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Tech

How Sarah Koenig, ‘2 Dope Queens’ and Other Women Are Revolutionizing the Way We Listen

June 8, 2016

Hint: the medium is the message

“There’s a lot of mansplaining going on here.”

This is how I kicked off my recent guest appearance on the podcast, Question of the Day: Luckily, the show’s host, Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics, is a friend and colleague with a good sense of humor.

The show’s premise is straightforward: Every week, Dubner and his co-host, James Altucher, pop a surprise question and then proceed to dazzle each other with their brilliant answers. I’ll be honest: Sometimes I didn’t have an answer. Which made me the first on that podcast to say “I don’t know”—and also the first woman.

And that made me think about how the podcast—a medium that has been undergoing an unprecedented period of growth—might just be spearheading the next wave of feminism. Big claim? Stay with me.

Women podcast hosts—and the women producers and editors and engineers who make those podcasts—are finding and asserting their voices with new styles of storytelling, journalism and comedy. We are in your ears and getting louder.

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Take my own journey to the front of the mic: I’d hosted “New Tech City,” a weekly on-air segment at WNYC, for just six months when the station’s visionary CEO, Laura Walker, urged me to grow it from a local news report into a full-fledged podcast with national appeal.

This was in 2013, and many in the radio industry were passing around an alarming statistic: Only 11 of the Top 100 podcasts had female hosts, according to podcasting app Stitcher. Laura was determined to change that ratio and tapped me, among a handful of others, to lead the charge.

Having put my journalism career in the slow lane in order to start a family, I was delighted to be given an opportunity to ramp up my ambitions and join the ranks of radio hosts like Stephen Dubner, Jad Abumrad and Brooke Gladstone.

But my transformation from broadcaster to podcaster quickly turned personal in a way that I could not have anticipated. I’d spent most of my career in journalism learning how to be on top of the news and master my subject matter.

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At first, I treated podcasting the same way—I delivered episodes that were full of facts and devoid of opinions. My thinking was this: I wasn’t some millennial YouTube star; I was a broadcast journalist with a nearly 20-year track record! This is what we seasoned journalists do! We filter out our quirky personality traits and natural speaking voice. We become the voice of reason. But the feedback I got from WNYC executives? Your podcast is good, but it won’t be great until we hear the Manoush we know. The Manoush we see in the halls at the station, who is smart but also funny. And also kind of…weird!

None of my previous bosses had ever been so sure that the audience would embrace my “real” and relatable self. So in fits and starts, I began loosening up on the show, revealing my doubts and vulnerabilities, telling emotion-provoking stories that didn’t always have tidy resolutions. To reflect this new emphasis on tech and humanity, we changed the name of the podcast to Note to Self.

I’ll admit to feeling ambivalent about these tweaks. On the one hand, dropping my “strong female reporter with gravitas” persona was a relief. But I worried that my instinct to take a more psychological approach to technology would lead to accusations of “soft” journalism. Would I lose my hard-won news credentials in addition to the small but loyal audience I’d worked so hard to build?

In fact, the opposite happened. Listenership quintupled, and the demographics flip-flopped from 70% men to 70% women within months. I didn’t lose my male listeners, just exponentially grew the female ones with my new (some would say more feminine) kind of podcast.

I wasn’t the only host to find an audience hungry for a different take. Soon after I started podcasting, my colleague, former political reporter Anna Sale, climbed the charts with her show, Death, Sex, & Money, where she discusses topics typically left out of polite conversation.

In 2014, Sarah Koenig, the host of Serial, took podcasting from niche to mainstream with her unique brand of crime reporting that became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million streams or downloads.

Thanks in part to Koenig, 21% of adults in the U.S. now say they have listened to a podcast in the previous month. That’s up from 12% in 2013, according to the most recent report from Edison Research.

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Last year, Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu of Buzzfeed’s Another Round made history when they interviewed Hillary Clinton. They pressed her on reparations. They asked her why she never looks sweaty. (Clinton played along, joking that she was actually a robot that had been built in a Palo Alto garage.) Their interview brought out a relaxed side of Clinton that I don’t think we’ve heard before or since.

Most recently, comediennes Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams entered podcasting with a new show called 2 Dope Queens. The debut episode includes their hilarious and disturbing stories about life as young black women in America. A cab driver passes Jessica but stops a few yards later to pick up her white boyfriend. She runs up the block and jumps in the backseat triumphantly. You will laugh, despite yourself, when you hear Jessica describe the startled cabbie’s reaction.

These women bring their self-doubt, their self-awareness and their selves. Their stories don’t always have clean and tidy conclusions. Welcome to real life. It’s messy, painful and joyous all at once.

A blog post, three-minute online video or a tweet simply can’t get this deep. It requires conversation. In many ways, those conversations are protected by some of podcasting’s technical shortcomings.

Like the happy accident that led to the discovery of penicillin, many female-led shows have flourished thanks, in part, to benign neglect. Regular listeners know that searching for, sharing or commenting on specific episodes is a hassle. But these difficulties have had a silver lining, insulating many of us from the bigotry of Gamergate, Twitter trolls or sexist blog comments. Word-of-mouth is one of the top ways people discover podcasts; a trusted recommendation from a peer means new fans arrive with earbuds and an open mind.

And once someone learns how podcasting works, they are held captive by the medium’s intimate nature. The average listener consumes five podcasts per week, according to Edison. That devotion comes from a feeling that you, the listener, have a personal relationship with the host: It feels like she is talking directly to you, granting you permission to eavesdrop on a private conversation,

Women are making things we’ve never heard the likes of before. But to be sure, this particular chapter in podcasting has a way to go. Men are still doing most of the talking. As of writing this, just 14 of Stitcher’s top 100 shows were hosted by women, 18 co-hosted shows were hosted by both men and women and 68 were hosted by one or more men.

The good news is that, finally, more women are listening to this traditionally male medium. One out of four men listened to a podcast last month, and nearly one out of five women did. Female and male audiences both grew by nine percentage points over the past three years, according to Edison Research.

But we need more—more listeners, men and women alike, need to find podcasting and support women’s voices. The act of choosing, downloading these women’s groundbreaking shows can not only make you smarter or make you laugh, it can be a vote for changing public discourse. Consider this your personal recommendation from a trusted friend.

Manoush Zomorodi is the host and managing editor of WNYC Stuido’s Note to Self, as well as the author of the upcoming book Bored and Brilliant: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Spacing Out (St. Martin’s Press).