Women’s Audio Mission: Addressing the gender imbalance in pro audio

WAM celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2018. The nonprofit organsation trains over 1,500 San Francisco Bay Area women and girls a year in music production and the recording arts in the only professional recording studio in the world built and run by women, which has hosted projects by artists ranging from Alanis Morissette, to R.E.M., Radiohead and Timbaland.

Executive director Terri Winston founded WAM in 2003 while she was a professor at the City College of San Francisco (where she worked from 2001-2011.) AMI caught up with Winston after the inaugural WamCon Boston last year to find out more about what the organisation does and how it is working hard to achieve equality in the pro audio industry…

What is the Women’s Audio Mission and why was it launched?
WAM addresses two critical issues. Less than 5% of the people creating all the sounds you hear every day are women. That includes all of the sound you hear on television, radio, streaming sites, film, video games and the internet – all of the elements that make up the soundtrack to your daily life. There are far too few women at the table where content, media, and messages are being created.

There has been a 70% decline in women entering college STEM programmes since 2000. As a society, we made great progress in the ‘80s in terms of gender equality in STEM, but in the early 2000s, there was a significant backslide.

WAM uses music as a carrot to attract women and girls to creative technology/STEM studies and shows them the powerful link between science and technology and creating the music and media they love and consume on a daily basis. WAM has created training programmes and a world-class environment where girls can see themselves becoming engineers, producers and beatmakers. WAM believes that women’s participation in music production and the recording arts will expand the voice of music and media, ensuring that women’s interests and points of view are represented throughout society.

What are some of WAM’s key accomplishments?
WAM has had a pretty incredible journey. WAM is the only professional recording studio in the world built and run by women and has recorded and produced albums for a number of high-profile artists, including Grammy-winners Kronos Quartet, Angélique Kidjo (2014 Grammy win for WAM project), Tune-Yards, Clarence Jones (Martin Luther King’s speechwriter), an Oscar-nominated soundtrack for the film Dirty Wars and an interview for NPR with Salman Rushdie as well as podcasts for National Geographic and audio books for MacMillan and Simon & Schuster.

WAM has placed over 500 women in paid positions with companies like Google, Dolby, Pixar, Skywalker Sound, Electronic Arts, NPR, Sennheiser, Comedy Central, Animal Planet, recording an interview with Mary J. Blige and Hillary Clinton for Apple, and doing live sound with Tracy Chapman.

Through our programmes, we’ve trained over 10,000 girls and women since 2003. Our reputation for high-quality training designed for women and girls has spread – the White House Office of Social Innovation visited WAM to study our curriculum and observe our training programmes and best practices for teaching at-risk girls. We received competitive Google RISE awards in 2015 and 2016 for our creative technology curriculum and received a 2017 STEM Innovation Award from the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.

This year, due to increased demand for our training programmes, we opened a second location in Oakland, CA. We’re projecting that by the year 2020, WAM will be serving over 3,000 underserved Oakland girls a year. The girls that we serve come from the most underserved populations in the Bay Area – 73% don’t have access to a computer or a mobile device, 78% have never touched a musical instrument, and the majority of students are from populations with a 30-40% high school dropout rate. WAM is thrilled to bring free music technology training to this population of girls who would otherwise not have access. 

WAM and our training programmes have been covered in major media outlets like ABC & NBC News, LA Times, NPR, CNET, USA Today, Huffington Post, KQED, SF Examiner, The Atlantic, San Francisco Chronicle, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The Atlantic, KALW, San Francisco Gate, San Francisco Bay Guardian, East Bay Times, and more.

How has the wider industry responded to the work that WAM is doing?
We have had such incredible support from the industry, especially from audio manufacturers, who have helped us build a world-class recording facility in downtown San Francisco with Avid Pro Tools rigs, a beautiful Audient console, Barefoot monitors, microphones from AEA, Blue, AKG, Josephson, Mojave, Shure, outboard gear from Manley, Great River, A Designs and plug-ins from iZotope, Universal Audio, Softube, Eventide and many more. Many companies like Dolby Laboratories, Sennheiser, Cycling ’74, Electronic Arts, and Skywalker Sound have hired women that have graduated from WAM’s programmes. Every year at the Audio Engineering Society Convention (AES), WAM’s booth is one of the busiest booths at the convention. People in the industry often ask how they can help with our mission or show support by buying T-shirts, wearing WAM buttons, or donating gear to our studio and training programmes. Most people in the industry are on board with WAM’s mission to increase the number of women working in audio and achieve greater diversity in the industry.

