Aminatou Sow

Penny: I was really tickled to discover you’re a member of our Gentlewoman Club. I’m so used to hearing your voice on the Call Your Girlfriend podcast.

Aminatou: Thanks so much for listening!

P: My pleasure. Where are you Skyping from?

A: My bedroom in San Francisco, where I record the podcast. I moved here from Brooklyn in July. I miss New York a lot. It’s the best place in the world.

P: You’re finding the transition difficult?

A: Not difficult, San Francisco’s just a weird town. I grew up in Nigeria and France and Belgium, as my parents are diplomats, so I’m used to moving around. I actually came to California to work at Google, so that’s my daytime work hat. I started off working on the non-profit – the philanthropy – and then was quickly moved to work on our civic tech initiatives, so I run marketing for our elections products.

P: What are elections products?

A: Before elections we find there’s a huge search spike for “Who’s on my ballot?” or “Where do I vote?” So we’ll do everything from creating a polling place locator to giving people ballot summary information, or voter ID requirements. 10 million people used our live election results map during the election in the United States last month.

P: Well, that sounds pretty fulfilling for a day job. And now you have a super-successful biweekly podcast on top. Is Call Your Girlfriend on-going?

A: Yeah, I’m hoping that we can still do it when we’re in our nursing homes.

P: Describe a typical episode.

A: Our tagline is “a podcast for long distance besties”, and I do it with my really good friend, the writer Ann Friedman. Essentially it’s a freewheeling conversation modelled around a catch-up phone call you might have with a best friend. Ann and I are obsessed with everything associated with being a woman, so there’s a lot of talk about periods.

P: That’s a fairly regular topic, let’s be honest.

A: Yeah, and relationships. Romantic relationships get a lot of ink, but nobody really talks about how much romance there is in being a friend.

P: I really enjoyed the episode about friends who return from the past – how to manage their expectations when they turn inappropriately needy.

A: What’s surprising is that our inbox mailbag is full of really sad break-up stories. It just goes to show that there hasn’t been a place to talk about this stuff, right? If you break up with your boyfriend, there’s a whole pop cultural narrative about how that will go. But what if you break up with your best friend, or they move away, have a baby or start dating somebody you don’t like?

P: Given that Ann’s a journalist and you’re online, your catch-up could equally have been conducted over e-mail and presented as a textual Q&A. Why did you choose radio?

A: Our friend Gina Delvac, who is the show’s producer and has worked in public radio a lot, suggested it.

P: Had either of you any prior experience?

A: No, but that’s the beauty of audio, right? Anybody can get into it. In contrast with other media formats, like long-form writing, which have really matured online, the audio world’s still a bit like the Wild West.

P: Had you listened to many podcasts?

A: Yeah, I spend so much time online, I need a distraction that isn’t music. I’ve always been a This American Life fan, and I listen to a lot of public radio – NPR and WNYC when I lived in New York. There’s also a really great UK podcast called The Broad Experience, about being a woman in the workplace. That was actually a formative influence for Call Your Girlfriend, at least for me. The thing is, podcasting is really dominated by men.

P: Is it?

A: Oh, yeah, the stereotype is of weird dudes in their garages, tinkering. Since Ann and I already had this very lady-centric and lady-friendly online brand, we wanted to translate that into radio. And lo and behold: there’s a huge audience for it!

P: Go on, brag.

A: I think we’ve upwards of 10,000 listeners for every podcast.

P: That’s great, congratulations!

A: Thanks; it’s really encouraging. My favourite emails are when two friends get in touch to say, “Hey, we hope we’re not copying you but we want to start our own podcast, what can we do?” I’m always like, “Yes please! Do it better than us!”

Interview by Penny Martin. Photograph courtesy of Aminatou Sow. For your fortnightly helping of girl talk with Aminatou and Ann, sign up to Call Your Girlfriend here. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!