The Explanatory Comma.

There are so many podcasts made by and for certain communities. See Something Say Something is about being Muslim in the current landscape of the United States; Nancy is made by and for queer/LGBTQ folks; The Stoop shares stories about blackness and the black diaspora. In these shows, there aren’t many pauses and explanations of certain things that those outside the community might not understand. Explanatory commas are those moments where folks take a brief moment to explain something from a specific culture to outsiders.

For some shows, explanatory commas aren’t necessary because these shows are created specifically for certain communities and the interruptions to the stories just aren’t needed. Many queer folks (but not all), for example, might already know the terms butch/femme or have some passing understanding of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s also a good chance that folks from West Africa won’t need a definition for Nollywood or that Muslims won’t need a definition for terms like halal or haram. Folks outside those communities might not understand those terms and explanatory commas in different mediums (including podcasts) can help a show feel accessible to a broad audience.

There are many who appreciate these kinds of commas but others who don’t, as using explanatory commas in a medium like podcasting has its pros and cons. On his show ‘Conversations with People Who Hate Me’, Dylan Marron does use explanatory commas at times because they help to call people into a conversation they may not completely understand. As another example, Janet Mock used a few explanatory commas in her first memoir to help clarify some terms. These commas can really help people grow and better understand folks who aren’t like them. Plus, they can add to difficult conversations in ways that might be accessible for the folks who need to be a part of them the most.

But not every show has to be about bringing people into a conversation/community nor do they need to be catered to everyone. It’s totally okay that there are shows like The Stoop that are about specific communities and identities and it’s okay that these shows don’t use explanatory commas because the people they’re made for will probably already know what different terms and cultural phenomenon mean. Not every podcast has to be made for the majority/powerful and having a niche/specific audience can be really great.

Similarly, it shouldn’t be the jobs of marginalized folks to constantly explain their lives to those in the majority. Explaining every aspect of your life and identity can be really exhausting and sometimes, having a space to just exist with others who understand is amazing and affirming. Having a podcast be about a marginalized community/identity without any explanatory commas can be wonderful because that show centers the stories and identities of folks who are often sidelined in many different ways. They can be a reminder that you are not alone and too many explanatory commas might take away from that space.

Plus, if you are a podcast creator/host/producer, sometimes you just have to trust that your audience can do their own homework if they don’t understand something. In an age where technology makes understanding things a little easier, marginalized folks shouldn’t be expected to constantly create something for everyone.

If you aren’t a part of a community but listen to shows that are made by/for and center different communities, it’s fine to just be a guest or a fly on the wall. For those with identities that are more “mainstream” or powerful (white, heterosexual, etc), it’s important to remember that not everything has to be about you. There are going to be times where you have to do a little work to understand something.

It’s also important to remember that while you might be asking a simple question of someone for the first time, there’s a chance that this isn’t the first time that the other person is having to explain their existence. For many marginalized folks, having those conversations where they do have to use many explanatory commas does happen on a regular basis and it is exhausting to constantly go over those things.

Ultimately, explanatory commas can be really helpful in some situations or unnecessary in others. For some podcasts, these commas are a way to bring people into a conversation they might not have access to in any other context. But for other shows, explanatory commas aren’t useful or necessary because the show is created specifically for and centers a community that has a shared language and culture.

Using an explanatory comma will depend largely on what your show is trying to accomplish or if you think it would be helpful. At a PodCon 2 panel, for example, Kathy Tu of WNYC’s Nancy admitted that she will use these commas in an episode if her co-host Tobin doesn’t know a term but won’t use one if her straight producers don’t know. Using a comma will just depend on the context and what you as the creator (and/or host or producer) are trying to accomplish. There are so many great things to having an explanatory comma in a show but there are also times when they’re just not needed.

Author: Andrea Merrill

My name is Andrea Merrill and I created Animals of the Pacific Northwest and '...Wherever You Get Your Podcasts', where I write about animals, both domesticated and wild, and podcasts respectively.

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