Faces of NPR: Yolanda Sangweni

Jul 22, 2021

Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Yolanda Sangweni, the Senior Director of Programming at NPR.

The Basics:

Name: Yolanda Sangweni

Twitter Handle: @YoliZama

Job Title: Senior Director of Programming

Where You're From: Durban, South Africa

Why did you choose to come to NPR? What was the pulling force?

I've always listened to NPR and my local NPR station is WNYC, and I was always aware of what NPR was and I really loved shows like Code Switch and Throughline. I listened to Car Talk when I didn't even have a car. I used to listen to it on Saturdays while doing my chores. I felt a connection from NPR, so when I got word from an NPR recruiter, I was like, "GASP! Are you kidding?" I just never thought I would fit the criteria. So what drew me was like, "Wow, here is an interesting chance that I didn't see coming. Let me try it! I may feel a little uncomfortable but let me try it."

What criteria are you speaking to?

Most of my background is coming from traditional publishing. That's where I spent most of my time, and radio was something I just participated in as a listener. I was never really in programming like that. I was fairly into podcasting. I have taken a career pivot into podcasting in the last three years. I assumed NPR was looking for someone with 20 years of experience in this medium. What I appreciate is that NPR recognizes that when it comes to programming and development of content, a lot of our skills are transferable. If you've developed content for publishing or other podcasts, it's very similar. When you're in development, you're in development.

Since you've been here 7 months, what have you learned about NPR's culture? What were you surprised about?

I've learned that NPR is very collaborative as a culture. Coming from for-profit spaces, I have been surprised by the generosity of NPR employees with their knowledge and sharing of ideas, and it's been really impressive to me. This idea that it's a mission driven organization and people really stick to that is really inspiring as well.

How many other people of color are on your team? How has the team environment been for you?

Most of my teams are mostly 80% people of color. It's Throughline and Code Switch. I'm working with shows like Where We Come From which are predominantly people of color. There's been a feeling of being on the precipice of change, so the environment is one of being vocal about what resources you need and speaking truth to power, which includes me. So the environment has been, there's not one word for it, but I have walked away educated. And I have really been impressed by people's resolve to make sure they make NPR a better place for themselves, but also the next generation of creators of color that come through the door. So it's been a really interesting time to come in.

How does your day to day look?

For a show like Code Switch, it's checking in with the senior supervising editor and Steve Drummod, the executive producer, who oversees Code Switch. Are there any things where they need support? Staffing support? I attend their weekly editorial meeting to hear what's coming down pike, hear the editorial calendar, hear issues and challenges with episodes.

With Throughline, I am attending editorial meetings, sitting in on planning for the show down the line, what they'll need down the line, we're going through the schedule of when episodes are dropping, we're thinking about the social media plan when episodes come out. We're also doing post-mortems for when episodes are out — what could you have done differently — and working with Marketing again.

I'm one of the co-chairs of the Oye Working Group, which is NPR's working group to attract Latinx audiences.. I am really proud of Oye because it was an interdepartmental effort, so we had people from all over the organization in this working group, trying to figure out how we serve this community.

How was your move to America? How was it when you got to America?

I was 10 years old when I first moved to America. When I got here, I was like, ew. I grew up in this ideal town, this beach town, I grew up by the water. It was really beautiful. To come from that to go live in Harlem in the 80s was like, OMG. My first impression was, "This is not an Eddie Murphy movie. Where are my streets of gold?" This is crack-era NYC at that point. It was not a very easy transition for me. I had a very heavy accent. Coming to NYC public schools it was very rough. But being South African made it a little less rough because I grew up in apartheid, so it was rough there too.

How do you maintain your joy [while things are going on at home]?

I am very adamant about maintaining my joy. I have very high-brow ways, and very low-brow ways. One of my favorite low-brow ways is the internet. People of color on the internet just exude joy in all forms. So I do my daily runs on Twitter and TikTok, and I am laughing my ass off. It's such a good exercise. I highly recommend laughter as a balm to a lot of the things that we're going through.

In general, growing up in South Africa, we are very joyful people. Much like Americans living through Jim Crow, always this sense of, yes, the outside world is a very difficult place, but once inside the confines of our homes and our communities, we are very intentional about maintaining our optimism and joy. I carry that with me every day.

Tell me how you felt that one night in prison with your mother.

