A Q&A with Female Leaders in Podcasting

In honor of Women’s History month, we asked eight female leaders in the podcast industry to talk to us about women in audio. We gathered in a socially-distant-acceptable Slack channel to talk. Read our lightly edited conversation below, but first, here are the wonderful women we talked to.

How do you all feel about the representation of women in the podcasting industry?

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: There are multiple layers to this. On the one hand, we have lots of women hosting great shows – many of which they created themselves. That level of visibility is really good for the industry and for newcomers to the space.

On the other hand, there are thousands of incredibly talented women producing, editing, mixing, scripting and otherwise doing the necessary work to create, launch, and sustain shows, but they’re only really known to insiders. I think that has to change, and doing so will require a serious effort.

Lastly, when it comes to who appears to be holding the mic in macro terms for the industry – measurement, tech, growth, finances – men give the impression that they’re running the show. And those optics disadvantage women on their teams and industry-wide.

Ashley Lusk: I’m hopeful about our progress. Women are starting their own successful networks—Wonder Media, Pod People, Lantigua Williams & Co, Mermaid Palace, Multitude, Earios—and we’re seeing women in prominent positions at media organizations—WNYC, Radiotopia, CNN, Vox—but that’s pretty new. Women have long been in supporting positions (editing, production, audience, etc.), which are often uncredited.

Shira Atkins: I am such an Earios fan!

Allyson Marino: Working at Midroll, Acast and Podcast One over the years, I always reported to white guys. The content they green lit was made by other white men. They did not want my opinion or representation on the management teams. I asked explicitly. So I started my own network to monetize content made by women. And in the fundraising space, there are institutional challenges that make funding more difficult for women to secure. The good news is that we are all here. There is over 70 percent of this country that does not yet listen to podcasts weekly. We have all this room to make the podcast media a better reflection of the people who live in our society. People like people who sound like they do.

Bridget Todd: I’m hopeful, too. The thing that has given me the most hope is seeing women start their own things. A big part of my early work in podcasting as a host was learning (the hard way) about exploitation as a creator and bad deals. I think women in the space are starting from a place of wanting to own their own IP, have their own network, establishing meaningful partnerships with bigger podcast networks instead of just having them take advantage of our creative labor.

Shira Atkins: The whole premise of our founding WMN was borne of a deep desire to see “mainstream” media tell more, better stories about women and other underrepresented folks. On a personal level, my dominant feeling is hunger to take up as much space as possible, to become “mainstream” in the sense that our stories and our shows (collectively on this amazing thread) will change the face of the industry.

Ashley Lusk: Taking off my production hat for a moment: There has been a call to have more podcast criticism and industry coverage*, but we still see that coming from a very limited number of sources. I think there are important voices offering productive critiques of the industry, but they are not the people we see invited to panels, not the people moderating conversations with hosts, not being put in positions to ask tough questions and have those answers seen by other people.

Elena Fernandez Collins (@Shomarq)
Danielle Berry (@PodcastsinColor)
Galen Beebe (@galenbeebe/@bellocollective)
Sarah Larson (@sarahlarson/@newyorker)
Maayan Plaut (@maayanplaut/@PRX)
Wil Williams (@wilw_writes)

*One of those calls for criticism recently came from Julia Barton of Pushkin Industries.

Bridget Todd: I want to make a point about this, I make pods for Black women and women of color. It kills me to have white dudes writing about that work when I don’t feel like they even fully understand it, let alone can be arbiters of it

Ashley Lusk: I wish I could give this 💯 x 1000

Doree Shafrir: The big thing for me is looking at who controls the money. And that seems to still mostly be men. I’ve been encouraged by people like Nicola Korzenko at Podfund who is really making an effort to fund women-led shows and networks right now.

Ashley Lusk: I have often wondered if women fall prey to undervaluing their shows when it comes to advertising. Are they bold enough to ask for the higher CPM?

Doree Shafrir: We sold our own ads on Forever35 for the first year and a half and insisted on a premium CPM and encountered some resistance but ultimately everyone paid what we were asking.

Allyson Marino: We sell premium CPMs for the 21 shows we represent ~$40. However, women tend to ask for ratings and reviews and donations at the end of the show. Men are much more likely to do those things upfront.

Women are sought after by advertisers. And to run a business today, CPM is hard to get away from when selling ads specifically.

Shira Atkins: I have been very vocal about disregarding CPM altogether as bad for creators and bad for advertisers because of this very issue.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: In terms of CPM, I have successfully made the case that Latina to Latina listeners are more valuable because there are fewer of them and we have to go find them, put the show in front of them, teach them how to listen to podcasts, and also nurture a sustained listening habit, which leads to much higher loyalty and engagement. So the higher CPM yields a higher quality listener.

