John Biewen is a journalist and documentarian. He directs the audio program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University where he produces the two-time Peabody Award-nominated podcast, Scene on Radio.

This podcast dares to ask the hard questions. It goes deep and covers topics such as:

  • What is the origin of racism?
  • What’s up with white people?
  • Why is it important to examine our dubious past?
  • Are we at the end of democracy?
  • Do you think there will be a civil war?
  • Is there still time to save ourselves?

Let’s just say that it’s a good thing that I don’t have self-governing status in Florida. If you know what I mean.
John is also the co-editor of the book Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, and has produced for This American Life, Studio 360, American RadioWorks, and the BBC World Service.

Enjoy this interview with John Biewen!

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with John Biewen:

Guy Kawasaki:

I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. I'm on a mission to make you remarkable.

Today's guest is John Biewen.

He is a journalist and documentarian. He directs the audio program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. There, he produces the two-time Peabody-Award-nominated podcast Scene on Radio.

This episode dares to ask the hard questions. It goes deep and covers topics such as; what is the origin of racism, what's up with white people, why is it important to examine our dubious past, are we at the end of democracy, will there be a civil war, and is there still time to save democracy?

Let's just say that it's a good thing that I don't have self-governing status in Florida, if you know what I mean.

John is also the co-editor of the book Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, and has produced This American Life, Studio 360, American RadioWorks, and the BBC World Service.

I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.

Now, off we go with John Biewen into a disturbing episode of Remarkable People.

I read and listened to some of your past work, and there is one train of thinking there that I must admit, made my head explode, and that is your explanation of the origin of racism.

John Biewen:

Let's start with what maybe I think a lot of us imagine.

I guess I'll speak for myself in saying that I think the important thing about what I imagined before I really researched this question was that it happened in a way that was natural, that people back in history traveled to different parts of the world and they encountered each other and noticed these differences, "These people's skin is a different color from mine. They dress differently. They don't live the way I do," and that there was a tendency to have prejudice toward people who were different, and that led to this ideology that one whole group of people was inferior to another, and that it was unfortunate and that it was wrongheaded, but that it was innocent at some level, that it was well-meaning at some level.

I think the important takeaway from what I have found by talking to scholars on this question is that that's not really how it went down, that it was, in fact, constructed. It was not a misunderstanding; it was a lie.

It was a lie that was designed to justify systems of exploitation and oppression that put one whole group of people in a different category that allowed a different group of people to enslave them. That's what we're talking about originally.

It was Western Europeans who, going back to the 1400s and into the 1500s and beyond, decided that they were going to go sail to West Africa and haul shiploads of African people to the Caribbean and to the New World, but also to other places, and have them work for free on their plantations as a way of building wealth, and that that was going to be justified with an understanding about those people being inferior, almost a different species. It was really quite conscious originally, I believe.

One historian that I spoke with, Ibram Kendi, who may be familiar to a lot of your listeners, he's a quite prominent anti-racist educator these days, and historian.

He points to a specific person, a Portuguese man named Gomes de Zurara, who wrote a book in the 1450s in which he, for the first time, really put together all of the people of Africa as being a distinct group of people who were inferior and “beastly”, to use his word.

When you think about it... think about it. Why are Africans one group of people? A funny thing about natural history, the natural history of our species, we all descended from Africans.

Africa, of course, was the birth of the race, the birthplace of the race, and most of the genetic diversity in our whole species is available just in Africa. There's this vastly diverse continent all by itself.

It's easy to see, from that perspective, how artificial it was for somebody to say, "Everybody in Africa, we're going to call them Black, and we're going to declare them inferior to white people in particular."

Then some of the other groupings, what we now would talk about as Asian people or Native Americans, these sorts of other groups came later and inevitably were placed in the hierarchy between the white people, who are superior, at the top of the heap, and Black people, who are at the bottom.

