A confession: I listen to a podcast every night before I fall asleep. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t float out of consciousness with some voice cooing in my ear, dissecting the plot to a book I haven’t read or teaching me about a minor historical event. When I was in high school, my brother’s nightly routine included shutting off whatever Spotify show was spouting from my phone before he went to bed.
It’s become clear that I’m not alone in this infatuation – increasingly, my friends ask me for podcast recommendations for their own walks or naps, and they reflect a larger trend. Recent research from the Pew Research Center indicates that at least 75% of American adults over twelve have listened to some form of online audio in the last month, with 70% within the last week. Podcasts (and audio journalism more broadly) are making an impact – and it’s a space ripe with possibility.
Manoush Zomorodi: “Listening to female-hosted shows is a feminist act.”
“Listening to female-hosted shows,” thinks podcaster Manoush Zomorodi, host of tech podcast Note to Self, “is a feminist act.” Her show investigates issues like metadata and Twitter bots both journalistically and personally, delving into a male-dominated space with confidence. She thanks listeners for being part of a wave pushing feminism forward by way of ear. With Sarah Koenig’s Serial becoming the most popular podcast of all time, female hosts are finally being brought to the forefront of a medium that has always suited them.
The top one hundred podcasts on Spotify are filled with women like influencer Emma Chamberlain, Alex Cooper’s Call Her Daddy, and true crime gurus like Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat of Crime Junkie. Look to the female creative forces behind On Being; Death, Sex, & Money; Two Dope Queens; and (my favorite) You’re Wrong About.
Podcasting is intimate in a way that talk radio is not. You listen to unfiltered thoughts and conversations, hearing the jokes that hosts crack and what makes them gasp in shock. In their own voice, they relay personal anecdotes, and the most popular conversational style feels more similar to chatting with a friend than hard reporting. It is, in many ways, reflective of the new era of online intimacy, where we prefer our celebrities parasocial and our internet full of personality.
Podcasting doesn’t just encourage women to be themselves, it requires it.
This medium doesn’t just encourage women to be themselves, it requires it. Manoush talks about how after her first few episodes – hard, factual, and imitating men, as she was trained to do – executives told her that they needed to hear her, with all her weirdness and character. Listenership quintupled. There is no put-upon ‘journalism’ voice, no one held hostage by a car ride to the grocery store. Instead, listeners want to be there, and they’re there to hear women that are just as three dimensional as they are.
In this, podcasts have emerged as an alternative – both to traditional journalism and the male style that comes with it. The medium is full of vulnerability that women have otherwise been unable to explore in the public sphere, and as a result new voices are being drawn to it.
“It’s not that hard to put a microphone in front of a gay man and ask his opinion on something,” said Phoebe Robinson, one of the hosts of 2 Dope Queens. The podcast, which featured her and co-host Jessica Williams talking about blackness, sex, New York, and more from a comedy lens, was number one on the iTunes charts the week after its release. It was picked up for two seasons of an HBO special. “It’s not that hard to talk to a trans person. It’s not that hard to talk to a lady comedian… I just think society conditions people to ignore anything that’s not the straight white male experience.” Podcasting allows access to voices that an audience might not ever hear otherwise.
However, like any online space, podcasting has also served as a feeding ground for a minority of alt-right views, able to justify and support each other like never before. Misogyny podcasts, featuring men complaining about women under the guise of relationship advice, have become just as much of a genre as feminist ones have.
However, like any online space, podcasting has also served as a feeding ground for a minority of alt-right views, able to justify and support each other like never before.
Take for example, Fresh and Fit, where hosts Walter Weekes and Myron Gaines seem to invite women on their shows for the sole purpose of degrading them. They slut shame, body shame, and normalize controlling women indiscriminately, at times even forcibly kicking their guests off the show when they fight back. Titles include Fresh and Fit’s “STOP Giving Girls FREE ATTENTION,” and Good Bro Bad Bro’s “You Are A 3/10, Stop Lying To Yourself About Your Looks.”
This ‘alpha male’ format has skyrocketed in popularity. Anthropological investigations seem to say that this kind of content – which fans say ‘just not to listen to if you don’t like it’ – targets adolescent and teenage boys who are looking to understand their place in the world, and are attracted by the idea that men naturally land on top. The authenticity of the podcast form seems to appeal to them too – even if it is in order to hear women forced into questions and situations they don’t know how to react to.
These types of podcasts have come, naturally, with well-deserved backlash – the hashtag #menwithpodcasts has become a joke on the internet, with mainstream media institutions like Saturday Night Live even going so far as to parody it. But their rise to prominence seems to stick a pin in the optimism that journalists like Manoush or Sarah Koenig inspire. How can we call podcasting the new female frontier if it is full of equal parts bad to the good?
One of the things Manoush highlights that makes podcasts so unique is the fact that we don’t need to have a solid answer by the end of the show. Instead, listeners are more invested in the journey – in the twists and turns rather than the definitive conclusion. Sexist podcasts miss this, and it shows. They substitute bluster for intimacy. They twist the form away from what women do best, and in doing so make it clear that part of their bravado is a misunderstanding of what podcasts could be.
Maybe there’s hope for us podcast listeners yet.
© Catherine Sawoski (8/20/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Read Manoush’s thoughts on how podcasting is pushing the next wave of feminism here.
Listen to the Note to Self episode on feminism in podcasting here.
Check out some of the statistics behind podcasting here.
Read an anthropological study on how podcasts are targeting vulnerable young men here.
Watch SNL’s #menwithpodcasts parody here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Photo by Mingyue H / Pexels.