From December 9th-10th, 2017, in a chilly, foggy Seattle, about three thousand podcast enthusiasts gathered together for PodCon, the first podcast convention marketed for both fans and creators. The event was founded by Hank and John Green of Dear John and Hank, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor of Night Vale Presents, and Travis McElroy of My Brother, My Brother and Me, The Adventure Zone, and others. The convention’s events included panels by podcasters, workshops for podcasters, live shows of podcasts, games, and “podcast scrambles,” which featured two creators from different shows teaming up to make one new show live.
I attended the convention and volunteered during Friday registration and for two panels on Saturday. I’m going to try to write a level-headed sum-up of this convention, but to be honest, removing the emotional impact of the convention wouldn’t make for an accurate sum-up of how the event really was. Take, for instance, these tweets, which only make up a small portion of the #PodCon tag:
The comments I heard most about PodCon over the weekend were about how kind everyone was, whether it was about the fans, the creators, the organizers, the volunteers, or the people who were a mix of all of those. There were hugs aplenty, but everyone was on board with asking for consent before opening their arms. Instead of fans mobbing the McElroys, I usually saw fans explaining how much shows like The Adventure Zone meant to them, and the McElroys showing genuine gratitude and pride in their responses. I had a twenty minute long conversation with Roman Mars about how nice everyone at the convention was. I was hugged by creators who knew my reviews. People were happy to help me around the convention center, and once I kind of learned how to navigate it (I think this is more a criticism on me than the convention center, to be clear), I was happy to help others. I saw Sleep With Me‘s Drew Ackerman and Radiotopia’s Julie Shapiro sit down to listen to people like Lauren Shippen and Paul Bae discuss serial storytelling. I left the convention with some more knowledge and some podcasts to download, but mostly, I left it with an overwhelming feeling of how kind and loving this community is, and that sentiment is mirrored by everyone else I’ve seen talk about PoCon.
So, now that we have the sap more or less out of the way, I feel like I can discuss the hard details of the convention.
We arrived to Seattle on Thursday to make sure we had time for volunteer orientation and registration on Friday. We stayed at the host hotel, the Seattle Sheraton, which was across the street from the convention center. The hotel had a nice lobby with plenty of seating and a cafe with shockingly good pastries and sandwiches. We stayed in a room with two double beds, and while the room was on the smaller side, it didn’t feel cramped. The beds were firm, which initially disappointed me, but I was very grateful for it after my back started aching from running around the convention. It seemed like most attendees and featured guests stayed at the host hotel. Overall, the hotel felt nice, but not astounding–a few steps up from most mid-range hotels, but nothing that seemed particularly notable.
The convention center was similarly nice but not astounding. The center stretched between two buildings connected by a skybridge. The center had cafes and quick-service dining locations, though many were closed for the entire duration of the convention. The convention center did have very nice lobbies and some interesting architecture, and the mainstage was set up beautifully. The rooms for panels and workshops seemed at times a bit small, though this was likely due to prioritizing some big-ticket events less than they should have been.
The attendees seemed to be about 60% podcasters, 40% just fans. If the number of podcasters were to include those who wanted to start a podcast but hadn’t yet, the percentage could easily jump to about 75-80%. You can find the list of featured guests here, but obviously most podcasters had to fund their own travel and tickets to the event. If purchased during the IndieGogo campaign, tickets started at $100 with the option to add more backer items like a swag bag, a USB drive with bonus content, a patch, a poster, etc. If purchased after the IndieGogo campiagn, tickets were $110, though plenty of 10% off coupon codes were available. The convention also offered a $30 “remote attendance” ticket for those who wanted the audio of the events without being able to attend in-person. Of the very few complaints I heard regarding the convention, cost was one of them. I heard a few arguments that the $110 price was prohibitive for people who only wanted to attend as fans. I also heard a few arguments that $110 was too expensive for the panels and workshops offered to creators. However, these arguments were very few. It should also be noted that VidCon, which was the model for PodCon, has tickets ranging from $125 – $650. Similarly, Werk It, an event for women and nonbinary podcast creators, costs substantially more than PodCon did.
The only other complaint I heard about the convention was on the vendor hall. The hall itself was much larger than seemed necessary; much of it was empty space or filled with tables for a “tabletop gaming” area, the combination of which lead to an awkward feeling within the hall. The vendors in the hall included audio dramas Greater Boston and What’s the Frequency at one table, Marsfall at one table, and The White Vault and Liberty at another. Another vendor was Hello Fresh, a common sponsor of podcasts, which naturally became the butt of a few jokes from a few attendees.
My biggest complaint is unsurprising: I desperately wanted more representation for audio drama creators. So many of the creators and fans I spoke with attended the convention for audio dramas, but only the Night Vale Presents crew, The Bright Sessions‘s Lauren Shippen, and Pacific Northwest Stories’s Paul Bae were featured guests. I still cannot believe that Mischa Stanton or the Wolf 359 crew weren’t featured guests given how instrumental they are to the audio drama world. I saw so many The Penumbra Podcast shirts, but the organizers seemed to have never heard of the show. The same could be said for so many audio dramas. I do have faith, though, that given the attendees’ vigor for audio dramas, they will be more prominent in next year’s planning, should there be a PodCon in 2018. There is currently not a confirmed second event planned, though the desire for one was clear from the organizers during the convention’s closing show.
