In 2014, Sarah Koenig made a podcast series for the US radio show, This American Life. Koenig and her team revisited the murder of American student Hae Min Lee and released their findings in weekly episodes. Within a year, the podcast had been downloaded 68 million times. The podcast was called Serial.
Serial was a seminal moment that sent podcasts down a new superhighway of popularity. It was, however, by no means the first. Podcasts had been around for a decade, with iTunes adding podcasting to its software in June 2005. And there were notably brilliant shows, too, such as This American Life, and early adopters like Ricky Gervais. The first podcast I listened to was the witty, brilliant and feminist DoubleX Gabfest from Slate magazine – it felt like sharing a bottle of wine with my favourite women writers. But it was only after Serial that many people, who previously didn’t know what a podcast was, began to listen to them and to make them. Hundreds of new voices on an infinite number of topics sprung up. Thanks to Serial, podcasts had arrived in the mainstream.
Fast forward and we’re in what The Drum has called “the golden age of listening”. Go to a dinner party or sit around in the pub and quite often the topic of podcasts will crop up in the way films or TV dramas do. Or at least it can feel that way for a youngish demographic – although, obviously, not exclusively – what journalist and columnist Fiona Sturges, who reviews podcasts for the Financial Times, identifies as “a group that might be a bit young for [BBC] Radio 4 but find Radio 1 out of touch”. There’s a podcast on everything and anything, readily available at any time, and anywhere, as long as there is a phone to hand. And in our streaming, Netflix, on-demand world, consumers are the curators – they listen to what they want to, when they want to, how they want to. Lauren Laverne, broadcasting queen, Late Night Woman’s Hour podcast host and co-founder of The Pool, also believes that their appeal comes from the more rough-around-the-edges sound: “[Podcasts] also often offer a peer-to-peer type of broadcast. Rather than the rarefied, expert tones of a seasoned professional, they are often people exactly like you, talking about things that interest you. I think that can be very powerful from a listener’s point of view. Sometimes you want authority, but other times you want other things – intimacy and informality for example. That’s what many of my favourite podcasts offer.”
And now, in this post-Serial world, listeners don’t just curate, either – they create. If they can’t find what they were looking for, they’ll go and make it themselves. Perhaps this is one of the reasons there’s been an increase in female podcasts hosts, especially in the UK. The likes of the truly excellent Call Your Girlfriend and Another Round in the US have given women a huge voice (attracting guests as big as Hillary Clinton), but it’s been slower to take off here. Yet that’s changing, thanks to The Guilty Feminist, Ctrl Alt Delete, Badass Women’s Hour, The Pool’s own Dear Viv and the more recent Sunday Soak, The High Low, the New Statesman's SRSLY, Otegha Uwagba’s Women Who, the School For Dumb Women (by Pool staffer Hannah Varrall and two former staff members, Caroline O’Donoghue and Alex Haddow) among others. Susie Warhurst, director of UK content at Acast, a podcast platform, tells me that, in the last 18 months alone, the female hosts in their top 30 shows have tripled. “It shows things are going in the right direction,” she says, “but there’s still a long way to go.”
The condition of woman has basically been silence for so long that I'm happy to bathe in women's voices for the rest of time
Caroline Crampton started her blog for the New Statesman in summer 2015, with colleague Anna Leszkiewicz. She told me: “While there’s a lot of good pop-culture discussion that happens in America, we didn’t really feel like there was anyone in Britain doing that in a really concentrated way.” Blogger and podcaster Emma Gannon (Ctrl Alt Delete and Get it Off Your Breasts) also saw her gap in the market. “My thing is that I always make something for myself that I think is missing,” she explained. “I was like, ‘Where’s the podcast for someone chatting about the ins and the outs of the internet and creativity with amazing women?’” And again, Satu Fox (full disclosure: my old roommate), of Fierce City: A London History Podcast, found a niche. Her co-host, Paul Jagger, loves a podcast called The Bowery Boys: New York City History. They looked around for a London equivalent and couldn’t find one. And so they made their own. In many ways, the DIY approach of both Fox and Gannon – making podcasts with their own money and teaching themselves broadcasting and editing skills – is perhaps a continuation of an age-old tradition of women responding to their exclusion in the established media. From journals and independent newspapers to magazines, zines and blogs, women have a long history of creating their own media space, which speaks to and for them.
