You know about John Biewen’s bicycle if you have listened to episode eleven of season two of “Scene on Radio,” the podcast he created as part of his work as audio director at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. Season two of “Scene” was titled “Seeing White,” and in fourteen crystalline episodes, it addressed the issues of race in America by naming the elephant in the room: whiteness. Instead of treating white as “plain vanilla,” as Biewen says in the episode— whiteness as somehow normal, with anything different being the unusual—the series investigates whiteness as a construct, as a thing in itself. Whiteness as the issue. And it’s the issue as investigated (and produced and hosted) by a white man—a white man willing to honestly and firmly, if carefully and even gently, address the harsh realities of whiteness and its history.

The bicycle episode involves Biewen, as a young man, walking a bicycle through a largely Black Philadelphia neighborhood. The story has become foundational to Biewen’s awareness of race and how we perceive it. He recorded it, live-storyteller style, before a rapt audience at Motorco, a performance hall in Durham, in 2017. He describes himself, at age twenty-six having recently given up on graduate-school study of philosophy, walking his bike through an uncertain neighborhood, preparing to ship it home. He’s accosted by two Black boys, probably in their early teens, who threaten him with a knife and demand the bike. He describes almost sleepwalking through the encounter, finding a way to get some help for himself and emerging unscathed when the boys walk off. For years, he said, it was a story of an odd encounter with something like danger.

Looking back on it, though, he is critical of both who he was then and who he’s been since. “Thinking back on what was in my head that day, there’s something more cringe-worthy,” he says in the podcast. His world had always felt safe to him. And though he knew the neighborhood was troubled, “I think I expected to get credit for displaying my lack of fear, my nonracist, non-profiling swellness.… ‘Damn, look at that, there goes one of the good white folks,’ ” he imagined the residents thinking. “ ‘Forget mugging that guy. Give him a round of applause.’

“So, yeah. I was naive. Arrogant in a way. Presumptuous. I was pretty white.”

And the key to the show, and to Biewen’s searching voice that drives it, is finding a way to openly equate arrogance and presumption with whiteness, yet doing so with understanding instead of finger-pointing. It’s easy to criticize overt racists—the “bad” white people—and few will challenge that. In “Seeing White,” Biewen criticized “good” white people like himself—and encouraged listeners to do the same.

The show’s fourth season, “The Land That Never Has Been Yet” (a line from a Langston Hughes poem), does something similar, addressing the ways racism, patriarchy, and greed have limited American democratic institutions from the beginning—by design. He invited onto the podcast Chenjerai Kumanyika, who served as cohost of both “Seeing White” and “The Land That Never Has Been Yet.”

“The thing I noticed about John,” says Kumanyika, “was he was willing to have a conversation about basic American myths and ideas about America and patriotism that, to be honest, most of my liberal friends weren’t.” In fact, Biewen sought out Kumanyika, who is Black, for that conversation. Kumanyika, now assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, met Biewen at CDS when Kumanyika attended an audio boot camp there. After a previous audio training session, Kumanyika had written a highly regarded piece about the whiteness of the public radio voice. At CDS, he didn’t study with Biewen, but Biewen had read the piece and sought him out. The podcast at that time was still just an idea, but the conversation started.

“We ended up sitting at a picnic table outside of CDS and talking for quite some time and really kind of clicked,” Biewen recalls now. And some time after, as Biewen worked on the bicycle story, he was aware of the many ways it could misfire. “I e-mailed him and I said, ‘I’m writing this thing. I feel like I could use your eyes. It’s very racially loaded, and I’m a little afraid.’ ” Kumanyika made a few suggestions but basically approved. Biewen realized that maybe it would help the series if he asked for more.

“That was kind of the moment where I thought, ‘Hmm.’ There was this kind of persistent unease that I had about doing this series on whiteness as a white guy and feeling like, ‘I could really use some backup here.’ That it’s going to really make it so much better and also just to have somebody to check me and my blind spots.”

As a result, in both “Seeing White” and “The Land That Never Has Been Yet,” Kumanyika challenges Biewen on his assertions and provides a kind of model of what conversation and action about race ought to look like. “He is brilliantly clear and blunt, and fiercely honest and direct and insightful. And at the same time, kind,” Biewen says of Kumanyika. “He could have said more cutting things about my cluelessness at times, and he was always, ‘I can see—I hear that, but….’ You know?”