At the convention, I attended the following sessions and events:
- Let’s Talk About Networks: This panel was a discussion with Roman Mars, Gaby Dunn, Justin McElroy, Joseph Fink, Christy Gressman, and moderator Myke Hurley about the nature of podcast networks. I can imagine this conversation being helpful to those podcasters who are debating whether or not they want to seek entry into a podcast network. I did feel like the information could have been a bit more specific or direct, though it was very nice hearing the different opinions on networks as a whole.
- Podcast Scramble: Joseph Fink and Roman Mars: In this podcast scramble, Joseph Fink and Roman Mars debuted their Doomtree Fancast, a fake podcast about how much the two love the rap collective Doomtree. The fake podcast featured audio clips as well as Roman Mars saying, “I like like [Dessa].” The two were hilarious together, and this scramble was one of the biggest highlights of my weekend.
- From Fan to Creator: This panel featured Michelle Nikolaisen, Klaudia Amenábar, Phoebe Seiders, Alex Brown, Julia Schifini, and moderator Amanda McLoughlin discussing how podcast fans can become podcast creators. This panel felt like one of the most directly usable and applicable to attendees who wanted to start a podcast. The discussion touched on everything from taking care of yourself as a creator to remembering that you will have to figure out how to do taxes on your show if you monetize.
- Podcast Scramble: Lauren Shippen and Drew Ackerman: In this podcast scramble, Lauren Shippen and Drew Ackerman talked about how their shows have made them open up to being vulnerable. This scramble was incredibly touching, and I teared up several times while listening to the two talk. This was less of a “fake podcast” setup and more of a discussion, but it was still a really lovely event to attend.
- My Brother, My Brother and Me: “Face 2 Face Live”: This was a live recording of My Brother, My Brother and Me, and will be uploaded to the podcast’s feed. Every person I talked with after the show said it was one of the best live My Brother, My Brother and Me episodes they’d ever heard, and I can absolutely second that opinion.
- Sawbones: This was a live recording of Sawbones. The event included Dr. Sydnee McElroy trying to show Justin McElroy how one might administer their own coffee enema. It was hilarious.
- “The The Adventure Zone Zone”: This was a live recording of “The The Adventure Zone Zone,” the Q&A companion for The Adventure Zone. The event featured a sneak peek of an animated trailer for the podcast, set to come out in full soon:
- Alice Isn’t Dead: This was a live recording of Alice Isn’t Dead, which I don’t believe has had any live shows before (or at least very few). Jasika Nicole narrated over Disparition’s live music, and the episode was a standalone written specifically for PodCon and taking place in Seattle. Nicole’s performance was heartwrenching even though I have never been an Alice Isn’t Dead fan.
- Serial Fiction Storytelling: This was a Q&A panel with Lauren Shippen, Paul Bae, Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor, Brie Williams, and Julian Koster. This panel admittedly left me feeling ambivalent. While it was exciting to see indie audio drama representation from Lauren Shippen and Paul Bae (though Bae is technically on a network), it was clear that most of the people on the panel do not actually engage with the world of audio drama outside their own shows. It was disheartening to hear creators struggle to recommend audio dramas outside of Tor Labs’s Steal the Stars or each others’ shows. However, the advice given during the panel was fantastic. The panelists were dismissive of writer’s block, encouraging a question asker to push through frustration and keep writing. The panelists also focused on making sure your podcast is a reward to decrease burnout.
- So You Want to Start a Podcast…: This panel was Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor giving advice to aspiring podcast creators. The panel was informative and inspirational while still being engaging and lighthearted. Fink and Cranor stressed that Welcome to Night Vale was recorded on a $50 USB mic and Audacity for years–and still uses Audacity (the $50 mic broke and was replaced by another mic that is still under $100). I live tweeted a good deal of the panel, with a thread starting here:
- PodCon Closing Show: The event ended with a closing show of jokes, games, discussions on the impending ecological apocalypse, and a live recording of Justin McElroy and Roman Mars’s innovative asynchronous podcast, Smart Stuff (which is, of course, not real). The event felt awkward at times, with hosts Gaby Dunn and Symphony Sanders stumbling through a few introductions, but was still a funny, casual way to end the event. Smart Stuff got bigger laughs than My Brother, My Brother and Me and can, thankfully, be watched in full:
I left PodCon feeling even more invigorated and appreciative of the podcast medium. The community showed how kind and caring it was throughout the entire event. The panels were informative, the live shows were phenomenal, and I left genuinely feeling like I had made connections that will last years. I cannot stress enough that if PodCon has a second year, you should absolutely attend, even if you are just a podcast fan. The experience is unlike any other I’ve had from such a big event. I think just about everyone who attended will be heartbroken if PodCon 2018 doesn’t happen. If we do get a PodCon 2018, you can be sure you’ll see me there, so excited to recapture this feeling again.