It was slave traders who invented race as an important... The guy who wrote that book was writing a glorifying book about a guy named Henry the Navigator, who was a slave trader and a royal, essentially, with the Portuguese Crown in the 1400s.

Guy Kawasaki:

I'm sixty-seven years old, fairly well-educated. How could it be that I had never heard this theory before? This is not in any history book. It's not even in the Wikipedia entry for de Zurara.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around this, that I'd never heard this before.

John Biewen:

Well, interesting, right? I think what's interesting, we're in this time where there's a lot of controversy about critical race theory, CRT. This has come into the common parlance of all kinds of people, especially a lot of people who watch Fox News and so on.

CRT is actually quite obscure. It has to do with... It was described in law schools originally, and it's a pretty obscure set of theorizing.

The gist of really what's happening with that kind of panic and that kind of scare about, "Oh my gosh, they're teaching CRT in our schools," is about what actually is genuinely happening, which is that there is a growing of people, including teachers, who are learning more about the history of just how deep and pervasive our history of racism is, and of white supremacy, and teaching that history. And that's upsetting a lot of people.

But yes, I think in what you're pointing out, the fact that most of us hadn't learned these things... I'm sixty.

I learned these things about four or five years ago. I went my entire life not knowing this history as well, until I really asked specifically. I asked the question through a fourteen-part podcast series called Seeing White on our show Scene on Radio, really asked the question, where did racism come from? Who invented it, if it was invented, and why and how? And how did that really go down?

Most people, most of us don't really ask that question directly, and we certainly aren't taught it because, frankly, we live in a culture that was built on white supremacy and hasn't really gotten very far in facing up to and acknowledging our history and how we got here.

Guy Kawasaki:

What are the ramifications of racism being "invented" in the 1400s or 1500s? What does that now mean to a Black person if the Black person just learned this?

John Biewen:

Yeah, I think it might be more important what it means to a white person. But here's my experience. We have a lot of listeners who are Black and brown, and all sorts of listeners to our show.

I think what my experience is that Black people know one part of the message, for example, of that series, Seeing White. One central point of that message is that racism is deeper and more pervasive than most of us think, and I think most Black people know that. They don't need to be told that. They experience it.

But the other part is why, and how did we get here? What were the steps in the evolution of Western white supremacist culture? A lot of us, of every shade, have not learned that.

I think one of the reactions that I've heard from Black people is, "Okay, this helps me to understand how we got here and why the world that I live in is the way that it is."

I guess, for me, as a white person, one of the important ramifications is that it helps me to understand the persistence and the power of white supremacy.

If you understand that it's not just based on outdated prejudiced thinking, sort of like the flat Earth, but that it actually was motivated from the start by economic interests, frankly, and by systems that gave some people advantages and gave some people power over other people, when you understand that that's why racism was invented, it becomes easier to see why we still have it and why so many powerful people still go to work every day trying to protect that and to prop up those systems.

Actually, I think that's gotten easier to see in the last five years or so.

I was just engaging with a couple people on Twitter today about the fact that, as we pointed out on our podcast, in 2006, overwhelmingly the Republican Party voted to extend the Voting Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act that had been passed in 1965.

Congress had to, every few years, they would vote to extend it and to continue it. A lot of those same people who are Republican members of Congress today will not support the Voting Rights Act. They won't vote to restore the Voting Rights Act that was mostly struck down by the Supreme Court between then and 2013 or so.

Why? Interesting, right? George W. Bush signed it into law, the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. It was bipartisan, we want everybody to vote.

I think what's happened is that one of our major political parties has basically gone back in time and tried to dial back, decided that they're not actually for multiracial democracy, and that they can extend their power and stay in power by making it tougher for some people to vote, particularly Black people. I'm not into being really partisan, but I think that's just a reality of our time.

The point of that example is to say that these things are about follow the money and follow the power dynamics. The most important thing to talk about when you're talking about racism is not individual prejudice and bigotry.

That's one of the things that helps to perpetuate it, and they work in tandem, but that the fundamental dynamic is about money and power. That's why we got racism in the first place, and it's why it has such staying power, because it helps to leverage systems that advantage people who look like me.

Guy Kawasaki:

Now, let's say I'm a white nationalist, a Ku Klux Klan member, QAnon, whatever. Take one of those. I'm Alex Jones, and I somehow put on your podcast, or my podcast and I learned this very interesting fact that racism started for economic reasons.

What could possibly go through my mind next? Okay, so what, continue on or "Hmm. It's not founded on anything I believed"? You think any good can come of this for that kind of person?

John Biewen:

Well, I'll be honest and say that I think for that kind of person, I would very much doubt it, because I don't think the Alex Joneses of the world are much concerned about what's true. He's got a shtick. I would say that's equally true of the Tucker Carlsons of the world.

It's not about having an insight or learning some new fact and going, "Oh my gosh, I've been doing the wrong thing with my life." I don't concern myself really with whether they're sincere in their beliefs, because I think they're just married to a shtick and a position that they have, and it pays very well.

But I think there are lots of people, I do think there are lots of people, including lots of white people, and a whole bunch of them have listened to our podcast, who are open to seeing things differently and learning something that makes them think about these things differently.

Yeah, I guess those are the people that I'm more interested in than the Klansmen or the Alex Joneses of the world.

Guy Kawasaki:

So you would just write off the Klansmen and the Alex Joneses of the world and just focus on people who are either positive or neutral or educatable phenomena?

John Biewen:

I guess what I would say is, I wouldn't write them off in the sense that... There are people who've done some really interesting work with former Klansmen or for getting people out of white supremacist organizations, and that certainly does happen on an individual basis.

I guess, in a way, if I just think about it in terms of efficiency and a good use of my time, I don't feel like I'm probably the right person to reach those people, either because I just come from... I don't have a lot... I would be happy to sit down with any person in that situation and have a conversation, but I feel like, for me, if I can bring some history to bear that affects how people think, people who are, frankly, more like me...

The way that I say it for a long time is, in fact, I was raised in a liberal Democrat family in the Upper Midwest. I was definitely taught that racism is bad and wrong from a very early age, but I thought of myself as being one of the good ones and being innocent, and that was good enough.

I could go about my life because I was not one of the racists, those people over there, the Southern sheriff with the sunglasses or the Klansman or whatever. I was rooting for Black and brown people to overcome those other people over there who are racist.

The other thing that I've learned that's an important ramification of what we started talking about, about the real nature of racism, is that it has to do with systems, and it's systemic. You hear this term. People have started to hear this term more often, systemic racism.

Well, what does that mean? It's embedded in our systems.

If we just go about our lives, I'm actually still benefiting from white supremacy every day in ways that have to do with what my experience is if a cop pulls me over, to what happens if I apply for a job, to what happens if I want to try to live somewhere, buy a home.

If I just think of myself as standing outside that story, and I'm innocent and I'm on the sidelines, that's actually not true. I'm on the playing field, if you like. I'm in it. If I'm not actually working to point out the injustices and to change these systems, then I'm actually complicit.

I guess that's another really important takeaway for me. If I can help some well-meaning white people, and I would say, yes, Asian people and others, to see that and to see that we actually have to see how deep the racism is and how deeply we have to change the structures of our society and our institutions, and that we have to actually do something, then I think that's probably a better use of my time than trying to persuade an individual Klansman to see the light.

But hey, I would take a run at the Klansman if they want to have a chat.

Guy Kawasaki:

That sentiment that you just expressed about not just being in the stands but on the field and trying to do something, is why I invited you on this podcast, because I feel like I should do something with my following, my subscribers, my visibility, et cetera. It's not just to be fat and happy and recommend the next iPhone. It's to take on these issues.

Let's just say that is not a common attitude for tech influencers and entrepreneurs and stuff like that. They just want to run and avoid it. They don't want to risk losing followers. They don't want to antagonize potential sponsors, et cetera.

