How NPR's 'Code Switch' Podcast Became a Hit Telling Stories "The Way They Needed to Be Told"

Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji -Split-Publicity_H 2020
Deveney Williams/NPR

The show, led by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, has spent years interrogating the effects of race and identity on society and is now gaining many new listeners.

On June 1, the Code Switch podcast reached a noteworthy milestone: it hit No. 1 on Apple’s podcast chart, which tracks the top audio shows in the U.S. each day.

But Shereen Marisol Meraji, who co-hosts the podcast alongside Gene Demby, was feeling conflicted about the achievement. In recent days, protests across the country following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery had reignited a conversation about racism in the United States. As Americans, particularly white Americans, began to reflect on their role in fostering discrimination, lists circulated online with the names of books to read, movies to watch and podcasts to listen to. Code Switch was on many of them, spurring a 270 percent surge in downloads compared with its previous 13 weeks. 

“It’s very strange that we now have all these eyes and ears on what we’re doing because a number of very horrific things happened back to back,” Meraji tells THR. “But on the other hand, I’m really glad that people are here and that they’re open to listening to what we’ve been saying on the podcast for the last four years.”

It’s precisely because Code Switch has spent years interrogating the effects of race and identity on society that it’s the podcast many listeners are now turning to. Launched in 2016, Code Switch has a back catalog of episodes that are just as prescient today as they were when they were first recorded, whether it’s a 2016 discussion about two viral videos of police shooting Black men or a 2017 deep-dive into the calls to remove Confederate monuments.

Code Switch the podcast was born out of NPR’s Code Switch blog, which debuted in 2013 to cover race, ethnicity and culture. Demby wrote in Code Switch’s first post that the name was a reference to the way people of color “subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time.”

A podcast, says Meraji, was always part of the plan, “but it was something that kept getting pushed off because the team was pretty small and we had a lot of deliverables” — meaning that in addition to operating the blog and its social channels, they were also recording segments for NPR shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It took a few years but finally, on May 31, 2016, Meraji and Demby released the first episode of the show.

“I always wished that we had started just a little bit earlier,” says Meraji. The police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray had already ignited a conversation about race. Though the election of Donald Trump later that year would prompt further discussion, Demby notes, “there was already some appetite out in the world for race coverage.”

At the time of its launch, Code Switch was seen as part of a larger move by mainstream media to focus on reporting about race and culture. Podcasts like Another Round and Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race had launched a year earlier, and outlets like MTV News and Teen Vogue had reoriented their coverage around those issues. Four years later, Code Switch is one of the few projects that has endured.

When Code Switch first launched, it had a small team, and every week there was a rush to get a new episode up. That ad hoc nature seeped into the format of the show, which varies episode to episode. Some, like a June 16 installment about white people’s recent participation in the Black Lives Matters movement, feature interactions between the hosts and their listeners. Others, like a Feb. 25 episode about the lynching of a Black man in 1930s Florida, are told as narrative stories. The varied nature of the episodes was “because we just didn’t have the resources,” acknowledges Meraji. “It did become something where we really enjoyed having the freedom to try and tell stories the way they needed to be told.”

While listeners may not be able to tell, Demby and Meraji rarely record from the same room. Demby is based out of NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, while Meraji works out of its Culver City, California, studio. As co-hosts, the pair have an easy dynamic despite their different perspectives on the world. Philadelphia-native Demby, worked at the New York Times and as the editor of the Black Voices vertical at The Huffington Post, before joining NPR. One of the shows he says he’s most proud of having released was a deep dive into the small cohort of Black Republicans.  

Meraji, who says she’s long been interested in the subject of race because of her own struggle to fit in as the California-raised daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Iranian father, spent years as an audio producer at outlets like National Radio Project and Marketplace before she landed at Code Switch. Over the last two-and-a-half years, she has used the podcast to follow DACA’s impact on a mixed-status family in which not all the siblings are U.S. citizens. The most recent update came just last week, after the Supreme Court ruled that DACA could remain in place.

Both hosts say they enjoy the podcast medium because it frees them from the constraints of the traditional radio format, where they might have been called on to summarize a complex story in just three minutes. “The subject matter requires so much to contextualize it,” says Demby, explaining that the story of Floyd’s death can’t be told without talking about the Black men killed by police before him. “Generally speaking, we can’t zoom in on individual acts of racism because they can’t tell you much. So much of what we have to do is to zoom out and contextualize things.”

Code Switch tends to reach a younger and more diverse audience than the rest of NPR. The median age of its listeners is 34, and 40 percent of the audience are people of color. Though the hosts acknowledge that many white people listen to the show, they say they’re not focused on speaking specifically to that audience. “We really want to center the people of color who are listening to the show,” says Meraji. “You don’t want people to walk away from an episode going, well damn, they literally didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know.” Code Switch also doesn’t just focus on the Black-white binary, but covers stories about many races and experiences.

Code Switch listeners like it that way. “This podcast is educational, funny, heartening, and always relevant,” reads a recent five-star review on the Apple Podcasts app from a listener who described herself as “a woman of color navigating the daily oppression of this society.” Another review from “a white Kansas farmer” gave the show top marks for offering up “the harder conversations I don’t have access to in my day to day.”

Even before the surge in listenership, the nine-person Code Switch team had been feeling galvanized about going after more ambitious stories. In April, NPR rebranded the podcast — giving it the new tagline, “Race in your face” — and began to promote it more aggressively with a monthlong campaign that ran across other NPR podcasts, NPR.org, Apple News, YouTube, Spotify, Facebook and other platforms.

“We are finally in a position to do a lot of stuff that we’ve wanted to do, like deeper, sound-rich stuff that’s more about people’s personal stories that illuminates something bigger,” says Demby, explaining that before the shutdown brought about by the coronavirus, the podcast had staffed up and developed a cadence that allowed people to work on longer-term projects. “The irony now is that we can’t go out into the world and report.”  

But despite the current constraints, Code Switch is finding ways to put out new episodes, often several times a week. The first week in June, when the protests that began in Minneapolis following Floyd’s death spread to other cities, Demby and Meraji were on furlough. That didn’t stop them from getting an episode up on the “outside agitator” within a day of returning to work.

As new listeners find these episodes, the hosts hope that they also take the time to go back into the Code Switch catalog. “Any chance we get, we want to remind people that we talk about all of this. We’ve been talking about it for four years,” says Meraji. “And we’ve been talking about it across race and across ethnicity. I don’t think there are many podcasts out there that address race that do it across race the way we do it.”

A previous version of this story misstated the launch date of the Code Switch podcast. It was May 31. It also misstated Meraji's career path. She worked at National Radio Project and Marketplace before landing at Code Switch.