New York Public Radio president Laura Walker's jaw dropped when she read a study reporting that only 20 percent of the podcasts on the iTunes top 100 were hosted or co-hosted by a woman. It was 2013, and she wasn't having it. Walker had a new mission: to get that number up to at least 50 percent in the coming years — but where was she to begin?
A lightbulb went off and she came up with a women’s podcasting festival.
Last week, 600 women took over the Theatre at the Ace Hotel for WNYC’s third annual Werk It Women’s Podcast Festival. The hashtag #womenpodcasters trended as a diverse group of women from 33 American states and 12 countries shared their enthusiasm for and photos of the gathering. “It was part of our mission to get people from all over the country, from different backgrounds. There are a lot more women of color getting into it,” says Paula Szuchman, VP of on-demand content for WNYC.
The festival offered presentations and panels on all things podcast, from the artsy, creative side to the business side with panels like “The Million Dollar Podcast.” Downstairs, the B stage debuted a series of “How I Make It” sessions, intimate presentations by creators of smash-hit podcasts such as Making Oprah. In the evenings, WNYC hosts took over the stage, culminating in a live taping of Two Dope Queens on Thursday night with surprise guest Marc Maron.
“We basically made a fucking podcasting university,” Szuchman says.
Anna Sale, host of the popular WNYC podcast Death, Sex, Money, marveled at just how far they’ve come in two years, “I was at the first Werk It and I can remember people walking through the door with no idea how to podcast. I’m seeing them here this year and they’ve actually quit their day jobs and are working as full-time podcasters!”
The numbers reflect change too: Women now host 33 percent of the top 100 podcasts.
Manoush Zomorodi, one of Walker’s first female podcast recruits and host of the tech lifestyle podcast Note to Self, thinks podcasting is particularly attractive to women. “It’s hard to find podcasts. They’re not easily shared. It’s a place where we’ve kind of been left alone to have this type of vulnerable conversation and not be trolled,” she says. And it’s true, somehow the iTunes comments on podcasts read a whole lot friendlier than those on YouTube.
“When you listen to a woman’s podcast, it’s a feminist act.,” Zomorodi adds. “You’re listening to a woman express herself.” A woman can speak her mind knowing she is being listened to, not leered at.
“Women are generally socialized to feel more comfortable being hot than funny or cool or interesting,” says comedian Christina P, host of That’s Deep Bro and Your Mom’s House, which she co-hosts with husband Tom Segura. It’s one of the few podcasts with a female host to hit the top 20 on the comedy charts. Which begs the question: How many comedy podcasts have female hosts? “.01 percent” she joked, “I believe it’s changing with millennials that grew up seeing Sarah Silverman and Lisa Lampanelli. You’d think I’d be speaking to 30-something women. No. most emails I get are from 20-year-old white boys.” says Christina, whose stand-up special Mother Inferior debuts Tuesday, Oct. 10, on Netflix. “Entertainment isn’t how we used to think of it. It isn’t just white guys watching white guys anymore.”
And unlike television, this fairly accessible medium allows a diverse group of women to tell their stories. Kathy Tu hosts Nancy Podcast — which is “like This American Life for LGBTQ stories” — with Tobin Lowe. He was a cellist and she had just finished law school, “We both decided to drop everything and try something different,” Tu says. WNYC picked up their podcast, despite their non-journalistic backgrounds.
Such stories of people starting from scratch and making it are not unusual in podcasting — it’s still the Wild West days and there’s plenty of frontier left to conquer.
In terms of podcasting, L.A. public radio is behind New York public radio, but KCRW has just launched its first podcast, There Goes the Neighborhood, which follows gentrification in the area, co-hosted by Saul Gonzalez and Anna Scott. “We’ve gotten a really good response,” Gonzalez says, “and I don’t think you would have gotten that if you had paired me with another dude.”
For L.A. podcasting hopeful and recent history grad Casey Emma Lewis, the festival ignited her inspiration and gave her tools to put it into action: “I feel much more prepared to break into podcasting than before. Now I have a large, inclusive community to tap into.”