On being a female, independent podcaster


I'm a woman with a podcast so I was intrigued when my local public radio station, WNYC, invited me to an event put on specifically for my kind. The event, Werk It, took place last week at WNYC and I'm writing about it in case anyone else can benefit.

I couldn’t make the second day, which focused on pitching. As a podcaster who's not affiliated with a network I’m concentrating on the advice for indy podcasters that came on day one. The conference focused on women - because women don't podcast as much as men - but I think any independent podcaster can get something out of this post.

The panel on indies featured Crissle West of The Read, which totally took off in what I consider no time at all and now has 115,000 subscribers. Then there was Lauren Spohrer from Criminal, which also hit the bigtime quickly. It now has a million downloads a month. Hillary Frank began The Longest Shortest Time in her house. After her successful Kickstarter WNYC came calling, and she’s now there. Lynn Casper co-hosts Homoground, by and about queer musicians and music lovers, and Kaitlin Prest of The Heart (formerly Audiosmut) is now, like Criminal, with Radiotopia, which I think of as the golden kiss for podcasters (you get money and new listeners!)

What I'm about to say comes partly from Werk It and partly from my own experience as an independent podcaster.

Have Patience

Because you are going to need it. It’s wonderful that shows like The Read and Criminal leapt into the podcasting stratosphere within a year or two, but those are like the stories of your friend who met the love of her life on a first date, in college, wherever. The rest of us have to tough it out in the dating trenches for years before we meet the right person. I’m seriously hoping it doesn’t take me as long to grow this podcast as it did to find the right guy, but at least I’m practiced in the art of waiting.

Kaitlin Prest put it best when she said that “motivation is more important than time” when it comes to your podcast. Producing a regular podcast can feel relentless. I produce mine every two weeks, which may not sound like much. But on top of other, (paying) work, cutting the tape and writing the show is a lot. Too often I’m tweaking the writing the day before I head into my closet to track. Sometimes I have to skip a production cycle altogether because of work. You need to be motivated and excited to produce what you’re producing, to keep going when you don’t have many listeners. I was doing my show for 18 months before I had more than 1,000 listeners. That probably sounds crazy to some readers but I loved what I was doing, knew the topic (women and work) was important and needed, and had enough encouragement from existing listeners to continue. Now, new listeners tell me they go back and listen to all the old episodes.

As Hillary Frank said, “Take what people say about the numbers with a grain of salt. It’s about making the thing that’ll bring in the numbers.”

In my case it was some surprise press in major publications – and a mention of the show on Planet Money – that pushed up those numbers. Many podcasters have tales of their numbers rocketing when their show is featured on another podcast. It especially helps if that podcast is called This American Life

Build It and They Will Not Necessarily Come

We all like to think our creations will magically find their audience, but this isn’t true, at least initially. I suspect it may be even less true in a podcast world that seems to be exploding. Some podcasts will of course take off shortly after launch because they touch a collective nerve, but many podcasts are on niche topics and you must be prepared to do the work to let people know you exist. I was so excited to launch my show in 2012 I totally forgot about taking any steps to get on 'New and Noteworthy' in iTunes. (I was featured on iTunes almost three years later - not complaining.)

Until you start a podcast you have no idea how time-consuming marketing is. All you want to do is produce the content and make it as good as possible. Many creative types are not natural salespeople. God knows I’m not. I learned a lot on CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism program, where I launched The Broad Experience. Still, like a lot of women I am not good at saying, ‘I’m great, come and listen to my show.’ I dislike boasting about my work. That said, I do it. You have to be prepared to silence that voice that tells you it’s unseemly to self-promote. Find your comfort zone and keep at it.

I’m not just referring to social media. Unless you have a huge following, those channels aren’t enough. You need to get in touch with publications or entities that are like-minded – that have more reach than you – and ask them to check out your show. Also, consider a Kickstarter, but wait till you have a base audience to support the campaign. I haven’t gone down this route but many podcasters have pulled off successful Kickstarters, most famously 99% Invisible. The most recent one I’m aware of is Jacki Lyden’s campaign for her podcast, The Seams. And the bigger you grow, the more you can build live events into your marketing efforts. This is working well for Criminal, The Read, and The Longest Shortest Time.