Kumanyika sees the conversation the same way. “John is rigorous and curious. He comes from two disciplines that, in my mind, make him a really dangerous person to have a conversation with. One, he is a philosopher.” Biewen studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and it was a philosophy Ph.D. program he dropped out of when he took that walk with the bicycle. “Two, he was a public radio reporter who did investigative work. I would make sweeping comments, like I do sometimes in the series, like, ‘For the majority of American history, the American project has been about, you know, these kinds of oppressive things.’ He would immediately—that reporter brain—he’s going to go, like, ‘Hmm, that might be true but maybe we should take a little bit of time and investigate that a little more carefully before just making a blanket statement like that.’ ”

Kumanyika has in a way described Biewen’s entire journey as a reporter and producer. Born in the small Minnesota town of Mankato, about an hour southeast of Minneapolis, he grew up in a progressive family: His parents were educators—his mother a guidance counselor, his father a teacher— with, for example, a strong “consciousness of racism in America, and that it was an important thing.” Good values, but also part, Biewen says, of what allowed him to grow up thinking of himself as one of the good white people. He went to Gustavus Adolphus, a small liberal-arts college in Minnesota, taught in Japan for a bit, made that abortive stab at graduate school.

On the advice of one of his undergraduate professors, he tried public radio reporting and found a home there. As Kumanyika said, Biewen is at heart both a philosopher and a researcher, and the two combine in the way he tells audio stories. During his years working for various public radio entities, though his own reporting for a time remained straightforward, he listened to the rise of the storytelling branch of public radio: “This American Life” with Ira Glass, “RadioLab” with Jad Abumrad, documentary projects by the Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva), and podcasts like “Serial,” developed by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder. (Each of those producers, by the way, has a chapter in Biewen’s 2017 book, Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound.)

The techniques those storytellers used began making straightforward news reporting frustrating. In 1994, Biewen reported a documentary called “Oh Freedom Over Me,” focused on volunteers registering voters in Mississippi in 1964. It’s a powerful documentary (and was repurposed into an episode of “The Land That Never Has Been Yet”), but it’s still not the kind of intimate storytelling to which he has since turned.

That turn began a long time ago, in response to the shrinking of the story length public radio shows could devote to long stories. Wesley Hogan, longtime CDS director, recalls a conversation with him. “He described a landscape where he first had twenty-two minutes, then it went down to seven, and then to 3.5,” she says. “And when they went from 3.5 minutes to ninety seconds, he basically said, if that’s the longest you’re going to have, I’m going to have to find something else. And that’s when he came to us full time.”

That was in 2005, but he’d been at CDS for several years by then. Working for American Radio Works, a documentary arm of American Public Media, he had wanted to move to North Carolina for personal reasons. He came to Durham after a friend who had worked on an oral history of Jim Crow with CDS made the connection. “They were trying to start an audio program, and they liked the idea of having an experienced audio documentarian around, even though I wasn’t going to be working for them.” Originally CDS did nothing more than provide a free office. “And then over the next several years, we kind of swallowed each other up, you could say.” CDS created a position for Biewen to teach a course each term, and he pursued his documentary work independently.

The work that finally changed his life was a piece called “Little War on the Prairie,” which he did for “This American Life” in 2012. It was about the Dakota War of 1862, in which after years of failed dealings with the United States, starving members of the Dakota tribe fought with Minnesota settlers. A bloody period of fighting ended with a truce, after which thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Biewen’s hometown. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history, and he had been thinking about the story for years. Growing up, he had learned nothing like the messy truth. He knew he needed to do it for a show like “This American Life,” because that show “would be comfortable with what I wanted to do”: include personal elements of his own story, “not just a reporter standing outside the story.” That connects to what he teaches his students.

Documentary “is still journalism, but I talk about that documentary has always had a greater comfort level with subjectivity,” he says. “That a work with a point of view or even that can be quite polemical—think of Michael Moore—gets counted as documentary, just assuming that it’s essentially factual and it’s asserting what it’s asserting.”As the podcast revolution advanced, Biewen realized that he no longer even had to try to pitch public radio shows to find a place for his work. He could simply make it and share it. The first season of “Scene on Radio” combined some of Biewen’s older work (repurposing, for example, a series he had done retracing the route John Steinbeck took in Travels with Charley), some student work, and some new work, including an interview with Biewen’s colleague Tim Tyson Ph.D. ’94, whose book The Blood of Emmett Till included his astonishing interview with Carolyn Bryant, the woman whose false claim that Till had flirted with her caused his lynching.

Podcasting removed the last obstacle to Biewen simply doing work he was proud of. Straight radio journalism was always going to be focused on policy and more specific issues of any particular moment; documentary podcasts could pursue stories closer to the heart, without worrying about time format (episodes can range from twenty minutes to an hour), using all the tools available to a producer: music, musings, silence, and, above all, uncertainty.

