Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller are the hosts of hit new science podcast Invisibilia. Photo credit John W. Poole/NPR.
For years, if you tuned into a podcast, the voice streaming through your headphones would most likely belong to a man. In February 2013, men hosted 70 percent of the world's 100 most popular podcasts. Two years later, by my count, the disparity in the top-100 remains woefully similar. But other signals suggest a shift is underway.
Late last year, massively popular true crime show Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig, became the fastest-growing podcast ever, hitting five million downloads. Women now helm two of top three most popular podcasts on iTunes (Serial and new NPR science show Invisibilia) and the third show (This American Life) often features female reporters. And it’s not just those heavy-hitters: throughout the world of radio, there’s a clear shift toward recognizing the importance of getting more women behind microphones and into producing positions.
“We are definitely having a moment,” says Ann Heppermann, a 15-year public radio and podcasting veteran. “The change in even the past three to six months has just been massive. I’ve become an optimist.”
Heppermann is sort of a Goddess of podcasting: she produces three Slate podcasts, edits Life of the Law, reports for 99% Invisible, serves as an editorial advisor for The Truth, teaches narrative journalism at Sarah Lawrence, and helped start a scholarship for the Transom Story Workshop to diversify public media. In short, if Ann Heppermann sees the tides turning, we should take note. “People are finally talking about what is happening—not just hand-wringing, saying ‘Where are all the women?’ Now it’s, ‘Look what women are doing,’” she says.
NPR Vice President for Programming Eric Nuzum sees the shift, too. He recently called 2015 the “year of the podcast” and holds up the instant success of Invisibilia as a sign of a breakthrough for women. “A lot of things that people have embraced about Invisibilia would have been deal killers years ago: two young women, who kind of sound alike, talking about science. People would have asked, ‘Can two young women really talk about science?’ Now that would be a ridiculous question.”
Podcasting, with its low barriers to entry and opportunities for experimentation, has been a much-anticipated space for media democratization since the early 2000s. It has the ability to elevate the voices of people often left out of traditional print and broadcast journalism. So why are women finding more success in podcasting now than we were just a few years ago?
Sarah Koenig hosts the world's fastest-growing podcast. Photo by Meredith Heuer via SerialPodcast.org.
When I talked with people who spend much of their days thinking about podcasts, their sense of hope and excitement was striking. They spoke anecdotally about the people they know, the new shows listeners are downloading at record numbers, and the positive conversations they’re hearing at places like NPR. The following rose up as possible factors in the shifting gender disparity.
1. Women who have been behind the scenes at major organizations have gained the skills, confidence, and opportunities to start their own shows.
Since the dawn of radio, women have worked behind the scenes as producers, editors, and researchers. But recently, women are finally becoming more visible (or, audible) in hosting roles.
“We got the skills and then we just decided, fuck it, basically. We just decided, we can do this,” said Alix Spiegel, one of cohosts of Invisibilia on the recent “Broadscasting Edition” of Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest. Invisibilia is her first full-time hosting gig, but Spiegel has worked in radio for over a decade: she was a founding producer of This American Lifeand worked on NPR’s science desk for ten years. Her cohost Lulu Miller was a founding producer of Radiolab before joining NPR in 2013. The Third Coast Audio Festival brought them together.
The examples go on and on. Before setting off Serial mania, host Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder worked for years producing This American Life. When The Moth Podcast launched The Moth Radio Hour on PRX, Artistic Director Catherine Burns, Senior Producer Jenifer Hixson, and Producing Director Sarah Austin Jenness grabbed the mic as rotating hosts. Lea Thau, former Director of The Moth, created her own popular show, Strangers.
Many new podcast start as side projects, demanding time and money from their creators, so financial backing from the (relatively) deep pockets of established shows also gives new podcasters the stability that makes creative innovation more manageable.
Slate’s June Thomas noted on the DoubleX Gabfest that she wondered whether new hosts were pushing themselves to work unhealthy hours in order to get new shows off the ground. ”I worry that this podcast explosion is kind of on the backs of people just working just twenty-four seven,” she said. Alix Spiegel explained that her existing role at NPR gave her the time to develop Invisibilia as part of her work day rather than just in her spare time.
