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Five Questions With Josef Lorenzo, the Producer of SUBCULTURED
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"This series is important because it’s trying to understand people better," says Josef Lorenzo, producer and host of the PBS Digital Studios series SUBCULTURED. Lorenzo is pictured above filming on location in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Subcultured / PBS

SUBCULTURED, a documentary series from PBS Digital Studios, explores underrepresented communities and cultures and their influence on society. 

The series, which is available on the PBS Voices channel, embodies the PBS Editorial Standards principle of Inclusiveness. In addition to providing diverse perspectives (with episodes about gay rodeos and accessibility in video gaming, for example), it also includes audio-narrated descriptions of visual elements to improve accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired.

In this Q&A with PBS Standards & Practices, producer and host Josef Lorenzo discusses the series and why it’s important to learn about underrepresented cultures. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

1. How did you initially come up with the idea for this program? 

Lorenzo: The idea for SUBCULTURED actually came to me while I was working on our other series SOUND FIELD [PBS’s music education series]. The focus of SOUND FIELD has always been about the diverse cultures that are at the root of different musical sounds. While our team was traveling to New York City we created an episode about the ballroom community, a group of gay and transgender people of color that created a new style of music and dance called voguing. The ballroom community is tight-knit and also creative and innovative. At the time there wasn’t a lot of coverage on the modern ballroom scene, but we noticed how much impact their work had on mainstream culture. Everything from fashion, to dance, to language, and to music. 

After we created that episode I thought, wouldn’t it be great to create a spinoff of SOUND FIELD that widens its scope beyond music? The original idea was to focus on other underrepresented communities that are also influencing mainstream culture in some way. 

2. Why did you think it was important?

My favorite thing about covering history or communities that are under the radar is introducing people to things that they would otherwise never hear about. After our ballroom episode came out we received comments like, “I love the way SOUND FIELD exposes me to all sorts of new genres/cultures.” I think it’s important for journalists and audiences to learn about people that are different than them. This series is important because it’s trying to understand people better. It’s not judgmental, but it is curious.

3. How do you decide which subcultures you’re going to cover? For example, how did you meet disabled gamers?

We have a few rules when deciding which subcultures/communities we are going to cover. The first rule we decided on was that we need to make sure the people of the community elect to be a part of the community. We want to stay away from groups that are grouped together at birth. For example with ballroom, the scene is made up of gay and trans people of color but we didn’t do a story on that identity, we did a story on the community they choose to be a part of. 

We also look for subcultures where the community has had an impact on its members. We often ask people when we pre-interview them, “How would your life be different without this community you are a part of?”

Lastly, a lot of our ideas come from what’s going on in the world. When a new trend appears, it usually doesn’t come out of the blue. Oftentimes there are groups of people who have been a part of that trend for years behind the scenes. For example, gaming accessibility has been a growing conversation lately, especially after The Last of Us Part II won the inaugural accessibility award at the Game Awards in 2020. So we started talking to journalists and accessibility advocates who have been covering this topic to find out who are key players in this movement. That’s how I met Grant Stoner, a gaming journalist that covers the industry from a disabled lens. Grant then introduced us to Carlos Vasquez and blind members of the fighting game community.

4. What do you hope this program accomplishes?

One of the first questions I ask every community I speak to is, “What do people commonly misunderstand about your community?” I think this is the core of the show, and I hope by asking this question over and over again we can learn more about common misconceptions. 

5. Do you have suggestions for how local PBS member stations and other media organizations can inclusively cover subcultures in their communities?

One thing that we do in each episode is we work with a writer and a separate consultant who are part of each community we cover. We have reframed our idea of an expert or a consultant in this show from an academic who studies a topic to a longstanding member of a community. This has helped us ensure we are representing subcultures accurately and honestly.

Another thing we did to be more inclusive is work with YouTube to add audio description tracks to videos. After meeting Carlos for our episode on blind gamers and learning about the way he interacts with the world through technology, I knew we had to do more to make our content more accessible. I wanted to make sure that the episode Carlos is featured in was as accessible as possible to his community. Since then, we’ve begun creating a separate audio description track that is selectable in the video settings just like captions are. This adds about another week to our production process but is definitely worth it.

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