What are some of the key projects you will be working on in 2018?
2018 is a big year for WAM. It marks our 15-year anniversary as an organisation. WAM will be hosting a big concert event in the fall to commemorate this milestone, so look out for details! Our biggest project is that we just opened a second location in Oakland and are ramping up in 2018 to deliver music production and recording arts training to over 3,000 underserved girls every year.

WAM has a number of exciting recording projects coming up in 2018. Three albums for our Women in Hip Hop Initiative which is made possible thanks to the California Arts Council and San Francisco Arts Commission with the artists Rocky Rivera, Babii Cris and CHHOTI MAA and projects through our LGBTQ Initiative made possible by Horizons Foundation, with Ruby Mountain and Star Amerasu as well as a recording for Real Vocal String Quartet, who has performed with Feist and Kronos Quartet, which is supported by the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation. Also on the road map for 2018 is WAMCon in New York.

Tell us about WAMcon Boston 2017 – Why was it launched, how did it go and plans for the next one?
WAMCon Boston was the first ever recording arts and music production conference specifically for women and it sold out – over 70 women attended. Every year, WAM meets women from all over the world asking if WAM will come to their city or if WAM will open a location near them. WAMCon was the beginning of bringing WAM to other parts of the US to connect with these women and bring our award-winning training on tour. We were lucky to have iZotope sponsor the event at their headquarters in addition to PRX Podcast Garage which hosted the podcast panel.

The conference featured immersive workshops and panels with award-winning women producers and engineers in the music and podcast industries, like Susan Rogers who worked with Prince, Leanne Ungar who worked with Leonard Cohen, and prominent podcasters like Chiquita Paschal from Gimlet Media and Cynthia Graber from Gastropod. The conference featured a full day of interactive recording sessions with the band Lady Pills in a studio which we created with gear loaned to us by iZ Technology (RADAR recorder), Yamaha (TF-1 console), and Audient (ASP 800 mic pres). The breakout sessions covered tracking, mixing, mastering, as well as beat production and performance with Ableton Live.

What advice can you give the wider industry about creating more equal opportunities in professional audio work environments?
WAM’s number one piece of advice to those seeking to increase diversity in the audio industry would be: less talk, more action. Hire more women and people of colour. If you have job openings available, reach out to WAM and we can try and place someone we think would be qualified for that position or post your job listing on WAM’s job board. Reach out to local schools and universities to find potential candidates outside of your immediate network. Research online and examine critically what it means to have an inclusive and welcoming workplace.

When putting together an industry panel or series of workshops, include women and people of colour in your programming, preferably as part of the program design process to include their voices and ideas. Reach out to organisations like WAM who already have expertise in this area. Including women and other minorities in initial planning stages can shape the content of your programming and also widen your audience. It’s critical for women and other marginalised people to see role models and possibilities in the industry represented at industry events in order to increase diversity in the industry.

What other organisations do you work with around the world?
One of our biggest partnerships is with Dolby Laboratories, who has helped WAM grow significantly through supporting our recording facility, as well as our training programmes. In October 2017, WAM produced a concert at Dolby Laboratories with legendary Bay Area native drummer and artist Sheila E., with over 250 attendees, to raise funds for WAM’s professional recording studio and facility. Dolby also hires graduates from WAM’s training programmes. So far, over 15 WAM graduates have been placed in positions there.

Some of our other key partners include Adobe, Google, Cisco, Pandora, and our industry sponsors like Avid, Audient, iZotope, Sweetwater, and many other valued friends in the industry, including the Audio Engineering Society Convention. Women’s Audio Mission also partners with over 25 schools and organisations in the San Francisco Bay Area to deliver our youth program, Girls on the Mic, which reaches over 1,500 underserved girls a year with free music production and recording arts training.