Werk It: A Women's Podcast Festival proves that righting the gender balance in the emerging artform is making progress.
Amy Peral/WNYC Studios
When Laura Walker, president and CEO of New York Public Radio, read an article by Third Coast founder Julie Shapiro in 2013 about the state of gender in podcasting, she was "frankly disturbed... I was astounded. We had this young medium where the rules had not yet been established and already it was mirroring virtually every other entertainment venture with the men dominating."
After establishing WNYC Studios—a powerhouse of podcasting responsible for game-changing blockbusters Serial, This American Life, and Radiolab—Walker seized the opportunity to flip the gender narrative by creating Werk It: A Women's Podcast Festival. Now in its third year, Werk It has outgrown humble beginnings in NYPR's Greene Space with only 100 invited guests. This year, attendees from all over the world will head to the Ace Hotel's 1,600-seat theater in Los Angeles from October 3 to 5 to experience a diverse program for women at various stages of their podcasting career.
"I knew we were well-positioned to disrupt the disruption," she said, her casual aside sounding more like a war cry. "Our goal in creating Werk It was to get 50 percent of podcasts hosted by women within five years. We have a little over two years to go, and we're close to 40 percent."
Where the women's movement of the 70s popularized the idea that "the personal is political," championing feminist organizing and the importance of sharing oral histories, Werk It seeks to do the same now. Today, women in podcasting still have to work against the tide of primarily male-based content. In this, an intimate and arguably most popular mode of entertainment, women are creating intrinsically personal and political shows through their very existence in the climate.
Werk It aims to combine the educational—that includes a mentorship program and one-day podcast boot camp—with a range of sessions covering the creative audio process, ethics, storytelling, and sound design, as well as the business side of the industry.
"We've been very focused on making every panel theatrical and engaging and not boring," said Paula Szuchman, WNYC's vice president of on-demand content. "It's a very high, low pop-culture thing... During the day, you've got Kelly McEvers [host of NPR's All Things Considered], and at night, you've got Amber Rose. It feels like a real range of what a woman is and what storytelling is."
Szuchman is careful to note the importance of inclusion and diversity to their feminist mission; gender non-binary and genderqueer people are welcome to attend. "But if you're like, 'I'm a man and I want to come,' it's not really designed for you," she said, laughing. "I think that everyone who participates feels very invigorated."
Every day, I'm surrounded by the people Werk It wasn't designed for. Yesterday, while taking the elevator to my office job, I stood between four middle-aged white men while Aminatou Sow from Call Your Girlfriend yelled into my ear about relaxing her butt during a pelvic exam. Over the past week, I've listened to women discussing trimming their pubes, constructing apartment furniture, dealing with the death of their spouse, being a conflicted sports fan, and challenging traditional perceptions of indigenous Australia.
I subscribe almost exclusively to podcasts hosted or co-hosted by women: Call Your Girlfriend, Spirits, By the Book, Nancy, Making Oprah, Pretty for an Aboriginal, and On the Media are just a few. As I scroll through my weekly feed, it's baffling to think that only 22 percent of podcasts are currently hosted by women. Another 11 percent have women co-hosts. But in this post-Serial world, podcasting is rapidly becoming the new vanguard for the women's movement. As Another Round host Heben Nigatu notes, podcasting is but "a baby," so there's plenty of opportunity here.
"Podcasting can really be the first industry to be as influenced by women as men," Walker said. "I think that will offer some really important lessons for the film, television, and tech industries about whose voices do or do not resonate and what is entertaining and why."
Last year, host Manoush Zomorodi released an episode of Note to Self —"the tech show about being human" that's also on the WNYC Studio slate—where she argues that "listening to female hosted shows is a feminist act whether you mean it to be or not… because the people who are listening choose to." In the 20-minute piece, Zomorodi speaks to one-half of 2 Dope Queens Phoebe Robinson about the aforementioned theory and this "special kind of platform" where they can be heard, especially integral for black women and people from diverse backgrounds and communities.
"I think society conditions people to ignore anything that's not the straight male experience," Robinson observes. "There's just a lack of representation. So when you can see someone who looks like you or sounds like you, that's very important. And I think podcasting is a great way to open people's ears and be a mirror for other people."
Over email, Another Round hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton agree and encourage podcast audiences to "listen to black women!" And if Another Round and 2 Dope Queens are anything to go by, people are listening: A (not-so-quiet) feminist revolution is happening before our eyes and in our ears.
"We believe deeply in the power of listening, of bearing witness and sharing each other's stories," the Another Round hosts said of the importance of podcasting and the feminist experience. "The Ethiopian aunty in me would like to remind you that black women literally invented storytelling," Nigatu continued with her signature tongue-in-cheek intelligence. "Lit'rally. Like, if you look at the first human, it's my girl Lucy's skeleton as she's in the middle of telling her girls 'what had happened was…' over buna and BAM! The Big Bang took her out, and now everyone thinks Ira Glass invented podcasting."
Like Werk It, shows hosted by women and women choosing to tune into shows hosted by women are beginning to shift the stagnant status quo. Along with shows 2 Dope Queens and Another Round, Anna Sale will be hosting a live taping of Death Sex Money as part of Werk It. For a program that deliberately investigates taboo topics that polite conversation has trained us to avoid, Sale acknowledges the potential for feminism and podcasting for both listeners and creators. "Deciding whose points of view you want to hear and which hosts you want to support is not just an entertainment choice. It's also a political act."
Stephanie Van Schilt is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. She co-hosts the SISTERIA podcast.