Last weekend, I set out just as the sun was rising to drive to Seattle, where the inaugural PodCon was to take place at the massive Washington State Convention Center.
Produced by the team behind VidCon and NerdCon, the founders of PodCon include Hank Green, one-half of the Vlogbrothers duo, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, creators of the mega-popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast, and brothers Travis and Justin McElroy, who have their hands in what seem like every big podcast ever.
I arrived to the convention center with low expectations, this being such a niche, first-year event and all. Signs quickly pointed me up three escalators to the top level, where I walked right up to the registration desk with no line and was greeted by a team of smiling volunteers. I grabbed my badge, flipped through my guidebook, and proceeded into the mainstage ballroom where the kick-off show was set to begin in 20 minutes.
Inside, the dimly-lit ballroom was already packed with excited twenty-somethings waiting for their favorite podcasters to take the stage. I was surprised to see such a big turnout, considering the event’s Indiegogo was only 80% funded. The crowd seemed a bit older than I had anticipated, too – erroneously predicting one of screaming fangirls that VidCon always brings. This crowd had a certain air of refinement.
Come showtime, hosts Hal Lublin and Meg Bashwiner introduced the founders to speak a little bit about the conference. “Our special guests have over and over again emphasized how special and interesting this space is, and how different it is from other media that we all love and consume, and we really need to honor that,” Hank Green said. “I’m so happy to do that with all of you, to see this very large and full room of people fills my heart so much.”
Afterwards, a group of podcast stars took to the stage for an informal rapid-fire Q&A, with questions ranging from ice cream flavors to pet names. Later yet, a slight-timid Ariana Nedelman delivered a monologue about the importance of fan communities. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who could never quote you a line from the bible, but have the words of Albus Dumbledore written on their heart,” Nedelman said. Performances continued, with a song by podcaster and Neutral Milk Hotel bassist Julian Koster, and later a candid conversation between Franchesca Ramsey of Last Name Basis and Lauren Spohrer of Criminal.
Once the performances ended, I made my way through a hurried crowd to a much smaller ballroom for “Let’s Talk About Networks,” where I’d listen to a group of podcast creators and producers chat about the business of podcasting. Five minutes before the panel began, it was standing room only, with eager podcasters lining the back wall to hear from the lineup of experts. “Serial fundamentally changed podcasting – people realized you could make money podcasting, and money just flooded in,” said Joseph Fink.
After a quick jaunt down to the Seattle waterfront for lunch at the iconic Pike Place Market, I picked out a session that seemed a bit more interactive. “Lights for Fireflies: An Orbiting Human Circus Game” led by Koster, inspired by his podcast The Orbiting Human Circus. I walked into the dark corner of the main stage ballroom, where two adjacent circles of faux tea candles lit up the faces of attendees. Inside of one circle was Koster himself, sporting some sort of du-rag-like headwear and holding a wire bird cage. “Welcome to the cult gathering,” Koster joked to an echoing of laughter. The game was simple: players (“fireflies”) would balance a candle on the tips of their fingers, while two “catchers” balancing bird cages on their palms would attempt to tag all of the fireflies. The last firefly standing wins the game. I did better than I had anticipated, but alas, was not the victor.
Next on my list of arbitrarily-chosen agenda items? “From Fan to Creator,” a panel of small-time podcasters discussing their starts in the industry.
“I wanted to be a YouTuber for a while, but I had like no technical skills and a lot of depression,” one panelist recounted. “People do it without the video, where they can be in their pajamas,” she realized. The panelists gave inspiration and tips to the crowd of small-time and wanna-be podcasters. “When you’re trying to market to people that already listen to podcasts, you’re picking from the same fish as everyone else,” Julia Schifini told the crowd. She suggested trying to reach audiences that aren’t already podcast aficionados.
With half an hour to kill before my next session, I headed to the expo hall – the one area that left much to be desired. A cluster of a dozen booths stood at the end of an otherwise-empty cafeteria-like room, with a doodle wall in the center of it all. This was also the space where informal fandom meet-ups took place.
Representatives from podcast apps, distribution platforms, and merchandising services were all vying to tell me about their offerings. I learned about TuneIn’s audio app, and a creator-focused podcasting convention in Florida. Apparently PodCon isn’t the first podcasting conference after all.
I headed out to my final agenda item of the evening – “We’ll Do It Live,” where I would learn about the convergence of podcasting and live video, and how they work hand-in-hand. The session was more of a workshop than a panel – Ben Ratner, the producer behind Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk, shared tips for professional video production. The room was small, and there was plenty of time for the podcasters in the audience to ask their burning questions about software, equipment, and strategy.
Before heading out, I took one more walk through the convention center. I stopped to talk with three girls cosplaying as characters from their favorite podcast, The Adventure Zone. Excitedly, they told me about their costumes – two dressed as Taako, and the other as Lup. Just an hour earlier, the whole Adventure Zone fandom gathered for a cosplay meetup. It wasn’t an opportunity for fans to meet the creators of the series, but rather for fans to meet other fans, gush over their outfits, and take pictures with one another.
And that’s what the whole event was about. Building community – of fans and creators alike, and breaking down the walls that typically divide listeners and podcasters. As the medium continues to grow, I’m sure PodCon will be back for many years to come.