Lessons from three days in the world of women podcasters

Photo: Stephanie Van Schilt

Last week I flew across the world to Los Angeles with long-time podcast collaborator Steph Van Schilt to attend Werk It: A Women’s Podcast Festival. It was heaven on earth by which I mean 600 women podcasters and creators in a weird old Hollywood theatre talking and learning about their craft for three days and watching the masters at work each night.

My notebook is bursting, but here are some of the things still at the front of my jet-lagged mind days later — you can stream most sessions on Facebook so I’ll link to those where possible, and eventually you’ll be able to hear all the sessions on the Werk It podcast.

Mood boards are a thing

A screenshot of Molly Webster’s mood board, which you can see more of in the video linked to.

This is something I’ve never thought about before. In Molly Webster’s session on how Radiolab is made mood boards were up there with storyboard and doodle (a kind of visualisation of structure) as a part of the process. In the development of the new iteration of Stuff Mom Never Told You a mood board as an essential part of hashing out what the look and sound of the podcast would be with new hosts Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd.

Both kept it simple — they took a shared Google word doc and pasted in pictures, words and colours that give the vibe of the story or podcast (Michelle Obama and street wear for SMNTY, rando wizards and the bitcoin logo for Webster’s Radiolab story on crypto currency).

Interestingly both found the mood board useful for clarifying the idea in their own minds AND for communicating to others — sound designers for example. As someone who has stood behind a sound tech just whining — “Uuuuuhhhh I looooove it but can you make it sound more … purple? Or like we’re in a big cave at a party?” — and having them look at me like they’re going to kill me, mood boards seem like a good way to at least start communicating.

Very into the mood boards. Steph got on it before the conference was even over, starting a private Pinterest for her narrative, feminist, anti-true crime series. I realised when she said this that I’d used Tumblr in a similar way for projects in the past. Going to be mood boarding stories from now on.

Podcast innovation happens in the TV writers’ room

It makes sense. Everything that has sounded “new” or cut through for being ground-breaking in podcasting the past few years has borrowed from a medium that isn’t radio or podcasts; Serial took from TV, S-Town from novels, Making Oprah from TV docos, Sleepover from reality TV, 36 Questions from broadway musicals.

Stealing even little things (like TV-style scoring in Serial) can feel revolutionary and change how other people think about making things. Starlee Kine said her time in a TV writers room was almost more useful for her work on S-Town than what she brought from This American Life and Mystery Show. Copying from your favourite podcasts is good for practicing and building your skills but if you want something that cuts through the noise, try copying something else entirely.

Think about your 100th episode

Making Oprah might not have a hundred episodes in it, but the ‘Making’ brand has big plans.

You might have a strong pilot, you might have a good ten-episode outline, but at Werk It we learnt that if you’re pitching to a big network and you’re pitching to try and make this an ongoing thing that you do with your life, have in mind what your 100th episode would sound like.

This doesn’t mean that you need 100 versions that are just like your idea for episode one, but really thinking about whether or not this is something that is ongoing, and what would it look like over time.

Think about it creatively too — Making Oprah for instance is now focusing on Making … something else in Chicago (what iiiissss it I need to know please). Even if your story is a short-run self-contained thing, if you want a network or even an audience to make a lasting commitment to you, think about how your show could expand or change focus over time (Look at First Day Back for an interesting example of this).

What part of this is feeding me? What is depleting me?

Earth-shuddering advice from Death, Sex and Money host Anna Sale. Sale kicked off the conference with a really motivating talk on her journey to DS&M via political reporting and honestly it was the talking-to I needed right at that moment.

She advocated following around the people you want to be to the extent that she was loitering out the front of the WNYC doors and watching people walk in and out before she got a job there. She was also very pro taking a job that might not be that “dream job” if it gets you closer to where you want to be, but while always asking those two questions: “What part of this is feeding me? What is depleting me?” A lot of us take those almost-there jobs and then forget to ask these questions and wind up miles from those people we were following in and out of doors.

Sale’s speech gave me such focus and really framed the whole three days for me. I think I need to listen to this pep talk once a week (or maybe I just need a WWASD? post-it for my desk).

Know what you’re trying to do with your organising and community building and act with intention

Twitter: Denise Bennett

Werk It isn’t just an excuse to fly to LA and drink lemon sodas in the sun with radio women you know from Twitter (although yes it was that too). It has a real purpose and everything about it was executed towards that purpose which made everything we did there feel so urgent and necessary, like meeting people was a political act (which it was).

