During a time when the entertainment industry is reckoning with a pandemic and its own racial improprieties, a Black queer journalist has an app for that.
With PopViewers, Chris Witherspoon intends to give everyday people an opportunity to express video reactions and comments to what they are watching in real time. Currently available on Apple iOS, the app is striving to do what Witherspoon has done his entire career: pass the mic back to a diverse community of viewers.
“I created PopViewers, not only based on a trend I saw, but also because I genuinely want to democratize how we talk about content for my own sake—as a member and advocate of these communities,” Witherspoon told The Daily Beast. “While many successful tech platforms are marketing to people of color, we want to go many steps beyond this with PopViewers. We want to embolden their voice to empower change.”
Witherspoon, 38, says his self-determination to enact such change came from his upbringing.
The Warren, Ohio, native came from humble beginnings, growing up with a mother who worked a bunch of different jobs in order to keep a roof over their heads. His father, who was in the National Guard, grew up picking cotton on a farm his family owned in Sumpter, South Carolina. There were times when Witherspoon says his family experienced homelessness, having to abruptly relocate multiple times before he finished high school.
“I count my tough childhood as a blessing,” Witherspoon said of the resilience he gained from such experiences. “It taught me about life, visioning, and envisioning exactly who I want to be in the future. It’s with that toolset that I’ve become very resilient as a founder and CEO.”
The transition from being a small town kid who dreamed of a media career after once buying a floor model TV for $10 at a yard sale to eventually landing a gig at The Today Show came very fast. In 2004, during his senior year in college, Witherspoon interned at Good Morning America, where he got to work closely with heavyweights like Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts every morning in the studio. He quickly landed a spot in the prestigious NBC Page Program, where he got to rub shoulders with the likes of Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Ann Curry, and Al Roker.
“Katie Couric would call me by name every morning,” Witherspoon said of the experience. “When I saw and met all the big stars that were on the show that without makeup on, I discovered that they were just like me and the folks I grew up with back home in Ohio. Some of them even had blemishes, they were real people.”
Witherspoon went from the page program to landing a job as an executive assistant to then-CEO of NBC Universal, Jeff Zucker. With mentorship from Zucker, he came to understand the importance of diversity and representation in corporate media.
“It wasn’t lost on me that I was probably one of the few Black faces that were on the executive floor throughout the day that wasn’t wearing a uniform and carrying a tray, or a security guard,” Witherspoon said on “wearing nice dress-up clothes” and working in close proximity to a media powerhouse.
“Jeff Zucker saw me for who I was, and let me in the room. He left me near the door, he would let me shake the hands of every single person that he had a meeting with. He showed me what it is to have big ideas, to execute them, to win and to sometimes lose, but to get back in the game and to keep playing the game and to keep dreaming big ideas.”
After years of eventually serving as an entertainment analyst for CNN, a correspondent for Fandango, entertainment editor for theGrio, and now as a regular contributor on the Wendy Williams Show, Witherspoon has witnessed hurdles in an industry that still hasn’t fully addressed its diversity woes.
The recent awakenings in Hollywood (#OscarsSoWhite, #TimesUp, and the latest racial uprisings) have inspired his drive to do more than just represent on the red carpet, but actively contribute to confronting institutional problems that he believes still has yet to exit stage right.
“I often think about the next step in diversity—after having worked for a white CEO at an entertainment company—that we need to see change at the top,” Witherspoon said. “We also need to see diversity and inclusion reflected in the crews and the folks behind the scenes.”
Witherspoon wants the media industry to do more “inventory and assessment” internally on their hiring numbers, believing there must be “a resolve there first before we can see a major change.” But he also suggests that race shouldn’t be the only thing focused on, but issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity as well.
“When it comes to homophobia and transphobia in the industry, I think that we have a very long way to go,” Witherspoon argues. “But we're making progress, glacially sometimes. For example, with the diversity problems surrounding the recent LGBTQ holiday movies, it’s yet another reminder that we must have stories that are being greenlit by us, that are for us.”
And yet, Witherspoon has realized throughout his career that such representation alone isn’t always enough. While Witherspoon describes working as an entertainment analyst for CNN as a “great experience,” he still admits something wasn’t quite right working there despite being a Black queer professional placed in a highly desired position.
