Post by Jason Loviglio, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
I promised the Antenna editors an account of the Podcast Movement 2015 conference, held last month at the Omni Hilton in Fort Worth, Texas. But that was before I actually got there and realized what I had signed up for: It was a massive and elaborate event, composed of podcasters, would-be podcasters, and an army of sponsors with elaborate electronic kiosks, booths, and high-tech swag. The conference room stages had been decorated in a detailed brick and metal motif meant perhaps to evoke a trendy re-tooling of an earlier industrial moment, but which actually put me in mind of the brick ovens of Bertucci’s Pizza. A young woman I met at the conference, an aspiring educational podcaster, suggested a darker historical reference point for the ovens, which due to the spatial constraints of the stages did have a vaguely cramped, carceral appearance. I arrived on a Friday morning and rather than interrupt the pre-conference sessions that were already underway, I walked through the sun-blasted downtown, past stately Art Deco towers built with petroleum money, to a local café where I found air conditioning, the free city weekly, and a thin roast beef sandwich.
The opening plenary session of the conference took place later that first evening, a presentation of awards by the “Academy of Podcasting.” And while there is much to deride about any awards ceremony and perhaps little sport in doing so, it’s worth mentioning that this one lived up to its aspirational peers in several ways: the absurd, grueling duration of the ceremony; the execrable play-on, play-off music; and a loyal adherence to the conventions of the acceptance speech. (Yes, the winners actually said “I’d like to thank the Academy.”) The ratio of annual prizes to Hall-of-Fame inductees was about even, an interesting fact for an industry so young and for a conference only in its second year. The ceremony was as much about writing the history of podcasting as creating its future. I was struck most of all by the sheer scale of the podcasting universe represented: there were nine awards categories, including “Business,” “Food and Drink,” “Lifestyle and Health” and “Society and Culture,” the latter of which Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible won. Mars also won the “People’s Choice Award,” which the audience selected in real-time on their phones. Mars gave a keynote too; in that and in my conversation with him on the last day of the conference, he modestly and thoughtfully conveyed the sense that podcasting had been a refuge from the disappointments and challenges of public radio.
The next two days’ sessions were replete with variations on similar nuggets of wisdom. Attendees were exhorted to “listen” many times, typically in sessions that permitted very little time for panelists to hear the questions and comments from the audience. Advice typically came in lists; it was all I could do not to write this up as “Seven Things I Learned at the Podcast Movement. Number 1: Listen!” Almost every session combined inspirational buncombe with a genuine desire on the part of the presenters to help the attendees, who paid nearly $500 for the conference registration, to figure out how to be successful. Two delightful exceptions to the formulaic, numbered bits of advice were Nikki Silva’s expertly produced presentation of The Kitchen Sisters‘ lost sound recordings, and Lea Thau, who led about 50 of us thru a storytelling workshop complete with Moth-like presentations at the end.
For most of the time, I felt as if I were at two conferences in one, a trope I tried out several times during the short Q&As, hoping it would catch on. One conference was filled with recognizable types: public radio veterans and those who aspired to make podcasts with the public radio sensibility, grouped loosely around the PRX’s “network” of podcasts, Radiotopia. These include Criminal, Strangers, 99% Invisible, and Fugitive Waves. The other, bigger conference was composed of entrepreneurial podcasters and their great hero, John Lee Dumas, a youthful entrepreneur whose membership organization Podcasters’ Paradise commanded the enthusiasm typically reserved for pyramid schemes, motivational speakers, and returned messiahs. Despite their zeal, members of Podcasters’ Paradise were easy to talk to and taught me a lot about how to think about the podcasting platform, industry, and community, which I heard many of them refer to as “this space.” I met one on the bus-ride to the Stockyards, a hulking retro-cattle industry entertainment district, who described the split in the conference between “Pro-casters” (professional broadcasters), almost exclusively from the public radio sector, for whom podcasting was merely another way to distribute and actual “Podcasters,” the scrappy amateurs with start-up ambition and moxie. Sure enough panelists in the Radiotopia sessions (Pro-casters all), avoided the term podcasting in favor of terms like “public media” to describe their platform-straddling work, and the word “shows” to talk about their own work.
And it was true that the members of Podcasters’ Paradise that I met were all amateurs to audio production. I learned at some point that the average number of downloads for podcasts was 158, a far cry from the tens of millions that Serial commanded. John Lee Dumas’ daily podcast Entrepreneur on Fire, however, was the lodestar towards which all the amateurs navigated. His hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly income (updated regularly on the front page of his website) represented far more meaningful numbers to the podcasters than any dreary audience averages. Dumas’ appeal lay more in his humble backstory and exuberant message. An Iraq War army veteran, law school dropout, and Wall Street washout turned podcasting millionaire, Dumas exudes the optimism and charm of someone who can’t quite believe how well things have turned out. For his podcast, Dumas interviews equally exuberant young entrepreneurs, many of whom echo his rags-to-riches narrative, keywords (“bootstrapping,” “journey”), and variations on the metaphor of “on fire” to signal inspiration. The sound design and vocal performances of Entrepreneur on Fire, like that of Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Money, another podcaster luminary, owe more to AM talk radio’s thin, digitally compressed sound than to the lush, artful sound of This American Life and Radiolab. Dumas’ interview style is rat-a-tat; there’s even a lightning round, which doesn’t sound much different from the rest of the program. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of the probing, allusive style made famous by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. If Dumas is “listening” to his guests, there’s no evidence of it. I will spare you a full accounting of Dumas’ message, which involves keywords whose first letters spell out the word “SUCCCCEESS.” Boiled down to its essence, Dumas exhorted his audience to “Invest, Learn, and Teach.” “Teach for Free,” Dumas advised. His free webinars on how to get started in podcasting are hugely popular loss leaders for Podcasters Paradise membership, which people pay $1,100 to join.