I agree with Shira that CPM is the wrong way to measure success. Someone wrote something on audience ‘stickiness’ that comes closer to how we should measure audience value: how often to they listen, repeat listen, share episodes, contribute financially to the show, buy the merch, connect on social, attend events….

Doree Shafrir: How do we get agencies, networks and advertisers to understand that?

Shira Atkins: Right Side Up gets this!

Doree Shafrir: Yes, they do.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: We use our listen through rate, which exceeds the industry average, we show percentage growth month over month, we pull social messages from listeners and quote their emails…I even came up with an Excel formula that tells us how many people around the world are listening at one given moment, and that number has grown significantly in one year. I’m always finding quantifiable ways to reduce the impact/importance of the CPM because I don’t fully accept it as the standard measurement.

Shira Atkins: And furthermore, brands should be putting their dollars behind content that they also want to promote! I tell brands all the time that they should create the perfect virtuous funnel simply by supporting (aka sponsoring) content that a) they believe in and b) they feel good about showing their audience they believe in.

This is maybe unhelpful to say, but I also just think it’s about finding champions who really understand our content, and not wasting our time on agency folks or networks that have a model that “works for them.” I spend a lot less time trying to convince folks these days and keep my mind focused on how huge the market is. Less time on archaic agencies, more time prospecting new brand partners.

Priyanka Mattoo: What I’m finding is we have loyal listeners who want to spend money, but ad sales companies are still figuring out models to harness that. It seems like there is a lot of inventory for “women’s products” but the model doesn’t exist to monetize it in a way that can really keep midsize podcasts afloat. We need more creative ways to make income – our surveys say that there’s a high conversion from listeners of Earios shows, like, they will buy what we suggest, because they trust us (as they should), and they tend to be higher-income women, but the rate is the rate, and we’re a little trapped by that.

I’ve met so many wonderful women in this space, coming from TV and film this feels like a breath of fresh air, not that there isn’t always room for improvement. As Amanda (Lund) says, “we won’t rest until every woman in America has a podcast.”

How do you feel intersectionality affects the voices getting represented and funded? Whose voices aren’t getting highlighted enough?

Priyanka Mattoo: WOC! Black and Brown women! I mean, famous women have existing platforms, but as people discover our show Foxy Browns, a beauty and wellness show hosted by two WOC (myself and Camilla Blackett) I’m astonished by how many women write to say, “I didn’t know WOC did podcasts, I thought it was a white lady thing.” No offense 😬

Cait Moldenhauer: Absolutely agree! We have a show Who Does The Baby’s Hair? about a woman comedian living life as bi-racial, and often the response to the show concept is “who is this for? A bi-racial audience isn’t big enough.” We try to educate that great storytelling isn’t limited to a direct singular perspective, but even in advertising, there’s confusion on who the audience could be. But surprise, everyone if it’s good content.

Allyson Marino: Women of color for sure. One reason Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is so great. Their current show Rebel Eater’s Club is revolutionary and is hosted by a (self-proclaimed) fat woman of color. Juleyka and Adonde Media are trailblazers solving this disparity in representation.

Doree Shafrir: Disabled people are very underrepresented in podcasting and media in general.

Ashley Lusk: In my time at WNYC, I was fortunate enough to work with the team behind the outstanding Nancy podcast. They were committed to telling stories about queer joy because so many stories about LGBTQIA people were exclusively about their struggles. And I woke up with that as my mission every single day: find an audience that will appreciate these stories of queer joy. I want more intersectional range—I don’t want underrepresented voices to feel they have a lane. I love what the team at Mermaid Palace is doing, for example—the queerness feels so rich and nuanced. James Kim’s excellent Moonface podcast is another example. Dipsea, the audio erotica app, is another.

Bridget Todd: I want to get to a point where underrepresented voices are making lots of shows about everything, not just their experiences as underrepresented people. We don’t need to just stay in our lane.

I still feel so disheartened by the representation question sometimes. We are all making such interesting, challenging work, but when you scroll iTunes it feels like all I see are white dudes (and a particular kind of white dude at that.) On a network I worked with, they understood that the network’s “5 flagship shows” all hosted by white people were the “moneymakers,” and the revenue they generated allowed them to take a chance on “other creators” (i.e., women of color.) But that always left me feeling like creators of color were constantly being scrutinized  instead of being given room and support to actually try things out like other folks were. It led to this vibe of feeling like creators of color were always auditioning and should always just be happy to be on the network, whether or not you got any actual support there.

