Podcasts are often about topics we don’t talk about in “polite conversations”. Like talking about your dead husband and how your feelings don’t just die with him.
When Nora McInerny got engaged, it was on a hospital bed. Her fiancée Aaron was undergoing treatment for brain cancer. When the chemo proved unsuccessful, Nora found herself raising their son alone. In her podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” Nora talks about what it’s like to be, in her words, a “notable widow.” After Aaron died, she found herself having awkward conversations with people navigating her grief like it was something optional, something to be ignored.
She couldn’t be ignored any longer at the Now Hear This Podcast Festival on Sept. 8-10. Nora joined a lineup of 25 live performances, with her show focusing on how to confront the uneasy topic of death in order to fully enjoy life. What makes “Terrible, Thanks For Asking” intriguing is it’s brutal honesty and the lack of a façade of a “perfect life.” Female podcast hosts are rare in the male-dominated industry but it seems like the successful podcasts are ones that connect with the audience in a way that others cannot.
On “Criminal”, Phoebe analyzes why people commit crimes, instead of immediately condemning them. In the festival’s live show, they revived the story “21 Countries” about a man who streaked 559 times in 21 countries – complete with some pretty scandalous photos.
“People want to be much more open than we think they will be if we give them a chance,” Phoebe said. “No one wants to keep a secret or hide anything, it’s tough work. People like to be able to say, ‘This is what I did’ and then [maybe] make amends for it.”
Phoebe and her co-creator Lauren Spohrer both worked in public radio before they founded “Criminal”. Sarah Kliff came to Vox’s “The Weeds” with a policy journalism background while her co-hosts Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias established themselves through political commentary.
In an interview following the festival, Sarah said that while she appreciates the dynamic on her show coming from different circles of journalism, she thinks that podcasting can be an intimidating media.
“I think it’s similar to the divide between [more] female news writers and more male opinion writers. I think men are often encouraged to share their opinions more, get their cues to be confident in their opinions and share them,” Sarah said. “I came from more of a reporting focus where I shared my opinion less and reported more on other people’s stories. I think for women it can be especially intimidating to have an unfiltered medium where it’s unstructured and you’re kind of up there defending your views in front of a lot of listeners.”
Phoebe acknowledges that there are more male than female podcast hosts but thinks it’s a bigger conversation than gender.
“I think the conversation is ready to switch to diversity, not just in gender. I think that’ll be the next hurdle,” Phoebe said in an interview before her live show. “It’s getting better every single year and we’re seeing a more diverse array of hosts. The bigger conversation is why is there such a lack of diversity in the hosts that we have?”
There have been some diversity improvements: WNYC rolled out “Nancy” this year, a podcast made for “provocative stories and frank conversations about the LGBTQ experience” according to the hosts. The Now Hear This festival was the first live show for co-hosts and best friends Kathy Tu and Tobin Low. In addition to being racial minorities, they also identify as LGBTQ. Kathy is Asian-American and early on in the series, talked about her struggles of coming out.
In their live show, they shared their different approaches to dating and brought out Ryan Haddad for his insight. Ryan is an actor who’s most known for performing his autobiographical play at The Public Theater “Hi, Are You Single?” In the show, Ryan lamented that people often don’t think of him as a romantic option. Why?
“Could it be that society completely desexualizes people with disabilities?” Ryan said. He has cerebral palsy but that’s not stopping him from dedicating himself to the arts and his potential hookups. Bringing voices to the microphone that we don’t typically hear from is another way to add diversity to the podcasting world.
Aside from the festival, the podcasting world has no shortage of resources for your career, relationships and cultural news. Below is a breakdown of a few must-listen podcasts hosted or co-hosted by women:
BUSINESS / CAREER:
Girlboss Radio (Appx. 45 mins.)
- Host: Sophia Amoruso. Author and founder of fashion retailer Nasty Gal, Sophia is constantly reinventing herself. Her most recent project is founding Girlboss Media – “for women redefining success on their own terms.” Sophia exclusively interviews women who have pushed the boundaries while forging new career paths. Past guests: Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop, Whitney Wolfe of Bumble, Amel Monsur of Vice Media, etc.