I'm not saying word of mouth doesn't work. It does. Many of my listeners have come to me that way. But it's usually not enough to build you an audience of tens of thousands of listeners. And let's face it, most of us want that.

Getting Sponsors

I love the story Hillary Frank told at Werk It and in previous interviews about how she landed sponsors for her show. This happened when she was still independent. She approached sponsors when she was planning her Kickstarter and picked companies she actually felt had helped her as a new mom. She called, left a message for the marketing manager, and asked if they would provide matching grants for her various Kickstarter goals. None of them had done anything like this before, and each said yes.

I’ve done something similar with The Broad Experience but I wasn’t as clever as Hillary. Last year I approached a few companies I felt were trying to do something positive for their female workforce – or at least wanted to be seen to be doing something positive. These are big companies we’ve all heard of, and each of the three said no to sponsorship. But then I approached the Financial Times, which I’ve been reading for years, and they said yes. They have a good women in business page and I knew they wanted to increase their female readership. I should add this relationship, which we termed a partnership (part of the deal was that I interviewed one of their journalists for each show), got off the ground when I had far fewer than 10,000 listeners. I got a lot more than the CPM rate for the three shows I did with the FT. If I were to sign up with a sponsor using the CPM rate model right now, I’d get $250 per sponsor per show.

You can get more than this often-discussed rate if you sell the sponsor on the value of your audience, which in my case is educated, smart, curious, ambitious and busy (and mostly female). These days I am approaching companies whose products I use that I feel have the same mission I do – to empower women in the true sense of the word – and I’ve had some success.

The key is to have a niche and find sponsors that gravitate to your people. These may be smaller companies with a scrappier attitude than Procter and Gamble.

All this sales(wo)manship is time-consuming and as a result I don't do it as often as I should. Rather I go through phases of doing it and phases of letting it slide. I am always disappointed that I don’t have enough time to truly focus on my show. But the pleasure The Broad Experience has brought me is unlike anything else I’ve experienced at work. I'm building a real community online. I get candid, heartfelt emails from listeners of both sexes telling me the show has actually changed they way they think and act. They've given me ideas for stories and listeners have been wonderful guests on the show. I could never have achieved any of this if I hadn’t started my own podcast.

So if you have something to say, say it. Just be prepared to werk it too.

Tips for success from an 81-year-old

Women still feel the need to be credentialed. Maybe because we’ve been such good schoolgirls...but men who get bad marks are leaders in so many other fields.
— Madeleine Kunin
Madeleine Kunin (photo: Paul Boisvert)

Madeleine Kunin (photo: Paul Boisvert)

Being old is generally not seen as a good thing in American culture. But I want to interview more older women for The Broad Experience. And when I say 'older' I don't mean 55 or even 65. I mean 80 or 85 or 95. I mean bona fide old ladies. Women who've lived long lives, made mistakes, had successes, had families or not had families, and acquired some wisdom along the way.

Recently I got to talk to former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, who starred in my show Politics is Power, about women in politics.

Here are five career insights from our interview that I believe women - or other humans - can use no matter what their profession.

Do Something Uncomfortable

Or “step out to the edge of the precipice”, as Madeleine put it. Getting away from what I know has always made me squirm, but I have come to realize I need to do this to achieve anything substantial. Madeleine Kunin knew she wanted to be in politics but she was terrified when she landed an early role at the state legislature handling the budget. An old (male) lobbyist stopped her in the hallway and said, ‘We’re going to be watching you.’ The learning curve was tough. But gaining that knowledge of the budget’s inner workings gave her immense confidence to tackle other issues later.

You Don’t Always Need to Have the Answer

If you’re female you know how unnerving it is not to have the right answer to something when you’re on the spot. You feel discombobulated, like you’re not good enough and that others are judging you for not knowing. Men, Madeleine points out, are much more comfortable blustering than women are. Don’t know the answer? They fudge it. Women don’t do this to anything like the same extent. Madeleine said there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’ One local voter remembered her fondly years later because he’d once asked her a question she couldn’t answer on the spot, but she did her research and responded later.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Kids

Madeleine had four children with her first husband, to whom she was married for decades, and like virtually every mother who works outside the home she often felt she should be in one place when she was in another. Here’s what she said about her kids:

“I think they’re generally proud of me. They did not grow up with helicopter parents. They had to learn to be more independent earlier, they learned to cook, and I did have help, not a full-time nanny but somebody always there when came home from school.”