2. Feminist allies have been taking explicit action to close the gender gap.
This isn’t just about women in radio needing to “lean in.” Even with relatively low barriers to creating new podcasts, it typically takes money, marketing, and connections to reach a wide audience.
Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR’s puzzles, word games, and trivia show Ask Me Another and frequent host of The Moth StorySLAM, points out there are plenty of women already creating good work. “The machine that brings the listeners is really where the other side comes into it,” she said.
“The machine”—leadership at radio networks and organizations—has been more visibly prioritizing gender parity in development and strategy decisions. Eisenberg experienced this first-hand at her audition for Ask Me Another. “They were actually looking for a woman,” she said. She sees the rise of women’s voices stemming from overdue recognition of existing talent. “I think there was a conscious effort to say ‘let’s find these voices, and let’s celebrate these voices, and let’s promote these voices.’ And they were always there, it was just about giving them a chance. They were always there,” Eisenberg says.
One of the most concrete examples of activism on this front was the November 2014 Kickstarter campaign headed by Radiotopia’s Roman Mars, host of 99% Invisible. Calling the gender disparity “abysmal,” Mars raised money to bring three women-hosted podcasts to PRX’s Radiotopia, to “give more opportunities for female-fronted podcasts to find their audience.” Now Criminal, The Heart, and The Allusionist have Radiotopia audiences and Radiotopia has gender balance. People at the top have to take action for real change to happen. Mars used his fundraising power to do just that.
Allies with big audiences also drive change by promoting women-hosted shows—airing segments or making endorsements. At Slate, for example, Executive Producer Andy Bowers has long prioritized women-hosted (and co-hosted) shows, such as Dahlia Lithwick’s new Supreme Court podcast Amicus. At This American Life, Ira Glass has frequently put female reporters and hosts forward. “Ira has been a huge supporter of women on staff. He has a huge audience, and when he mentions something, the show has to be good, but he can get it out there,” Heppermann said.
3. Women are getting into leadership and driving development themselves.
Of course, when women gain power in the “the machine,” progress often follows even more quickly. Eisenberg said, “I remember talking with the head of WNYC, Laura Walker. She was like, ‘God, we need more female voices, because there’s just not a lot out there.’” Last year, WNYC launched the highly popular, women-hosted and-produced show Death, Sex & Money.
There’s also Jenna Weiss-Berman (formerly of The Moth and WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money) who is the new Director of Audio at Buzzfeed and Gretta Cohn (formerly of Freakonomics) who is creating shows at Midroll, both places where they can shape podcast development.
4. The audience for women-hosted podcasts is getting louder and more powerful.
Beyond principled advocacy, putting women forward as hosts is just good business strategy for networks. Contrary to the long-held belief that women don’t have authority on air, audiences connect with female hosts just fine. In fact, the recent success of women-hosted shows points to the idea that female creative teams running and hosting shows can help expand podcasts’ audience.
Invisibilia, for example, reached an unprecedented 10 million plays less than one month after launching.
Eisenberg loves meeting young women in her audiences, who she says are mostly between 25 and 35. “They are dorky and they’re smart and they’re nerdy and they’re cool,” she said. “I feel like I get them because of that niche of, you know, nerdy comedy. I feel lucky to hold this odd position, and I feel like they would consume more of it. They are just dying to hear a voice that sounds like theirs.”
5. Hearing more women’s voices on podcasts leads to even more women starting podcasts.
When we see (or hear) someone who looks like us in a particular role, it’s easier to picture ourselves there. This rings true in podcasting.
NPR's Eric Nuzum sees this in his work. “Even in my circle of friends, I see a lot of people starting podcasts, and many of them are female. I have a friend who started a new podcast about whiskey and cats which is recorded on their dining room table.” (Yes, this is real. It’s called WhiskeyCats, and it’s right here.)
As more women make strides in prominent places, they inspire more women. And then more and more.
But while women-hosted podcasts are helping to create a gender balance in radio and expand podcasts’ audience, a quick glance at the top podcasts in iTunes and Stitcher are all we need to see that gender inequity still exists. Not everyone is convinced that change is happening quickly enough.