“If I’m being honest, I wasn't absolutely myself in that role,” Witherspoon now contemplates years later. “I think in working with a big company like CNN, it becomes easy to see a big brand and think, ‘Oh, here's how I can fit this mold. Here's how I can be this type of person that represents this brand of CNN.’”
“I have truly loved working as an entertainment correspondent, but through it all I have recognized that representation at the decision table is still a major issue,” Witherspoon said. “For example, pre-pandemic I attended advance screenings for new movies and TV shows. I would look around and quickly see that I was one of the only people of color in these crowded screening rooms. The fact is that the majority of the critics and decision-makers that work for the major media publications and news outlets still don’t adequately reflect the consumers they are supposed to represent.”
Such experiences are what motivated Witherspoon to ensure that PopViewers was an opportunity for those who often don’t get a wide entertainment platform to share their opinions to be able to. On the app, anyone, from any background, can share their views on the countless film or television show options it hosts. While mostly white men still dominate the cultural critic arena, the app serves as another reminder that diverse voices in the field exist and are desperately needed to counter the current narrative.
“When I talk about whether or not folks should go see a movie or watch a TV show, I find myself referencing data from Nielsen ratings or critic aggregate scores, or what’s been nominated for an Emmy, Oscar, or Golden Globe,” Witherspoon said. “But critic aggregates and award shows don’t always get it right; they don’t adequately reflect the diversity and nuance of the audience that’s actually watching. I truly believe that heeding the voices of the people can fundamentally shift our perception of each other, lead to better content, and to a better world.”
And while such a lofty project is worth its weight, getting it off the ground hasn’t come quite easy for the late-thirties founder who’s had to navigate both racism and homophobia throughout the media industry—while facing new challenges in the tech world.
“I was often the only Black person—and definitely the only Black gay person—who got a seat... I recognize now how I censored myself and my opinions for fear that my true voice would cost me my spot,” Witherspoon said on such earlier experiences in his career. “To secure my position, I adopted the practice of code-switching, where I would shrink certain parts of how I show up to reflect what I believed to be a more commercially acceptable version of me as an entertainment journalist.”
Now within the tech community, development surrounding his app has entered a new round of funding. His new fundraising goal is to raise $5 million, which Witherspoon believes will get PopViewers to the scale his team has in mind. But as a Black gay founder, he argues that he still doesn’t “fit the mold for the type of founder” that has proven to be the most successful in tech.
“I'm not white, I didn't go to Harvard, and I don't wear hoodies,” Witherspoon says about the obstacles in front of him in Silicon Valley. “Like its close cousin, imposter syndrome, representation syndrome is also a real feeling that I have to overcome on a daily basis. There is an added pressure to make this work and to hit a home run because I want to open doors for other black and queer people and their brilliant ideas in this industry.”
Much of Witherspoon’s drive comes from fatherhood. As a dad to his small son named Andrés, who he had via his lesbian best friend serving as a surrogate and co-parent, Witherspoon considers him “the manifestation of my biggest dream” of becoming a father.
“I want him to look to the media to find a positive representation of himself, and others like him, and others not like him,” Witherspoon said of what he desires for his son. “He deserves more than just one option.”
Today, Witherspoon says he can now “relish” in the fact that he’s building a community at PopViewers that allows the audience to become the critics. His “no gatekeepers, no establishment, no exclusion,” mantra on the job has inspired him to create the kind of creative safe space he’s wanted his entire career.
“The best part of this is that I get to bring the totality of who I am as a Black gay man to the table while leading my team on this mission,” Witherspoon said. “I hope we can change the system so that others will feel comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to these spaces in our industry.”
Such goals are what inspires him to make PopViewers not just another trendy app, but a multi-platform experience that continues to foster and advocate for diverse voices. Witherspoon says a valuable lesson taught to him from an elder at Sunday school in his childhood puts these hopes and dreams he has for this new endeavor into full perspective.
“In 1999, a lady at my church said to me, ‘If you don't see the example, be the example,’” Witherspoon recalled. “I hope to be the example, a Black gay man in the tech industry and in the entertainment tech space who remains true to his authentic self. I know that I’m an outlier, and I want to be able to open doors and make room for others like me to be in this space. There are so many people eager to create tech platforms and that gets me excited.”