Hear my voice: Female radio hosts are a rarity but women dominate the Irish podcast scene

There’s a dearth of women’s voices on our radios — but turn on a podcast and it’s a very different story. Carolyn Moore tunes into some of the best female-fronted podcasts.

You don’t have to spend a huge amount of time listening to Irish radio to realise there’s a dearth of women’s voices on our airwaves, but consume any broadcast radio at all and you immediately recognise the scale of the imbalance.

Author Sophie White has been that soldier.

When her first child was born four years ago, as the first of her friends to experience motherhood, she found herself temporarily adrift.

“I knew the Radio One schedule by heart,” she recalls, “and honestly, I did start to get impatient listening to man after man after man.” By the time baby number two arrived, she had been enlightened as to the function of “the little purple icon” on her iPhone.

It was the podcast app; once a mystery to so many of us, now, increasingly, the app we launch when we take a walk, make dinner, or just have some time to kill. For Sophie, home alone with two babies, podcasts became “a lifeline”. “I just thought, Yes! Here’s where all the women are!” she laughs.

That was two years ago, and one can only imagine how she’d react today. Podcasts are exploding, and Irish people in particular can’t get enough.

Figures released by Reuters in June revealed 38% of us listen to podcasts – well above the European average of 27%, and more than double the UK’s 18%.

As a new medium still finding its shape, women have been quick to carve out their own space, if not quite democratising the airwaves, then at least planting a flag in this terrain before podcasts become another male dominated sphere.

The latest entrant to the arena is no less distinguished a voice than former president Mary Robinson, who co-presents Mothers of Invention, a climate change podcast, with comedian Maeve Higgins.

But, affordable to produce and still largely independent, podcasting welcomes all-comers, from the ultra niche to broader discussions of feminism and women in the arts and public life.

Now, Sophie says, she’s “listening to almost 100% women’s voices” when she tunes into podcasts, and she’s joined a growing pool of Irish women fronting their own podcasts, fearlessly engaging listeners on issues deemed too niche, too taboo, or simply ‘too female’ to warrant air time elsewhere.

“Women are dealing with life and death stuff, day to day, and I’m just more interested in what that produces as a life experience for us,” Sophie explains.

“We know what pain is; we know what bodies ripping to push out babies is like; we have blood on our hands, literally, so sometimes I look at men and think, What are you doing all day?”

On Mother of Pod, Sophie and co-host Jen O’Dwyer get down and dirty with all of the above, divulging the ups and downs of parenting in all its gory detail.

It’s a raucous, vagina-heavy, emotionally honest, freewheeling chat between lifelong friends, and the pilot episode, ‘How to Get a Baby Out Your Gee’, set the irreverent tone.

“That’s our dynamic,” Sophie says. “We didn’t say, let’s be gross, that’s just who we are!” Their occasional guests can sidestep the gross stuff, but they have to demonstrate a willingness to “cut the bullshit”.

“Parenting can be such a sacred cow, and I think that’s why people have responded to us,” Sophie says. “They’re getting a perspective you don’t really hear, and you don’t see on Instagram, where everyone’s so #blessed! There was an appetite for something more honest.”

Like the best podcasts, Mother of Pod feels like a conversation you want to be part of, and predictably, they’re inundated with messages from women sharing their own stories. “In digital media, engagement is king,” Sophie says, “so it feels quite interactive. It’s like a community.”

In March, that community came together for the pair’s first live show, Mother of Pod Live and Loose (yes, in the vaginal sense), and they followed that up with a second live outing in June.

Deborah Frances-White brings the Guilty Feminist to Dublin’s Vicar street in October

Part confessional, part cathartic, communal over-share, Sophie describes the shows as “group therapy with gin”. On a less-intimate scale, the same could be said for Deborah Francis-White’s wildly successful The Guilty Feminist.

Always recorded in front of an audience and always a sell out, Francis-White fuses politics and comedy with panel discussions and stand-up interludes, and in October, the show comes to Vicar Street for the Dublin Podcast Festival.

Joining her will be comedian Alison Spittle – herself a prolific podcaster, having clocked up almost sixty episodes of The Alison Spittle Show. She’s appeared on countless others, The Guilty Feminist among them, and admits, with comedians interviewing comedians, there’s a lot of reciprocity and a lot of overlap.

“It’s grand,” she says, “you’ll always get something new out of them.” A seasoned stand-up used to feeding off the energy of an audience, her preference for live shows is clear, but even in a studio environment, she finds podcasting incredibly freeing.

“If I’m doing radio or TV, there’s always a ‘pre-interview’ beforehand,” she explains.

“With a podcast, that’s never the case. The first question you hear is when the microphone’s on.”

Free from both the broadcast restrictions and time constraints of radio, you can also follow the interview wherever it takes you, as she discovered in a standout episode recorded with Tara Flynn the week of the abortion referendum.

Acknowledging that podcasts generally delved into that debate with more nuance and depth than traditional broadcasters managed, Alison explains, “You’ll never change anyone’s mind with a sound bite. With a podcast, you can go for as long as you want.”

You can also get as emotional as you want. On that episode, both women bawled, days ahead of what was, for so many, a life-changing moment in Irish history.

“We were so exhausted,” Alison recalls. “I’ve been mates with Tara a long time. I knew what she was going through, and we were just really honest with each other.”

As a result, she says, “It became a kind of timestamp of that moment. Because we won, it’s easy to forget how you felt beforehand.

We have that record now, rather than just a sanitised radio discussion.” For the same reason, she recalls an episode recorded at Body and Soul with Colm O’Gorman.

“He shared his story, which was horrific, but also had big long jokes,” she says.

“There’s real power in being able to talk about that stuff and joke about it in the same breath. I don’t think on mainstream radio that would be seen as appropriate.”

Having studied radio at college, Spittle -- like many podcast fans -- still loves the more traditional medium, but reached a point where she “didn’t see radio as a viable option anymore”.

Podcasts have filled that void, and she loves that they’re getting bigger and more mainstream. “When I did The Guilty Feminist in London, Emma Thompson was in the audience,” she says.

“She’s a fan! That’s when I realised how big podcasts have gotten. Now they’re like TV shows, they have fans and communities; people on the hunt for new podcasts. I love seeing them do well because it proves it’s a legitimate medium and it’s gaining ground.”

The best in show

2FM Collective with Louise McSharry

McSharry tackles “the issues we’re talking about on social media that don’t seem to make it to radio”. Give this woman a chat show.

Mothers of Invention

An unlikely but charming pairing, Maeve Higgins and Mary Robinson are the dynamic duo discussing the ways feminism might be able to save the planet.

School for Dumb Women

Writer Caroline O’Donoghue and pals Hannah Varrall and Alexandra Haddow discuss “things you’re too proud to admit you know nothing about”.

Irish Times Women’s Podcast

Kathy Sheridan presents the polished, magazine show podcast that would seamlessly plug a woman-shaped hole in RTÉ Radio One’s schedule.

The 80% with Esther O’Moore Donoghue

Perfect for begrudgers, host Esther can only manage to be 80% happy for the successful people she interviews.

The Spill

Sophie White teams up with Image magazine’s agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe for pop culture commentary, life advice and occasional special guests.

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