For this edition of In the Industry from Home, we get acquainted with London-based journalist, artistic programmer, and mastermind behind award-winning podcast Stance, Chrystal Genesis.
- Producer, BBC
- MA Global History, Birkbeck, University of London
- Postgraduate Diploma, Broadcast Journalism, London College of Communication (UAL)
- BA Journalism, London College of Communication (UAL)
- @ChrystalGenesis (Twitter)
- @chrystalgenesis (IG)
Galvanised by a life-long curiosity for the underreported and underrepresented, Chrystal Genesis has been disrupting the media and arts and culture sectors for over a decade.
Formerly a producer at the BBC in the UK and the States, she is most commonly recognised now for her work with Stance – an independent, arts and culture podcast centred around amplifying diverse and marginalised voices from across the world. Widely praised for its frank, ear-to-the-ground journalism and knack for unearthing new perspectives, since its conception in 2017, Stance has featured some of the most pioneering cultural tastemakers of our time: think sprawling conversations with the likes of Juliana Huxtable, Kindness, Jemma Desai, Akram Khan, and Travis Alabanza, mixed in with deep dives into Manchester’s LGBTQ+ history, the class ceiling in the arts, and nightclubs as hotbeds for counterculture and resistance.
Alongside the podcast, amongst an array of other things, Chrystal works with the wider Stance Media group, doing consultancy and creating audio content – most recently The Art of Comedy and The Art of Love podcasts with the Tate. She also produces the Huffington Post’s Am I making You Uncomfortable? podcast series and manages the Young People’s Programme at the Southbank Centre, devising workshops, courses and performance programmes for 15 to 30s.
The core goal that lies at the heart of every pursuit though, is her desire to platform and carve out space for marginalised voices in our cultural and social ecology. Be it through audio, artistic programming, production or consultancy, Chrystal has spent her entire career asking the questions that no one else will. In our chat, we get to grips on how to monetise a side project without selling out, essential experience for artistic programming, and why speaking up is one of the most powerful tools we have.
I’m Chrystal Genesis - I’m a journalist and a podcast host. I run Stance, which is an arts and culture podcast with a bit of current affairs and politics. More broadly, we have Stance Media, where we make audio content, events and consultations for different companies, charities and brands around podcasting or arts and cultural events.
What does your average week look like? And has it changed a lot since lockdown came into place?
My average week is like a puzzle - there’s different things that I kind of slot in. For me, it hasn’t changed that much because I spend half of my time working from home anyway. The only difference is I’m not in the office working at Southbank Centre where I run the Young People’s Programme.
It’s become busier outside of Southbank for the work that I do around Stance and making content. In terms of Stance podcast, we’ve obviously lost a bit of money because people didn’t have any events to sponsor. So, that was a bit of a shame and, obviously, not doing any travelling or events as well. But, we’ve been able to kind of diversify and I think that’s the amazing thing about podcasts – in an industry which is still new-ish, there are no real hard and fast rules. So, for someone like me, that works really well because you can be creative about how you monetise it and how you build the right kind of relationships, where people actually understand what you’re trying to do, rather than just throwing a bit of cash at you So, I’m hoping that that’s what we’ll be doing a bit more of.
What was the initial thought process behind creating Stance?
The core purpose was a kind of transatlantic conversation - it was always about doing a podcast that was different. I started it with a girl called Heta Fell who now does amazing stuff outside of it and is back in the UK. But, the core of it has always been the same, which is about global perspectives on arts, culture and politics. I used to say it was all about re-ordering the hierarchy, but I don’t think that’s true at all actually. It’s about putting people at the centre who ask really interesting questions and pushing things forward in different ways.