Allyson Marino: Geez, I can feel that. Such a pervasive problem.

Shira Atkins: God, that is so frustrating. I’m so sorry you had that experience.

Bridget Todd: It was tough but it taught me a lot about when a place is just not for me, which has really stuck with me.

Priyanka Mattoo: At the Hot Pod Summit I made a point of saying to an independent podcaster – we know when we’re being seen as an opportunity for optics vs. when a buyer actually connects with the material. Those buyers tend to be women.

Bridget Todd: Oh 1000000% you can feel deep down in your bones when you are being treated as an optics opportunity! It’s so true!

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: I’ve started using the term ‘future audiences’ a lot more because that’s the statistical reality in front of us. I find dry facts about inclusion are less exhausting to talk about than moral arguments about it.

It seems like there are a lot of established “rules” and practices that disadvantage women (and many other types of creators). What can curators, producers and the podcasting industry as a whole do to change that?

Cait Moldenhauer: A journalistic background is not a requirement to be a great storyteller. Journalists from public radio lead the way for incredible narrative, high production shows. But that was 10 years ago, and many of the public radio rules and standards are still expected. That limits many creative, qualified producers, hosts, and editors that lack the inroads to public radio.

Ashley Lusk: Hire more women, people of color, and underrepresented voices at every. single. level.

Shira Atkins: Also I think the onus is on us as leaders to take all of our shows equally seriously (even when all of our hosts are women and people of color). I have fallen into the trap of constantly putting forward Womannica and Women belong in the House because I can build on the attention they’ve already gotten, and it just feels easier.

Bridget Todd: That’s such a good point. I get the inclination, too, but it’s great you’re thinking about how to not get stuck in that trap.

Doree Shafrir: Taking risks on hosts and producers who might not have the exact experience you think they should. Where is the female Marc Maron or Joe Rogan?

Priyanka Mattoo: My joke there is always that I cannot believe how much credit dudes get for… asking questions and listening to the answers.

I think part of the problem is that women can sometimes be wired to think “Oh, well, what do I have to say that’s so special,” and that’s why we try to encourage anyone with a crazy idea to go for it, even DIY.

Doree Shafrir: Yes or that it has to be “perfect.”

Priyanka Mattoo: Totally. We say make the show you’re dying to make, and then at least you’ve made it.

Ashley Lusk: I’ll add one more: Credit Women/POC/Underrepresented Voices. From the host to the intern. Put them in your credits, explain what they do, find reasons to feature their work in the show, or talk about their contributions on social. That makes them visible and when it comes time to hire, their names are visible too.

Cait Moldenhauer: We also found that women were blocked by technical know-how, even as low as the “entry barrier” is. The audio engineering industry is especially lopsided in representation. And it feels unwelcoming. Try buying gear from a guitar center. What was amazing to us was telling our hosts that we would help produce their show and teach them the technical side to enable them to rise up and gain the lingo needed to speak with other podcasters and larger networks. Some of them have built production careers from it. And when you understand recording and editing, it opens doors to challenging how you make the show and acting on crazy creative ideas.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: Sometimes the issue of inclusion comes down to laziness. People only send emails to their small networks when they’re looking for collaborators. I knew that would be very limiting to me three years ago when I started in podcasting, so I was really determined to talk to as many future collaborators as possible. I asked for recommendations then combed through every listing on the Air Media Talent directory to find people whose work experience matched what I wanted LW&C to produce. I spoke on the phone to 40+ producers, editors, mixers, engineers, reporters, etc, and documented every call. Then I took a laminated map of the US, taped it to my desk and put every name on a piece of paper on that map. I continue to add people to the map and can easily find collaborators around the country because I did the initial work three years ago. And, before the call ended, I asked for at least one name of someone else I should speak to. That’s necessary work that would benefit the industry overall. We have to expand our networks and take chances on new people.

Ashley Lusk: Honestly, Juleyka,  you give us all a standard to aspire to.

Priyanka Mattoo:  Incredible! I want to laminate this.

Thank you to the wonderful, inspiring women who took time to answer our questions. Find out what they are working on and follow them on social below.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams @JuleykaLantigua
Shira Atkins @shira_atkins
Bridget Todd @BridgetMarie
Cait Moldenhauer @morebananapods
Ashley Lusk @arlusk
Doree Shafrir @doree
Priyanka Mattoo @naanking
Allyson Marino @AllysonSS

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