But, John, I'm sixty-seven. I just don't give a shit anymore. I'm more worried about my heritage and what I do for the world while I'm here than protecting my base of where I am. Anyway, enough of my lecture there.

John Biewen:

No, I appreciate that.

Guy Kawasaki:

The question is, as you, I believe, stated, in short, what's up with white people?

John Biewen:

Yeah, that's a question I pose at the beginning of a Ted Talk that I suspect you saw.

Yeah, well, I think it's all of the above. It's all the things that we're talking about. I think that most of us, as white people, are...

I'm going to refer again to this fourteen-part podcast series; it's called Seeing White. The show is Scene on Radio, S-C-E-N-E on Radio.

Season two of Scene on Radio is called Seeing White, and it's a fourteen part-series, roughly about eight hours altogether. We take people on a journey, some of which you and I have been talking about here.

We go back in history and go to the origins of white supremacy, and we move forward from there, how it was really codified into law and into our systems in colonial America and then in the United States. Black people were three-fifths of a person in the U.S. Constitution.

In 1790, when the first laws were passed by the new Congress, one of them said that to become a naturalized citizen of this country, you have to be a free white person.

From that moment on, racism has been embedded in our institutions. It's just a very familiar thing to say that it wasn't until 1965 that we even had a solid expectation that all Black people in this whole country should be allowed to vote, and we're still fighting over that now, over how easy or hard to make it for those people to vote, and what kind of roadblocks to put in front of them.

When you ask, "What's up with white people?" there's also just a lot of cultural elements that prevent us from seeing clearly just how much this society is designed for us. It was from the start, and in many ways it still is.

Those systems have never really been dismantled. They've been reformed. There have been updates, and there have been improvements, and there have been openings, but it's still the same country in many ways.

I think the fact that you could have Donald elected, and again, I'm sorry to my Republican friends and the Republicans in your audience. It's not a slam. It's not a partisan thing, I think, but to say that we had a more or less openly white supremacist person run for president and to be elected, although he got fewer votes than the other candidate.

He got the majority of white votes. The majority of white folks voted for him in 2016, and eighty-one million people voted for him in 2020.

I just think we're a white supremacist society. Part of the way whiteness works is that white people in particular are taught not to see it clearly. I think people of color can see it more clearly, generally, especially Black people.

People who are not white and live outside that bubble of advantage tend to see it more clearly. We are told a lot of stories about how wonderful and democratic and free our country is, so we need to be de-brainwashed, frankly, and that takes some time.

Guy Kawasaki:

A little semantical point here. Do you think that only white people are racist? Can't Asians be racist? Can't black people be racist?

John Biewen:

Oh, absolutely. Well, Asians can certainly be racist. See, one of the issues is that... And Black people can be racist in a certain sense.

One of the problems is that racism gets used in more than one way. If you're just talking about it as prejudice, everybody can be racist in that sense. Black people can hate white people, no question about it.

But as a system, and this is where you will sometimes see, particularly, more radical black people will say, "There's no such thing as black racism against white people." What they mean when they say that is that, in most situations, Black people don't have any power over white people.

Since white people hold most of the power, if you're talking about systems, it's anti-Black white racism that matters. Then by extension, you have white racism toward Asians, toward Latinos, Latinx people. Then, certainly, Asians can be racist toward black people or other brown people.

That's the distinction I would make, is between systemic racism, which pretty much has to do with this hierarchy in a white supremacist society, and then individual racism, which certainly we are all qualified and subject to being guilty of.

Guy Kawasaki:

What's the lesson from the early Irish experience in America? Is this white-on-white racism or white-on-white prejudice or-

John Biewen:

Well, yeah, and there's a book, I'm not sure I'm going to get the title exactly right, When the Irish Became White, something like that. People have pointed out that there were groups of people, not only the Irish, but Italians, white Jewish people, Slavs, for that matter, who were looked down upon and the victims of prejudice and discrimination by WASP-y white people, say, 100 years ago and more. There's no question that that was a reality.

