CHICAGO — Big money has finally arrived in podcasting, a trend that was evident at this year’s flagship conference for audio producers.
The Third Coast International Audio Festival conference, held Friday through Sunday, was the largest in the organization’s 16 years. It drew more than 750 attendees; in its debut year of 2001, 200 people took part. This year they came from every corner of the audio world: public radio reporters, independent producers and big-time, for-profit entrants.
“This has become a commercial world, too,” Johanna Zorn, executive director of Third Coast, told Current. “There are opportunities. People are making more money.”
But could Third Coast continue to foster the intimate, chummy relationships it’s known for, even with these commercial intrusions? “I am actually very blown away by the fact that the answer is yes,” Zorn said. “It felt the same to me as it’s always felt.”
Amazon-owned Audible made a splashy showing at the conference as its lead sponsor, with several former pubmedia figures representing the company’s subscription-based podcasts and other audio content, built on a foundational business of audiobooks. Eric Nuzum, Audible’s senior v.p. of original content and former v.p. of programming at NPR, was on hand to promote job opportunities and a portal for freelance pitches. Independent producers roaming the conference hall saw an Audible trade booth that dwarfed those of KCRW’s Independent Producer Project and the Association of Independents in Radio.
Elsewhere, other companies, including the New York Times and podcast startup Gimlet, mingled with the familiar faces (and voices) from NPR, Public Radio International, American Public Media, Public Radio Exchange and member stations.
As evidence of how far audio producers have come, during her opening address Zorn played a recording from a 2005 panel with Benjamen Walker, now host of Radiotopia’s Theory of Everything, in which Walker said attendees were witnessing “the golden age of podcasts.”
With a laugh, Zorn noted it’s possible that the medium is bigger now than it was in 2005. “I think we’re in the thick of it,” she later told Current.
It’s been a long journey for the Third Coast team, as evidenced by their surprise tribute to Zorn on the conference’s concluding evening: a recorded montage of staff, board members and longtime audio producers praising her leadership.
Fights against sameness
The election of Donald Trump for president days earlier informed more than just the conference’s politics panel.
“Trump being elected was one thing, but more importantly was the surprise factor,” Zorn told Current. “Everybody here is trying to hold up a mirror to the public. And if we were surprised, how could that be? And so [there is] a lot of self-reflection: What stories didn’t we tell that we were supposed to tell? What does it say about public radio?”
Throughout the sessions, attendees shaken by radio’s failure to accurately represent the country called for shifts in how producers approach their craft. Such calls came during the opening-night “Provocations,” a series of presenters who gave five-minute speeches on how the field should change.
Diversity will be “the next big disruptor” in radio, said Andrew Ramsammy, founder of UnitedPublic Strategies, a consulting group that aims to bring more diversity to the medium. “Whiteness should not be used as a comparative base color, the ‘norm’.”
Presenters even asked for a greater diversity of vocal signatures. Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of podcasting company Pineapple Street Media and former director of audio for BuzzFeed, implored the industry to stop teaching one uniform “radio voice.” “We as radio producers have a responsibility, now more than ever, to showcase voices not often heard on radio or podcasts,” she said, pointing to her own work producing BuzzFeed’s popular Another Round podcast (hosted by Heben Negatu and Tracy Clayton, two women of color) as evidence.
Asked if she felt a change in approach to audio storytelling was needed, Zorn pointed to the provocation delivered by Adam Ragusea, host of Current’s podcast The Pub. Ragusea adapted a piece imploring podcasters to “live anywhere but New York.”
“I feel like that is one of the most important things,” Zorn said. “And it’s not anyone’s fault, but you look at the way public radio is covered in the country. It’s sparsely covered in the South. I’m not saying everybody should go become carpetbaggers and move to the South if it’s not where you’re from, but I think one of the most important things now is to really represent all parts of the United States.”
Producers actually from the South expressed different concerns at the conference. “Coming out of the election, I felt like a failure in terms of not just our coverage but the audience that our coverage reaches,” Ryan Kailath, a reporter at WWNO in New Orleans, told Current. “It can feel like it doesn’t matter what story I tell.”
To work through this issue, “red state” reporters gathered for an informal “unconference” session, where they shared tips for getting their work in front of broader audiences. One reporter printed out a flyer summarizing the findings of her story about new health risks for oil workers and posted it around the workers’ hangout spots. Another joined more than 100 local community Facebook groups, where she introduced herself, shared articles pertaining to their group and then curated and moderated ensuing comments.
The group plans to share its findings with the system, Kailath said, adding that his own newsroom is already discussing how to implement some of the ideas. “I’m feeling more hopeful about the future,” he said.
Changing sound, too
Other conference session topics displayed a strong willingness among attendees to take risks with elements of their pieces such as story structure. In a session titled “We’ll Drive Till We Find an Exit,” PJ Vogt, co-host of Gimlet’s Reply All podcast, emphasized the importance of “tangents” to the show’s success. He cited an episode of the program in which he researched a website that connects volunteers with people who need to be talked down from drug-induced highs. The experience prompted Vogt to microdose on acid while at work.
Risk-taking might also include bucking the narrative trends of public radio news. Audie Cornish, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, and This American Life producer Sean Cole co-hosted a session on their favorite audio pieces, in which Cole shared an ATC segment by Cornish about a volunteer who runs a needle-exchange van in Baltimore. Unlike most pieces on NPR’s newsmagazines, Cornish’s story structure doubled back on itself, employing a tape-reversal sound effect to focus the audience’s attentions on the volunteer instead of the local health official interviewed at the piece’s outset.
But risk can also hinder cultivating an audience, as Nick van der Kolk, creator of Radiotopia’s Love + Radio, learned with a 2015 episode of his show that focused on comic personality Zoe Nightingale. The installment followed Nightingale as she conducted abrasive, probing, R-rated interviews with people she encountered in public, including a street preacher.
In a session titled “Embrace the Chaos,” van der Kolk estimated that single episode lost the show 30,000 subscribers.
“Other episodes we’ve done had a tremendous amount of empathy for the subjects, including the ones who have done things that are not good,” van der Kolk said. “For me, [the episode] was about standing aside and watching Zoe perform. But because she was the one with the microphone, she then became a surrogate for the show itself. So I feel like people thought the show was taking on this unempathetic view. … Of all the different things I’ve thrown at people, that was over the line.”
Still, van der Kolk said he doesn’t regret putting the episode out. “When you take risks, you are risking something,” he said, adding that he always strives to create new “experiences” for his audience.
Listening to the future
Zorn insisted that Third Coast is “not going to become a podcast conference,” but the explosion of attention to podcasting has led to a rethinking of Third Coast’s structure. Starting next year, the conference portion of the organization, which cut back from annually to biannually when the group lost its financial support from Chicago’s WBEZ in 2009, will become annual again.
In its off years, Third Coast had been putting on a “Filmless Festival,” an event structured around listening to sound-rich pieces that also included conference-like talks and sessions with audio professionals. The festival will now be phased out of programming — Zorn said it was “successful-ish” at its original goal, which was to offer a more public-facing event to complement the industry-focused conference.
In place of the festival, Zorn said the organization will look to have more public events in the audio world coincide with the conference itself. This year, the live traveling stage event Pop-Up Magazine, which often features public radio talents, reached out to Third Coast asking to get involved and staged a show in Chicago during conference downtime.
Similarly, Anna Sale, who hosted the conference’s concluding awards ceremony, staged a live episode of her WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money in Chicago the following night.
Whichever form audio, public radio or otherwise, will take in the future, there is a growing demand for community among its practitioners.
“Every year there’s a reason to get together,” Zorn said. “People want to keep meeting. They want to be here next year.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that not all of Audible’s audio content may necessarily be considered podcasts.