Boss Files (Appx. 45 mins.)
- Host: Poppy Harlow. Poppy is a CNN morning news anchor who takes a break from politics in her podcast to talk shop about decisions in the back of the boardroom. She dives deep into how women and men are leading global companies. Past guests: Designer Tory Burch, business magnate Warren Buffet, co-founder of Birchbox Katia Beauchamp, etc.
Death, Sex & Money (Appx. 30 mins.)
- Host: Anna Sale. While DSM isn’t specifically about jobs, all of Anna’s guests touch on their decisions with death, sex / romance and money. What those factors have in common is that they all inevitably affect careers and life choices about where to work and who to work for. Anna interviews both celebrities and people who have had unique experiences like being newlywed and paralyzed, sex workers who enjoy their jobs and some Uber drivers who don’t. Past guests: anchor Katie Couric, actor Mahershala Ali, comedian Chris Gethard, etc.
RELATIONSHIPS / FRIENDSHIPS:
Call Your Girlfriend (Appx. 45 mins.)
- Hosts: Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman. “A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere”, CYG connects real life friends Aminatou and Ann on everything from pop culture to politics. This podcast is for women who want to learn more about feminism, without subscribing to the false narrative that there’s a “right” kind of feminist. Past episodes include discussions on the pursuit of female pleasure, women running for office and the latest Beyoncé news.
By the Book (Appx. 35 mins.)
- Hosts: Jolenta Greenberg & Kristen Meinzer. For those that are interested in “self-help” books but don’t want to read every chapter, “By The Book” is the answer. Jolenta and Kristen take on the social experiment of living by the rules of a self-help book for two weeks, then reporting back with the results. Past books they’ve lived through include “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, “The Secret”, “Class with the Countess”, etc.
Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations (Appx. 35 mins.)
- Host: Oprah Winfrey. Oprah is clearly the woman who can do it all. Acting, producing and now podcasting, Oprah interviews thought leaders on how to increase your health and wellness. Past guests: Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, former president Jimmy Carter, alternative wellness advocate Deepak Chopra, etc.
CURRENT EVENTS / CULTURE:
Fresh Air (Appx. 50 mins.)
- Host: Terry Gross. With over 40 years of hosting “Fresh Air”, Terry is a heavyweight at NPR. The show touches all facets of life: entertainment, arts, international relations, domestic politics and culture. Terry’s ability to ask probing questions and get forthcoming answers is considered a skill honed by her thousands of interviews. Past guests: musician Bruce Springsteen, writer Roxane Gay, actor Kumail Nanjiani, etc.
Serial (Appx. 1 hour)
- Host: Sarah Koenig. “Serial” is a true crime podcast that made headlines for reopening a murder case. Season 1 investigated a 1999 trial in which Baltimore high school student Adnan Syed was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Due to Koenig’s reporting of potential holes in allegations against Adnan, as well as public support for a re-examination of the case, Adnan’s defense team is working toward getting a new trial. Season 2 investigates U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl who was held captive in Afghanistan by a Taliban ally after he deserted his station in 2009.
Who? Weekly (Appx. 45 mins.)
- Hosts: Lindsey Weber & Bobby Finger. In the age of social media where someone can become “famous” virtually overnight, it’s hard to keep up with who’s a celebrity and who isn’t. Lindsey and Bobby do the work for you and research “who-lebrities” aka almost celebrities and tell you “everything you need to know about the celebrities you don’t.” Past guests: actress Busy Philipps, Ashley Iaconetti of Bachelor fame, comedy writer / podcast host Matt Bellassai, etc.
Elizabeth Roberts works at CNN Digital and obtained her master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her previous work experience includes NBC’s Content Innovation Agency, Vanity Fair and the TODAY Show. She is an alumna of the NBCU Page Program. Elizabeth lives in New York but is proudly from the Washington, D.C. area. When she’s not writing, you’ll see her gasping through a half marathon or avoiding tell you the shameful number of hours she spends watching both good and bad TV.