President and CEO of New York Public Radio Laura Walker spoke about the conference with such conviction and vision. It was created and funded with a real purpose in mind — to take the iTunes top 100 (even though it’s a flaw metric blah blah it is undeniably FULL OF MEN) and move the dial so that at least 50 per cent of the podcasts in there are hosted or co-hosted by people who identify as women within five years.

And that the women killing it in the podcast world should not just be white women or rich women but queer women, women of colour, disabled women, old women, young women, women of all social classes. All sorts of women evening the playing field. When the conference started three years ago the charts were 20 per cent women and now they’re 33 per cent. Walker’s framing everything we did through this lens really made it clear that we’ve got work to do and the work was helping each other out, listening to each other’s stuff, bringing people together.

All the ideas are not taken.

This is something I always struggle with. Podcasting has been part of my paid employment in some form for at least six years now and even back at the start of it all I remember thinking “It’s too late, I can’t make anything original because all the podcast ideas are taken”. And NOW look! The industry is a thing. New podcasts are springing up every day!

This was the topic of Lauren Ober’s talk and apart from being one of the most hilarious, encouraging women in the podcasting world Lauren is also super right — not all the podcast ideas are taken. The Big Listen team even gave a bunch away for free.

And look, if you don’t do something because you think there’s no room for it or the field is too crowed, rest assured that tomorrow ten mediocre white guys will launch the exact same thing you thought about and at least half of them will be successful and then you’ll be bummed.

Build each other up

At Werk It I realised that the women who are good at lifting each other up are the most successful. Or maybe just the ones I love the most in podcasting? On that stage and all around me were women who are like podcasting Valerie Jarretts, bringing communities together and introducing the podcast-Obamas to each other and pointing out strengths in the people around them and making sure the people who need each other meet each other. They’re the ones who seem most secure in themselves, they’re the ones other people want to work with.

Our industry is in a unique position — the podcast audience isn’t maxed out, we don’t need to be fighting for each other’s audiences yet, we can be helping each other to build the podcast audience more broadly.

We can be like RadioPublic, handing out badges that say “Ask Me About My Podcast”. We can invite each other onto our podcasts as guests. We can do live shows together and invite a new radio makers to a Radio Club meet-up.

Coming down is hard

After a week in audio Themyscira, re-entering the world of men was … hard. I walked down the street to get ice cream and was leered at and cat-called and that night, when men could come to the after party, I was squished shoulder to shoulder with women in the bathroom cue (after three days of using BOTH bathrooms) and we looked at each other glumly and one of us said “so we have to talk to men again” and we all exchanged sad smiles.

Don’t get me wrong, MRAs who found the #womenpodcasters hashtag (we know each other well by now) some men are very ok.

But living in a gothic theatre world where all the strangers were women and talking about work without ANY unsolicited advice from man strangers was just so liberating. And it was a space that WNYC created, just for us.

A hundred thank yous — to Denise Bennett and the whole Werk It team for inviting Steph and I and helping us secure funding and for cooking this whole epic event up in the first place. To ABC RN and Background Briefing for giving me the time to attend even at short notice. This is the epic investigation into Chinese government operations in Fiji I was telling everyone about all week. To the Australia Council for funding the trip which would not have happened otherwise.

And MOST OF ALL to my partner in crime Steph Van Schilt who never stopped believing that we might get to live out this pipe dream even when I was like hahahaha yeah let’s apply gotta be in it I guess. She is the LA travel companion of my dreams (literally, because I dreamt about this week a LOT) and she’s working on some really exciting audio projects. Subscribe to Sisteria there’ll be a new season on the way in early 2018.

I’m so energised by a week of women in podcasting but what good is that energy if you don’t bring it home? Next week I’m hosting a celebration of women in audio in Sydney for Audiocraft. We’re talking careers, creativity, and probably now that terrifying Anna Sale question: What part of this is feeding me?

It’s part of our mentoring program for women in audio Ladies Who Listen but all female-identifying people who want to work in creative industries or pursue audio as a side hustle are welcome and will get lots from it and from meeting everyone over wine afterwards, Werk It style. There aren’t that many tickets so buy them here before they go.