There was a way in which they were not seen as white when those groups first came as immigrants, and then they earned their credentials as white people and were allowed to join the club at a certain point.

That doesn't change this persistent dynamic of white supremacy. It actually highlights how arbitrary it is, and that it's not about anything biological. It's not about anything real in that sense.

It's a socially constructed club, the membership of which can change over time. Yeah, it sounds funny now to say Irish people weren't white, but they were considered... Also, as well, in the UK and by English people, they were considered an inferior group of people, and a lot of the same sorts of stereotypes that were offered about Black people, for example, were used to describe Irish and Italians and other people at one time.

Guy Kawasaki:

But this wasn't an economic model so that you could have Irish slaves.

John Biewen:

True. No, true, but it was a way of keeping Irish people in check, or keeping them out of certain kinds of jobs and that sort of thing. Then you started to have people...

This is actually an important point, though. Nell Irvin Painter, who's a professor emerita historian from Princeton, who wrote the book called The History of White People, and she is in our podcast series as well, she points out that she actually disagrees with the idea that Irish, and those other groups were not considered white. What she would argue, at the time that they were discriminated against, what she would say is that they were the wrong kind of white.

She says if you want to see who was considered white, look at who could vote. The Irish were always allowed to vote, even though they were being discriminated against in jobs and they were victims of discrimination and hatred. Then they were allowed to get certain kinds of jobs.

There was the stereotype of the Irish police officer in New York City or Boston, or those kinds of things. Then they started to accrue more power, and you started to have Irish politicians and so on. Then just over time, we just kind of forgot about that thing that Irish were supposed to be inferior.

Guy Kawasaki:

Why didn't Black people make that transition?

John Biewen:

They were not allowed to. This is a common thing. I think a lot of people ask that question and also say, "What about East Asians?" East Asians do quite well by comparison. In fact, there's the dynamic now of elite educational institutions having disproportionate East Asian immigrants and Asian American students. I teach at Duke. It's true at Duke. It's true at Harvard.

John Biewen:

I think it's not that Black people somehow didn't get their act together to have that kind of success. It's that white supremacy has been more determined to keep Black people down and keep Black people at the bottom of that hierarchy.

Also, coming to this country as, say, an East Asian immigrant, even though in some cases Chinese people came over in the middle of the nineteenth century to work on the railroads and it was pretty rough, still, that's different from being in slavery for generations and generations and being torn completely apart from your cultural roots and from the way that you lived in your previous home, and then just turned loose when slavery ended, just literally sent out on the road with nothing, good luck to you, in a society that was still violently hostile to them and to their interests.

I think there are just ways in which the Black experience is unique in this country that helps to explain why... Of course, at the same time, a lot of Black people are very successful.

We have a bigger Black middle class than we've ever had. People have fought and have succeeded in striking ways. But the fact that, for example, Black people haven't had the same kind of educational attainment as Asian folks, I think there are reasons to explain that.

Guy Kawasaki:

Do you think we're on the brink of a civil war?

John Biewen:

Oh my gosh. Well, I certainly hope not. I don't know. I don't know. I think what I would say is that we are already in what I would call a cold civil war, where there's almost no kind of accommodation.

People see each other as enemies, not fellow citizens, to a disturbing degree. I'm worried about the coming few years deeply.

We did another series, our season four, which looked at American democracy and really asked the question. A lot of people would say we're in a crisis of democracy, and that we have been in the last few years, and we asked, "Well, when was the U.S. not?"

And to look at it deeper, again, similar to white supremacy in a way, to go back and look at the origins of our democratic dysfunction and, actually, the persistent anti-democratic forces that have been at play in the U.S. from its beginnings and before.

Yeah, I think we're in a particularly acute moment where we could tip in the next few years into, essentially, one-party rule. Unfortunately, it seems like one of our two major political parties is more or less united in trying to take us there.