The “give it away” ethos and model seemed to be the golden thread running through the two parts of the conference. It was difficult to find a podcast of any kind that didn’t operate on the free distribution model, though some sold access to their full archives. Others tried fundraising in the public radio podcast model, simply asking listeners to “chip in a few bucks.” For the most part, the podcasting movement has been brought to you by corporate sponsors like Audible and MailChimp on the public media side and by subscriptions to additional services, books, “solutions,” CDs, and memberships on the business-oriented side. Some of the very popular business-oriented podcasts, like Entrepreneur on Fire, also include a spasm of super short ads from small business services like BrainTree and LegalZoom at the top of the podcast, at the “mid-roll,” and at the end. One vendor and conference sponsor, PodClear, offered high-quality internet voice service that podcasters could use to conduct long distance interviews more cheaply than ISDN lines and more reliably than phone lines or VOIP, a sign that public radio’s high-quality sound, rather than AM’s scratchy, populist immediacy, might be the emergent standard for the new medium.
Marc Maron’s keynote (he was a late replacement for Glenn Beck) also represented a point of conjunction. Like Roman Mars, Maron’s work was universally known and admired. Like Dumas, he framed the success of his WTF podcast as a late reprieve from a life of failure and heartbreak. Broke, in the throes of a painful divorce, and a stalled career in comedy, he turned his garage into a studio, in part, he joked, because the ceiling was too low to hang himself from. Podcasting as a form of last-minute salvation was another uniting theme, giving the conference a tent-revival vibe. Even Lea Thau, the Peabody Award winning co-founder of The Moth, frames the success of her Radiotopia-backed Strangers show as salvation from a devastating career and personal reversals. Perhaps the purest articulation of the podcast-as-rebirth formula appeared on the back of a tee-shirt worn by one of the attendees that read “From Brain Tumor to 1 Million Monthly Downloads.” I had scoffed at the use of the word “Movement” in the conference title when I first heard of it, but now I understood a bit better the affective economy the conference was tapping into. Even Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters described the conference as a “festival” that reminded her of the early, pre-NPR days of community radio in Santa Cruz.
The gathering was big and the number and kind of podcasts represented was impressive. But I was surprised to hear speakers gushing about the conference’s “diversity.” It was, to all appearances, a very white Anglophone group, though there was at least some gender diversity, with women making up a bit less than half the gathering. The smallest session I attended, in a cramped, remote room hard by the restrooms, featured Carolina Guerrero of Radio Ambulante, the Spanish-language, pan-American podcast whose global audience grew fifty-fold in 2014 alone. Guerrero explained the meteoric growth in audience as a function of demographic changes, the show’s pan-American reach, and partnerships with BBC Mundo and radio stations in Latin America, as well as English-version appearances on Radiolab, Reply All, and This American Life. It was surprising that so little was said in the rest of the conference about the growth potential of Spanish-language programming.
By Sunday, the Stockholm Syndrome had set in and I began to identify with my captors, and to love my fellow conference-goers and the blank anywhere/nowhere of the conference hotel. Even the vendors, who lined the hallway of the meeting room level had become, if not friends, then at least familiar denizens of our temporary village. I collected lanyards, tee-shirts, and phone chargers in my tote bags and signed up for special offers. Conversations with familiar strangers became easier, as if in fulfillment of Lea Thau’s injunction that we be “Strangers No More.” People exchanged business cards with abandon, as if they genuinely hoped to stay in touch. Small confidences and bits of advice and email addresses were exchanged. We found it easier to pipe up during the sessions, despite the brief time allotted for Q&A. In a session on “Creativity and Storytelling,” the audience erupted 20-minutes in, protesting good naturedly the fact that the moderator had yet to address a question to the only woman panelist.
The conference concluded Sunday afternoon with a final keynote, this one by Sarah Koenig of the podcasting’s game-changing hit, Serial. Like Serial, Koenig’s talk was exquisitely produced and disarmingly personal. After nearly a year, she still manages to seem genuinely staggered by the podcast’s runaway success. And yet somehow she knows exactly which sorts of behind-the-scenes tidbits about the reporting, production, and post-fame spin-control we’re desperate to hear. Perhaps most valuable was her candid presentation of an early draft of the first episode’s script, followed by the much-improved final version, a rare moment in the conference when the work of making good audio was shown more than merely celebrated or advertised. Koenig credited producer Julie Snyder with providing some of the most important improvements draft to draft, a valuable lesson about the importance of collaboration, another point often lost in the highly individualistic, “bootstraps” narratives and underfunded business model of the business podcasters. She also played bits of taped phone calls between herself and Adnan Syed, in which she gamely revealed her manipulations of Syed and his flirtations with her. Koenig projected the exact same uncertainty about Adnan Syed’s guilt that suffused the entire podcast without seeming the slightest bit less fascinated by the case. Koenig closed by taking questions, and yes, she really did seem to listen.
All photos from Podcast Movement.