Lessons Learned From This Weekend's Podcast Movement Convention in Fort Worth.
The first time I remember reading a trend piece on the rise of the podcast was back in 2005. A full 10 years later, the podcast subset may not have quite rushed out of that gate like a cheetah, overtaking talk radio and making that world look newspaper-bad in the process — but, hey, it has become established enough to get its own well-attended convention in Fort Worth.
The second annual Podcast Movement was held on the second floor of the Fort Worth Omni Hotel this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and it has even greater designs than just that, it seems. In the future, Podcast Movement hopes to become a roving event — one that will take place in Chicago next year, and, as we were reminded more than a few times on the way out of the building, you can buy your passes right now!
I assume this year's affair took place in Fort Worth because that city has itself a strong convention infrastructure and, y'know, it also happens to be near a major airport. I was going to ask an organizer to verify this hunch of mine, but he looked like he was in a conversation and I generally get nervous when trying to tease out complicated social interactions like asking questions to people who are already in a conversation.
Other observations I made were thankfully more obvious. For instance? The headliners booked to this convention — Aisha Tyler, Marc Maron and Sarah Koening — might suggest that this event is intended as a gathering place for people who listen to podcasts, but every other panel, talk and activity involved with Podcast Movement seemed intent to dissuade anyone from such thoughts. This was a convention for people who make podcasts, not for listeners.
And boy did the attendees overwhelmingly understand this! They each had projects that they'd looooove to have you ask about.
But it wasn't all blind optimism. As is befitting a medium that's mature enough to have been through a few booms and busts, people were for the most part quite reasonable when predicting the future of podcasts at this convention. The general opinion was that podcasts will continue to be a part of some people's lives, and that the number of people who listen to them will steadily grow. That said, though, no one here was too willing to predict a single podcast-related turning point that will REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD OF TOMORROW.
That was pretty interesting to see, if only because that kind of boosterism is to be expected at events like this. Not so here! Or maybe it was. I don't know. Even as someone who actively does it, podcasting is to me a pretty weird thing in that it's mostly done as a means of mass communications, even if, in practice, it's really just very small communications. Most podcasts are a conversation between two or three people in the spare room of one of those people's house. Unlike my radio day job, it's an industry without the (necessary) horde of support staff that most industries have. But that's not to say that everyone here was content to stay in their spare rooms as I stay in mine.
Most attendees, I noticed, were using this event to network and build up their own infrastructures. People were introducing themselves to strangers, doing a belly-flop into the pool of awkward in a way that TED talks will tell you is “good networking.” And I bet it was pretty sweet networking for the more social savvy in attendance.
At one point, I watched on as one particularly bushy-tailed attendee who'd already hooked into one new contact attempted to act as the ambassador to a third. She explained to the new man that she had met her current friend on the bus to the convention. A bus! She also quickly established they both she and her friend were from out of town, which I thought was wonderful. Can you just imagine people riding a Greyhound to the ends of the Earth to demonstrate their love of podcasting? How romantic! Alas, no such luck. Turns out, she just meant a bus to this building from her hotel or wherever; all three of these people, I soon overheard, had taken planes to town. Podcast conventions can really crush your dreams, you guys.
Or can they? In a twist I found particularly magical, the third man in that trio was the only person I saw who didn't currently have his own podcast. He had designs on starting one, he said, and he was on this pilgrimage to seek out the wisdom of some elders he'd hoped would help him find out what his podcast should be on. Considering how I started podcasting myself only because it was getting monotonous to play Madden every single night, my stance is that this guy's probably overthinking things. Still, it was pretty adorable, if not quite as surefooted as headlining guest Sarah Koenig's presentation.
The Serial host gave her weekend-closing headline talk in the main auditorium, a room that was oddly decorated to resemble the set of a high school play about the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. There was lots of brick for some reason? There were also two large screens, and she used them to make a pretty cool multimedia presentation. She was selected as the headliner before Marc Maron came on board as a late replacement for Glenn Beck, which I imagine is a first for Maron. Maybe it's weird on the surface that Koenig would get the prime slot given that Maron interviewed the president last month and Koenig talks to convicts. But she more than justified the placement.
As you might expect given her history (she's been a behind-the-scenes radio producer for a much longer stretch than she’s been the host of the only podcast to be mentioned on Saturday Night Live) and the disposition she exhibits on Serial, Koening opened her talk by expressing sheepishness toward the size and reaction of her audience. Axl Rose she is not, but she exhibited a deep thoughtfulness about her podcasting experience and made a couple stabs at why she thought her venture had been successful — and, thankfully, without jawing on about “the way to go viral.” Her main message? She worked with a good team that made the solid decisions to 1) encourage her to include her personal feelings about the evidence as a means of giving the audience an emotional branch to latch onto, and 2) edit and produce the show so that it more closely resembled serialized television.
I have long held the stance that if I ever had the chance to talk to Koening, my topic of greatest interest would be how she deals with the many reactions to her show. In a way that really transcended even the massive popularity (relative to other podcasts) of her show, Serial got a lot of reaction. Since she and I have both been ripped to shreds on Reddit, I guess I always wanted to hear how she sorts through all of that. Wonderfully, this wish was granted. She was fairly frank that she is in ways disillusioned about making shows that “get people talking.” I once heard Gordon Keith quote Bill Murray as saying, “If you would like to be rich and famous, try just being rich first,” and this seems to be a bit of wisdom with which Koenig could identify. She came in to Serial, she explained, with the thought that starting conversation is always positive and that the more you discourse you have, the better. Having surely now read one million comments speculating that Adnan did it because Islam is a violent religion or something along these lines, she's now dissuaded of this. These days, Koenig has a pretty low opinion of how some people use their first amendment rights. I can't really blame her for it.
One good example of her reasoning — and a story I hadn't heard elsewhere before — involved an anecdote about how the final episode of Serial was posted immediately before the staff went on Christmas break. That created some stressful situations for her social media team. Whereas her staff normally kept a pretty close tab on its Facebook comments, taking down any posts that included private information about the people involved in the story and weeding out more extreme comments, the holiday break meant that such keeping tabs was a near-impossibility. Worse, they also learned there is no way to turn off Facebook comments, although if you can indeed create filters that automatically take down any posts made with certain flagged phrases — in theory, at least. These filters aren't always that great, it seems: Before the holiday, Serial's web guy tried applying some filters to their page, and then went to test out whether or not the filter had worked. He tried typing in “Adnan did it” and hitting enter only to find that the filter did not work and that he'd just posted from the official Serial Facebook implying that the main character in the show's story was, in fact, guilty. His post was taken down seconds later, but someone did, of course, screenshot it. I find the image of that screengrab to be very funny.
Really, though, the lesson to be applied here comes from one of the non-Koenig talks I attended. It was run by an entertainment lawyer who represents podcasters and one of his big talking points was that willfully taking someone willfully out of context — like that accidental Serial post, I suppose — is illegal.
That's some useful information, I think. I mean, I found the 2015 Podcast Movement to be informative on a number of levels — but I don't know if any of those lessons were quite as useful as the knowledge that, should one of you out there reading this decide to quote this here recap as me solely as saying “Islam is a violent religion,” you can get ready to catch a case.
So, y'know, don't do that, OK?