“The world of podcasting is really white and really male-dominated if you look at the charts,” said Julia Furlan, the founder of Buzzfeed Audio. She was reflecting on the state of women in media after the official launch for Where Girl Radio Lives (WGRL), the podcast of the Lower East Side Girls Club. “The people who really started it out were these tech nerds 10 or 15 years ago. Now the industry is getting bigger and more diverse and more exciting– but it doesn’t happen by accident.”
This afternoon Furlan, along with eight other accomplished female radio producers and media insiders, gathered at the WGRL podcast kick off. So much for those tired all-male panel excuses that there just aren’t enough ladies out there.
When the Girl’s Club began its work in 1996, it was one of the first organizations in the area of its kind to cater specifically to girls and young women from low-income homes. After years of disinvestment and neglect by the city during the ’60s and ’70s, few social service organizations geared toward kids had stuck around the LES, and those that did remain were boys-only. It was almost as if half the kids of one of the poorest neighborhoods of Manhattan didn’t even exist.
Now, 20 years later, the girls are finally getting a chance to catch up. The club has a state-of-the-art facility (built in 2013), complete with audio mixing stations, graphic design programs, and even a planetarium. Naturally the podcast is run out of a retrofitted Airstream trailer which houses the recording studio. And so far, the pilot eppies that have been dropping unannounced for a little over a year– part of a sort of practice season prior to the real thing– feature interviews with a diverse cast of characters including Amy Sedaris, dog owners from the annual Tompkins Square Park Halloween doggy parade, a political activist whose son was killed by gun violence, and a Chupacabra (if you find it hard to believe a mythical creature actually sat for a podcast interview, listen for yourself).
The first official season, which begins next week, will feature interviews with inspiring New York-based female figures, like the artist Maria Dominguez.
Today’s event, which celebrated the podcast’s first season (and incidentally helped keep kids busy while school’s out on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), attracted some of the most successful and diverse female voices in the audio world today. Along with Furlan, the panel included Buzzfeed’s Eleanor Kagan; author, PRI host, and NYU professor, Farai Chideya; and Laura Flanders of the Laura Flanders Show to name a few, all there to share their own success stories and favorite radio clips with the girls. Rah-rah girl power! (But for realz, this was inspiring stuff.)
After the panel ended, a game began. With nervous giggles, the girls plunged their hands into pink construction hats filled with slips of paper. Each one held a mission: find someone who is good at math; find someone who has been out of the state; find someone who is the oldest sibling. Soon, girls elementary-school-aged through their teens were brainstorming interview questions with the seasoned radio producers sitting next to them.
“What would you ask someone who knows how to DJ?” called out Furlan.
“How did you learn?” came one reply.
“That’s a great idea!” Furlan said. “I’d also ask, what’s your favorite piece of equipment and why?”
Wisdom, 14, lives down the block and has already been coming to the club for five years. She participated in the radio class last year and was assigned the task of interviewing people at Tompkins Square Park.
“I was sort of nervous because I was afraid that I didn’t know how people would act,” she recalled. But Wisdom gathered up her courage and asked her subjects where they were from and what they were interested in. “It was good practice for me,” she said. Now, Wisdom has graduated to a paid internship position practicing citizen journalism run through the LES Girls Club.
After the panel Furlan, who also helps run Ladio (an informal network for ladies in radio, not the pop star), reflected on her own experiences starting out in the male-dominated industry. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen in one big anecdotal way, it happen in a lot of tiny ways,” she said, remembering what it was like trying to push her ideas through in rooms full of dudes, and feeling as though no one heard her. “That kind of thing is much more common than actually being barred out of a job,” she said.
The hope, of course, is that programs like this will encourage young girls from low-income homes nearby to avoid falling into that (all-too common) trap of questioning their own voices and technical prowess, and make the podcasting world the more diverse place it deserves to be. “I think the LES Girls Club is doing a lot to help these girls tell their stories and get out there with confidence,” Furlan said. “Women helping women really really does create safe spaces.”
Kelly Webb, head of the sound program at WGRL, said that her vision for the podcast expands far beyond the streets of the Lower East Side. Sometimes the WGRL students have interviewed their partner Girls Club locations in Glasgow, Scotland and Chiapas, Mexico, and taught each other dance moves over Skype. Webb said she eventually plans to expand the program and do live radio and visual radio segments.
“I hope to really make WGRL a phenomenon– I hope that teen girls will tune into this worldwide so that peers can speak to peers,” she said. “So it’s not really about adults dictating what questions are being asked or what’s interesting. It’s really about the girls.”
Can somebody’s get these kids in a sesh with Heben and Tracy from Buzzfeed’s Another Round? (Sans alcohol, of course). I bet they’d have some veeerrry interesting questions for each other.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Furlan “runs Ladio.” She helps run it along with Andrea Silenzi and Audrey Quinn.