by Menaka Raman
“Why would you want to know about that?”
“I don’t think I’m going to give you anything you can use.”
These are just some of the responses we get from women when we ask them if they’d like to share a story with us for our podcast City of Women.
People tend to assume we are looking for a particular kind of story — stories of bravery, grit, determination, and overcoming the odds. And that’s because these are overwhelmingly the kinds of stories we hear about women. We live in a society where those are the stories we want to celebrate because it’s comforting and distracts us from confronting the hard reality of life for most women. Now, these are all great kinds of stories, but they aren’t necessarily what we are looking for, not in the traditional sense anyway.
Yes, we do want stories of bravery — the bravery it takes for a woman to chase after a stalker taking photos of her on the street or going for an early morning run alone. We want to hear about women overcoming the odds — specifically, penis-shaped odds that stand in the way of them going out and getting shit done. What we want are everyday stories, the kind that women are convinced are not important, exciting, or earth-shattering enough to share. Stories that people will listen to and think, ‘Oh, I know how that feels!’ or ‘That’s happened to me too!’
But, how do you convince women that their everyday stories ARE interesting, how do you get them not to self-censor, not to compare, not to worry about what people will say, and to feel free to share? And how do you do this in the midst of a pandemic lockdown?
Pre COVID we would have met our interviewees a few times and had a chance to put them at ease in person. We would have walked around the city with them, tracing familiar routes through known neighbourhoods, asked them about their lives, and told them about ours. But the lockdown forced us to find a way to do this online. Would it work? Would women trust a podcast handle on Instagram that was asking them to share their stories, often deeply personal ones?
We had no choice but to try.
We discovered that much of the success or failure one has in this is in what you do before you start the asking, in how the online space and universe for your podcast could reflect the kinds of stories we wanted to talk about. With City of Women, we wanted to create a relatable and fun space that felt safe, even though it was online and public. We tried to create this atmosphere with tongue-in-cheek posters using recognisable works of art that asked questions about experiences on the street and at home.
We also crowdsourced audio from our friends and shared it with our fledgling community to give them an idea of what they might expect from the episodes themselves, and what kind of stories from their own lives they might feel comfortable sharing.
Another way of building trust with our listeners was to share our own stories. City of Women co-producer and host Radhika Viswanathan wrote shared funny, touching, and silly stories about the strong smell of soap in the air when she was walking behind a man one day, pandemic lockdown loneliness in the company of a cat, a bandicoot, and a pumpkin vine and Zoom call shenanigans. They were a hit with our community.
We launched weekly Cocktail Hours, casual one-on-one, no-pressure interviews with women which we advertised every week on social media. On calls, we often asked the women we spoke to ‘Is there anything you want to ask us?’ letting them know this was a conversation, not an extractive interview. And then we told them our own embarrassing, funny, sad, and hopeful stories.
We took a similar approach in another in-production podcast that follows the lives and work of women entrepreneurs in India. Founders is a podcast we’re making with Her&Now, a GIZ India initiative.
We created WhatsApp groups based on geography, and every morning we asked the members of the group a question and invited them to share the answer as a voice note. We each took turns answering the questions ourselves, in the hope that it would put the women at ease, and show them that their answers needn’t to be scripted or perfect and that they could just be themselves.
We did this for almost six weeks before we initiated one-on-one interviews with the entrepreneurs. (Listen to the trailer for Founders here.)
Our online community for City of Women is still small, and it’s growing slowly but surely. We hope that our listeners and community continue to find it a safe space to share their stories, which someone somewhere will listen to and think ‘Oh, I know what that feels like.’
Hi! We’re making the next set of episodes for City of Women and would love to hear stories around the themes of sports, booty calls, protest and loneliness. For more details click here.