In 2014, I started writing a book on podcasting.
When I finished the first draft a couple of years later, Page 5 had this message:
A Message To Women (And Those Who Love Them)
While I’d love to include both men and women within every example I give, that’s not how English works when it comes to third person singular pronouns (i.e., he, she, his, hers, etc.). There are no personal pronouns that can refer to someone without identifying gender.
So I picked a side, male, and stuck with it throughout the book. This was done to make writing and editing easier, not to exclude women.
But while I’m on the subject of gender, let’s talk about it applies to podcasting.
In short, if you’re reading this book, there’s a good chance you’re a white male.
Podcasting has a diversity problem. And this isn’t just theory — data backs this up.
Sociologist (and host of The Plural Of You podcast) Josh Morgan did a study on diversity in podcasting, randomly selecting 1470 podcasts from iTunes US, which is home to the world’s largest podcast directory.
Out of these 1470 podcasts, 800 had available photos of the hosts. Using these photos, he recorded the hosts’ primary race-ethnicity, gender, and length of time the podcasts had been active. After reducing the sample to only include podcasts with hosts based in the United States, the total of podcasts in the survey was 537.
The result? 66% of American podcasts sampled had at least one white male host.
Podcasting Has A Place For Everybody
We need more diversity in podcasting. It’s an amazing format with a low barrier to entry, so there is no reason for it to be dominated by huge media organizations like NPR, iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), and other broadcast companies.
The diversity we need goes way beyond race and gender. Podcasting and podcast listeners deserve more than rehashed broadcast radio, shows about tech, and shows where D-list celebrities go to die. And independent podcasters can do better than the "amateur hour" hobby shows that make up the bulk of podcasts.
We need different beliefs. We need different cultures. We need different personalities.
But we need everything packaged in a way that people want to listen to.
There's an audience for you in podcasting. And if you’re ready to bring yourself and your message to the table in a way that people will connect with, there is a seat for you here.
That’s what this book is about — helping you create podcasts that people actually want to listen to. And neither race nor gender matters.
In the time it took me to complete the book, things changed. More and more women, at least in my perspective, were getting involved with podcasting, so I worked to make the language I used more inclusive. I had three female editors working with me, all of whom were on board with this.
I sent an early draft to a (female) test reader and got this message back:
One thing I did notice - all of your examples with "fictitious" people all used male pronouns. So if you were referencing a specific person (friend, colleague, fellow podcaster) you used he or she as appropriate. But when you were referencing a generic "guest" or "sponsor" you always used he/him; never she/her. Wondered if that was a conscious choice or not, but it did strike me as odd to not switch gender sometimes. I noticed this toward the beginning, so in the markup you'll see where I just underlined the male pronoun every time. Initially, I thought it was just me and marking this was a way to track it to verify whether it was reality or just a perception, but it was reality. It's subtle, and it's your choice whether it matters or not, but it might be noticed by your female audience. I missed it, the editors missed it.
It's easy to miss things about the work you do when you're too close to it. It's easy to see only what's around you or think, "Everybody is just like me." Beyond that, it's possible the "data" we've seen about podcasting is wrong.
Elsie Escobar, who co-founded the largest community for women in podcasting and hosts a corresponding podcast, both called She Podcasts, thinks the data was wrong and is wrong. She also has an easy way to bring even more diversity into podcasting.
I asked her this:
Past data has shown podcasting is predominantly a "white male thing." Do you feel this is/was the case? If so, how have things changed for POC/women and how are they changing?
Here's what she said:
This is a key question that need to be framed differently.
I don’t believe that podcasting is predominantly a white male thing - at all.
There is no way, at this point in time to get an accurate account of how many podcasts are hosted by men, women, or transgender people for that matter. We also cannot get any substantial demographic data on podcasts that are hosted or produced by POC.
Think about that.
We would need to cull all the data from most podcast hosting companies out there, and I can tell you that the question of gender and race doesn’t come into the equation when you’re signing up for a new account on any podcast hosting companies out there.
You also cannot go off of the names that are used to open accounts because there are many people that have a team that does the work. Also, there are many podcasts that are co-hosted or group hosted. How do you know who is actually the "host" of the show?
And what if the host is a white male but the team producing the show is all women, WoC and/or POC? Does that count for anything? I mean, some might say that a host, could possibly be "the talent," and not truly representative of the work that goes into a podcast.
In Apple Podcasts there are now over 600,000 podcasts. At the time of this writing I do not believe that there is representative sample from those thousands of podcasts that can get us gender and racial diversity that it is likely to NOT result in a high degree of sampling error or bias when making inferences regarding "all podcasts."
There has been some data independently gathered, not corroborated that has extrapolated information from the top 200 charts. But I would argue that the top 200 charts in no way represent the reality of podcasting and podcasters.
My gut feeling (pure conjecture here) is that women and men who podcast are about equal.
The issue is not with podcasting. The issue is the same as it is with most of the way media and culture function: they are set up to highlight, support, and amplify the voices of white men.
The issue runs deep. Most don’t even think about it. In fact, I challenge any podcaster reading this to consider if they ever looked at the list of guests that they have on their show to see if they have relatively equal representation of voices in their show? That would be excluding shows that are focused to serve underrepresented voices of course.
I also challenge you to take a look at your own list of shows that you listen to and break it down, what’s the representation of voices in your ears?
We are creatures of habit and tend to go for the things that are familiar to us.
What about when highlighting, featuring or sharing someone else’s podcast with your own community? Can you see who and why you share what you share?
In order for us to truly change the perception that “podcasting is predominantly a 'white male thing,'” we must look at our own behavior. If representation matters to us, if diverse voices matter, we must start with ourselves first.
That said, the larger organizations that cover podcasting or podcasts never bother to go further than the top what…15 that are often featured in Apple Podcasts? Every day I read an article that is featuring: This American Life, Serial, WTF with Marc Maron, or insert well-known, long-running podcast here.
No, podcasting does not have a representation problem. In fact, it’s possibly one of the most representative mediums that we have. It is what I call the great equalizer.
Where we have an issue is in media coverage and in how we deem podcasts "worthy." It feels that the only reason to feature a podcast is when it is backed by a larger corporation, with a team and money. They can call the attention of big media and can actually reach out to Spotify or Apple Podcasts for them to pay attention to them and give them a nice banner feature.
Whether the data on podcasting is correct or not, I think it's important to acknowledge our own bias when it comes to creating our podcasts. If you want to make the decision to ignore or reject something, that's great, but you have to know it exists to ignore or reject it.
Options are always good and more diversity is never a bad thing, so I hope you'll consider Elsie's "challenge" when booking guests on your own podcasts. I'd also love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Feel free to reach out to me via Twitter and let's have that conversation.
For more from Elsie, listen to She Podcasts via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS.