Sneaking Into the Mainstream: Three Days at the LA Podcast Festival
My alarm blares at 6:50am. I swipe it off and immediately turn on a podcast. I get in the shower, power on my Bluetooth speaker, and keep listening. I get in my AUX-less Hyundai and spend the next hour trying to stay awake with the help of a new show out of the tiny, tinny, lint-filled speakers of my iPhone 4S. I arrive in Santa Monica, plug in my headphones, and get to work. Lunch time is really just podcast time that happens to include food. The drive back to the Eastside is even worse than the morning, but you can probably guess how I pass the time. Before bed, I turn on something I don’t mind falling asleep to, like NBA offseason talk or a random show from the top 300 chart. If I could remember my dreams, they would probably involve me, naked, listening to a podcast in front of my AP U.S. History class. There are better ways to endure the drudgery of 9 to 6 office work other than podcasts. But it sure beats the hell out of being alone with my own thoughts.
The last time I was at Beverly Hills Sofitel, a pristine five-star hotel in the lets-throw-everything-together architectural style of 1980s Los Angeles, I was delivering a package to a Japanese television executive staying in the presidential suite. The lobby that day was almost exclusively filled with wealthy tourists and businesspeople from Europe and the Middle East. But the lobby tonight for the 4th annual L.A. Podcast Festival is very different. Next to people too wealthy to be carrying their own Fendi bags from the nearby Beverly Center, we, the podcast fanatics, stick out like sore listeners of an emerging media.
I arrive alone. It’s my preferred method for listening to podcasts, so why change it up for a three-day festival? But the excitement for the opening shows, Doug Loves Movies and the return of Walking the Room, is palpable and conversation is easy. As it turns out, not having my own podcast at the festival makes me a rarity. The PodFest is as much a place to promote your own fledgling show as it is to come out and support your favorite host for all the free content he or she has given you over the years. A table in the main hallway overflows with business cards and stickers advertising podcasts for interests as varied as Green Bay Packers fans to curvy pin-up models. It also holds a smattering of cards for independent sound engineers and producers advertising their skills. There’s even a Podcast Lab, sponsored by Squarespace because you can never escape the same five companies who advertise on podcasts, devoted to letting podcasters record on-site episodes of their shows all weekend.
Never being able to catch his recently ended Tuesday UCB show because of work, I hit up Doug Loves Movies with host Doug Benson, whose career path since starting the first of his many podcasts is the envy of everyone behind a mic. It turns out that Friday was the 9th anniversary of his first ever DLM show. To celebrate, he has Lil Esther, Owen Benjamin, Leonard Maltin, and Sarah Silverman as his guests. 20 years earlier, he and Silverman would get high in their small apartments and bust out a worn copy of Maltin’s movie guide to play a primordial version of the critic’s eponymous game. Nowadays, fans from across the country pay to see him play the Leonard Maltin Game just as much as they do to see his standup.
After Doug Loves Movies ends with a rare win for Maltin, I head downstairs for a quick smoke before the next show. I’m immediately accosted by, what can most kindly be described as, a Hollywood type. A Podcast Bro. All of the people I’ve talked to so far are earnest, introverted, genuinely excited to pay for the privilege to sit and watch people talk for an hour. But after feverishly telling me that he saw a glimpse of Lil Esther’s panties during DLM, the guy talks at me, not with me, about his new podcast. It’s described as a parody of morning talk shows, and that he plays the weatherman in a bar. A sample joke, he says, is that the forecast calls for a lot of 6’s and 7’s, as in women whom he rates on a numerical scale. He and his partners even got mugs and t-shirts ready for purchase. I ask him how many episodes he’s produced so far. Zero, but the first episode should be up next month. By the 10th mention of content and monetization, I’m ready to walk onto Beverly Blvd., shout, “I love Uber!”, and be run over by a taxi driver. The last thing I remember him saying before I walk back inside is that he thinks “the UCB is a theatre with a lot of potential.”
My last show of the truncated opening night is With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus. The podcast can be hit or miss since its premise asks Lapkus to come up with a wholly original character on the spot, every single week, but this live episode featuring her fellow Wild Horses ends up being my favorite show of the festival. Before I head home, I stop by the business card table for some stickers. As I’m deciding on the free schwag, the guy next to me points out a lone business card and exclaims, “What the hell is that?” He flips it over and shows me what’s written in pen: CALL ME IF YOU WANT TO HOOK UP (GIRLS ONLY). I notice the Apple Watch on his wrist and realize it’s the Podcast Bro. “Pablo! It’s good to see you again, buddy!” he yells before putting the card down and walking off. He told me earlier that he had tickets for the whole weekend but I never see him again.
I came to the PodFest expecting it to be more akin to ComicCon: Lots of superfans wearing inside joke t-shirts waiting in lines to be entertained. And while there were plenty of those, this truly was an event for the guys and gals trying to turn an .exe file of Audacity into a living income. Throughout the weekend, a cramped conference room named after Santa Monica hosted essential seminars ranging from booking guests to marketing to crowdfunding. Even though I don’t podcast, I attend the Booking Guests panel with PodcastOne booker Kiki Woodward, sports talk radio booker Dan Hodgeman, Sideshow producer Shawn Marek, and Earwolf booker Ele Woods, whose tips include telling more famous, older guests that they’re doing a radio show and not a podcast on the initial reaching out e-mail. Marek was in his company’s “I listened to podcasts before Serial” t-shirt that was ubiquitous at the festival. Merchandise with a proud, elitist slogan bragging about something 99.9% of people don’t give a shit about? OK, there is some of the PodFest that reminds me of ComicCon.
