If I were asked to make a list of the podcasts I listen to over and over again, almost all of them would be written and created by women. Sarah Koenig and Serial was my first favorite, with the unforgettable story of Adnan Syed’s incarceration. Lea Thau’s Strangers, with her attitude reminiscent of that cousin from Europe you met once when you were fifteen, the one who smoked cigarettes and spoke three languages and taught you how to do your eyeliner from a matchstick. Manoush Zomorodi, on her show Note to Self, shared her theory about women in podcasting that “listening to female-hosted shows is actually a feminist act.” While I might substitute the word “female” with something more inclusive, her premise has shaped my listening habits for the last several years. I listen to podcasts by women and people outside the gender binary for the same reasons I buy or consume any kind of art, like writing or music or film or theater. Investing my time and what little money I have is a way of supporting artists who have not always been allowed to take up the space they deserve, who still face innumerable obstacles in turning their imaginings into art.
Podcasting can be as much a literary creation as an essay or a novel or short story. This understanding of audio as artistry through storytelling might seem like an obvious parallel, with the biggest difference being the tools used in each medium. When you craft a story using only words, the way a reader interprets a sound will vary from person to person. With a podcast, on the other hand, the space between the sounds tells the story. The show that taught me this was Starlee Kine’s magnum opus Mystery Show. You might question how six episodes of less than an hour each would merit recognition as a masterwork, but I have yet to hear a podcast with greater curiosity, technical skill, or heart. I was driving across the country with my ex-husband on our way to what we didn’t know was the end when I started listening to the first episode of Starlee’s brilliant turn as auteur for Gimlet Media, which at the time was a fledgling podcasting company based out of Brooklyn. She begins: “When I was a kid, my little sister and I found an old safe in my grandparents’ garage.” It doesn’t seem that magical, right? There was a woman’s voice, a real, unpolished voice, like a friend on the phone. At first there weren’t any other sounds, diegetic (existing within the world of the story told) or not. It was just Starlee telling a story, and from the sound of her voice alone, the wonder it carried, I would have listened to anything she told me. She went on in those first few minutes to describe how intrigued she and her sister had been about the contents of the safe, how they just knew they would find a way to crack it. How familiar is that desire to solve a mystery? How universal? And isn’t that what we seek in any kind of storytelling—to find the universal thread?
The episode continued while Starlee tried to track down the location of a video store that allegedly shut down the day after opening a new account for her friend. The other five episodes solved their own mysteries, trying to find out how Britney Spears felt about a book she was once seen carrying in a tabloid photo, or locating the original owner of a belt buckle emblazoned with eggs and a toaster. But there are only six episodes. Mystery Show was canceled by Gimlet Media following its first season. Earlier this year, as I listened to the show again while planning my post-divorce return to the West Coast, I turned to Starlee’s announcement from late 2016 regarding the show’s cancellation:
“In April, Gimlet let me go. This came without warning while I was in the midst of working on the second season. I’d been having trouble figuring out the new season — second seasons can be tricky — and so I’d gone away, to work on an episode. I didn’t make as much progress as I had hoped, but the season was starting to take shape. The day I returned, Alex told me the show was unsustainable. I was out. I lost my staff, my salary, my benefits, my budget and my email address. Mystery Show is the only show this has happened to at Gimlet…”
In the two years since her departure, Starlee has been tight-lipped aside from snarky tweets about the advertisers now attached to her show, which is still owned and streamed through Gimlet. So anything I have to say about why Starlee was released from her work with Gimlet is entirely speculation. It’s based upon nothing more than my experiences in radio and journalism and my wisdom as a woman who knows that making great things takes time. But when I first heard Starlee’s statement, when I heard that the most successful new podcast of 2015 had been cancelled, I could no longer ignore the reason for my obsession with podcasts made by women. I was obsessed because I was supposed to be making them, too.
When I first entered college ten years ago, I thought I had found my future when I walked into an audio booth. Someone at orientation told me I could work at the campus radio station and I thought it was a privilege I didn’t deserve. After a dude called into my show to tell me how much he loved the songs I chose, I knew I wanted to spend my days behind a microphone, sending my voice across the airwaves.
I was supposed to be like Starlee. And in my dreams I still am, a storyteller finding a way to communicate with others through whatever art she accesses. But on my nineteenth birthday, I was raped by my boyfriend, a coworker from the station. It was a familiar story in a lot of ways: the alcohol that made me tumble down a flight of stairs; the music director at the station, an elder woman I admired, who told me not to report the incident because she’d bought said alcohol for my birthday and didn’t want to get in trouble; the director of the program who turned a blind eye to my mistreatment. I worked alongside these people and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. But as I pushed down the bile that kept building, the more room I gave him to hurt me again. After two years, I abandoned the station, my major, and all hopes I had for making the art that had shown me how to use my voice.