So, is there something inherently empowering about a new wave of women’s voices in podcasting? “It’s enormously empowering to hear women's voices,” says Fox, a non-fiction editor by day (her co-host, Jagger, is a lawyer). “The condition of woman has basically been silence for so long that I'm happy to bathe in women's voices for the rest of time. You don't know what opinions and stories women will tell until you give them a platform, and most platforms are controlled by, and offered to, men. There are especially few platforms that are giving space to non-white women. The great thing is that no one has to give you permission to podcast, once you've gotten over the internalised assumption that you should not record your speaking voice and put it on the internet.”
And it’s empowering for other reasons, too. Pandora Sykes, of The High Low, and Emma Gannon said they were liberated by not being seen. “I think it gives women a voice because it is literally your voice,” says Gannon. “It’s not about what you look like so much – it’s about your brain and your thoughts.” Having recorded several podcasts for The Pool myself, mostly with authors, I find the fact your audience can’t see you actually makes for a better interview, too. When I’ve been interviewing people on heavy subjects, such as rape or grief, I need to be 100-per-cent focused. A podcast allows for the feeling of intimacy with listeners, which is vital to the engagement, but as I can’t actually see listeners, I’m not in anyway distracted from the discussion.
Of course, this is 2017, remember, and that means men on the internet will attempt to ram their unsolicited opinions down your throat. Gannon says the only negative feedback she gets on iTunes is from men. She believes that podcasting is another way of how women are resented for “taking up space”. Crampton tells a truly remarkable story of being sent an audio file by a male listener who edited together all the times that she or her co-host said the word “like”. (Crampton saw the funny side and believes there’s actually a higher bar to trolling podcasters because you’ve got to listen for 30 minutes or so – you can’t just leave a drive-by comment of abuse, actually making it a safer space for women). Women’s voices, the way they speak and the issue of “vocal fry” (the lowest vocal register, often belonging to men and deemed the most listenable) has been well documented. On working with a male co-host, Fox said, “We were both quite nervous to put our work out there, but I'd heard that listeners can be more critical of female voices, for example whether we are shrill or have ‘vocal fry’ and I was a bit worried about that.”
Having a voice and hearing a woman’s voice, shrill or otherwise, are inherently positive things in a world where radio is still predominantly run by men. But is there anything specific to women’s podcasting? Pandora Sykes believes that part of the success of The High Low is that they don’t patronise their audience – which is mainly women; a habit of traditional media that still exists.
“The internet is still misogynistic,” she told me. “It’s still assumed that lady podcasters must be talking about shoes and bags, but just because you dismiss the Kardashians – a pop-culture phenomenon – and embrace Proust doesn’t make you worthier. It just makes you myopic.”
Writing in Quartz last year, journalist and podcaster Manoush Zomorodi said, “I would argue that leading women-led podcasts have learnt to leverage the medium’s characteristics very effectively over recent years to create shows that are unique in their intimacy and emotional range. These qualities have helped the podcasts to find an eager, diverse audience. Listeners often feel that they have a personal relationship with the host.” And this is something Dolly Alderton of The High Low agrees with. “I think historically women are very good at conversation and expressing their thoughts and feelings,” she says. Zomorodi says this is a type of vulnerability. Zomorodi also refers to journalist Hanna Rosin’s review of Serial and Koenig’s brave vulnerability as a reporter, “Exposing yourself to your audience before you’ve fixed your views of a suspected criminal is a scary thing to do.”
