Meet the women leading the podcasting charge in Ireland

Ahead of the Cork Podcast Festival, Marjorie Brennan meets three women taking on the gender imbalance on the airwaves.

Meet the women leading the podcasting charge in Ireland

Ahead of the Cork Podcast Festival, Marjorie Brennan meets three women taking on the gender imbalance on the airwaves

When comedian Alison Spittle was studying radio in college, she was told that a study had shown that people prefer to hear men’s voices on radio.

“That really stuck with me,” she says. This mythical ‘research’ has been mentioned to justify the glaring gender imbalance on our airwaves. And Irish radio remains male-dominated. However, a revolution has been brewing in how we consume audio content; and it has allowed women to bypass traditional media and seize the means of production for themselves.

Alison Spittle

Alison Spittle

Figures from a recent Reuters study show that Ireland has the third-highest podcast listenership in the world, after South Korea and Spain: 37% of Irish people listening to one every month.

The increasing popularity of the digital audio platform has been driven by a younger audience and facilitated by streaming and smartphones. A growing number of festivals features live podcasts, from a dedicated tent at Electric Picnic, to the newly-established Cork Podcast Festival, which will take place next month.

The Alison Spittle Show is just one of the many female-hosted podcasts being eagerly downloaded by women hungry to hear their own voices and passions reflected in the media.

“It annoys me that you never hear two women presenting a radio show together — people mention Morning Ireland, but that is not a regular thing; it’s by chance. But you see plenty of women presenting together on podcasts; in fact, it’s a staple of a lot of podcasts,” says Spittle.

People want to hear women talking about things that affect women. I think that’s why podcasts are doing well — they are serving a need that radio can’t fulfil, because while it is a great medium, it’s controlled very conservatively

The Westmeath native, who had previously worked in radio as a researcher, was an early adopter of podcasting. She says her chat show-type format suits her personality, as well as appealing to audiences, male and female. “It’s just a place for me to chat to people I like and admire. They don’t have to be famous. I don’t have to answer to anybody; I just do what I want to do. It’s about stories and I’m naturally just very interested in people.”

Tara Flynn is another Irish comedian and actor whose podcast, Taranoia, has given her a new way to interact with audiences.

It’s not just not a gender-based thing; podcasting is great for anyone who feels unrepresented. It’s very egalitarian and democratic

"There’s a two-way relationship between you and your listeners, because they are there for their own reasons, not because it’s the only thing on, or because they heard about it in a big, flashy ad. Maybe they’ve heard about it through word of mouth, and they know that there’s something special in it for them. You’ll find the podcast for you, because it will be recommended, somewhere, by someone you trust. There are amazing and brilliant people working in ‘mainstream’ media, but there is gatekeeping and, in podcasting, there is no gatekeeping.”

Tara Flynn

Tara Flynn

Flynn, from Kinsale, Co Cork, favours the more improvisational style in her podcast. However, she says that doesn’t mean an ad hoc approach to the content.

“There’s so much prep. The skill with podcasting is to keep it as fresh as possible, even if I’m in a room by myself. And that’s one of the reasons I keep it to half-an-hour. So, if it does go a bit stream of consciousness, it’s not going to be self-indulgent. There are lots of improv podcasts that are delightful, but they tend to be a little bit more dramatically structured,” Flynn says.

Writer Caroline O’Donoghue, from Rochestown, in Cork, is now based in London, where she produces Sentimental Garbage, a popular, book club-type podcast focusing on commercial fiction. She says there has been an explosion in female-presented and female-produced audio content.

“It has been really interesting to see this kind of gold rush. I have a friend who is an incredibly talented podcast producer. She can’t move for work, because women just want to work with other women on these things. And the idea of them sending off their precious audio files to a guy makes them really kind of nervous,” she says.

Women are beginning to surmount their fears around technology or of airing their opinions and are venturing into podcasting.

“I think women are sometimes conditioned to think that if something has any kind of techie side to it at all, they’re not suited to it. That can be a real barrier. I think they’re also taught to think that their opinions on things don’t really matter. But there are more and more now, which is great,” O’Donoghue says.

The flexibility of podcasting gives women more freedom to be themselves, which, in turn, showcases their talents as interviewers.

I think some of the best interviewers are women, but I think people still have that thing in the back of their minds, where they trust what women say less than they trust what men say. I think we can have this kind of sense of, like, men’s voices being more pleasant, more authoritative. I hate to rely on gender roles, but women are so good at reaching emotional conclusions, and things like that, through chat. We value chat in such a deep way.

For Flynn, O’Donoghue, and Spittle, their podcasts are passion projects, rather than money-generators, but they still require time and hard work. For Flynn, in particular, the amount of work versus the financial return has been somewhat problematic.

“I’m taking a little break, at the moment, because it’s very hard to produce something weekly when it is not paying financially. And so it becomes sort of a very intense hobby. And, unfortunately, and I’ve spoken about this openly on the podcast, I’m having to chase paid work right now and accept gigs that take up that headspace. But the amazing thing is, the podcast has been a creative outlet for me for a year. It’s kept me in touch with an audience whom I absolutely love interacting with,” Flynn says.

Caroline O'Donoghue

Caroline O'Donoghue

O’Donoghue agrees that producing a regular podcast is more time-consuming than it can appear, given the format’s informal tone.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about podcasting is that anyone can buy a cheap microphone, press record, and have away with it. But if you want a good podcast that people actually listen to, you need to do so much pre-production and post-production, not to mind the actual interview itself. For Sentimental Garbage, I have to read the book, make notes, and also research the guest and their books, as well. And then I edit the podcast myself, after that, upload it, and promote it on social media. But while it doesn’t necessarily make me a lot of money, it does kind of raise your profile. So, I’ve gotten a lot of jobs through Sentimental Garbage, but I’ve never been paid directly for Sentimental Garbage.”

Spittle’s show is hosted by Ireland’s largest podcast network, Headstuff, and she has a producer, Sarah Garvey, who takes care of additional tasks, such as editing and downloading.

She agrees there are side benefits to podcasting, in terms of generating other work, especially since she did co-hosting duties on the phenomenally successful show, The Guilty Feminist.

“I think it got 75m downloads, or something silly like that. Deborah Frances-White, the lady who set it up, she didn’t go into this saying, ‘how do I make money?’ She looked at it and thought, ‘how do I reach my audience?’ Doing a podcast has done more for me than doing a television show. Being on The Guilty Feminist was probably the biggest change to my career, out of everything.”

Spittle says the more democratic and egalitarian nature of podcasting also gives women more space to test themselves in a friendlier arena.

“I have seen women who have quit comedy because it is an inhospitable place for women. I have seen women quit radio for the same reason. When you are a woman, you have to be seen as really, really good or you will not be given a chance. If you do badly, it reflects not only on yourself, but your sex, as well. With podcasts, if you do badly, it doesn’t matter. That is the best thing about podcasts — it is the most freeing of all the things I do, that is why I do podcasts, so I can fail.”

As for jokes that too many people are making podcasts now and that the format is reaching saturation point, Spittle says such concerns are overblown.

“When I started working in radio, podcasting was in its infancy. There were probably two well-known podcasts — This American Life and WTF with Marc Maron. Now, there’s such a massive variety and people say the bubble is going to burst. And I’m like, ‘who cares?’There are about 15 people in the world making a living from podcasts. I don’t know what we’re worried about.”

Tara Flynn, Caroline O’Donoghue, and Alison Spittle are all appearing at the Cork Podcast Festival, which runs from October 11-13 at various venues around the city; Corkpodcastfestival.com

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