A shot of WAM's Oasis for Girls in 2015 (Courtesy of WAM)
Women’s Audio Mission is fighting an uphill battle.
The San Francisco nonprofit has made a name for itself by engaging with women and girls through audio engineering and production programming. They've achieved significant traction in the Bay Area, instructing upwards of 8,000 aspiring audio engineers and producers in its 14 years. There’s still a ways to go.
Only seven percent of members registered in the Audio Engineers Society, as of 2016, report that they are women. Only six women — total — have been nominated for their work in record production at the GRAMMYs, with little relief in sight.
WAM is ratcheting up its efforts to a national scale with the introduction of WAMCon, the first conference for college-age and older women and non-binary folks interested in working in the audio industry. It condenses their mission statement into a hefty two days, taking place on Nov. 3 and 4 in Boston.
WAM has regular webcasts, a thriving support network on Facebook and a presence at AEX, an audio engineering conference, but with WAMCon, their mission to ameliorate the dearth of women and non-binary folks in audio is truly going national.
For WAM director Terri Winston, WAMCon will serve as a testing ground.
“It’s the first time we’re doing this,” Winston said. “And we want to see what the response is like.”
At the conference, WAM will feature its first slate of women in podcasting. It is a field that is a more equitable space than recorded and live music, but not by much. About a fifth of the top 100 podcasts are hosted by women, according to statistics issued at WNYC’s podcasting festival, Werk It.
Still, the emergence of prominent podcasts hosted and produced by women — Death, Sex and Money, Serial, 2 Dope Queens and Another Round — present the possibility for an audio space where gender plurality is the norm.
WAM is hosting women podcast producers for the conference’s first-day panel. It is a syndicate of women whose interests and passions are far-ranging: Chiquita Paschal, before her current stint at Gimlet’s Uncivil, was a central member of Another Round’s cheerfully empowering Pod Squad. WBUR’s Amory Sivertson has made tenderness a central tenet in her work by producing Dear Sugar, and, now Modern Love, while Cynthia Graber’s successful culinary podcast GastroPod presents the best-case scenario for independently-created podcasts.
But while the uptick of well-crafted podcasts for diverse audiences have envisioned a feasible path forward for women in the industry, audio engineering and production have remained stagnant to a frustrating degree.
The sound engineers and producers WAM has lined up have mastered and engineered the works of legend. Susan Rogers’ fingerprints, for instance, graced Prince’s mid-‘80s run of celebrated albums, while Leanne Ungar can count a slew of greats — the Temptations, Leonard Cohen and Laurie Anderson, to cite a few — as some of her clients.
But the landscape for women within the boys’ club of audio engineering is unforgiving. It is a space that elbows out women, even if the stars and the visionaries who drive the music are.
For Kelley Coyne, an audio engineer who works for WAM as a program coordinator, this creates a troublesome feedback loop of gender-based exclusion in audio engineering. Women don’t see themselves reflected in the field, she says, and, as a result, fewer women think of it as a viable career option.
“Having a support network,” she says, whether on Facebook, one-day workshops, and events such as WAMCon, “makes it more accessible.”
That just may be the case. For Winston, gender inclusivity in audio is a process littered with bottlenecks. Even with the involvement of women behind the boards, she notes, there’s a strong likelihood that men will still be the gatekeepers of the industry.
On the second day of WAMCon, the coordinators flip the script for a for-women-by-women interactive recording session. The session will be bereft of men -- even the in-house band, the group Lady Pills, is comprised of just women.
“When you have women on the production side of recording, they’re the ones who make sure that women and girls’ points of view are being represented,” Winston said.
Coyne agrees, noting that gender equity leads to better output. “Any time you have more diversity in the studio,” she says, “there’s gonna be more creativity and more ideas, which is really important for any industry so it doesn’t get stagnant.”
WAMCon is a drastic step for WAM’s expansion, and the organization plans to go further. Winston says WAM hopes to extend WAMCon beyond its two-day span if all goes well. Better yet, they may open a branch somewhere in the East Coast. If the gospel that WAM is preaching hasn’t gone national (at least, yet), then they can at least broadcast it on two coasts.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.