My next stop is the Podcast Lab. I assume it to be a modicum of podcast recordings, allowing me to slip in and grab a quick chat before watching a recording. But every time I popped in, the table was full of hosts and their guests yapping away. Podcasts have a reputation for being incestuous with their guests, but this setup took it to a whole new level — with the Lab you could literally trade guests after 20 minutes a la speed dating. Or you could grab a bigshot roaming the hallways like Marc Maron, who gave Aaron Brodkin a short interview for the What the Pod F Bang Bang podcast.
Speaking of Maron, his live WTF wasn’t just the highlight of day 2. It was also a touching tribute to the people who laid the groundwork for the total creative freedom that podcasts represent. His guests were L.A. freeform radio legends Jim Ladd and Frazer Smith, two guys who spent decades playing whatever they wanted on L.A. radio, a totally unknown concept to me, a 26 year old who grew up listening to KROQs DJs play Nirvana and Sublime 20 times a day (as they still do). As Maron talks to the radio vets, the crowd eats up their stories about breaking bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Van Halen, murky radio booths filled with weed smoke, and how Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of the airwaves led to the noxious spread of corporate ownership that has ruined nearly every radio station in America. But Ladd and Smith are in no way stuck in the past. Hearing them talk with Maron about the relatively new format of podcasting is like listening to Vin Scully eschew batting average to instead wax poetic about VORP and PECOTA. While neither podcasts (Smith, who is also a comedian, works for KLOS 95.5 and Ladd DJs for Sirius XM after being let go from KLOS), both men commend the podcasters in the crowd for continuing their legacy of artistic autonomy. The talk is inspiring. If I was a podcaster myself, I would leave this banquet hall, grab a seat in the Podcast Lab, and let the torrent of thoughts rush out me for all to hear, no radio signal required.
By the final day, the crowd is noticeably thinner. Many of the out-of-towners had to return home, but the remaining festivalgoers are animated about finishing the weekend off strong. While I find myself talking with Squarespace reps and non-podcasting listeners here and there, day three solidified the PodFest as a must-attend for any podcaster able to make it to Los Angeles. Roaming the hallways is like walking down the Venice boardwalk but instead of mixtape rappers trying to forcefully put a pair of headphones on your skull, every conversation instead ends with a free sticker. During the live taping of cult favorite Hollywood Handbook, guest John Gemberling describes the locale as the White Guys with USB Microphones Festival, which is a pretty accurate statement. If podcasting is going to blow up, it has broaden its appeal so that the 14th annual Podcast Festival isn’t mostly white dudes. I ask hotel staff ranging from valet to concierge if they had ever heard of podcasts. They didn’t, not even with the short-lived Serial phenomenon. Is podcasting ever going to sneak into the mainstream or is it going to remain a niche form of entertainment? It’s still way too early to tell.
Two people tasked with bringing podcasts to a wider audience are Earwolf/Midroll Media CEO Adam Sachs and Libsyn VP of Podcaster Relations Rob Walch, who along with Mental Illness Happy Hour host Paul Gilmartin and Women in Tech host Espree Devora, make up the Podcasting as a Business seminar. The Santa Monica room is packed at noon with podcasters eager to hear the hard truths about turning a profit from the nigh-unprofitable. According to Walch, the median download numbers for one podcast episode is just barely above 150. And even though Gilmartin hosts a popular and respected podcast, advertising has been down in 2015 and neither he nor Sachs can figure it out. Despite being sponsored by Earwolf’s new premium app Howl, the panel does not touch on its flubbed launch. Given that this $5-a-month app is Earwolf’s first foray into making money in ways other than the traditional route of donations, t-shirts, and ad sales, it’s a glaring omission. But I think it’s mostly a case of politeness on moderator Devora’s part. Whether you just recorded your first episode or you were recently acquired by E.W. Scripps for millions of dollars, making a profit is never easy. Walch ends the seminar by saying if you got into podcasting to make money, you’re be better off quitting to become a poet.
I finish off the night with three mainstays in comedic podcasting. First, I head to Never Not Funny, one of the longest running podcasts in existence. Jimmy Pardo is his usual carnival barker self, the kind of performer so blessed with the gift of gab that he could record himself talking to an empty Gatorade bottle and find a way to make it entertaining. Next, I pop into The Todd Glass Show mid-performance, just as Eddie Pepitone is introduced by a live six-piece band. Remember when Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax all went on tour together a few years back? Glass and Pepitone together make those thrash metal bands sound like Belle & Sebastian having a pillow fight. Finally, the PodFest ends with Superego, a show I avoided listening to simply because it has years of archives and I knew that if I liked it, I would give up countless hours wading through the back episodes. The show exceeds my expectations, the worst possible scenario for someone whose podcast subscriptions already number in the 60s.
Podcasts are intensely personal and alarmingly isolating. This simultaneous nature makes me never want to listen with friends the same episodes I recommend to them. Despite its dichotomy, it’s clear that a tight-knit community has formed among the podcasters and listeners venturing to Beverly Hills to celebrate This Thing We Do. The PodFest ends with drinking, dancing, karaoke, and sneaking onto the red carpet downstairs for one of the city’s dozens of bland Emmy parties going on that night. What’s left of the attendees, some who came from as far away as Australia and Great Britain, crowd around the merch table as Superego signs CDs and posters. Fans taking selfies with Paul F. Tompkins, the unofficial mayor of podcasts, remind me of NYC Catholics trying to get a glimpse of Pope Francis. Comic book nerds and sports fans need to make room for another sub-sector of devotees whose demanding obsession borders on the religious.
I head back home and collapse on my Casper mattress. You know, the one from the podcast ads. I’m alone again with my shows, the way I like it, but it doesn’t seem right after the PodFest. So I turn it off, delete the backlog of accumulated, unlistened episodes from the weekend, and text a friend to see what he’s doing.