Unladylike’s Caroline Ervin on podcast beginnings and studio essentials

By Dinorah Prevost

Cristen Conger (left) and Caroline Ervin. Credit: Lizzy Johnston

I’ll admit this. When I first listened to the podcast Unladylike, I was not a feminist or familiar with feminism of any sort. I was simply drawn to Unladylike by another podcast’s advertisement and a piqued curiosity, thanks to a feminist friend (who’s a woman of color). Yes, unspectacular…but a good choice nonetheless.

On Unladylike, co-hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin don’t only jump into discussing topics like bad (or ambivalent) moms and “nannying up.” They give context, handing out facts and history for listeners to get up to speed (cough* people like me *cough) or brush up on their knowledge.

Courtesy of @unladylikemedia/Twitter

But wait, what does unladylike even mean? Per Conger and Ervin: “Committing everyday acts of patriarchal resistance, choosing social consciousness over status consciousness and burning all bras.”

Now in the podcast’s third season, the ladies kicked it off Tuesday with “How to Handle Sh*t White Girls Say” featuring activist Francesca Ramsey.

I recently talked with Ervin about the podcast’s beginnings, how its episodes are developed and the Unladylike crew’s studio essentials.

Tell me about your journalism background. Print or other platforms? Did any of your (or Cristen) experiences in journalism inform the topics touched on Unladylike?

My start in journalism was totally accidental. I wound up in the high school newspaper elective when the art class I signed up for was full. And it was the whole nine yards as far as print was concerned, including mocking up a hard copy with rulers and glue. Something in me must like being overworked and underpaid; I majored in newspapers / print journalism in college (a major my alma mater no longer even offers), worked at the independent, student-run college newspaper, and spent my first four post-college years working as a copy editor at a daily newspaper.

My experiences in journalism shaped my approach to podcasting more than the actual subject matter. Cristen and I are both research nerds who love to explore, ask questions and highlight stories of amazing people. Unladylike is an incredible opportunity to combine my word-nerdiness and my desire to help people.

We’d spent years encouraging our audience to stand up for themselves, to negotiate and to claim their space, but we hadn’t followed our own advice.

Why did you and Cristen start the podcast? A particular experience or has it been a long time in the making?

A little bit of both. We had been hosting [the podcast] Stuff Mom Never Told You under the umbrella of Atlanta-based HowStuffWorks.com for years, and while we loved everything we built — a feminist podcast with a large, supportive community of listeners — we ultimately didn’t own our IP [intellectual property]. We didn’t own any of the awesome stuff we were putting out into the world. We’d spent years encouraging our audience to stand up for themselves, to negotiate and to claim their space, but we hadn’t followed our own advice.

A turning point came when Cristen attended Werk It, a women-centric podcast conference. The experience was eye-opening, to say the least. She drew a lot of inspiration from meeting and learning from so many rad audio women doin’ it for themselves, not to mention seeing what kind of show was possible with a higher level of production. We’d been publishing two episodes a week, every week, for years, which didn’t leave a lot of room for creativity and exploration. With a book deal in hand, we both knew it was time to walk the walk and own our ideas, so we bid a fond farewell to our day jobs and awesome coworkers and started our own company.

In planning the new podcast, we committed to owning our unapologetically feminist voices while being open about the fact that we are two white, straight, cis women who can’t speak from personal experience on every topic. Our priority was to explore the stories of a broad array of women and non-binary folks who are breaking the social “rules” and boundaries imposed on them, ensuring they would be the subject of the story, rather than the passive object being discussed. Ultimately, we wanted to create the feminist media that we wanted to see in the world.

I’ve read that both of you are “research-addicted”. So how is research done for the podcast? You both whip out historical facts on the regular to give context so how do you go about doing that?

We’re constantly refining our research and brainstorm process to better streamline it, but yes, we disappear down research rabbit holes all the time because we’re driven to provide as much social and historical context as possible. We’re pretty much constantly online, reading as much as possible to maintain a grasp on what’s happening in the world. The episode research process starts when we bring topics to each other and our producer, Abigail, that have sparked our interest. We’ll each do a little preliminary research to figure out the lay of the land, any news pegs and what is specifically unladylike about the issue. If the topic gets a green light from the team, we’ll dive back into research to develop an official pitch, complete with the episode’s potential structure, driving question, historical context, takeaways and guests. By the time we interview guests and begin scripting the episode, we probably have around 16 pages of notes.

How do you two find the stories of women like Christina in the “How to Be a Bad Mom” episode?

It’s all part of the research. As we’re reading about an issue, we’ll come across names of folks we find fascinating. They might be mentioned in an article, or they could be the author of the piece in question. In Christina’s case, we were researching the topic of “ambivalent motherhood” when we came across a piece she’d written for [website] The Establishment describing her experiences as a mom without primary custody of her child. As for our other “bad mom” guest, an email she sent us about her own life inspired the episode in the first place.

Among the Unladylike crew’s studio essentials is an altar decorated with a small cauldron, crystals and the Golden Girls. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What do you two think can be the main takeaway for your listeners?

In general, we want to illustrate just how ridiculous and sometimes harmful ladylike expectations of women can be. But in order to do that, we situate each issue in context so that listeners understand why things are why they are in the first place. We don’t just want to make you angry about the world; we want to help you feel emboldened to smash the patriarchal status quo in a way that makes sense for you.

As a podcast whose audience is probably mostly female, what do you feel male listeners take away from each episode?

Dudes in the audience stand to benefit from our show, just as they stand to benefit from feminism at large. There’s more than one way to be a man (or a woman, or a gender non-conforming individual); you don’t have to adhere to the restrictive patriarchal status quo, either! Regardless of gender, if you like learning from people with a range of perspectives and experiences, you’ll like Unladylike.

Which topic has so far been your favorite to tackle on the podcast?

I think abortion, bikes, yoga (with the hilarious Jessamyn Stanley) and witches have been the most fun and fascinating to deep-dive into for me. And they all kicked off our very first season! Maybe I’m already nostalgic.

What equipment do you use to record? And where’s the Unladylike studio?

Our studio, complete with padded walls (sound panels), is in a former closet in Cristen’s apartment. We record using a Zoom H4N pro and a set of Shure mics with pop filters. Non-essential essentials include a photo of Oprah, an altar decorated with a small cauldron, crystals and the Golden Girls, and a Statue of Liberty figurine with our producer’s face taped on it.