Period. Aunt Flo. Monthly Visitor. Shark week. On the rag. That time of the month.
Talking about menstruation makes people giggle, blush, and sometimes squirm—even people who experience it personally. But humans have been regularly shedding their uterine linings for millennia. Periods have shaped our lives. And we, in turn, have shaped our periods. Even if we rarely talk about it out loud.
In her new podcast PERIOD, Kate Clancy, a biological anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, drags menstruation to the center of our awareness by interviewing scientists, activists, parents, and children about that time of the month. Her goal is to educate and inform listeners about the biology and culture surrounding the most personal aspects of themselves.
But Clancy is new to podcasting. Before taking to the microphone, she focused on blogging at Scientific American Blogs and at her personal site Context & Variation. She also contributed a chapter to the book Science Blogging: The Essential Guide on the special circumstances that science bloggers identifying as women might find themselves in. Here, Clancy shares with Bethany Brookshire her experiences transitioning from blogging to podcasting, and why Aunt Flo needed her own audio series.
You made your name on the Internet as an outspoken and prolific science blogger. Why did you decide to start a podcast instead?
I have listened to the occasional podcast for years, but was not a regular subscriber to anything until about a year ago. I was injured and couldn’t do the usual high-intensity workouts I enjoyed, so I started taking my dog on hour-long walks. He’s not the best conversationalist, so I found myself getting really bored. I found some great fiction podcasts—Welcome to Night Vale was my favorite at the time—and from there found a few other storytelling podcasts. I love long-form narrative, and got so wrapped up in peoples’ stories that I would extend my walk to finish listening to stories.
It took me a long time to realize that there were health and science podcasts out there too. I found the first science podcasts I listened to a bit too dudely. The health podcasts were often full of woo and pseudoscience, with people discussing coconut oil flossing or “hormonal imbalances.” I still don’t know what it means to have a hormone be imbalanced and I’ve been studying hormones for almost 20 years.
Curious, I started googling around. Was there anything on women’s health with content made by scientists? And I didn’t find anything. I found a few great podcasts that do sometimes talk about periods. The Crimson Wave is two female Canadian comedians who often ask their guests to share first period experiences. Call Your Girlfriend is also fantastic and discusses periods. I wanted to create something that takes on the menstrual taboo and discusses periods from a scientific and cultural perspective.
It helps that both my father and sister are in the communication business, and so were able to advise me about equipment that is user-friendly, fairly affordable, but creates a higher-quality sound than you tend to find on brand-new podcasts. And my sister edits my podcast for way less money than her time is worth. Their support, and frankly my extreme excitement about the idea of doing some new type of science outreach, are what got me to dare to reach out to people to interview and make this whole podcasting thing real.
Why did you think that periods would lend themselves well to a podcast?
There are a lot of podcasts already out there on women’s health, and many of them are great. However, most of them focus on things like nutrition, weight loss, fitness, or general health. I liked the idea of creating a podcast that was informative. I want to teach my listeners something new and interesting about their bodies—rather than teaching them something to encourage them to change their bodies or way of life.
My discipline within biological anthropology is called reproductive ecology. That means we study how environmental variables influence reproductive physiology. If more women understood that interaction—how our culture, stress, food, sleep, reproductive state, and other stuff affects our bodies—they would be more informed and able to make their own decisions about their health.
I want to teach my listeners something new and interesting about their bodies—rather than teaching them something to encourage them to change their bodies or way of life.
How did your writing help pave the way for podcasting? What did you find to be some of the challenges associated with communicating through sound instead of the written word?
My writing helped me develop a voice, and a critical mass of people who already follow me and have an idea of my perspective. When certain issues hit the news, I am often still asked for the “Kate Clancy take” on it. But I hit a point where writing opportunistically was challenging, and tiring, and attracted trolls. It also became hard to fit blogging around my professional writing projects—you know, the papers and grants that keep me employed.
The challenges of audio are scheduling, sound quality, and my own ability to be a good interviewer. The most frustrating one is definitely sound quality. It’s a lot to ask a guest who doesn’t own any specialized equipment to go find a tiny room and at least use a $20 USB mic and download Audacity and put the .wav file in the cloud because it will be too big to email. I do as many interviews as I can in person, but it’s sometimes just not possible.