My mom was an activist in South Africa. Before that night, we knew the police would always show up in the middle of the night. I was 8 or 9. It was like, when someone knocks on the door at night, we're like, oh God, is it them? And one night it was them. They came and my mother was there at the house, and they took me with her. What's funny is that when we got to the prison — they called it a 'detention center' — one of my mother's friends, who I knew as an uncle, was there. And they asked him "Is that her?" And when I saw him, I said, "Oh, maybe it's not so bad because there's my uncle." And he said, "Yes, that's her!" And so basically I think we found he was an informant the whole time. I remember that brief moment being like, "Oh... What...?" 

The whole thing up until going to prison, it was like, this is scary, but when he turned on us, it was like, this is very serious. In that moment, my whole childhood fell apart. Everything I thought I knew fell apart. Everything that I trusted was tested at that moment. As a child, I just went into my shell.

How did you come out of your shell?

I came out of my shell in my early 20s. Because a year and a half after that, I had to move to America. It was a lot for a child. That was partly because, of course, coming to America was scary, but also there was a really tight-knit exiled community here, and that really helped me to feel. At that point it was like what is home? Where is home? We couldn't go back to South Africa, but America wasn't my home either. So years and years wondering, what is home? But I also had some older African American women who really took me in and nurtured me. I think I get my fierceness from African American women who made it. I was like, oh you can be that? I was mentored by generous African American women in Harlem.

Do you think NPR creates content for people in South Africa?

Their main call is to serve the American public. I don't fault them for that. I do think, though, that the way the content is made is something that anecdotally I know a lot of South Africans enjoy. I think there are parts and bits of the content that really work. Shows like How I Built This are very important to the South African mindset, which is very much about entrepreneurship and doing for yourself.. Planet Money really works for that audience. Throughline -- any South African that you meet is a history buff, because we've had to be.

Do you plan to create content for people in South Africa?

I'm not thinking about the specificity of location, but I am thinking about the value.. As I shared, How I Built This — there's a shared value, whether you are in Africa or Asia, there's a certain value that you enjoy about that. Even as we talk about young and diverse audiences at NPR, I think it's very important that, yes we address race, but also there's certain content that speaks to a certain mindset. I'm a product of hip hop culture, so I want to create content that speaks to me. I'm sure you have friends all over the world of all races, but you share something. There is a culture you share. It's really important to me that we bring that out. 

Tell me about a time you had to advocate for yourself.

Isn't that every day? I joke about that, but I honestly think that's every day. There are many micro moments when women of color have to advocate for themselves. I find myself doing that all the time.

How did you begin advocating for yourself?

I come from an activist, my mother was from an activist background. So all I know is to speak up for myself. That's where it began. We grew up where I know what it is to be told, "You can't go there because you're Black." My mother always taught me to ask why not. Whether in a quiet way or in a loud way. One thing I learned is there are many ways to tell your story. There are many ways to be loud, and sometimes it's not always volume. It's really important to speak up. 

How was it meeting Oprah?

The first time I met Oprah, my mother was on her show in the 90s, because my mother was a former political prisoner and Oprah had this episode. It was my mother from South Africa and other women from Chile — it was a bunch of women who had been political prisoners..

The second time I met Oprah I was like, "OMG, I want to scream." Oprah said, "OK, I want to scream with you!" So there's a picture of us screaming. I had all these questions written down, I don't even know where the questions went. 

She smells amazing. She's really nice. I was like "OMG we're both Aquarius!" By that point, her people were pulling her off. Congratulations to anyone who gets more than 3 minutes of Oprah's time.

Do you have any advice for Black women who are trying to make their way in this world or in the media industry?

One of the most important ways I'll share with people is to have your personal tribe of people that keep you whole and they fill you up. But also have your professional tribe. These are people who are always looking out for you. You don't have to be besties but they are telling you about opportunities. Keep your professional tribe engaged. Don't just dip in and out. Keep everyone engaged. Don't ever assume anyone is beneath you. I have interns who could hire me next year. Always pull everyone up with you. 

I also think professionally, I always advise folks, read voraciously, know about a lot of things. Don't limit yourself to one scope of understanding.It's really important to be able to move in different circles.

Lastly, work on your emotional intelligence. People think if you're in business you're just doing business. But a lot of business is because of emotional intelligence.  

Do you want to be a part of my professional tribe?

YES, absolutely.

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