She also pointed out that kids need you just as much when they're teenagers (even if they won’t acknowledge it) as they do when they’re little. I’ve heard this from other working mothers too – that they wanted to be home more when their children were teenagers, because the teenage years are often when emotional problems kick in.

She has a good relationship with all her children. “I’m sure I would have been a worse mother if I’d felt confined and frustrated,” Madeleine said about going into politics. “If you’ve got it in you that you want to make a contribution, you want to be part of a larger circumference than your family or your neighborhood it’s much healthier to express that.”

You Can’t Make Everybody Happy

Especially in politics (and at home), but in other jobs too. Not everyone will like you, “and this is harder for women,” she says. “Maybe it’s our motherly instincts.”

You Have More In You Than You Think

“Try to believe that you can actually make a difference, and that your voice counts. And then test it,” Madeleine said. She was talking about politics, but this goes for any situation that involves putting yourself out there.

Before I started hosting the podcast I told myself I couldn’t do it, I was a reporter, not a host, I didn’t know how, etc. You name it, I could think of a reason why I couldn't pull it off. But once I put my toe in the water I knew I wanted to continue. It just took that first experimental step to sweep my doubts away and instill me with the confidence I needed to keep going.

A CEO who shares the credit

Mary Barra testifying before Congress in 2014

Mary Barra testifying before Congress in 2014

Yesterday I attended the Catalyst Awards conference – Catalyst is a New York-based nonprofit and longtime advocate for women in business. The main event of the day was a lunchtime conversation between Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis and General Motors CEO Mary Barra.

Barra got a lot of attention when she became CEO of GM just over a year ago. She was the first woman to be appointed CEO of a global auto company. She also took over GM just before the company finally faced up to a problem with the ignition switch on some of its cars – a problem that meant the airbags didn’t deploy properly and that caused at least 13 deaths. GM issued a big recall just weeks after Barra took over. She testified before Congress about the issue later in the year.

Barra was less open than Hewlett Packard CEO Ursula Burns, who was in the same chair at the event two years ago, but then she’s had a different kind of life than Burns, and different experiences. She seems to be someone who doesn’t want to focus on herself too much, and would rather share credit for her successes with other people than claim them as her own.

Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis & GM's Mary Barra

Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis & GM's Mary Barra

At one point in the conversation she pointed out something women need to keep hearing, which is not to balk when they’re presented with a challenging opportunity, one they would never have considered themselves.

She said some of the best opportunities in her career were when someone asked her to do something and her response was, “You want me to do what?” Roles that weren’t on her radar helped grow her career. I’ve never forgotten an early interview I did with McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh where this topic of fear came up. Barsh said she spent a lot of time when she was younger fleeing from challenges rather than saying ‘yes’, because she was afraid she wasn’t up to the job. It took her years to realize you grow professionally – and in the eyes of your colleagues – when you take on tricky jobs. 

On a related note, when an audience member asked Barra to talk about what NOT to do in one’s career, she said, “Don’t put yourself in a box.” She saw a career as a tree with many branches going in different directions. “Don’t start to lop off the branches of the tree before you get there,” she said.

What struck me strongly about Barra was how often she shared the credit for her work with others. Several times she said things like “with the help of the HR team” or “I have a great team and I encourage debate and collaboration.”

I’ve read about this stereotypically female leadership trait but this is the first time I’ve truly noticed it in action. And as my neighbor at the event pointed out, Barra also phrased things in a different way than most men. Instead of an “I did this” storyline she often said things like, “I was given the opportunity to…” or “People took smart risks in putting me in different positions.” It may seem like a small thing, but when you really listen to and study her language it is quite different from what you would normally hear from a man with that much power.  

Some of you may have read about a study last year saying female CEOs were more likely to be forced out than male ones – especially when they are brought in from the outside to turn around a company. Barra may have been appointed to turn GM around, but she is a GM insider. She’s still at the start of her journey to change the culture. I wish her luck. 

