10 Rising Voices in Audio Honorees Point to the Future of Podcasting

The inaugural class of the Gotham Film & Media Institute’s the Gotham/Variety Audio Honors, presented by Wondery, are the next generation of storytellers, and have been selected in recognition of their innovations in audio storytelling by a committee of distinguished audio industry professionals, chaired by award-winning podcast creator, producer and new host of NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute,” Brittany Luse. The Gotham/Variety Audio Honors are set to take place in person as a luncheon and a staged presentation in New York City on Oct. 14.

“As an organization dedicated to celebrating and nurturing independent creators, we are proud to recognize these brilliant, innovative, and groundbreaking audio storytellers,” said Jeffrey Sharp, executive director of the Gotham Film & Media Institute. “As audio content reaches a pivotal point of engagement and innovation, it is crucial that we launch new platforms of recognition, such as The Gotham/Variety Audio Honors, to celebrate the most daring creators in our industry.”

The Audio Honors will be hosted by Sharp, and Variety COO/CMO, Dea Lawrence. Variety executive editor, Brent Lang, will moderate a discussion with the honorees. 

“The audio storytelling space is experiencing unprecedented creativity, and I’m thrilled to partner with The Gotham in highlighting some of the freshest, most original voices of this moment,” said Luse. “Our inaugural honors will recognize the efforts of truly original talents, creators who stand to make an impact in our industry for years to come.”

The Gotham Film & Media Institute has celebrated emerging voices through its annual Podcast Certificate Program, Audio Forum projects at Gotham Week (now in its third year), podcast pitch events as well as year round film and TV labs and programming and The Annual Gotham Awards, now in its 32nd year.

The class of 2022 follows:

Niki Aggarwal 

Niki Aggarwal 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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“Misrepresented” grew out of a series of audio tours Aggarwal was developing when the pandemic hit. “I started with monuments in South Asia, because I was living in India at the time,” she says. While researching, she realized that many of those regional stories had global consequences. “These events that I’d never heard of growing up in Europe in the U.S. had taken place on the Indian subcontinent, and were actually deeply connected to people and places and events that I’d spent my entire life hearing about.” Each episode is sparked by an image or idea that challenges Aggarwal’s understanding of history. With the help of a paid intern, Aggarwal researches multiple sources, trying to uncover how and why the tales have been twisted or distorted over time. She’s meticulous about fact checking and annotation, especially since “Misrepresented” is used in some high school classes. “I did hear from someone that worked at a very big podcasting company that our show was too expensive, because we spent too much time with research, fact checking. But it’s really important to me, because something that I really care about is making the stories entertaining, but I don’t ever want the fun factor to trump the facts.”

— Paula Hendrickson

Gael Aitor 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Gael Aitor

“Teenager Therapy” 

The summer before his sophomore year of high school, Aitor stumbled upon husband-and-wife Casey Neistat and Candice Pool’s podcast, “Couples Therapy.” 

“It was just them talking about the issues they go through in their marriage. I thought that was so interesting because I could relate to a lot of the things they would say,” Aitor explains. “I realized, ‘Well, why isn’t there something like that for teenagers?’” 

At 15 years old, the self-taught podcaster started “Teenager Therapy” with his friends Isaac Hurtado, Mark Hugo, Thomas Pham and Kayla Suarez. Since 2018, they’ve discussed such prevalent topics as self-deprecating humor, acne insecurities and the struggles of online learning. 

The group’s most recent dilemma: transitioning from high school to college. Due to scheduling conflicts, the team usually has “one day for a couple of hours to record,” Aitor says. 

Despite this obstacle affecting the team’s dynamic, Aitor believes the podcast has more angles to explore that can resonate with anyone, not just teenagers. 

From a potential TV-slash-film adaptation of “Teenager Therapy” to dream guest star Gwen Stefani — a fellow alum of the team’s high school — Aitor says, “I feel like I could do this forever because it’s just so fulfilling to grow up with all of our listeners and my co-hosts.”

— Michaela Zee

Ayden Susto 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Ayden Castellanos

“Susto Podcast” 

Castellanos grew up near the Texas-Mexico border listening to spooky legends and stories from the region. About five years ago, he searched for a podcast about the stories he grew up with, but didn’t find any. “I basically built the dream podcast that I wanted for myself. It was one of those things where I just felt like there may be a gap — I’m not saying that no other podcasts like mine existed before it, but I didn’t know of one yet. And I had a very specific idea of how I wanted the show to sound,” he says. He delved into discovering where the stories — including one about La Mano Peluda — originated, how the same tales can vary from region to region, and the societal and historical context behind them. “I also see this as a preservation of culture,” Castellanos says. “When you listen to the show, I talk about how some of these stories are rooted in misogyny, some of them are rooted in ableism, some of them are rooted in shaming people; that’s part of why I explore these stories. I want people to think about the entertainment they’re consuming and the people that are behind that. But more than anything, I want to have a good time  and be scared.”

