Gossip and grit: how the Shameless podcast became the voice of two generations

The celebrity-obsessed show for ‘smart women who like dumb stuff’ created by former Mamamia writers Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald is spinning a new chapter in pop culture

It started innocently with a conversation about The Bachelor. Dissecting each episode was part of the job description for Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald, young writers at women’s media outlet Mamamia. Their debates were not standard water-cooler musings, though. A senior member of the podcast team saw something in the duo’s sophisticated banter and gave them a chance to cut their teeth on “Bach Chat” – two 10-minute podcast slots per week.

“There’s something else here,” McDonald recalls thinking during that time. She tells Guardian Australia that she worked with Andrews on additional podcast ideas to pitch to the Mamamia team. “All of our conversations are celebrity or pop-culture focused and we were like, well, it’s not out there, let’s just try it.”

The duo landed on the title Shameless. A podcast for “smart women who like dumb stuff”. They had two aims: make content for a young female demographic they felt was being overlooked by mainstream media, and intelligently explore celebrity influence and pop culture in an accessible way.

That was July 2017. Today, Andrews and McDonald sit opposite each other at a table in McDonald’s family home in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Sandringham. With their microphones, headphones, laptops and recording equipment, they launch into an episode and record with just a handful of breaks to check the time and discuss a trigger warning for one segment. There’s animated hand-waving during a discussion about social media influencers editing their images. “The waistlines you see on Instagram are not real,” Andrews says.

They’re successfully operating independently now, but that wasn’t the plan.

Michelle Andrews and Zara McDonald, hosts of the Australian pop-culture podcast Shameless
‘When people are spreading medical misinformation we will come out hard and strong in favour of science.’ Photograph: Supplied

Their pitch was initially accepted by Mamamia, then just as quickly rejected. So the entrepreneurial pair, now both 24, sought permission from their employers to start their podcast independently, and launched in March 2018.

It took just 10 weeks for Shameless to create workplace friction. “Two Mamamia employees had created a women’s podcast outside of the biggest women’s podcast network in the country. It looked weird for us, it looked weird for them,” McDonald says. “It was untenable to work there and do the podcast at the same time.”

But with a growing audience and the increasing potential of advertising revenue, they decided it was time to make the leap and go it alone.

That was less than a year ago. In December last year Shameless made Apple’s best podcasts of the year list. It’s now hitting 40,000 downloads on each weekly episode and up to 100,000 downloads over the course of the week, which includes bonus content and old episode consumption. Approximately 90% of the audience is in Australia, while listeners in New Zealand and elsewhere also tune in.

This March, they sold out their first 255-seat live show in less than 10 minutes. In the same month they were named hosts of Mecca Cosmetica’s Meccaland beauty festival, which will be held in Sydney in May.

How did they build a loyal following so fast? It was a “grassroots operation”, says Andrews. Posters featuring Kim Kardashian were stuck to women’s bathroom stalls at universities. Social media was integral. But with their polished, whip-smart debates, it’s not surprising they found an audience.

Andrews and McDonald straddle two generations. They’re either very young millennials or elder members of Generation Z. In recent episodes, they’ve called out influencer Ashy Bines for partnering with DietBet, which promotes betting on weight loss (a campaign that has since been deleted). They’ve also been outspoken about Pete Evans’s recent anti-vaccination comments.

As the Shameless audience grows, Andrews and McDonald have been considering their own influence, too. “When people are spreading medical misinformation we will come out hard and strong in favour of science,” McDonald says. However, when a subject has a grey area, they aim to be “very cognisant of both sides of the story”.

They are clear that the secret to their future success lies in their understanding of new media’s ephemeral nature. “We’ve got to keep pivoting,” McDonald says.

Andrews agrees and says as they grow, they’ll continue to explore experimental media platforms. “I can’t imagine the next thing we do being a Gen Z blog.”

Contributor

Nicole Haddow

The GuardianTramp

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