It’s that open-spirited uncertainty that drives listeners’ loyalty to the podcast, suggests John Barth, one-time chief content officer of audio creator and distributor network PRX. He has known Biewen for decades and says, “He reached a certain point in life, and you look back and say, ‘Do I really know what I know? And why do I think I know it?’ and then you start poking at it.” That became more evident in the “Men” series, the show’s third season (on that one, Biewen invited journalist Celeste Headlee to, as Kumanyika does in two other seasons, play the foil and provide a perspective from the group disadvantaged by the group in Biewen’s focus). Barth says Biewen’s been a first-rate reporter and producer all along, but the freedom of podcasting allowed him to leap forward. “I don’t think this would have happened otherwise,” Barth says. A podcast series “is like writing a book. He needed that literal open canvas of that white screen to do what he needed to do in audio. Maybe America needed that: to get out of the obsessive Twitter now and pull back, and shave away all the preconceptions, the history that we think we know that we don’t really know.

“There’s a lot of winnowing and freeing yourself from boundaries and structure to get where he had to go.”

And that’s a place of uncertainty. “John, in that second season,” Kumanyika says, “was willing to be someone who did not know as much.” By the time he reached out, Biewen had interviewed luminaries like widely praised historian Nell Irvin Painter and Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He had gone through readings of all kinds, including those Kumanyika had sent, yet he still asked Kumanyika for help. “He’s already consumed all of that by the time you hear his voice for the first time, yet he appears as a guy who just wants to understand better. And I think the fact that he’s able to authentically offer that allows listeners to go on a journey with him, with us, and still allows them to feel like they’re making up their own minds. I think that’s so important.” He goes on to note that the season was inspired by Biewen’s “curiosity and sense that this was what needed to happen.” And that fourth series, about how American democracy was framed by capitalism and white supremacy, dropped its first episode the day Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial went to the U.S. Senate.

But still the show comes from a place of uncertainty, even of wrongness. Like the bicycle story in season two, Biewen’s investigations of race, of democracy, of patriarchy, start with something that seemed right but wasn’t. “I tried to frame the setup question for the episode to be about a theme,” Kumanyika says. “To take those liberal, more centrist ways of understanding those questions, to take those seriously. So the rest of the episode and our conversation is about unfolding what we’ve learned.” That’s good pedagogy, and it’s also good storytelling.

“When someone is wrong,” he says, “that’s a way more interesting and exciting story to listen to than when someone’s right.” Just the same, Biewen’s willingness to portray his own muddled thinking and his journey to understanding isn’t an effort to make a white voice somehow not worth listening to regarding racial issues. Kumanyika says his voice isn’t more authentic than Biewen’s. “When he speaks certain questions with his voice, it does a certain kind of work that my voice can’t do.” White people can get confused by the difference between alliance and exploitation. Is race real, or not? Depending on the conversation, that can be a terrifying question to ask. “Because it’s coming from his voice, it gives other people who think like him a certain permission to ask that same question.”

According to Biewen’s colleague Tyson, “That allows us to have the conversation that we’re really not comfortable enough to have, often, unless we have our trustworthy guide and narrator who doesn’t come on a high horse.” Tyson focuses on Biewen’s capacity to genuinely engage with his sources and his interlocutors. “He comes real ly well prepared to this process of creation, and this art of thinking aloud in public, and encouraging and listening to others think aloud in public.” The host of “Scene on Radio” demonstrates, Tyson says, “a full and democratic style of listening.” Which may be one of the few things that can encourage listening in those who hear it.

Listening is what people have been doing. “Seeing White” took “Scene” to completely unexpected heights. From a somewhat experimental audio series that started in 2015 and garnered a few thousand listeners per episode, the show leaped to a must-listen podcast now in its fifth season. In some ways “Scene” is like many a podcast: A host introduces the show’s topic. Research is summarized, interviews are conducted, separated by music and beats. At the end of the episode, the host and cohost discuss what they’ve learned.

But again, in some ways it’s obviously different. Some 12 million downloads later (some of the most-listened-to episodes have been downloaded around 700,000 times), the series has twice been nominated for the Peabody, the highest award in audio. “Seeing White” garnered its first nomination; the second nomination came for season four. For its willingness to honestly raise uncomfortable questions the show has won a Media Literate Media Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Salon, Vulture, and the Oxford American have praised it. Fortune called it “deceptively mellow.”