I suppose part of it was to counteract a lot of the hate that was happening. I worked in the media, so I could see how misinformation was happening or how information was being passed onto journalists who didn’t necessarily understand the context and then when they handed that over to listeners, viewers, and the general public, it wasn’t being done well. Like, the stuff that was happening in the run up to Brexit - I saw all this stuff and was like “I don’t want to be part of it, number one. Number two, what can I do to showcase all the amazing stuff that people are doing?” And then also just being part of something as well in the only way that I knew that I could, which was through journalism and artsy stuff.
How do you go about planning the curation and programming for each episode?
So, I have three producers who work with me freelance and they do a few days. We’re quite a slim team because, obviously, it’s independent and we don’t have press or marketing or anything like that. Some of it will be inspired by conversations that we have had on other shows or it might be so tiny… anything can spark a conversation. It could be talking to someone on the street. It could be a word that I might have started to see a lot. It’s very much ear-to-the-ground type stuff. I’ve always been curious about what people are expressing. A lot of the time I’ll also think “okay this big thing is happening, a big topic. But, everyone is doing it in this way and there’s a lot of context around there. How about I flip it or do it from that way.” Or it can just be sparked by something thematic - I might have an idea based on a theme and then that theme will just grow based on further research.
So, I might say I want to do something around health. I’m really interested in mental health misdiagnosis because it’s obviously massive in the BAME community and my family is Caribbean so it’s obviously massive there. I look at things like that and I’ll say to the producer, “this is the topic, try and pull out some ideas.” Then they’ll send me lots of different stuff - journal articles or YouTube videos or that kind of thing - and I’ll go through them and say zoom in on this. Then they’ll give me a bit of research in a particular area and I’ll decide what are the key lines I want to go with. So, it’s like a narrowing down and then I’ll do the interview and cut the interview.
Do you think the DIY nature of the podcast and audio format complements the kind of left-field journalism that you do?
I think it’s amazing. I just came off the phone with a journalist called Lory Martinez who will guest co-host Stance with me, she runs Studio Ochenta podcasting network out of Paris, and we're so interested in this. She says that over there, in a place like France where there are so many rules and lots of red tape, podcasting is a space where there are no rules yet. So, loads of people – especially minorities – are out there making podcasts, being really successful and being supported by brands and stuff. Whereas, if they tried to do it through a normal way like Radio France, it wouldn’t happen! They would say no. How exciting is that? No more waiting for someone to say yes, you can just do it.
We do need to make sure that we’re still training people up and giving them opportunities as well because it is difficult. I’ve been editing stuff for decades and I’m still not amazing, I feel it is important to say that – Stance isn’t perfect. We still need to give people the tools. But, the great thing is that we don’t need some faceless person to say yes or no - you can just do your idea. The problem with a lot of these faceless people is that their ideas are quite dry so they’ll water yours down based on some vision they have that doesn’t make sense. So, you can take control, which I think is great. And, most importantly, a lot of these projects will lead to future work! The more you’re doing your own thing, the more desirable, I think.
Do you have any advice on how to pivot side projects into primary career paths or how to monetise them without “selling out”?
That whole idea of selling out is such a complex thing you don’t want to be partnering with GlaxoSmithKline or BAE Systems or whatever. But, it’s interesting because the opposite of selling out is maybe going to institutions or charities. But, they’re also run by similar people who wouldn’t necessarily give you a chance, long term commitment or the right budget. There are so many nuances in this and sometimes it is better going to brands who just want to get your audience and it’s quite a straight forward exchange. Now, I’m definitely not 100% pro-brand because, obviously, there is a very use-y mentality to it. But, it can sometimes feels more honest in a way compared to institutions.
It’s complicated. But, what I would say is that it needs to be a project that you love, not a project that you think “this is really cool right now.” It should be something that you’re passionate about. But, don’t limit yourself and don’t be worried about approaching someone high up and seeing if you can get a meeting with them and being really clear about what you want. Also, ask lots of people about what you need in order to make money - like I didn’t know about all this stuff with media packs where you talk about who you are and what you’ve done. It’s like your story and your values, but also a bit about your data and the people that you reach and that kind of stuff. Obviously, as you’re developing, you won’t have all that. But, the point is that you need to put what you have into something that looks visually nice and is very clear and condensed.