I am also learning a lot about how to be a good interviewer. My job is to make my guest sound as amazing as possible, and ask questions in a way that lifts them up and shows the listener how interesting they are. I wouldn’t have asked to interview them if I didn’t think they were great! And I think sometimes I do well at this, and other times I don’t. I think sometimes, too, that guests are nervous. But I don’t always know how to set them at ease so that they are at their best, too.
Finally, there is the fact that podcasting is time-intensive. Each podcast episode takes me substantially longer than a blog post—probably around 10 hours each if you include the scheduling, interviewing, listening, scripting, and then recording of intros and outros. But it’s easier to fit these around my job and then queue them up than it is to respond in a matter of hours to yet another awful story of legislative or interpersonal sexism.
How did you build an audience for your blog? How are you leveraging that knowledge to build an audience for your podcast?
I built an audience for my blog a long time ago, back when bloggers actually commented on each other’s blogs, visited each other’s blogs, and became friends. I also developed relationships within the science-communication community on Twitter and the blogosphere, as well as in person at the now-defunct Science Online.
I blogged at Scientific American Blogs for a few years, until writing there just became unworkable for me. I know that increased my exposure, but I’m not sure if it increased my followers, because at Scientific American Blogs one of the big problems the female bloggers faced was that the readership was 70 percent male and they would troll and mansplain us.
So honestly, I have no real idea how to move forward and grow my podcast! I know the main way I learn about new podcasts is when they are featured on the podcasts that I already listen to, but I worry I’m too small-time for any of them to want to interview me or feature my podcast. For now, I rely on my base of followers from my blog. Once I’ve built up a bit more content, I will start reaching out to more established podcasts, and to some of my scicomm friends, in the hopes that they might help me promote my work.
Many blog templates and websites these days are very plug-and-play. But no one has yet created an easy plug-and-play system for podcasts. What are some of the technical challenges with getting a podcast started?
I think what really surprised me was how long it would take to make a good podcast [episode]. I do plenty of straightforward episodes that are an interview with a single person. But some episodes, like episode 4, where I interviewed a bunch of kids and moms, just about killed me. I had to listen to those interviews five or six times, sit on it and think for a while to figure out what the overall narrative would be, and write a very tight script. All of those different audio files and time stamps made for a very time-consuming process!
In addition to podcasting, you’re also a tenured professor. Are there any things you need to keep in mind or special challenges you face doing both at the same time?
Being tenured certainly protects me from colleagues who want to judge me for what I do in my spare time, or those who want to encourage me to “rebudget” [my time] in favor of grants and publications. But I did not anticipate all the writing time I would lose as a tenured professor to service. This is just my first semester tenured, and between travel and service I have been severely hampered in the number of work hours I can devote to writing. I really need to learn to say no, but I also have a hard time saying no to service that seems important to me.
Despite that, podcasting has been delightful. I think because podcasting is a creative process, but isn’t exactly a writing process, it has been great to do alongside my manuscript and grant-writing projects. I feel energized, not tired, when I finish scripting an episode. I’m usually in a great mood after I interview someone, unless I really flubbed it. So I like that podcasting keeps my attention positive and creative.
What recommendations might you have for people who are thinking of branching into a new form of media they haven’t tried before? What mistakes do you think you’ve made that you have already learned from?
The main mistake that I made when I started was that I didn’t prepare enough for interviews. Now I spend so much more time reading and preparing my questions, and I think it improves the quality of the interview. I’ve become so much more informed about the political and legislative side of periods, as well as aspects of the science of periods I didn’t know before. This has been great for helping me develop research ideas.
The main thing I’d tell people before starting something new is to learn all you can about it and take in as much as you can by the people you admire. I listened to podcasts for almost a year, researched them for most of this past summer, and only then did I decide to buy equipment and start recording. I think podcasts need to sound fairly put together from the beginning, so that’s why I put so much effort into researching them. I imagine this would be true for vlogging and other outreach activities that require technical knowledge. I still listen to podcasts for hours a week during my commute and my workouts (and my dog walking!), because I love them and because it helps to listen to people who are really good at something I am trying to learn.
Bethany Brookshire is an award-winning science writer at Science News and Society for Science & the Public. She runs the Scicurious blog and is the web producer and social-media manager for Science News for Students. She is one of three editors of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide (Yale University Press). She is also the guest editor of The Open Lab Anthology: The Best Science Writing Online, 2009. Bethany is based in Washington, DC. Find her at her website, or follow her on Twitter @scicurious.