‘Pro Tools proficiency’ may be keeping us from diversifying audio

It’s been nearly eight years since Radiotopia executive producer Julie Shapiro noticed that 70 percent of the most popular podcasts were hosted by men. It’s been six years since journalist and audio editor Charley Locke argued that podcasting’s biggest problem isn’t discovery but diversity. And it’s approaching three years since podcast producer Phoebe Wang’s infamous Third Coast call out of audio companies’ lack of diversity, which led, in part, to the POC in Audio directory.

Despite the no-doubt earnest efforts of many well-meaning individuals, podcasting, it would seem, has had — and continues to have — a diversity problem. And while there are many factors which contribute to maintaining the industry’s status quo, there is one culprit to which we can confidently point: Pro Tools.

Pro Tools, made by Avid, is a monstrous digital audio workstation (DAW) software. Using Pro Tools, it is possible to do almost anything in audio, even though “almost anything” is seldom necessary for all but the most immersive, sound design-forward podcasts. Pro Tools offers layer upon layer of features that, for most podcasts, are entirely unnecessary. It is nightmarish in its complexity, has an (arguably) awful user interface, comes with oft-bemoaned customer support, and is prohibitively expensive, even when compared to similar programs like Adobe Audition.

How exactly ProTools came to be the production standard in podcasting is a question unto itself, and while a few shops work in the aforementioned Audition, Logic, or Reaper, just about everyone who works in podcasting has at some point had the horrifying realization that Pro Tools is inescapable and they must learn it.

That learning, of course, involves an investment of time and of money (tuition for Berklee Online’s Pro Tools certificate, for example, amounts to nearly $6,000). The people who have the opportunity to learn Pro Tools have historically often been those who have the ability to work for free in unpaid internships or have the economic ability to pay for either tutoring or actual programs to learn the software. Yet, if you were to peruse entry-level and / or associate producer job postings, you would find that a majority require at least Pro Tools proficiency, if not “wizardry” (sly is The New York Times, which has adopted the astonishingly vague “fluency”).

I asked Shannon Lin, a podcast producer at the Los Angeles Times, to expand on her tweet.

“I recognize that Pro Tools is the industry standard and I think it’s reasonable to expect senior-level producers to have Pro Tools experience,” Lin said. “I also think employers should be willing to train people, especially if they have experience with other audio editing software, like Audition.

“In my experience, producers of color historically haven’t been given the same opportunities (like working in larger shops that have access to more resources like Pro Tools), and their resumes reflect that,” Lin continued. “Investing in POC reporters/producers by providing them with an environment where they receive training is vital to diversifying newsrooms. Everyone is ‘green’ until they’ve been given an opportunity to prove themselves.”

It’s the classic chicken-before-the-egg sort of problem — how to obtain skills which ought to be learned on the job in order to be considered for the job in the first place — and one with a predictable effect. “I think our industry has needed to do better for a long time, whether that’s public radio, podcasting, or anywhere in between,” said Julia Furlan, host of Vox’s podcast Go For Broke and an adjunct professor at The New School.

“First of all, Pro Tools is software that is not made for [podcasters] in the first place: it has all kinds of bells and whistles on it that podcast producers don’t necessarily need. It’s already an adaptive technology, in that [we’re] using something that’s mainly for professional musicians. Second of all, I think Pro Tools can be used as a gate-keeping technique, which says to people that if you don’t know this specific software that costs a lot of money and is extremely complicated, then you can’t be a part of our industry.”

It’s not ideal, but is it illegal?

In short, it’s complicated. Such gatekeeping, whether intentional or not, may be illegal if used to discriminate against potential candidates.

To learn more, I spoke with Aaron Konopasky, a senior attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of their race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, transgender status, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.

“If there’s anybody out there who is requiring Pro Tools or anything else because it excludes a particular group disproportionately, that would be discriminatory,” explained Konopasky. “[But] when it comes to inadvertent discrimination, it’s a little more complicated.”

“Let’s pretend we’re in a court case. The first step would be to try to prove ‘disparate impact.’ If disparate impact is shown, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s illegal, because the employer has the opportunity to show that there is a business justification for the practice,” Konopasky said. “A business hiring people to process fish, for example: suppose they require a bachelor’s degree. Do you really need a bachelor’s degree to put fish into a can?”

Podcasting might not have much in common with putting fish into a can, but requiring Pro Tools proficiency when hiring an associate producer isn’t so far removed from demanding a bachelor’s degree for that coveted position in a fish-processing house. However, even if there is a business justification for a hiring practice, an employer could still be asked whether there was something else it could have done — or if another platform could have been utilized.

“That’s often where the more difficult evaluations take place. One relevant consideration would be, is Pro Tools the platform that the business runs on? If it is, that might be evidence in favor of the requirement being job-related,” Konopasky said. “But if they’re really using it as a proxy for general competence, or how smart are you, or how long have you been in the business, is there some other criterion they could use that would be just as good that wouldn’t have the same impact? That’s the question you would have.”

While Konopasky emphasized that he couldn’t give legal advice, he indicated that requiring Pro Tools proficiency did seem dubious — given its high cost, for one, as well as the existence of numerous equivalent options, from Audition, to Logic, to Reaper.

Toward the end of our conversation, Konopasky pointed to something truly disconcerting: establishing whether a hiring practice is discriminatory isn’t only about taking into account those who applied and weren’t hired, but those who were discouraged from applying in the first place because of the requirement — those who, perhaps, never applied at all.

Hiring practices have implications, and ultimately, there’s an undeniable relationship between the diversity problem in podcasting and the type of audio that gets made. If podcast companies are serious about diversifying the industry, it’s time to thoughtfully consider less evident barriers to entry. Unpaid internships, once ubiquitous, have become nearly indefensible; requiring expertise in expensive and complex programs for entry-level roles, expertise which may be gained on the job, ought to be next.

“If we want to change our industry, we have to not only focus on hiring widely and hiring diversely, but also on training practices and editorial practices,” said Furlan. “You can’t just hire somebody and then not invest in them, and then say, ‘Oh, it didn’t really work out.’ If you have the budget to hire someone, you should think about what you’re giving them as well as what they’re giving to you. Every hiring decision is a two-way street.”

If you’re a thoughtful, conscious employer committed to diversity in podcasting — an employer who has the ability and the budget to train and to nurture new hires who come to you with a variety of skill sets — it’s incumbent upon you to reevaluate hiring practices that may include requiring Pro Tools proficiency, or wizardry, or fluency.

“When employers are thinking about job requirements, a good way of trying to avoid troublesome requirements is to think in terms of what people have to achieve rather than how they achieve it,” Konopasky said. “If you’re hiring somebody, what do you expect them to produce or to give you? Phrase it in terms of that, rather than, ‘You have to use this particular tool.’”

Individuals, too, have the ability to act. Those of us who touch the hiring process can write — or advocate for — job descriptions designed to include rather than exclude, and, if need be, to sideline a recalcitrant HR department.

A fantastic candidate, and in particular someone applying for that first job in audio whose voice we so desperately need to hear, ought never to be excluded from the industry due to their lack of Pro Tools proficiency.


This story first appeared in The Bello Collective, a publication and newsletter about podcasts and the audio industry.

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