Going back to what I said earlier in the interview, almost all Republicans in Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 2006, and George W. Bush signed it. None of them will support it now, not one Republican member of Congress. Wow. What happened?

I think what has happened is that, through a series of events over the last fifteen years, with the Supreme Court and people like Sarah Palin, and them being just a huge step in the direction of people permission to more or less openly to oppose democracy, and to oppose multiracial democracy, to the point where there are very, very few elected members of the Republican Party who will defend multiracial democracy at this point. That's a crisis.

Guy Kawasaki:

Do you think it's too late? Do we still have time to save democracy? Or do you look at it and you say, "Well, those clowns in Arizona didn't find anything. Nothing happened.

The secretaries of state seem to have, regardless of their party affiliation, they have seemed to have fulfilled their role properly. There's been some stress tests, but largely democracy has passed"? Or do you say, "Holy shit, this is the beginning of the end"?

John Biewen:

Yeah. No, I'm glad that we got through 2020, that the January sixth attempt really failed, basically, at least at that time, that you had enough Republicans in key positions who said no to just overthrowing the results of the election and respected the will of the voters.

But what we see since then is efforts in those same states, it seems, to set things up so that the result could be different next time, to put people in positions of power in running elections so that partisans can decide and declare the winner if they're not happy with the one that the voters picked, and to make it harder for people who vote Democratic, but especially Black people, to vote.

Yeah, and the courts, in many cases, allowing those things to happen.

It's deeply troubling. I'm concerned. Yeah, I hope that the Democrats will pass... I just have to say it, just from a standpoint of whether you care about democracy, that we have to be in a moment where...

There are actually quite a few Republicans who have said this now, including former people who spent their lives trying to get Republicans elected, like Michael Steele or some people, who basically have said, "We have to support the Democratic Party right now because the Democratic Party is the pro-democracy party, and the Republican Party, for the most part, unfortunately, is not."

I'm very worried about the next few years. Yeah. Ask my wife. I obsess about it.

Guy Kawasaki:

I don't know, maybe this is better posed to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but do you have any insight into what goes through their brain that they think this is the right thing to do and winnable? What goes through Jim Jordan's brain or Mitch McConnell's brain that says, "Yep, I'm doing the right thing for democracy. I'm doing the right thing for society, for government, for everything"?

Maybe I'm just too liberal. How do you get to that point where you support some of this stuff?

John Biewen:

I do think that some of those people are convinced that... It might even be some sincerity. I think they're driven mostly by power. I think Mitch McConnell is driven mostly by wanting to have power.

There have been some pretty penetrating profiles of him in The New Yorker and other places, people who've known him for a long time, including people who are members of his party and are friends, who basically say he's interested in one thing, and that's power.

Anything that will get the U.S. Senate back into Republican hands and so he can be the majority leader, that's what he wants.

I think some of those people are also convinced that the world is better in a conservative society with very little government, run by the captains of industry, none of this lefty social engineering stuff, and that democracy is less important than conservatives being in power, and so that's that, that it's okay.

Actually, we examine this in our season four series, where you have Stephen Moore, he was associated with in some ways, and he's literally said these words, "Capitalism is more important than democracy." He says, "I don't really care that much about protecting democracy. We need to protect capitalism first and foremost." I think that's a revealing statement.

Then you get into this business of... The establishment of the Democratic Party is a capitalist party. Come on, let's be real. But if you then are going to also make these accusations, "They're a bunch of socialists. They're Marxist. They're trying to take us down some crazy, tyrannical left-wing road," then you can justify some pretty extreme actions to protect the country from these terrible lefties, including shoving democracy aside and the will of the voters, because the voters, especially those Black people and people like me, they're not real Americans anyway.

We shouldn't be listening to them, and we shouldn't feel too bad about them not having a say in what kind of society they live in, because it's not their country, immigrants. It all holds together, doesn't it?