— P.H.

Casper Cendre 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Casper Cendre

“Teleway 411” 

You might not expect the co-founder of the ABO Comix collective to be an advocate for prison reform, but Cendre has long been committed to helping incarcerated LGBTQ+ people express themselves via art. Now he’s literally amplifying their voices with the “Teleway 411” podcast, which debuted in May. “I have had the incredible opportunity to listen to the first-hand stories of hundreds of LGBTQ people living behind bars, and it has been my immense honor to help share their stories with the world,” Cendre says. “Through our organization, A.B.O. Comix, we have published dozens of books and zines about the small cities hidden away from society behind brick and barbed wire, but there still seemed a void in which the voices of these often-forgotten people were longing to fill. Thus, we decided to dip our toes into podcasting as well. Our first season was born in an Oakland warehouse at No. 411 between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway (hence Teleway 411) and consisted of recordings with currently and formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people, as well as a prison psychologist.” The first episode, “Taylor Hearne,” allows Hearne, Cendre’s long-time friend, to tell how she went from a teenager on trial to coming out as a trans woman while serving a lifetime prison sentence in a men’s prison. Other episodes feature currently and formerly incarcerated LGBTQ+ creatives as well a prison psychologist. Through the podcast, Cendre hopes to connect listeners with imprisoned queer artists so they can share their stories, tell their truths, and be seen for who they are, not where they are.

— P.H.

Rebecca Cunningham 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Rebecca Cunningham

“Girl Tales” 

Little did Cunningham realize it at the time, but her experiences as a theater director and a nanny gave her the tools to create the “Girl Tales” podcast, currently in its fifth season. Following the 2016 election, Cunningham says, “I wondered if I could do a podcast that empowers little girls so they understand that they’re worthy of being at the center of the narrative, and that they can go out and do the things that I was told I could do when I was a young kid.” The stories on “Girl Tales” put a feminist spin on classic fairytales, myths and fables; Cunningham and her crew have also created original stories and characters, including those in the podcast’s Freshwater world. Among Cunningham’s favorite “Girl Tales” episodes is “Musings,” written by Georgina Escobar. “’Musings’ is about muses who work in a dream factory,” Cunningham says. “It’s just so beautifully done. Georgina did an excellent job and really understands audio.” An avid podcast listener herself, Cunningham also supports other podcasts for kids. “There are all of these incredible children’s podcasts out there — we’re kind of at the forefront of this new genre, and it’s a really exciting world to be in.” 

— P.H.

Sarah Dealy 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Sarah Dealy 

“Out There” 

Episode: “Indoor Kid” 

During difficult times in her life, Dealy found comfort in audio, and she’s now returning the favor by sharing her own journey toward mental health with others by way of podcasts. “Indoor Kid” was a true story she’d wanted to tell for a while, so when there was a call for pitches she sent it in, and “Out There” accepted it. The episode recalls lifelong indoor kid Dealy’s past experience in wilderness therapy, and follows her return to the wilderness on a camping trip eight years later. “When I am having an incredibly hard time in life, I’ve found that if other forms of art don’t move me, audio will. The first time I realized that, I was like, ‘Oh, OK. This is where I’m gonna put most of my energy,’” says Dealy, who, along with friend Jamie Billings also created “The Void” podcast. She recently co-produced an episode of “Death, Sex & Money” called “The Weight of Love,” and has a new project coming in 2023. “To me audio just like really cuts through all the bulls—t,” she says. “It’s very visceral, and I like that.”

— P.H.

