Interview with Allison Kilkenny of Citizen Radio
By Alexa Di Benedetto
Photographed by Meg Wachter
Allison Kilkenny is a Brooklyn-based journalist and co-host of Citizen Radio, an internet radio show "for young people disillusioned with corporate media and a political system that doesn't speak to them." As a self-described “political humorist,” she infuses comedy into her poignant and very progressive coverage of the news,
alongside co-host and ex-husband Jamie Kilstein. Operating as an independent media source, the pair bring attention to critical issues in a way that homogenous and profitable media platforms cannot; they act as a voice for the marginalized and shed light on a flawed system. They’ve interviewed a variety of well-known voices in politics, including Noam Chomsky and Rachel Maddow. Allison has appeared as a guest on shows such as including Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Democracy Now.
I spoke with Allison to discuss independent media, activism, and “staying woke.”
Alexa Di Benedetto: How did you get started in journalism, and when did you decide that a podcast was the platform you wanted to pursue?
Allison Kilkenny: We kind of had a convoluted path to the show…we never intended to do a podcast. One day, Jamie’s comedy manager at the time was just listening to Jamie and I talk about politics and suggested we try and host one. This was like way back in the day when podcasts weren’t really a thing, maybe nine years ago? And we were like, “Shut up Rick, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” Then we found this online platform called Breakthrough Radio, where you would call into an online soundboard on your cellphones, and you could record through the Breakthrough platform and people could listen to it live and there was like a little chat room…that’s pretty much how we started Citizen Radio. After that we went to this different place that paid us to do the podcast, and then we decided we wanted to try to go independent. As for journalism… a little before we went independent I became aware of this protest group called US Uncut (a spinoff of the United Kingdom protest group UK Uncut) which was an anti-corporate tax dodging movement. So I wrote Richard Kim over at The Nation and I pitched the idea and he said, “Great, go cover it and we’ll put it on the website.” I went to a couple of US Uncut protests and then it died out, but a lot of the protesters at US Uncut went over to Occupy Wall Street. So, I was at Zuccotti Park the first day of the Occupy Wall Street protest, which at the time didn’t seem like it was going to amount to anything and then, of course, it blew up. And because The Nation is cool, they were like “Yeah, do that for us!” So that was really my first big journalism break.
AD: You guys are champions of “Independent Media.” Why do you believe so strongly in independent media as opposed to the general media that people typically follow?
AK: I think that the job of any good journalist – and I’m paraphrasing Amy Goodman (of Democracy Now) here – is to amplify the marginalized voices, because otherwise it’s just state propaganda, right? If you go on television and you “Barbara Star” it and you say, “This is what the pentagon told me!” that’s not journalism. Journalism is, “Let’s go to the countries that are on the receiving end of being bombed by the US and interview civilians there.” It’s finding the smallest voice and trying to amplify them because otherwise that person is never going to have a platform to tell you about their life and what’s happening…and if it’s being affected by US policy, that’s when it’s especially important. I mean, it’s not journalism to give powerful people yet another opportunity to spout propaganda. Then we might as well just have a constant feed in the Oval Office where the President just tells you what you’re supposed to think, and you’re like “Okay, great, I’ve got it!” Of course, there’s no way we can compete with CNN–but if there’s this battalion of alternative news sites then at least people have an opportunity to consume something other than really homogenous news.
AD: You guys talk pretty often about receiving negative feedback from conservatives and internet trolls. How have you learned to deal with that negative feedback?
AK: You know, it doesn’t really faze me anymore. Maybe because I’ve been on the internet for so long, and I think when you’re a lady on the internet you kind of just learn to tune that all out.
AD: On the topic of being a woman in journalism: women are trying to change the rhetoric about how women’s issues are discussed politically when the government becomes involved. What do you think is the best way to go about this?
AK: I don’t think there’s any one way to do it effectively. I’m always really careful not to give advice as though I’m an activist. To me, activism is a very special title for an extraordinary group of people. I really admire the activists I know, and I’d never want to present myself like I’m their peer. What I do is different than what activists do. When you’re an activist, you’re constantly engaged in ways to create meaningful reform. That’s a tireless, thankless, task…. I think the people who make that effort to show up, occupy and demand change are the most effective. That’s the model of protesting that really works – not to diminish online protesting, I think it’s really important and I think Twitter activists are doing great work and I don’t want to belittle that. But it’s also really important to actually talk to somebody on the phone or show up at their office so that they have to contend with you in person. Especially if they’re trying to do something like strip you of your reproductive rights. I think that’s when it’s really important to show up and be like, “Hey, I’m a person!”
“Hey, CIS white people! We need you at the forefront, not in a creepy appropriating or hijacking way, but you stand to lose less in these moments.”
AD: For those people who can’t be foot soldiers –the progressives who are trying to figure out how to get involved in smaller, more scalable ways – what would you say are things that they can do to take the first step to getting involved?
AK: The older I get, the more nuanced I get about this – I always have a bunch of little disclaimers to give before giving advice. I say, “If you can’t do this, I understand. If it doesn’t feel like it’s safe, if you’re just feeling too burnt out to do it, I understand.” I never want to shame someone if they can’t follow my exact advice. But I always say, especially to younger people, “Don’t undersell the effect you can have in your own community, even in your own circle of friends.” You can recall the little moments of political “wokeness” in your life… you had these baby “woke” moments when you were in high school, and then college, and maybe a few more in adulthood. When I remember my first little moments of baby “wokeness,” sharing these things with my friends was really important. They were much more likely to listen to me because I’m their friend. I know for a fact I’ve changed some people’s minds about stuff because the more intimate a change like that is, the more powerful it is as well. For people who think, “I can’t change things on a national level” – it doesn’t need to be big. Local change is really important.
AD: Do you have any words of wisdom for the women out there who are scared for what the next four years have in store?
AK: For anyone who is saying they’re scared right now… I think being scared and angry are the appropriate responses. What’s been annoying me is seeing CIS white allies tell queer people or people of color “Oh, it’s going to be okay!” because to me that feels like an empty promise. Nothing that has happened so far has indicated to me that things are going to be okay. I think alarm and anger and fear are the correct responses, and I totally understand if people need to step back right now and care for their mental health before they move forward. But I will say that it’s more important now than ever to find a community that supports you and believes that you are a human being worthy of equal rights, and to draw strength from those people. What’s about to happen is going to require lots of vigilance from all of us, and some of it might be unpleasant. I definitely think we need to move past this idea that activism and resistance is always going to be comfortable for us – especially the CIS white allies. Because again, as a CIS white person I don’t feel comfortable telling queer people or people of color, “Get on the front lines!” because what they’re risking is way more than I’m risking. So all of my advice is always like, “Hey, CIS white people! We need you at the forefront, not in a creepy appropriating or hijacking way, but you stand to lose less in these moments.” To me, this feels like the proving ground. It’s sort of like, okay we’ve been talking a big game about progressivism, and we’ve been talking a big game about being allies…are you going to show up? Because now is when it matters the most.