I also think that one of the most important things is really thinking things through properly before doing it. Don’t rush anything, take your time. Push back your deadline if it’s not ready because it’s better to release something that’s consistent and clear, rather than something that’s just not good because you won’t feel proud of it and then you’ll drop it. Also, don’t give yourself a hard time because no one is perfect and no one creates perfect audio. Just try and do what you can in order to further your project and learn about how to make more money, from media packs, from emailing people, from contacting press and saying “hi I’ve started a project, would you be interested?” It’s about looking at people who are doing stuff that you like, but you want to do it in a different way and getting their advice. I hopefully think that if you see a gap and you’re passionate about it, that it will eventually start making you more income. We only made income, I think, after the first year or so.
Can you break down a bit more what your artistic programming role at Southbank Centre entails or some projects you’ve worked on?
I’m the Creative Learning Manager for young people. Everything that I do is free, for a start. We run free monthly podcasting courses, we have different events connected to youth culture and discussions that young people are having, and a lot of the time it’s connected to artistic programme. So, Angie Thomas and her book “On the Come Up” was doing a thing at Southbank and we responded to that by doing a piece about women in grime because the book was about female musicians. I also worked with the Hayward Gallery for the Kader Attia exhibition which was called “The Museum of Emotion” with Skin Deep magazine and Blackcurrant Productions. They created digital content, photography and a film, which showcased at the Hayward Gallery and we had an exhibition and then the live event. So, a lot of it is collaboration. I’ll get people in and get them to run the projects in collaboration with me - I’m the middle person really.
So, someone might give me an idea and say “I want you to do an event about this project, it seems really dry, but how can we make it interesting?” And I’ll say, “well, we can bring it here, have a workshop here, how about we have a performance here, this would be a really interesting interactive panel here, or I know this art installation here”. I’ll basically bring together the different people that I might have met or the things that I might have read or an account that I might have followed and then it’ll just come out like that. I tend to think in a cross-arts way when I’m programming and about people who I want to work with.
In your programming work with Southbank, you do a lot of work with grassroots organisations and marginalised creatives on the ground. How do you make sure this outreach and engagement work moves beyond a simply extractive and superficial relationship, into a collaborative and mutually beneficial one?
I’m really clear and when I say to someone that I’m interested in what you want to have in this space and your ideas, I actually mean it. I don’t mean I’m going to write it down and then re-hash it. I also talk about money early on. So, I will say “look, this is my budget – I can be a bit flexible, but not really because this is the budget that I have to programme. This is what we’ve got for the whole year and this is how it works out.” I’ll break it down and say that I don’t want you to do more work than you should and I feel like this is the right budget for it based on how I’ve worked it out, but I’m happy to be led with you on this.
I’m very clear about the fact that I’m not using them. That’s why I’m getting in contact with them because they’re the ones making work that’s interesting for a start! I’m just interested in hearing stuff to make it better, so people want to come in because I think that’s another thing. A lot of people don’t necessarily want to go into arts organisations because they think they’re quite dry and boring and they are a lot of the time because it’s being done by certain groups. I’m also really interested in doing work not in Southbank. So, going into areas and running programmes.
I do think that a lot of things are told in a really boring, generic and mediocre way in terms of stories, journalism and arts. I know it seems really harsh. But, that’s why we need fresh ideas and why we need different people with different experiences. We’re still not really being as ambitious as we could be. Now this is the time that people are putting their demands in, how are we going to do this in a way that feels like it’s better and not repeating patterns? I’m always thinking about what voices we don’t have and why.
Do you ever find a dissonance between working within the institution on the one hand and also heading up your own independent work? Or do you think they riff off and complement each other?
