The world increasingly seems to be divided into people who are obsessed with podcasts and others who have no idea what in God's name a podcast is. To those of us who fall on the obsessive side, this past weekend's podcast festival--presented by the podcasts Comedy Film Nerds and Walking the Room--was when manna descended on the Sheraton Le Meridien Delfina on Pico in Santa Monica. Round-the-clock live shows and panels about the ins and outs of podcasting packed a Friday-through-Monday schedule that also included something called a Stand-up Podsmash and a closing night party complete with live band karaoke.
This was the second iteration of the festival, which featured 41 live tapings of shows, including Marc Maron's WTF, Doug Benson's Doug Loves Movies and others that regularly top of the ITunes lists--a solid 16 more live shows than last year. Panel discussions included "Podcast Networks: Good or Bad," "Monetizing Your Podcast" and "The Tech of Podcasting," where aspiring podcasters and podcasting newbies peppered panelists with questions. If the answers were to be summarized into one cohesive sentence, it would have to be: Anyone can do this at a very low cost so get out there and start recording. A snobby festival with wizened old-time gatekeepers trying to discourage the wanna-be's from even trying this was not.
Then again, podcasters have a very unique relationship with their fans--which is to say there very much is a relationship. Podcast listeners often hear about the most intimate details of their hosts lives and so the podcasters have a way of penetrating listeners' psyches in ways that musicians, writers and actors do not. Marc Maron will read, during live shows, the dreams listeners have emailed him that they've had about him and it's not unusual for listeners to donate money to or even transcribe their favorite shows. All of which is to say that the organizers knew where to turn once they came up with the idea.
"The fans funded this," says Comedy Film Nerds co-host Graham Elwood from the SquareSpace Lab--a squared-off area with refreshments and even free batteries for the smaller podcasters in attendance to interview the podcast stars milling about the hotel. Walking the Room's Dave Anthony first pitched Elwood on the idea of a podcast festival two years ago; once they had their initial crew together, they put together a Kickstarter to try to raise $20,000 in order to form an LLC, create a website and book the hotel. The fans ended up donating $24,000.
In order to book the live shows, the organizers reached out to their friends; Elwood estimates that 90% of the weekend's hosts are locals. But that doesn't mean that no foreigners were in attendance: Aussie comedian Will Anderson left the set of a TV show he was shooting down under, did his show live on Saturday, performed stand up and got back on a plane back home that same night.
Some live shows were certainly better (and better attended) than others while the panels were all packed--and packed with useful information for the aspiring podcaster (Tell your fans to tag you on social media! Talk to your audience the way you want to be talked to!) While most panelists didn't get terribly specific about the number of downloads required for podcasters to begin seeking out advertisers or making money through merchandise or live shows, there was information aplenty about equipment, promoting and hosting (Rob Walch from Libsyn was an especially articulate panel member). And some live shows brought about surprisingly special moments: when Paul Gilmartin, host of the Mental Illness Happy Hour, did a live "fear off," where listeners could stand up and name their fears, watching people willing to share secrets that otherwise might have consumed them made the fact that the room was packed and sweaty (give Gilmartin the big room next time, I say) thoroughly bearable.
Overall, the festival was a well-organized, well-attended ode to a genre of entertainment that's only going to keep growing in popularity (a tidbit from one of the panels: now that cars are coming equipped with Internet, many are predicting that podcasts will truly become mainstream). And when you put a bunch of motivated, creative people together, you never know what can come out of it. When Elwood got into a conversation with a podcaster at the festival about the hat he was wearing, the two hit upon the idea of creating a podcast called Hat Chat. "I have about 35 baseball hats and they all have a story as to why and where I bought them," Elwood says. "The guy I was talking to told me he bought his hat because he's going bald. I just think you would uncover deep, emotional stuff from that topic."
Here's hoping one of the aspiring podcasters from the festival doesn't take that idea and run.
Podcast fans who couldn't make it to the festival can check out the live stream on Daily Motion.