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PodCon 2 | Fun and Frustration Abound

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Recently, podcasting has seen a rapid increase in the number and style of events, even some outside the US. This is the second year of PodCon, a two-day podcast convention founded in 2017 by Hank Green, Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor, and Travis and Justin McElroy. Its inaugural year was met with delight, positive reviews, and an often-repeated desire on social media to return to PodCon.

The second year of a successful convention often witnesses growing pains, most commonly an increased number and variety of attendees without a proportionate increase in budget or staff size. PodCon 2, while definitively a successful community event, demonstrated the gaps and holes in both structure and design that result from those types of issues though, importantly, not a result from intentional maliciousness.

(Disclosure: I was a speaker on the “More Pre-Pro, Less Problems” workshop with Multitude Productions; I co-submitted a panel option that was not chosen. I also shared a booth with the creator team behind Alba Salix and The End of Time and Other Bothers).

The Journey to PodCon 2

PodCon 1 took place at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, WA from December 9th to 10th; PodCon 2 did not occur until January 19th-20th, 2019. In that large gap of time, there were two problems that were foundational to most of the issues found at PodCon 2: a lack of communication and subpar community management. I spoke briefly on some of the expectations in one of my newsletter issues. In the year between the end of PodCon 1 and the release of the PodCon 2 schedule, there were between 40-50 tweets produced by their account, of which fewer than 20 contained any information about PodCon 2, even during what would normally be the, on average, two-month-long run-up to releasing the schedule.

Even then, those tweets were largely repeat tweets with countdowns to the start and end of a fundraiser livestream and the IndieGoGo campaign. The official newsletter for PodCon only sent out three issues, the last one of which contained baffling surveys about topic knowledge and hosts. This meant, when navigating community conversations, there were a lot of questions about PodCon, whether it was going to happen, and when things were happening.

This became especially apparent when talking about exhibitor requests and community panel submissions. More than one exhibitor was not told until anytime between a couple of weeks to the Saturday of the convention whether they were allowed to have a booth nor where they were located, or received incorrect information about their booth or table numbers. This is understandable human error, though the complete absence of communication with people who were paying money to the con in order to present their work and products is another sign of too many tasks and not enough staff.

Panel submissions were open from July through November of 2018 and the only communication community members received about their panels was the automatic reply from the Google form, even though it stated on the form that community panels would be dealt with on a basis of rolling submissions.

The third issue of the PodCon newsletter included a confusing survey that asked podcasters and fans what their areas of knowledge were; for podcasters, it was a fairly exhaustive list of topics that community members knew came from submitted panels. While, again, not malicious, this can irk communities when they receive the impression that their panel proposals and ideas are being co-opted by an organization.

When it came time to confirm panels for certain, only a very small number of community panelists were contacted about their proposals, and no one I have spoken to received even a form rejection email. People whose proposed panels, usually complete with confirmed panelists, were accepted, had their panels undergo changes to include featured guests instead.

The combination of these events, especially the utter lack of any communication, meant that when the schedule was posted 21 days before the start of the convention, it took everyone by surprise.

PodCon’s Largest Problem was Their Schedule

The schedule illustrates the biggest and most observable series of gaps in PodCon’s organization. It came out less than a month before the first day of the convention and even then, it came out in what they declared an unfinished draft state (notably, four and a half hours after the initial tweet by Green):

Immediately noticeable were the small number of people of color and the complete lack of trans people in the featured guests and panelist line-up, the lack of creator-focused panels, and the fact that the panels mostly looked like a rotating shuffling of featured guests in every event. This was an especially noticeable oversight considering that back in early 2017, people requested more diverse panelists speaking about their craft, not just their identity, for PodCon 2.

PodCon, across the subsequent two and a half weeks, added several panels, live shows, and speakers to the schedule, addressing those gaps that had been pointed out. This last-minute scramble, while necessary, opened the door to a whole host of other problems, king of which were the lack of pay for marginalized and independent creators and an imbalance in schedule items, making this entire knotty problem a case of good intention, bad follow-up.