Overall, I think it works really well - I feel like it gives you lots of really good insights. Obviously, some people get frustrated with some of the institutional politics or if you’re writing loads of proposals and nothing is happening. But, I feel like that is the luxury that I have and I know it’s a privileged position. But, that’s because I’ve been working in the industry for over 10 years. I feel like it’s hard for me to say because I’m definitely operating from a place of someone who feels, in some ways, quite valued in some of these spaces. Where I know for a fact that lots of people who might come from similar backgrounds or class (a lot of the time, class) won’t have that. I know it. I can see it sometimes. So, there’s issues about that.
It’s not like I’m walking around like the most powerful person. I do get ignored sometimes and sometimes it still takes ages for people to notice. But, there’s definitely a luxury with having the confidence and freedom to say what you think or say something that doesn’t make any sense, when everyone else is agreeing. I like being able to straddle these different worlds because I’m also meeting so many different types of people and that’s what’s fun, I think.
For those interested in artistic programming, what kinds of relevant experience or skills can they gather at the moment to get their foot in the door?
For me, Southbank centre was a place that I wanted to work at because I always really liked a lot of their programme. So, I organised a meeting and just hassled a bunch of people and told them “hi, I’m a journalist and this is what I’m doing but I want to get into the arts” and they were like “you sound great and obviously, you’ve got some knowledge, but you need to get a bit more experience.”
Then, when I was working in America for the BBC, I ended up working part-time in a venue called the U Street Music Hall. I was basically supporting them - interning with press and basic programming type stuff - and that helped me and, obviously, the work with Stance too. Sometimes you just have to show that you’re really keen – maybe as minorities we have to do that more so, but I’m not sure about that. If you’re not going to get some intern type stuff, think about setting something up yourself. It doesn’t have to be a big thing – it could just be something really small to show that you’re trying to learn and understand. I was passionate about it, but I didn’t really know about the day-to-day and how it works in terms of pricing, marketing, curation, artistic fees, production, logistics, and how you really put together a big festival. There is a lot to learn. So, if you can get it from a smaller organisation that does stuff that you’re interested in, then that will definitely change your opportunities. And then I went back to Southbank centre and they remembered me. They were like “ah she stuck with it.”
Really know your value as well. I think that’s something that’s really underestimated - especially from a minority perspective. The multi-dimensional nature of our identity is a bonus and I’ve always seen it as something that’s made me lucky, being able to sit in various worlds and understand them.
What are some of the most important lessons that you have learnt over your career?
The more you speak up, the more you get listened to and taken seriously. However, don’t become something that you don’t necessarily like in order to fit in or be heard. As you develop in your career and your voice and your confidence, don’t become one of those people that shut you off and be really aware of that.
Also, when you set up a business, there will be stuff about it that you’re not interested in. Like, you might be someone who is really interested in logistics or in the creative process. But, that doesn’t mean shit. You need to be interested in everything else - you need to be interested in the promotion, you need to be interested in the money and making the money, you need to be interested in those Excel sheets. It’s all about becoming skilled in lots of different areas, not knowing a lot, but becoming skilled in things because you can’t always just do one aspect of it. A lot of it isn’t ‘fun’ - a lot of it is invoicing and filling out forms and stuff. You’ve got to take the exciting bits with the shit bits and the longer you do it, the more rewards you get and don’t be afraid to adapt something if it’s not working.
What are your hopes for the arts and culture sector or the media sector in a post-Covid world or beyond that?
I just hope that we want to take a real look at how things are organised and if we want to seriously change it up. I really hope that people want to problem-solve and I hope that our arts is better and appeals to more people considering that we’re all paying for it - especially the big companies. They’re publically funded, so I think that they should be held a lot more to account about who they’re employing and be more transparent.
For Stance, I just want to grow everything that I’m doing now: continuing doing contemporary curation, consultancy, making podcasts and, most importantly, working with people to make their own podcasts and do their own things, supporting them and mentoring and things like that because that’s what makes me happy, doing that kind of stuff.
Words by Linda Sou