Guy Kawasaki:

Let's switch gears for a sec. Can we talk about audio journalism, because that's what you are, right, an audio journalist?

John Biewen:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Guy Kawasaki:

First of all, because I'm interested, as a podcaster, to talk to someone as accomplished as you in this field, at a very basic level, what makes a good audio journalist?

John Biewen:

Oh my gosh. I guess what makes a good journalist is curiosity, passion. I think, actually, and my take on this might have shifted some over the years because I worked in the public radio system for a long time, which although it often is stereotyped as being left-leaning, and maybe it is a little bit left-leaning compared to some organizations, if you're working in a public radio newsroom, you are certainly taught the conventions of objectivity and of keeping your own opinions out of it.

Maybe it's partly because of the conversation we've been having in the moment we're in historically, is that I think being a journalist is actually to care a lot about the direction of society, and in particular, right now, to care about democracy.

I think one thing that can be frustrating is when journalists sometimes, I think, can get so caught up in being "objective" and in doing the both-sides thing, "On the one side, this. On the one hand, this; on the other hand, that," they can fail to be advocates for democracy. I think democracy is one of those things that we shouldn't have to be... We shouldn't have to both-sides.

Sometimes you'll see in the mainstream media, people will say, "Oh, in Texas, they are passing a law that is going to make it much harder to do mail-in voting, or they're going to take away almost all of the drop boxes in the county where Houston is, for example, and this is a victory for Republicans." It's not a victory for Republicans. It's a disaster for democracy, especially if you're going to have an election during a pandemic, when all those drop boxes are doing is making it easier and safer for the citizens of Houston to vote.

I think we should feel just fine about having certain kinds of biases, certainly a bias toward democracy. I've gotten very comfortable with that in the last few years. I don't mind being biased in favor of democracy.

Yeah, those are some things. I don't know if I'm answering the question in the way that you want.

Journalism… I come from a background in which I've done lots of work that involves using sound, and scene, and some music, and so there's a lot of craft in terms of pacing and space, and that it's timed.

It plays out like a film, and that's something that I put a lot of energy into. I take a lot of joy from crafting an audio presentation.

Guy Kawasaki:

Can we geek out a little along those subjects?

John Biewen:


Guy Kawasaki:

I'm really interested. All right, so tell me if this is too tactical, but I'm really interested in what you're going to say.

As a podcaster, I can tell you that when I interview some very, very famous remarkable people in a one-hour interview, they say “um, uh, you know, well”, 200, 300 times.

Literally, they have 200 or 300 filler words in an hour. Are you of the school of thought of, "That's what they said. We're just going to put it out there," or are you of the school of thought of, "Let's make this cleaner. Take out the filler words"?

John Biewen:

I think I've probably had more than my quota of all of those words in this interview. I've been aware of my hesitations and my uhs and my likes. Well, so-

Guy Kawasaki:

There you go.

John Biewen:

... since what I'm doing... There I go, right?

What I do is not an interview show. It's produced. We style things, so it is pretty heavily edited. I feel fine about... I don't take them all out, but I'll take a good number of them out, just to keep it moving, especially if I feel like it's bogging down a little bit because this person says six, eight times in thirty seconds, which some people do. I will take out most of them.

Yeah, I'll do that, but not all. I'll try to keep a few in to preserve the sense that this isn't a speech, that this was said off the top of the head, and so you're hearing them think out loud and so on.

What's your take on that?

Guy Kawasaki:

My take on that is that I want my guests to be portrayed and communicated as the most remarkable, educated, insightful people in the world, so I take out almost everything.

John Biewen:

Thank you.

Guy Kawasaki:

There are some uhs and ums, but mostly I take them out because I want people to say, "Oh my God, I never knew that person was so smart, such a great communicator, so expressive," et cetera.

John Biewen:

Yeah. Thoughts were so well-organized.

Guy Kawasaki:


John Biewen:

I will move words around within, say, a paragraph that somebody speaks, not to change the meaning. In thirty-five years of doing this, I've never had anybody say that I took something out of context or changed the meaning of what they've said.

