Don Lemon hosts two hours on CNN most weeknights – sometimes more. And in recent weeks, he has also been showing up on weekends. But he still has more to say.
The primetime anchor is today launching a new podcast that examines America’s racial divide. Episodes of “Silence Is Not An Option” will drop on Thursdays, and during them, Lemon will talk with activists, artists and thinkers. The debut features conversations with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, an historian and scholar on race and discriminatory policy, and Dr. Christopher Petrell, the Director of Engagement at American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, who also develops the curriculum for Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp – and, says Lemon, may offer an update on what the athlete is doing at the present moment.
The audio program “is much more intimate,” says Lemon, in an interview. “I think people are more open to really sharing things than they are on television.”
Lemon launches the new audio series while he is enjoying a moment of sorts on TV. He is the only Black anchor on cable news during primetime, and his longtime willingness to show emotion on air – often during a first segment known as “Don’s Take” – has proven particularly compelling in recent weeks, as Americans have examined recent protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. CNN recently enjoyed a surge among viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic most coveted by advertisers, though viewership has settled down in recent days. On Monday and Tuesday, Lemon’s 10 p.m. hour was second to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in the ad demo, while ahead of MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell.
For CNN, Lemon’s podcast is the latest in a nascent effort to make the AT&T-owned cable-news outlet more of a force in the world of audio. CNN’s audio unit, part of its digital operations, launched earlier this year with a goal of producing as many as eight to 12 new podcasts in 2020. “Silence is Not an Option with Don Lemon” follows the recent debut of “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction with Dr. Sanjay Gupta,” which garnered more than 4 million downloads after its launch.
Other news outlets have dipped into these waters. NBCUniversal’s NBC News in May of last year articulated a plan to move beyond simply distributing audio versions of MSNBC primetime shows in favor of new originals. Rachel Maddow contributed “Bag Man,” while Chris Hayes has enjoyed success with “Why Is This Happening.” ABC News has also been producing podcasts with anchors including Paula Faris and Dan B. Harris.
Lemon says he had been discussing the idea of doing a podcast, “and then it so happened the opportunity presented itself” in the form of the national protests against racism taking place while the nation is the midst of grappling with the coronaivirus pandemic. “I was just sort of like, ‘Come on, let’s do this.’”
He realizes the show will place new demands on this time, but realizes “this is a moment that we may not have again. We may never get this moment again where people are sitting at home. We have this captive audience. We have all these things happening around race and we have people being receptive to wanting to change. I don’t know if we will get this moment again, at least in my lifetime. I think it’s important for me to do it, regardless of how much work it is.”
In an essay he wrote to accompany the podcast’s debut, Lemon tells readers, “You have to fight against racism like you’re battling a cancer,” adding: “White folks, listen closely because this part is really important: Even as you’re widening your social circle, remember that your Black friend or coworker isn’t responsible for telling you how to be better. You have to do the work. You have to investigate the solutions for yourself.”
Lemon is willing to bring his personal experience to bear in his new program. He can relate to the recent incident in New York’s Central Park when a white woman called the police after a Black man asked her to put her dog on a leash. “I relate to that immediately,” he says, and he can understand a Black person “having a complicated relationship with police.”
On TV, Lemon only has so much time to analyze a particular story or issue. But on a podcast, he says, there’s room to “dig into something that’s on everyone’s mind.”