than the chance to have their own show again. The pair, who met at Howard University over 15 years ago, have been navigating a perilous media landscape — often more so for people of color — for nearly as long. In the aftermath of the Gimlet episode, what they most wanted was a new paradigm that would allow them to make creatively fulfilling work without injuring themselves, or anyone else, in the process.

“I think Eric and I just want to be responsible citizens and colleagues in the spaces that we occupy,” said Luse. “That’s really the only thing that we’ve been striving for this whole time.”

“It’s exciting to be back in the doing of it,” Eddings said. “We really do love this stuff.”Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times

Eddings and Luse first met in 2005 through mutual friends. Eddings, a sophomore from Memphis studying advertising, thought Luse was fun at parties. Luse, a freshman from Detroit studying film, admired Eddings’s infectious ambition. Both had similarly irreverent senses of humor and loved to dig into provocative subjects (art, race, politics, relationships).

After graduating in the recession era, both groped toward the semblance of a career path. Luse moved back in with her parents and worked a series of internships and low-level clerical jobs at companies undergoing mass layoffs. She says she quit a full-time position in 2011 after being sexually harassed. The following year, Luse got a call from Eddings, who was working as a social media producer in New York. He pushed her to come to the city, offering the futon of his shared two-bedroom apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, as a landing pad.

“It was a classically Eric thing to do,” Luse said. “Look — you ain’t got no job. Come stay with us until you get on your feet.”

In late 2013, the two were several baskets of hot wings into one of their marathon conversations when they had the idea to start a podcast. The Podcasts app for the iPhone had arrived only the year before, and Eddings and Luse saw in the rising medium a potential home and precious creative outlet. Riffing on the playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, they conceived the show’s title as both a beacon and a filter — as a later tagline would put it, these were “the conversations that Black people have when white people aren’t in the room.”

In turning to podcasts as a productive space for Black creative expression, Eddings and Luse were in good company. Between 2013 and 2016, an entire field of Black podcasts bloomed, including “The Read,” “Bodega Boys,” “Another Round,” “Still Processing” and “2 Dope Queens.” The pattern was a familiar development in the history of American media, from the emergence of cinema and basic cable in the 20th century, to the arrival of YouTube and streaming in the 21st. Black creators, under- or misrepresented in existing media, flocked to the new landscapes in search of greener pastures.

“It was the beginning of folks realizing that we could be a force in this industry,” Eddings said. “People were hungry to hear other people who thought like they thought, who had experiences that they recognized from their own lives.”

In early 2015, Apple featured “For Colored Nerds” in the “New and Noteworthy” section of the Podcasts app, greatly increasing the show’s reach. Among the new fans were executives at Gimlet Media — then a fast-growing start-up and the maker of hit shows like “StartUp” and “Reply All” — who hired Luse as the company’s first Black employee in September of that year.

“I was 27 and had constantly been changing jobs; no one had ever taken an interest in me or my skills professionally,” said Luse. “For them to say, ‘There’s more for you here, you could have a career,’ was the wildest thing to me. It was really amazing to hear that.”

Eddings joined Luse at Gimlet a few months later, in 2016. That year, the two pitched what eventually became “The Nod,” effectively a beefed-up version of “For Colored Nerds” that focused on unsung figures of Black history. The show was initially rejected, they say, after members of senior management told them they couldn’t “hear” it, meaning imagine the final product. Luse said she was additionally warned that podcasts about race are difficult to sell ads for. A representative for Spotify, which acquired Gimlet in 2019, declined to comment for this article.

Undeterred, Eddings and Luse secretly developed a meticulous prototype of the show that they say won enthusiastic approval. But more points of friction emerged after production began. Eddings and Luse say they were consistently overworked and second-guessed while making “The Nod.” Often, they felt like they had to justify or explain their stories to a degree that wasn’t expected of their white peers.

“It was always I can’t hear it or What does this mean? or Why is this important?” said Luse. “We were having those conversations all the time.”

“I think Eric and I just want to be responsible citizens and colleagues in the spaces that we occupy,” Luse said. “That’s really the only thing that we’ve been striving for this whole time.”Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times

Though “The Nod” was celebrated by critics, Eddings and Luse grew increasingly frustrated at Gimlet. Things came to a head in 2019, when they became involved with an effort to unionize the company’s staff.

As with other digital media companies that have unionized in recent years, including BuzzFeed News and Vox Media, the unionization campaign at Gimlet was motivated, in part, by a desire to create better working conditions for employees of color. But pushback from management and their allies was fierce. Eddings, who recounted his experiences in his viral Twitter thread from February, says he and other pro-union colleagues received hostile messages, including one that used an unprintable word to call him a piece of excrement.

When Eddings and Luse left Gimlet in January 2020, it spelled the end of “The Nod” podcast, which remained owned by Spotify. (From March 2020 until it shuttered in October, the mobile streaming platform Quibi licensed “The Nod” brand for a daily video series hosted by the duo.)

While negotiating the resurrection of “For Colored Nerds” with Stitcher, Eddings and Luse made ownership of the show’s distribution feed and intellectual property a mandatory condition of their agreement. Peter Clowney, vice president of content at Stitcher, said the company prides itself on offering “flexible” business models that “accommodate what the creator’s needs are.”

“It’s not just about ownership — it’s about investing in something,” he said, adding that Stitcher will receive an undisclosed share of ad revenue from “For Colored Nerds.”

The new version of the show, produced by Kameel Stanley, an executive producer at Stitcher, will publish weekly and feature interviews and talk-show games with celebrities and newsmakers. An episode released on Tuesday included an interview with the actor Jay Ellis from “Insecure”; Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, will appear on a future episode about The Times’s “1619 Project.”

“I hope the show sets a new precedent for what people can expect when they partner with these larger companies,” said Ashley C. Ford, author of the memoir “Somebody’s Daughter” and a freelance podcast host. “You should want to work with your talent, not control or exploit them.”

On an afternoon early last week, eight days before their show was scheduled to debut, Eddings and Luse had a more modest agenda to attend to. There were episodes to edit, ads to record, social media posts to agree on and a dozen other little items on their to-do list.

They were, in other words, back to work. But this time with no one to answer to but themselves.

“It’s exciting to be back in the doing of it,” said Eddings. “We really do love this stuff.”

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