But what the show has really won is listeners. A comment chosen at random from the show’s 10,000 reviews on the Apple Podcasts app: “This is the single most important podcast I have ever listened to. As a white woman with a black son and daughter, I am continuously moved to be better.”

The series on race, men, and democracy were well timed, and “Seeing White” has even had a second, perhaps even stronger run after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. If you want to talk about timing, Amy Westervelt, cohost of the podcast’s fifth season (it started in September 2021 and addresses the ongoing climate catastrophe), had to reschedule her interview for this story because California, where she lives, was on fire and she had to flee. Westervelt was chosen as cohost because of her own widely praised podcast “Drilled,” a true-crime approach to how we got to this crisis in the first place.

The season is called “The Repair,” for its focus on how to fix the problem rather than simple doomsaying. Westervelt notes that she plays a different role in “The Repair” than Kumanyika and Celeste Headlee played. In the seasons about men, about whiteness, and about how white men created American democracy for their own benefit, Biewen was himself, if not the enemy, at least something of a defendant. As Biewen told Kumanyika, as a white man, he really needed “some backup” on those topics: a cohost from the disadvantaged group who could help hold his feet to the fire. Though certainly white men are more than culpable in the climate catastrophe, that’s an everybody problem. “It’s less of an accountability role,” Westervelt says of her work on season five. “It’s more of a context and information role.” If Biewen found a source that seemed trustworthy—or not—she could provide backstory. She jokingly calls herself a climate information sherpa.

“There was one time where John sent something this person had posted on Twitter, and I was like, ‘Oh, that guy is such a doomer, I can’t stand him.’ And John was, ‘Really? What? I haven’t heard of this—tell me more!’ ” So they looked into the climate doom industry, which encourages people to believe change is impossible, “and how much it intersects with white supremacy and patriarchy and all these other things [that SOR has focused on], and it was great.” The season does emphasize the possibility of change; it looks to places like Scotland, which has large fossil-fuel industries like the United States and nonetheless is taking significant action and seemingly surviving. But mostly it addresses the climate in the way previous seasons have addressed their problems: by pushing them to the foreground and using current events to shake listeners out of their complacency. “In a sick way,” Westervelt says, “the endless climate disasters do, I think, help kind of shake people out of that complacency.”

Biewen takes the attention, the accolades, and even the timing with a characteristic shrug. “I’ve had people in 2020 tell me that ‘Seeing White’ was prescient, because, apparently, from their perspective, the perfect timing was 2020, right?” he says. “And it did have a whole new life after George Floyd’s murder. But my response, always, was that it was late. That any time in the last 400 years would have been a good time for that series.”

But he does appreciate the high regard in which people hold the show, and he sees the current series as the result of the work that people praise. He says, for example, that when starting “Seeing White,” he had already done a lot of thinking about the problems it engages: “The insight that we’re just people, right, as white people, and then other people have race,” was a notion he had recognized and already tried to shed. “But [the climate] is one that does feel like it really came out of the last five years of work that I’ve done, and particularly with ‘Seeing White’ itself. A really tangible shift for me was realizing that it’s not nearly enough to just not be one of the racists.”

Just the same with the climate. Using tote bags, recycling, and declining straws at restaurants is not going to cut it with the climate in full, undeniable crisis.

Which gives him, perhaps, the most satisfying of the “Scene on Radio” outcomes: the awareness, underscored in all episodes, that there is work to do—and that it can be done. “For people on the receiving end of these forms of oppression, and have been more harmed by the lack of democracy we have in this country, it’s all late. But yes, there’s a sense in which it feels like we’re in a particularly dire situation. And yeah, the two biggies for me are, are we still going to have any semblance of a democracy three years from now? And are we going to have a livable planet a few decades from now?”

And the way his cohosts challenge Biewen, he challenges his listeners. “It may be that one of the reasons his audience is not [even] larger is because it is so challenging,” says Barth. “We’re at a moment where really taking a critical look at so many assumptions about what’s behind this society is supremely uncomfortable and actually in the end really depressing.”

But the way Biewen and Westervelt focus the current season on ways to address the climate crisis has been in the previous seasons all along. “Scene on Radio” brings up issues to understand, face, and try to resolve them. It’s not about doomsaying. “I don’t ever come away from it with a feeling of hopelessness,” Barth says. “It’s like, ‘Now I’m getting closer to 100 percent of the story.’ ” Warts and all, Biewen is committed to sharing the whole story. He’s still got that bicycle, after all, though he says he hasn’t ridden it in years. Perhaps it stands for work to do, places to get to. 

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