Oliver Ash Kleine 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Oliver-Ash Kleine 

“The TransLash Podcast With Imara Jones”

Kleine dreamed of being an investigative magazine journalist, “but a college friend of mine introduced me to public radio—and now I’m going to be the biggest cliche in the entire world and tell you it was ‘This American Life.’ So I started listening to audio stories pretty obsessively and fell in love with the medium,” they say. “A lot of my more recent work has focused on trans communities because stories about trans people are often told really poorly by people who simply don’t understand our lives. At TransLash, I feel very lucky to have worked on developing, writing and shaping shows that center trans people’s humanity while also doing critical investigative work into the forces attacking our communities.” Kleine, one of the co-founders of the Trans Journalists Assn., says that the org has helped shift the coversation in newsrooms about how to cover the trans communities with more care “stress the importance of having trans journalists and editors on staff.” The passion for storytelling drives Kleine: “Right now, I’m working with TransLash to wrap up Season 2 of ‘The Anti-Trans Hate Machine.’ I can’t tell you much about what’s coming, but I think it’s going to be really explosive.” They note that story editing really excites them. “I really love helping talented producers create compelling, tight narratives and taking strong ideas and crafting them into compelling shows.” 

— C.H.

Mala Munoz 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Mala Muñoz 

“Marijuanera: A Podcast for Potheads” 

Muñoz is a writer, a comedian, a voice actor, a podcast producer, to name a few of her endeavors — but the common element linking each of these ventures is marijuana. 

She launched “Marijuanera: A Podcast for Potheads,” combining comedy and cannabis, in 2021; each episode starts and ends with a hefty rip from her bong and is accompanied by frequent smoke breaks during recording sessions.

“I like to smoke the entire time, while I’m writing, while I’m recording, while I’m editing — like I am in just a giant cloud,” Muñoz says. 

Before she was sharing her high thoughts about the state of the world on the internet, Muñoz worked on-call 24/7 at a rape crisis center along with a team of first responders. The grueling experience prompted Muñoz to shift career paths and she became a sex education teacher. Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, she utilized her newfound free time to explore comedy through her own solo podcast.

“Literally, I need to laugh to keep from crying, and I feel like my audience needs that too,” Muñoz says.

One example is Muñoz’s May 26 episode, “Soliloquy for Sad Girls,” which grapples with topics such as the difference between effective and ineffective comedy as well as the idea that not all feelings are valid if prejudice is being misrepresented as perspective.

“Marijuanera: A Podcast for Potheads” is produced by Locatora Radio, a production company co-founded by Muñoz and fellow radio host Diosa Femme in 2016. She and Femme recently closed a deal with iHeartRadio.

— Katie Reul

Cinthia “Estephanie” Pimentel and Rafaela “Lina” Uribe 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Cinthia “Estephanie” Pimentel and
Rafaela “Lina” Uribe 

The Bag Ladiez 

The Bag Ladiez — childhood friends Pimentel and Uribe — sharply and succinctly mine important issues — from politics to gender, and events impacting society — with a specific POV grounded in the Dominican-Afro-Latino community that feels universal.  

 “We had talked about doing a project together and a podcast came up naturally. We think we have a good dynamic — we’re like, why not? Let’s try it,” says Uribe.

Their mix of newsy topics with fresh takes and fun was a hit. “The feedback that we get is from a lot of people who share some identities with us who are like, ‘Oh, it’s so great ‘cause I feel like sometimes in my own family or my group of friends, I’m the only one who’s thinking about these things,” says Uribe. “People tell us that they feel very seen.”

They see more projects around Bag Ladiez in the future, although they “would just love to see even more diverse voices highlighted in podcasting because it is a more accessible medium than other types of mainstream media,” says Uribe. 

“I would just hope that more work gets funded for folks to continue to do great work ‘cause being around a lot of independent producers and podcasting, we know how tough it is to maintain a show,” notes Pimentel.

— C.H.

Sai Sion 10 Rising Voices in Audio

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Sai Sion

“The 11th Podcast” 

Episode: “His Saturn Return”

Sion finds it hard to describe himself, largely because he knows he can do it all. He compares his creative ability to that of a Swiss army knife: “I’m a lot of things at one time — I excel at being a lot of things at one time.”

Those talents are apparent in “The 11th Podcast” episode “His Saturn Return,” created, written and performed by Sion, described as a cosmic audio drama taking listeners across the galaxy as they follow the journey of main character Duran Durag. 

Of getting the placement on the Pineapple Street Studios anthology podcast, Sion, who prefers the auditory nature of podcasting, says he was so delighted that his unorthodox pitch received the greenlight for production, bringing him to the point of tears.

“It felt like I was honoring the little nerd that I grew up as, and still am,” he says. “It felt like a win, on so many levels.”

Sion looks ahead to “pitching season,” when ideas can become new podcast placements — or a quick “Sorry, no” from editors and curators. In the meantime, Sion will utilize his creativity however he can. On the docket: an upcoming documentary and a video game.

— E.J. Panaligan