'Move forward with tenacity'

Last Friday I attended a symposium at Barnard, the famous women’s college in northern Manhattan. Its title was Women Changing the World. I know, it sounds grandiose – and if, like me, you cover the women’s space, you’ve attended a bunch of conference with similar names. You may be getting skeptical about what they actually do (this Huffington Post piece is a good read for any frequent women’s conference goer).

But this wasn’t a women’s empowerment conference in the sense I’ve come to expect. It wasn’t the typical ‘You Go Girl’ fare. This was a day that set out to highlight the ongoing work of women including Queen Noor of Jordan, Mamphela Ramphele, longtime political activist, doctor, and former managing director of the World Bank, and Kiran Bedi, India’s first and highest ranking female police officer.

The panel I’m focusing on here was about change for women in the economy and the media.

Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

Mamphela Ramphele knows a thing or two about moving ahead in spite of obstacles. She was put in jail in South Africa during the aparteid era and has pushed against the establishment time and again. She touched on something we covered on the latest Broad Experience: men and the cult of masculinity. She called it ‘the toxic masculinity narrative,’ which is particularly strong in South Africa. She said she knows her two sons have been affected by this, as they didn’t have a father around to show them another way to live. This narrative essentially says men are strong, women are weak, and they must be subject to men’s rules. As a man you are allowed – almost expected – to hit your wife (or wives).

“We have the highest violence against women and children that’s reported anywhere in the world,” she said. “Why? Because men are trapped in this narrative of violence…women like me have a vested interest in seeing that men are protected from this toxicity.”

In South Africa, she said, there isn’t a tradition of reporting on issues that affect the marginalized – which in South Africa covers a lot of people. Much more varied coverage is needed, she said, and social media can help as well.

“We need to be bolder with social media to include those [women] who are currently excluded.”

I’m a big Financial Times reader and geek, frankly. So I was happy to see the FT’s US managing editor Gillian Tett on the panel along with the others.

Gillian Tett. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

Gillian Tett. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

One of her first comments to the female audience resonated with me, and I hope will cheer those who are starting out and are low on confidence.

“If I had one message for the audience today who are students, if you’re feeling not very confident about where to go in life, pushing yourself forward into a leadership position, don’t worry,” she said. “When I was your age I didn’t even have the courage to get on the student newspaper.”

At a similar stage in my life I wanted to be an actress, but I didn’t have the courage to do any plays at university as I was so terrified of what others would think of me. I was also intimidated by the vast egos of many of the other wannabes. In hindsight, Britain didn't miss out on another Judi Dench, and I like to think I’ve worked out my dramatic tendencies on the radio since then.

Tett wasn’t even expected to go to university – she said her mother aspired for her to be “a chalet girl” (for non-Brits, this means someone who goes out and works in ski resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria, etc. while looking decorative). “But I went to university, and I became an anthropologist.”

This kind of thing is so important for younger women to hear – you don’t magically gain confidence overnight. As others have said and written, confidence is something you gain by doing, usually by doing things that seem utterly beyond you.

When Tett ended up at the FT in her twenties after several years of working in parts of the Caucuses and southeast Asia she wanted “to write about wars and international politics, and I’m sitting here writing about the dollar/yen rate.” But she realized pretty quickly that understanding the world of money was just like learning another language, and if she’d learned local languages like Pashtun, “I could damn well learn the language of finance.”

She did, and she’s now one of the paper’s top finance writers with two weekly columns. She also sounded early notes of warning about an impending financial bust before the 2008 crash happened.

“If you have the confidence to move forward with tenacity… life has an amazing way of bringing out the best in all of us,” she said.

She also talked about the status of women in the media, another topic close to my heart. My classes at Columbia Journalism School are always two-thirds female, but will these women be leading newsrooms in ten or twenty or thirty years? The current numbers on women leaders in the media are depressing, and I’m not convinced they’ll shift simply because there are so many women entering the profession today.

One thing Tett does is advise young women journalists to challenge themselves: “Don’t just become books editor, become economics editor as well.” In other words, do the hard stuff too. It tells your bosses you're up for a challenge and helps your career.

Finally, she had useful advice for the point in many women’s lives at which they want to start a family: she said it’s vital to keep some kind of a toe in the waters of work. Don’t give up completely. Even if it’s going in once a week she said, “You will have muscle memory when you go back.”