The great thing is that no one has to give you permission to podcast
So, perhaps there’s a case for women offering a more honest and vulnerable approach to their podcasting. And although there are still fewer of them than men (something Warhurst attributes to the fact that men are traditionally more likely to put themselves forward; to have the confidence to hear themselves speak), this tone is crucial to their success. Crudely put, if women are better at, or more used to, or even expected to be, making an emotional connection, podcasting could be their perfect platform. And that’s precisely what these podcasters are doing – and connecting in quite a profound way. Caroline Crampton told me that a woman wrote to them saying she’d listened to all of their podcasts while being ill in hospital and it had helped her through a really difficult time. The High Low and Ctrl Alt Delete both get hundreds of emails each week. Of course, this isn’t the only way women are expressing themselves on podcasts. For Warhurst, we must celebrate women in all their guises: “What is exciting to me is that women aren’t just having to talk about being a woman. They are talking about investigative journalism, they’re talking about unique storytelling and they’re doing true crime – it’s gone well beyond ‘women can come on and talk about feminism’. It’s so much more than that.”
Podcasting for women also has the potential to be very lucrative. As advertisers are fleeing from traditional media, such as print, and from traditional methods, podcasting has become “at the heart of their strategy”, according to Warhurst. A host like Acast can track ads and target listeners directly – ads are often bespoke, read out by hosts or integrated into the content in a more natural-sounding way and there’s real appetite for branded content. “Successful bloggers” – those with over 50,000 listeners a week, by Warhurst's judgement – can attract big brands and even begin to develop a network of podcasts. Warhurst believes the market is growing at a phenomenal rate. “What we need now is the content to match up,” she says. “Which is coming, particularly around female voices. That’s been really lacking.” So, there’s money to be made. Gannon tells me that she only intended to do 10 podcasts, but now she’s done over 100 and launched a separate podcast, mostly because she realised she could make money. The value, of course, is that podcasts like The High Low, Guilty Feminist and Ctrl Alt Delete are not just a popular platform to showcase a 30-second ad, they are the gatekeepers to millennial women – that hard to reach demographic that so many big brands are chasing more than ever. No wonder brands are queueing up to pay their way into those circles of engaged, cultivated and genuine trust.
We all know the old adage you can’t be what you can’t see, and maybe you can’t be what you can’t hear, either. At time of writing, the UK top 10 podcasts are all hosted by men – bar TED Talks Daily and Desert Island Discs. Table Manners with Jessie Ware, a show she’s recently launched with her mum, did hit the number-one spot on November 8. When achingly cool pop stars turn to podcasting, you can rest assured it’s very much a thing and there’s money for it sloshing around. And, hopefully, with high-profile figures like Ware, Lauren Laverne and Sarah Millican all making podcasts, it will help remind the world that this is a space for women, too. We know that women listen to male podcasters – but do men listen to women, I ask Warhurst. “That’s a really interesting question” she says. “I don’t actually have the data on that.”
It’s not the unedited rant of a blog or flashiness of YouTube. It is considered, clever, honest, authentic and diverse
Podcasting is becoming big business both in terms of revenue and how the operation is run. “It’s hard,” says Sykes. “Alongside prepping, editing and recording the podcast, there are emails, social media, meetings with potential partnerships, contracts, invoicing, paying suppliers, maintaining current partnerships – and it’s definitely a business. We think of The High Low as a media channel. It’s not just a cute little project – it’s two days of our week and, as we grow it, and look to do more live events and host more guests, it’s going to inevitably be more work.”
And because of this side to it, it arguably has to offer a higher quality of content to be successful than perhaps some of the other new media we’ve seen in recent times – it's not the flippancy of Twitter or the one dimension of Instagram. It’s not the unedited rant of a blog or flashiness of YouTube. It is considered, clever, honest, authentic and diverse. “It’s exciting,” says Laverne. “This is where the next generation of great broadcasters is coming from.” And that’s why it’s the perfect place for women’s voices.