It may seem surprising in the rising tide of podcast popularity, but it was only eight years ago when the first female-focused media form hit iTunes – “Stuff Mom Never Told You.” The outlet is the product of podcast pioneer Cristen Conger, who after working at Atlanta’s award-winning edutainment website, HowStuffWorks, recognized the audio absence of women’s topics being discussed for everyday ears.
Since then, Conger and podcast partner in crime, Caroline Ervin have helped revolutionize (and, daresay, normalize) the digital space on issues impacting women. In the process. SMNTY content has become a mainstay on iTunes’ “Top Charts” and earned over 482K followers across social media.
The duo usually gets down and dirty discussing salary secrets, adult acne, ghosting, and other topics your mama probably never told ya about modern womanhood. Now, the fearless females share the history and mission behind their popular brand.
How did you kick off and develop Stuff Mom Never Told You?
Cristen: Back in 2008, I was hired as a staff writer at HowStuffWorks and soon after, some people in the editorial department started experimenting with podcasts. I approached a fellow writer at the time and said, “We should make a podcast, but it should be something women in their early 20s would want to listen to.” It was partially inspired by the blog Jezebel because that was the first feminist new media that I was exposed to and thought it was great.
But at the same time working for a company that was very much focused on a male demographic, we didn’t see ourselves reflected in the content. We’d have these huge in depth articles, but women didn’t play much of a role. So when I approached our boss and said, “We need media for women” he kind of gave me a strange look because I don’t think it dawned on him. At that time, it was so niche that it took some convincing to get the idea across.
You address many topics related to modern female issues. How do you come up with your subject material and what’s your research process before hitting the mic?
Caroline: We actually have really brilliant, engaged listeners who give us a lot of great ideas. We want to hear from them, we want their ideas and suggestions. We also know that when we’ve heard from multiple people about the same thing that it’s definitely time to post something. We have an audience that is largely female, but we have male listeners as well so one recent example was when we heard from a handful of male truckers that wanted to hear us discuss in our friendly, generally unbiased, pro-lady way the issue of women and trucking. Why are there no women? Where are the women? What’s the deal? We know it’s not the most friendly environment but we’d like you to dive into the issue. So we thought, wow, we’ve heard from more than one man about covering the same issue, clearly people want to know more about this.
Cristen: This week’s episode on disability and sexuality came directly from a listener that we actually met in person out in LA. She has Cerebral Palsy and she had so many great suggestions about disabilities. So we thought the issue of sexuality as it applies to disabilities is really not a niche topic, it’s something that can be extrapolated to apply to so many people because that conversation essentially ended with us saying “any topic that explores alternate views and versions of sexuality can only benefit all of us – alternate versions of what’s attractive, of what sex means, of what sex is, what’s sexy.” It’s opening up our minds a little bit and I think we were also drawn to it because it’s slightly taboo or it’s something that generally isn’t talked about very much and I’d say that’s definitely a factor in the pockets that we choose. In addition to doing things that are timely or current events or things buzzing in our brains. We try to, regardless of the actual topic, find the angle that people haven’t really explored all the time.
Caroline: We knew for instance that we have episodes this week on sexual harassment and Anita Hill. And yes, Anita Hill happened over 20 years ago, but it’s super timely because the HBO movie is coming out.
As for research, usually, we record two episodes a week. Cristen will take one topic, I’ll take the other. We’ll dig up and write notes on the topic and swap so the other person has the opportunity to read what the other found – adding any notes we feel are important and go into the studio and chat for a little while.
You built a digital media empire relating to women and yet people think of it as being niche – even when half the population is women. Can you speak a little bit about advocating for it, what that process has been like since launching?
Cristen: It’s been challenging at times but it has ignited my activism and it’s only made me more persistent. Not only do we talk to and about women all the time, but we research all of these issues that tend to revolve around discrimination, but we’ve also encountered these issues ourselves in the process of building Stuff Mom Never Told You. Not to say that we work for jerks or anything like that, but it’s more overcoming that perception that it’s okay to talk about women’s bodies. That even though we are two women talking, a general audience can still listen, because I think there is still that misperception out there that two women in a studio is a women-only podcast whereas two dudes in a studio is for everybody.
What’s your experience been in terms of informing, educating, and entertaining listeners – finding that mix?
Caroline: It’s incredible. Cristen and I talk about this all the time, that hearing people’s responses to our episodes is what makes it for us. We can talk all day long about sexism, sexual harassment, issues with women in the workplace, issues of sexual orientation, gender – but it’s not until you hear the more granular stuff, people living it and going through it that it really brings a tone. For instance, we’ve heard from so many people over the years, men and women alike of all ages who say, “I’m a feminist because of you. I was always scared of the word because I thought feminists were just a bunch of man-haters but I realized that womanhood, feminism, women’s rights, is so much bigger than ‘I’m mad at man!’” It is great on our end to read and research and grow more passionate for a living, but then to get to hear from people who are living these issues every day. They’ve been impacted by our words and therein turn we’ve been affected by what they say.
Cristen: That whole element of engagement, at least for me, has been the thing that has gotten me through points when I’ve felt really discouraged. That’s what makes the whole thing worth it honestly because not only is there that interaction but it’s a two-way learning street. We are learning new things every week and want to share with people what we’ve found, but at the same time, they’re also educating us. On example, in particular, is in terms of transgender issues. I feel like I got a leg up on that education thanks to listeners who wrote in and were like, “Ok, here’s some language tips, here’s what the experience is like,” before a lot of people were even talking about it.
Why is it important to showcase stories of professional roles undertaken by women?
Cristen: What’s interesting to me, specifically in regards to our “Changemaker” series, was being blown away by the determination of these women. Five women within four episodes make you feel like, “oh, well they had a passion and they just kept going.” It’s not easy for people. Things are hard whether it’s being the first woman in a specific job, whether it’s telling stories nobody else is telling. To hear straight from these women who have come out on the other side and are successful and still driven – they’re not beaten down, they’re not discouraged – it makes it more realistic to imagine for others out there.
Caroline: One big thing we talk about with women in STEM or women in more traditionally male-dominated fields, the number one issue that comes up over and over again is visibility. “See it to be it” mantra. I think part of us trying to present more diverse voices and also acknowledge the limitations and privileges of our own perspective, is doing our part to upload visibility.
How does Atlanta weave into your story?
Cristen: I’m so proud to be in Atlanta. We both came out of J-school together and I had an idea in my head for a really long time that I needed to be in New York. That’s where everything is, that’s where all the media is, and really only in the past few years have I come to completely reject that idea. I love how scrappy Atlanta is. I love how much room there is to grow. And as someone born and raised in the south, I’m proud to be able to do this and make this imprint in a place that has so much significance.
Caroline: And what’s so cool is that over the course of our time doing Stuff Mom Never Told You in Atlanta, especially lately, is that we’ve gotten to see so many cool ladies around us coming up with their own ventures. Whether it’s their own website or our friend Porsha with Ladypreneur League or women in the art community or tech or marketing, it seems like there are so many amazing powerful women doing really cool things together in Atlanta. It’s really neat to be part of this network of women where it doesn’t feel like there is any competition, it’s just a lot of good feelings of women trying to help each other and encourage each other. So it’s neat to watch that, but it’s also really great to be a part of it.
Cristen: And I hope it’s encouraging to our audience, as well to realize that we are making media outside of the presumed capital of where it has to be. It also reminds me of one of the panels from ChooseATL at SXSW with ‘The South Has Something to Say’ -I’m proud to be presenting this rather liberal, feminist progressive new media out of the South.