Whether on camera as a reporter or on social media, Soledad O’Brien is a disruptor. Telling it like it is is part of the award-winning journalist’s personal brand, but it’s also the ethos behind her eponymous production company SO’B Productions.
O’Brien founded the shingle in 2013 with the mission to uncover and produce empowering untold stories that dive deep into issues of race, class, wealth, opportunity and poverty. It also allowed the journalist — whose work has been recognized with three Emmy awards, two George Foster Peabody Awards, three Gracie Awards, two Cine Awards and an Alfred I. DuPont Award — the opportunity to take charge of the narrative.
“I always liked the idea of saying, ‘Here’s a story I want to tell. And where can I tell it?’,” O’Brien tells Variety. “And if I don’t want to do something, I don’t have to go do it.”
“There have been these moments in time, when I’ve been covering a story that I felt did not merit the coverage,” she explained. “It felt like, we’re doing this for sensationalism in media, and not because there’s some important news that we should be bringing to the community to the populace. When you run your own thing, you get to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. Here’s what we think we should do.’”
As such, SO’B Productions has focused its lens on exploring matters of systemic racism and social justice, and over the last eight years, the company has expanded its slate from producing interview and documentary series to also include podcasts and scripted shows.
One of the company’s latest hit shows, “Disrupt and Dismantle,” launches Friday on the Smithsonian Channel. The show originally aired on BET, but O’Brien notes that the new deal to re-premiere it opens up the subject matter to a broader audience.
“The idea that people are saying, ‘No, we actually want you to do a deep dive into and explain what environmental racism is and what it means,’ It’s amazing,” O’Brien says, taking in the show’s impact thus far. “I can’t believe we had an opportunity to tell those stories in the middle of a pandemic, and then relaunch them again.”
Then, on Oct. 5, SO’B’s new four-part documentary “The Prison Breaker” debuts on Discovery Plus. The show tells the true story of one of the most brilliant escape artists of all time, Richard Lee McNair, who is the only person ever to have broken out of jail, state penitentiary and federal penitentiary and famous for mailing himself to freedom.
The company has also inked a deal with HBO for an unnamed new series, set to air in November, plus O’Brien will be hosting the new Audible podcast series “Growing Up P.O.C.,” where O’Brien speaks with Sunny Hostin, Marcus Samuelsson, Alicia Garza, Tommy Orange and Chad Sanders about how they navigated their upbringings and how those experiences have helped them thrive today.
And though O’Brien has fronted most of the company’s projects to date, SO’B is not a vanity shingle. As a producer, O’Brien aims to champion other likeminded voices have now translated into the company inking new talent development deals with Alicia Garza (principal at Black Futures Lab and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network) and Malcolm Jenkins (famed NFL player, activist and philanthropist).
“We have this great opportunity to leverage the point of view and voices of very popular and interesting people who have stories to tell, who need to be brought bigger into the mainstream,” O’Brien says, explaining why it was a no-brainer to sign them. “I think they’re both smart, interesting and compelling and they’ll be great, great television, and we will work to bring their stories into production.”
SO’B Productions and producer Kendra MacLeod have teamed up to develop Garza’s “Lady Don’t Take No” podcast into a new show. Each episode follows the activist and principal at Black Futures Lab as she takes time out with girlfriends, celebrities and influencers to “blow off steam and share unexpected conversations giving us a little break from reality and a better POV on the crazy world we are all living in.”
“Working with Soledad and her company is a dream come true for me, having followed her career for a long time,” Garza tells Variety. “Soledad has always fought to tell the stories that are missing from our mainstream conversations.”
“Her focus on who gets to tell the stories that matter and why, making sure our stories have a perspective from those who have been left out and left behind,” Garza continues. “That’s why we’ve joined forces — to spark the conversations about what really needs to happen, and who needs to be involved, in making an America that has never truly existed.”
Jenkins is also the co-founder of Listen Up Media, a production company he co-created with India Robinson “to tell the stories that many are afraid to tell — those of trauma, empathy and triumph to uplift our communities,” and says he wanted to work with O’Brien because “she is fearless in her approach as a journalist.”
“I surround myself with people who are unafraid to tackle the toughest issues that our communities of color have endured for decades…racism, inequalities and injustices in our education, housing, criminal justice, political and employment infrastructures…with the goal to impact society in meaningful ways,” the two-time Super Bowl Champion tells Variety.
“Soledad is leading her production company with the same fervor in storytelling that I want to produce, based on facts and historical figures who have been wiped clean from our school’s curriculum,” he continues. “Our faith and civil rights leaders worked side by side to battle white supremacy, segregation and basic human rights, and it’s important to shed light on the evolution of how we got here today as a society.”
The SO’B Productions team is made up of about 13 full-time employees, with Jo Honig (head of original content), Rose Arce (executive producer) and Patrick Conway (vice president of development) leading the charge for good alongside O’Brien.
“I have found being an entrepreneur really fascinating and quite difficult,” O’Brien says, sharing what she’s learned over the last eight years. “I think it really helps focus around what you’re interested in covering in terms of storytelling, who you want to work with in terms of partnerships, where you want to spend your time.”
But a key tenet of success, she notes, is that “you end up hiring people who have a similar vision — they want to get on the bus going the direction that you want to do. And so I think we got a lot of clarity around the kinds of stories that we were good at, what we wanted to tell.”
And the workplace the SO’B team puts diversity at the forefront, in a welcome change from the media landscape where the journalism veteran cut her teeth. In fact, to ensure the stories they tell represent a wide-ranging population on camera, the SO’B team prides itself on measuring and tracking the diversity displayed on screen, in addition to prioritizing inclusion behind the scenes.
“I have very much appreciated that the conversations around who are we hiring and what’s the diversity like,” she says. “It’s been great to work in a place where it’s not weird, it’s not awkward, it’s not a third thought like, ‘Oh, crap is it diverse?’ It starts at the beginning and that’s sort of the way it should be.”
As a result of already having their ducks in a row when it comes to who and how to tell these stories, the SO’B team has more time to focus on conquering their next frontier — the world of scripted content. After producing nearly 50 documentaries in her lifetime, O’Brien says she’s particularly excited to step into a new style of storytelling.
“I’ve loved [producing documentaries], but you follow the story,” O’Brien explains. “With scripted, you just tell everybody how you want it to end. There’s something very nice about deciding how you want it to end, as opposed to having to follow the story where it ends. It’s a lot of fun.”