One of my least favourite phrases that crops a lot in critical discussions, be it of podcasts or any other form of media, is some version of “like x, but with women”. It feels like the culture is addicted to the female-fronted reboot at the moment. Even if I did find Ocean’s 8 superficially amusing, I did also spend the whole time I was in the cinema thinking that the film would be much better if it wasn’t inexplicably framed around the ghost of George Clooney.
I had this same sinking feeling when I first read of Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant’s new podcast, ZigZag. It’s a show about their departure from the popular and long-running WNYC podcast Note to Self, and the formation of their own company, Stable Genius Productions. Great, I thought. Someone has told them they will only fund their show if it can be described as “Startup, but with ladies”.
However, that’s not really what it is at all — ZigZag is not even just a podcast. It’s a member of the Radiotopia network and the Civil journalism collective, and is part of a broader experiment to refashion how the media is funded (spoiler, this involves blockchain, which I will not explain well even if I tried very hard, you should listen to episode two where some great guitar music by the excellent Martin Austwick will help).
I spoke to Zomorodi over Skype to find out a bit more about this project, which has the lofty aim of “charting a new course for capitalism, journalism, and women in tech”. Right up front, she told me that, after initial worry that ZigZag would be compared to Startup, she decided that the comparison was “actually a great thing” because “the experience for women, as you well know, is going to be very different”. She also mentioned, casually, that she currently has no plans to build “a podcasting empire and take on a lot of venture capital and have a massive valuation”, so Matt Lieber’s job is safe for the moment.
As a show, I found ZigZag light and easy to listen to, despite its hefty subject matter (the future of journalism and capitalism is not an easy thing to thrash out in twenty-five minute episodes, I assure you). It helps that Zomorodi and Poyant are extremely experienced broadcasters, of course, and also that they’re good friends. A lot of the origin story of their current podcast is told through voice memos and messages they left for each other along the way, meaning that the show doesn’t just rely on a studio narration done with the benefit of hindsight, nor interviews with the kind of “business experts” that usually turn me off podcasts in the corporate/entrepreneur genre.
After their work on Note to Self, which I always thought of as a technology show with a social conscience, Zomorodi said she is interested to see how “you can use media, especially podcasts, to really do interesting research”. ZigZag, she said, “is a lab. . . to build a really wonderful audience who’s willing to try stuff and report back”. Interactivity is going to be key to the success of this new model they’re trying to build — the Civil platform will require a uniquely engaged set of consumers to sign up if it’s going to produce a sustainable funding stream for journalism.
Leaving a secure job at a big radio station to leap into the unknown like this is a gamble, but Zomorodi was fizzing with excitement for the new venture when we spoke. She freely admits that she didn’t understand what the blockchain was when they first started out — “I really thought it was just the same thing as Bitcoin, and I thought it was stupid and for bros who want to make a quick buck and buy a Lamborghini” — but that once she’d got hold of the concept the potential seemed vast. “Once you understand it, there's something that kind of unlocks and there’s that moment where you're like ‘oh this could change everything’,” she said.
It’s a good moment to be launching something that has women’s independence and agency at its heart, she said. “Something shifted, after #MeToo. It won’t be as loud and it may not have a hashtag, but women are taking that moment and now using it — it’s like kinetic energy. They’re turning it into other things, whether that’s a business or a side project that they care deeply about or the way they manage their money.” A longer term goal for ZigZag and Stable Genius Productions is to help other women create businesses and even podcasts — “that’s a particular talent of Jen’s,” Zomorodi said, “getting people to be their best selves on a microphone”.
Whether or not Civil is successful in refashioning the economics of journalism (I’m told the full launch of their token-based payment system is imminent, find out more here), ZigZag is a podcast with great potential. Zomorodi put it neatly: “I think simply talking about women's experience is worthwhile.”
She’s right. You should be listening.