What'sHerName podcast explores women's history

Like most podcasters, Olivia Meikle happily watches the number of listeners jump when her favored subject gets its moment in the sun — in her case, during Women’s History Month, which ends in about a week.

But Meikle and her sister/co-host Katie have been able to spread that growth across the entire year. That’s made their women’s history podcast, What’sHerName, one of the state’s most downloaded and globally popular — if under the radar — shows.

“We always have a bump for Women’s History Month, when people suddenly remember that there’s women’s history,” said Meikle, who teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Denver and Boulder’s Naropa University. “But we found a nice, steady progression, and it’s just been getting bigger.”

Some podcasts require celebrity guests or trending topics to be discovered by wider audiences, but What’sHerName has built a following with thoughtful, personally reported stories of women who deserve more attention. It garnered about 10,000 downloads in its first six months, and 100,000 by its first year — largely from word-of-mouth, Meikle believes.

Now, three years and nearly 80 episodes in, it’s been downloaded about 700,000 times around the world. It’s also paved the way for audio tours of historical sites, an upcoming book, and guided, overseas trips to sites featured on the show.

It’s not a niche topic.

“It’s been really exciting for us, especially since we’re both professors, to see how many classrooms we’re being used in,” said Meikle, whose sister Katie teaches history in Ogden, Utah. “Teachers are stretched thin and desperate, and this is something you can plug right in to your curriculum. Especially when teaching about marginalized women and women of color.”

Olivia Meikle, 42, and Katie, 39, come at topics from different fields but with similar backgrounds, surprising each other with a new subject each episode and then discussing what they’ve found. Recent profiles include Florence Price, the first African-American woman to have her work performed by major symphonies; Martha Hughes Cannon, America’s first female state senator; and Bibi Sahiba, a Sufi guide in the 18th-century Afghan empire.

Their drive to reclaim women’s history has also spread Colorado history stories to worldwide audiences. A 2018 episode on Gold Rush Madam Pearl DeVere has been downloaded more than 15,000 times in 71 countries, according to Meikle’s listener data. Amid Pulitzer Prize-winners and New York Times best-selling authors, the show has also featured Denver Firefighters Museum curator Jamie Melissa Wilms, CU-Boulder professor Maria Windell, and Cripple Creek historian Charlotte Bumgarne.

The podcast features original music by “many well-known musicians worldwide,” including Coloradans such as Emmy award-winners Joy Williams and Andy Reiner, pianist Amanda Setlik Wilson, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Sousa.

New episodes appear every two weeks, featuring interviews with experts, authors and academics that are deftly intercut with the sisters’ discussions — similar in format to the popular Radiolab podcasts, Meikle said.

“When we say ‘experts,’ it could be a tour guide who Katie literally ran into in the rain forest on the Yucatán Peninsula,” Meikle said. “We’re trying to destabilize the idea of who the expert is. It doesn’t have to be someone who studied it from the outside, but people who live with these stories.”

The feedback the sisters have gotten has encouraged growth. A veteran freelance travel writer, Meikle and her sister — who annually leads study-abroad programs for students — plan to tour England with hardcore fans of the show in September, if safety mandates allow. They’ve released free, downloadable audio tours of historic sites in Ogden, Utah, and here in Lafayette.

With little to no promotion, fall “Ghost Tours” of Lafayette, with an emphasis on forgotten women, attracted more than 800 people in groups of 15 last year. That’s also encouraged Meikle to make it an annual trek, even as she and her sister finish a book for a major publisher related to their podcast. Details won’t be released until April 1, Meikle said.

Accessibility is key. Whereas some podcasts flood the listener with information, What’sHerName takes the shape of a natural conversation.

“A lot of guilt comes along with women’s history … this feeling that we should already know this stuff,” Meikle said. “But you don’t have to feel weird about it.”

Its all-ages tone automatically separates it from many foul-mouthed, political and otherwise overtly sensational programs. That fits with the data in Neilsen’s recently released Podcasting Today report, which found the top genre among female podcast listeners in the United States is kids and family, with a 77% audience share. Women now make up 45% of all podcast consumers. But success is never guaranteed in that crowded market.

“I think ours is due partly to our shorthand as sisters, because we come from a family of academics and are pathologically curious and debate everything,” she said.

“But it’s also natural. It’s not scripted. We have no tolerance for snobbery or academic ridiculousness and are good at translating that to regular language. If people can’t understand what you’re talking about, it doesn’t mean you’re smart,” she said. “It means you’re not doing your job as a storyteller.”

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