I was fortunate to find writing at this moment. I changed my major to English (because it meant reading books alone) and I took my first writing class. The faculty were excellent, but even in this new field, I saw the same impropriety and gender discrimination that I’d encountered in journalism. The more time I have spent as a professional writer, in a community of writers, the more I come to understand that this is a plague on all of our houses.
It’s been almost a decade since I was first assaulted, and in those years, I’ve accepted that even though I was good at audio production, my actual talent didn’t matter when measured next to my attacker’s supposed potential. Starlee was one of the most well-known and highly-acclaimed women in podcasting when the format was still gaining its footing in the mainstream. And while I would never speculate that there is a parallel between what happened to me and the cancellation of Mystery Show, I do think there was a lack of value placed on Starlee’s work, despite its obvious merit and its role in getting Gimlet off the ground. She wasn’t their only successful podcast, but she was the first innovative work they could point to as their own. Yes, they have canceled other shows since, and yes, Starlee has gone on to do great work (including contributions to S-Town, the polarizing tale of John B. McLemore), but it doesn’t change what it looks like or how familiar it feels.
Despite the access we have to resources and formats and platforms that didn’t exist before the last decade, we keep letting women be silenced. I think that what happened to Starlee, what happened to me, what continues to happen to women who make art, is possible because this is all a part of a larger dismissal of women’s voices. When Mystery Show was canceled, there was a murmur within the community of fans and podcast industry types, but there wasn’t an outcry. There wasn’t any questioning. Starlee said what she needed to say and didn’t publicly comment further. She’s continued to participate in the shaping of great stories, but where are hers? Where are her mysteries?
And where were mine? This was the question I mulled in the months after Mystery Show’s cancellation. I lost a part of myself when I stopped making art with audio, stopped telling stories the way I did because I couldn’t find a way to do so in writing. For our first anniversary, my husband bought me a soundboard, microphone, and headphones and downloaded Audacity to my computer. In our musty upstairs office, he helped me set up a corner where I could record. I had returned to volunteer radio but I couldn’t think of something coherent enough to form the basis for a podcast. On an afternoon in early 2017, I sat before my computer digging through the audio files I’d saved from my phone through the years. I opened an unmarked link and heard the rustle of my own hands, then my voice.
“Is it okay if I record this?” I was talking to the District Attorney in Benton County, Oregon, a woman named Amy. She agreed. Then we started to discuss the case against someone different, who raped me in 2015, more than five years after I had first been assaulted. There was DNA evidence and testimony from me to corroborate my injuries, but in the end no charges were filed against him. After almost a decade of activist work, I knew damn well how to identify what was and wasn’t sexual assault, but it didn’t matter. Amy told me then that she couldn’t convince a jury to believe me and that was her job: to convince a jury she was right. If she couldn’t do that, she didn’t take on a case.
Listening to the twelve-and-a-half minute conversation was challenging. Hearing my own voice wail at this woman transported me back into that room, sitting at her desk while her blonde eyelashes slowly opened and closed. But my story was in that audio I had recorded from all of my interviews. So over the next two months, I sat in front of my recording equipment, and in that room I pieced together a five-episode arc of my life. It was an investigation into my own mystery: why wasn’t I worth believing? I didn’t find a neat answer, like the one Starlee found when she explored the belt buckle’s origins. The fact is there was never a good reason why my case wasn’t pursued, and I wasn’t going to change that in making a podcast. But I did make peace with my story, and through it, I was able to recover from the years spent working with my abuser, being silenced, and being asked to forget.
I am not a podcaster, but I have made a podcast. I will probably make another when I unpack the recording equipment in the little room in my garage. As an artist, a storyteller, I look to the methods other women use in telling their stories to find ways to create my own, and to confront the shape of our silence. For a while I couldn’t stand the sight of a microphone. But I’ve made the mic into a tool again, one that I have the power to wield, and as I go forward as a writer and podcaster, I can reclaim all the arts I once thought lost. With my pen and my papers and my microphone and my voice, I can solve whatever mystery I find in myself.
DELANEY MCLEMORE is a writer from West Virginia and Oregon. She received her MFA in Nonfiction writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2018 and is currently pursuing her PhD in creative writing. She lives in Lafayette, LA.