Five black Philly radio hosts talk superheroes and sci-fi—and show the world that geek culture isn’t as white-and-nerdy as the media would have us believe.
The Black Tribbles have gathered in the radio studio, as they do every Thursday night, to banter about the things that excite them. Tonight, that means they’re arguing over which actors they’d cast in their dream movie version of the Justice League, the comic-book super-team that includes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Their guest this evening, local comics publisher Shawn Pryor, is lamenting that the fantastic black actor Idris Elba can’t be Batman. “Just let him go ahead and be the Martian Manhunter,” Pryor sighs, referring to a much more obscure green-skinned alien character. “We all know Martian Manhunter is a black dude anyway.”
“Yeah,” says co-host Jason Richardson, “he’s extra black.”
“Or just go ahead and get the dude that voiced Martian Manhunter in the Justice League cartoon, Carl Lumbly,” Pryor says.
In the corner, co-host Randy Green nods thoughtfully behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “Carl Lumbly would work, too.”
“I ain’t forgot that Carl Lumbly played M.A.N.T.I.S.—” Pryor starts again, before being interrupted.
“Years ago, yeeeeeah!” Over at the sound board, producer Len Webb has perked up at the mention of M.A.N.T.I.S., an obscure ’90s TV show about a black superhero.
“Loved that show,” chimes in co-host Erik Darden. Jason agrees: “He was like a handicapped Batman.”
Co-producer Kennedy Allen, the sole woman in the room, suddenly grins big and starts hopping up and down in her seat: “I remember that! M.A.N.T.I.S. was awesome! Yo, I forgot all about that show!”
“What hurts me about M.A.N.T.I.S.,” says Pryor, “is—watch the pilot. As corny in spots as that pilot is, and as well as that pilot did, Fox executives looked at that and were like, ‘Yo, this is too black—you gotta pull back on some of this stuff.’ Watch the pilot episode if you can find it, and then watch the regular episodes that followed it—there’s such a big difference with the cast members they put in the show when the series started.”
They’re all quiet for a moment, before Webb lets out a simple: “Hmmm.”
It’s a typical moment in the broadcast life of Black Tribbles, airing weekly on the Germantown-based online radio station G-town Radio: a quintet of black Philly natives who laugh, geek out, and bust the occasional rhyme about superheroes, sci-fi and all sorts of fantastical pop culture. It’s a labor of love for this crew—though they all hope turning pro is in the cards for the show’s future.
Its name comes from the classic Star Trek comedy episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” about a race of adorably fuzzy little alien critters—purring, throbbing balls of happy fur that radiate love and, along the way, reproduce new tribbles at a startling rate. “I was a little worried people would think it was a strictly Star Trek show,” says Len, the show’s producer, “but I knew I didn’t want ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ in the title. A tribble is this round furry thing that’s so cute you want to hug it, but it’s still cool. It’s one of the most memorable things that was ever on Star Trek even though all it did was sit there and multiply. Also, it’s kind of obscure—and so is a black nerd. You don’t see many black nerds in pop culture.”
It’s that simple fact that makes Black Tribbles so remarkable. In real life, there have always been lots of black nerds, both the everyday ones—like the 900 geeks of color who rapidly sounded off a roll call in May 2009, when a viral Internet survey asked nonwhite sci-fi fans on LiveJournal to come say hello and prove they existed—and the historically influential ones, like mathematician Benjamin Banneker, scientist George Washington Carver, author Octavia Butler and astronaut Mae Jemison. But in pop culture? Black nerds depicted as an actual part of black America? In the onslaught of media imagery that television, magazines, movies and comic books hurl at us every day? Not so much. For a long time, it was pretty much just Steve Urkel, the clichéd brainiac on the ’90s sitcom Family Matters, whose nasal whine, physical clumsiness and giant glasses underlined every week for eight years the idea that geek and cool were polar opposites.
“I was always called Urkel growing up,” says Jason, rolling his eyes. “Really? That’s all we get? White nerds can grow up and become scientists and get hot chicks, and I get Urkel?”
Even Star Trek’s much-heralded vision of a peaceful post-racial future has only ever shown us a single black character at a time—Lt. Uhura in the 1960s show, Geordi La Forge in the ’80s, Benjamin Sisko in the ’90s—amid a sea of white faces.
Black Tribbles bucks that trend. For two hours a week, five hip, funny, well-rounded young black adults let their geek flags fly on air in a freewheeling bull session that thrives on the fact that there’s no pretension, no self-conscious radio shtick—just microphones present while a bunch of friends talk about what they love most, from comic books and fantasy movies to science and history and ancient mythology. And they do so in a hip-hop-flavored atmosphere that’s as likely to name-check Dr. Dre as it is Doctor Who.
The show just marked its one-year anniversary, and its audience gets bigger with every episode: some 1,500 weekly listeners through G-town Radio streams and Podomatic downloads, plus an unmeasured but likely larger number via the iTunes podcast store. In January, Black Tribbles was picked up by the 2GuysTalking Podcast Network, which has 30,000 listeners—”though I don’t know that they’re all listening to us,” Len offers.
In part, Black Tribbles’ growth is due to its own charms, but there’s also a broader context at work. “Right now, geek culture is so accepted,” says Kennedy. “ Avengers, Dark Knight, Men in Black—millions of people are going to see them. The way people dress today, it’s all superhero T-shirts and caps.” She shakes her head. “The same things I used to get clowned about for days, laughed right out of school.”
If the Tribbles can find a way to take their scrappy Internet radio show to the next level, they’ll be pushing that cultural crossover for a long time.