But you can make it a little more coherent, maybe, by reorganizing the paragraph a little bit, and I will do that. Yeah.

Guy Kawasaki:

I have been a guest on NPR many times, and there is this standard that, prior to the pandemic, you had to be there in person because telephonic interview was just not to the quality of NPR.

Obviously, that has changed. Where are our standards now for recording? Post-pandemic, do you think NPR is going to say, "Nope, Guy, you've got to come into our studio at KQED if you want to be on"?

John Biewen:

Yeah, good question. I don't know.

For me, I would ordinarily, even with doing this podcast, I would not do a phone interview. Usually, I was not working on a tight deadline, so I would have the time to set up. We would do one of a couple things, have a tape sync, where I would hire somebody... If you're in San Francisco, I'd hire somebody in San Francisco to come to your house or your office and sit with you and record your end, and we'd talk on the phone.

They would record you and send me that file. That's an in-person quality interview, or I would ask you to go to the studio, like that example.

With the pandemic, where we couldn't do those things, I started using phone apps, where I would have people record themselves on their smartphone. There are a couple of apps. There's one called Talk Sync. There's one that any smartphone can get that's called Voice Record Pro.

Smartphones have pretty decent microphones. I'd ask them to hold it right here, like they would mic themselves pretty close, as we talk, say, on Zoom or the phone, and record themselves and send me that.

Some of those recordings came out better than others, frankly. A couple times we've had to just use Zoom recordings, which I don't really like, but we've done that and it's not the end of the world.

Yeah, I think maybe that's healthy that the standards don't always have to be at the very top of the line and you just take what you can get, given the way the world is.

But yeah, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know. Are we going to get past this pandemic, do you think? You're making an assumption there, Guy, that there's going to be an after.

Guy Kawasaki:

Not if the white people can help it.

I would just love to know, what is your favorite microphone?

John Biewen:

I'm going to go with this one because... It's not the best microphone in the world, but I like it because it's cheap. It's actually the microphone that I'm recording myself on right now. I once had a studio engineer at a really excellent professional studio tell me that this microphone is like the poor man's Neumann.

It's an Audio-Technica... I want to get this right because I often have trouble.

Here we go. Audio-Technica Pro Thirty-Seven.

I haven't looked at the price lately, but it's less than 200 bucks, and it's very small. It's actually made for studio work. It's made to be clipped in front of, or something like that, in front of a music studio. It's surprisingly, for that price, clean.

I've been using it for years for the podcast. I think my voice sounds good on it, and I like it. It's one that you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on, so I hope that maybe there are other podcasters out there who would hear that.

Look it up. Look it up. Audio-Technica Pro Thirty-Seven.

Guy Kawasaki:

Okay. People listening to this, they agree about racism, threat to democracy, et cetera. What should they do?

John Biewen:

I don't have a simple answer to that question because I think it really depends on the person. I would say, if I were going to try to give a short answer to that, it would be, figure out where you can engage.

What's the thing that you can do? Can you write checks? Some of it is getting people elected. Frankly, we need to get Democrats elected so that we have a Democratic majority that can pass voting rights bills, for example. Or support organizations that are doing pro-democracy work.

I think on racism, most people work in some sort of an organization where they can try to engage and be on the side of anti-racist efforts in their organization; instead of being the white person who sits at the back of the room and is annoyed that they have to go to the diversity and equity meeting, to be on the side of your Black and brown colleagues in favor of change and equity.

Guy Kawasaki:

Okay. I hope that this episode has given you a new perspective on racism in America. It is a problem that is deeply rooted in our society.

John is doing his part, and I hope we can all do our part to help end this heinous practice.

I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.

My thanks to Jeff Sieh, Peg Fitzpatrick, Shannon Hernandez, Luis Magana, Alexis Nishimura, and Madisun Nuismer.

Until next time, Mahalo and Aloha.