AUSTIN, Texas — When podcasting stars gathered March 11 at the South by Southwest Interactive conference to discuss the challenges facing their medium, the lack of diversity among creative talents in podcasting — especially the dearth of women in hosting roles — was cited among the most perplexing problems.
A Feb. 26 editorial by Third Coast Audio Festival Director Julie Shapiro provided impetus for the discussion among a panel of four podcasters — each with ties to public media in the U.S. and Britain and one of whom was female. In her commentary published last month by Transom, Shapiro questioned why only 20 of the top 100 iTunes podcasts are hosted by women.
“There’s literally no barrier to entry, so I don’t know what that’s about,” said Roman Mars, creator and host of 99% Invisible, a podcast and pubradio series. Public media, which supports many of the most popular podcasts on iTunes, has a strong history of nurturing female talent, he said. He pointed out that the Third Coast Festival’s Award for Best New Artist has gone to a man only once in the past 10 years.
When he had first read the statistic in Shapiro’s commentary, Mars said, “my first instinct was that there aren’t a lot of women podcasters because they’re all running the national radio [programs].”
Helen Zaltzman, co-host of the United Kingdom-based podcast Answer Me This! and the only woman on the panel, acknowledged that male-dominated culture of podcasting can make it a difficult medium for women to pursue. She recalled a purportedly positive review of her podcast on iTunes that began: “I don’t usually find women funny.”
Since the majority of podcast listeners are male, the market for shows that appeal to women is wide open, noted Jesse Thorn of Maximum Fun and Bullseye, the podcast and pubradio show recently picked up by NPR.
“The gender differences will continue to even out because of market forces,” Thorn said. “Women will continue to be an underserved portion of the market until people start serving them.”
If podcasting is to attract more listeners, it must also overcome technical barriers, the panelists agreed. Namely, podcast listening must evolve into a more user-friendly experience. Thorn acknowledged that he often elects to listen to terrestrial radio in his car or kitchen because the process of syncing his phone to his sound systems in order to listen to podcasts is too time-consuming.
Yet the panelists view widespread adoption of smartphones and other mobile devices as a great boon to their efforts to attract new audiences. “Now there’s a podcasting device in everyone’s pocket,” Mars said.
“I hope the distinction will become pretty much invisible between podcasting and other kinds of speech entertainment,” Zaltzman said.
An overarching concern shared by the panelists is the puzzle over how to develop business models that will support podcasts. No one saw a clear path to sustainability, especially with the threat of patent litigation looming on the horizon. As Mars put it, “I think it’s the best possible time to be a podcaster. That doesn’t mean it’s a great time to be a podcaster.”