“I’m just not seeing it. I’m not seeing real initiatives,” said DC-based journalist Jamila Bey. “The female voice, and female speech, right now are becoming recognized as having fury and effectiveness… But when we hear the spoken voice, we’re still hearing men.”
Bey spent 10 years as a producer and editor for NPR and later hosted a weekly radio show The Sex, Politics and Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila, which she recently crowdfunded to release as a podcast. She’s in the process of launching the Women’s Podcasting Network, which she hopes will lead to a conference, regional meetups, online workshops, and perhaps most significantly, training.
“Everybody who has a smartphone has a recording studio in her pocket, in her palm. If we can get women, young girls, to talk about politics as they see it, what a difference that’s going to make,” Bey said. She calls attention to what she sees as a deficit in opportunities for women to learn basic microphone skills. “Training women with these tools will make it easier for them to do what they want to do.”
Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg is no stranger to male-dominated space: she’s also a standup comedian. She also sees a need for continued progress by women in podcasting, starting with comedy podcasts.
“There isn’t an interview comedy podcast right now yet that has the same amount of popularity as, say, Marc Maron. He’s been doing it forever, he’s established. I would love to see that. Well, to hear it. I really think there are so many women out there with stuff ready to roll,” she said. “I look all the time around for comedy podcasts hosted by women. There are tons of podcasts – loads and loads and loads.”
She also reminds us of the sexist reaction to women’s voices, which has been recent topic of discussion on Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest and on This American Life. The rise of women-hosted podcasts, “started this whole huge backlash about women’s voices, the vocal fry, the this, the that,” Eisenberg said. Before Eisenberg began hosting Ask Me Another, she was paired with a vocal trainer who told her to make her voice much lower. Eisenberg said the trainer told her, “In that high register, all people hear is their mother or their wife yelling at them, and they’re immediately turned away.” She also encountered some pushback from long-time radio listeners. “In the very beginning of hosting the NPR radio show, I was pretty floored that even with the nerd population they were like, ‘Ugh, a woman.’”
NPR recently did a segment on why the voices of women are often taken less seriously:
Even optimists like Heppermann believe that as women make strides, diversity across podcasting still lags in other areas—we hear far too few podcast hosts of color, and podcast hosts from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and LGBTQ podcast hosts.
Heppermann notes that, like her, most of the women whose voices are prominent in podcasting are white. “That needs to change,” she says. “We really need to take the traction we’ve made in this and put it all into effort toward racial and ethnic diversity.”
The conversation is starting, at least. Transom recently published Chenjerai Kumanyika’s examination of the “whiteness” of the sound of public radio and Buzzfeed ran this great list of podcasts featuring black voices.
As Jamila Bey argues, there are no quick fixes. “Diversity means a range of things and it’s a fluid state of being, not ‘we hired a fill-in-the-blank, now we’re diverse,’” Bey said. “I want to hear economic diversity. I don’t only want wealthy women, or folks who are sponsored by products that the majority of us aren’t able to afford.”
Broadening the sound of radio could also expand radio’s audience. When NPR launched race and culture network Code Switch in 2013, the response was overwhelming. Nuzum says the nonprofit had “something like 1,300 applications” for jobs on the show. “People saw an opportunity to be part of NPR and use the huge megaphone of NPR to tell a different story, in a different voice from a lot of what’s already out there.”
Looking for more women-hosted podcasts for your ears? Here are some to seek out:
• 99% Invisible’s Favorite Podcasts Hosted by Women
• The Toast’s Ten Great Podcasts by Women
• Sparrow Design Haus’s 15 Noteworthy Podcasts by Creative Women Entrepreneurs
Looking to get involved in podcasting or support diverse podcast hosts?
• Explore the resources on NPR’s Next Generation of Radio page.
• Learn from the work and members of AIRmedia.org.
• Check out the awesome resources of Third Coast International Audio Festival.
• Want to start your own podcast? Get in touch with Jamila Bey for advice. She asked us to include her email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Google Voice number (202-656-2237), so anyone looking to help women get involved in podcasting can reach out.
Alex Madison is a writer and teacher from Seattle, currently living in Iowa City.
You know Bitch publishes a new podcast episode every week, right? Check out our two shows: Popaganda and Backtalk.