PodCon separated featured guests from speakers on their website and on the schedule; speakers appeared separately at the end of the list of guests on each event. This was a clear distinction on paper between those who were paid or compensated to come to PodCon and those who weren’t. Not paying convention speakers is not a problem particular to PodCon–this is a battle people have been fighting for a long time, and will probably not be solved across the board anytime soon. But it is especially problematic when such a high quantity of speakers added were members of marginalized and impoverished communities that are already go unpaid for their professional and emotional labor. The lack of even compensated tickets to the event was a head-scratcher, in particular when considering the varying amount of work people put in. (PodCon founders, notably, were also not paid.)

Who is PodCon’s Audience?

Pertinent to this entire conversation is the question: who is PodCon for? After all of the final scheduling was completed (with the final panel added approximately four days before the convention), a look at the events available shows a heavy leaning towards fans, with two live shows in every slot, meet and greets and creator chats with almost every one of the 46 featured guests, many of whom were double-dipped guests from PodCon 1, and a large amount of panels designed to appeal to podcast listeners rather than current or potential podcast creators. Not only that, but these were all stacked heavily in hour-long time slots (barring the opening and closing ceremonies, which were both 2 hours long) with thirty minutes between each.

It must be noted that the thirty minute break between slots was an excellent choice, though the start and end times meant there would be no good amount of time to get lunch or hang out in the Expo Hall without being late or missing the subsequent event. There was a clear reliance on the fact that PodCon has remote attendance to buy before and after the weekend, which would not have been as much of an issue if it hadn’t been for the manner in which things were stacked.

The prime example for this problem is the slot of 1 PM on Sunday, in which there are three separate events all geared towards fiction podcasters or fans at the same time–the fiction podcast meet-up, a panel about fictional characters and branding in digital spaces, and the Welcome to Night Vale Meet and Greet (which, granted, is open only to a select few by lottery).

screenshot of a schedule with various differently colored events podcon

This is not the only instance of schedule stacking–indeed, no slot had fewer than nine events, and some had eleven events happening at the same time–but it does highlight the question of both schedule design and prospective audience.

When trying to attract different kinds of fans, some of whom may be (and certainly were) creators or aspiring creators themselves, the concept of tracks becomes important in order to have at least one event per slot that belongs to a certain central theme. In the way PodCon 2 was designed, it seemed that they were of the belief that a majority of their attendees were only fans (hence, the overbooking of live shows and goofy panels), and much of the creator content was shoehorned in later.

The Convention Weekend

It is unfortunate that the lead-up to PodCon 2 was so rife with issues that seemed to be an effect of lack of time or even energy (when already handling a million other things) in a small full-time staff and likely also complicated by the timing of Green’s book tour for An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. However, something that should not be understated is the strength of the first PodCon’s memory in the community and its effect on PodCon 2 this year: 2017’s PodCon was so transformative and lauded that PodCon 2 had four separate, well-attended live events set-up around its schedule.

Multitude Productions held incredible, hysterical comedy live shows, styled as a variety show between their podcasts and associated acts, at The Rendezvous bar Thursday and Friday night, with guests Jeffrey Cranor, Wil Williams, Paul Bae, and Lauren Shippen. Accession’s T.H. Ponders guided fans through an art experience tour of the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum on Friday afternoon, and recorded their impressions and stories about particular pieces. On Saturday night, a few audio drama creators held a fully-sold out special panel on audio drama at The Lab at Ada’s, complete with themed cocktails. PodCon must be commended for being an event whose community experience is strong and magnetic enough to support multiple, sold-out events around it.

I spent a majority of my time that weekend in the Expo Hall, speaking with people who came by the booth I was sharing or who I met while handing out pronoun stickers around the whole Expo Hall about their experiences.

Accessibility Improves in Some Respects, Worsens in Others

PodCon registration occurred on Friday afternoon and throughout Saturday and Sunday; using either a confirmation code or a photo ID, attendees received a wristband and a black-and-white printed map of the convention center. The staff for PodCon were excellently dedicated to security and the wristbands were a solid decision; however, no option for a blank badge or even purchasing a badge to put names, pronouns, and podcast affiliation on seemed to me like a huge mistake, especially for trans and nonbinary people who need that space in particular.

The decision to not print a physical schedule was another baffling move, and one that I can only speculate comes from either a budgetary concern or the gaps from few staff. It is absolutely an accessibility issue to require people to use a buggy smartphone app or website to access the schedule, especially when there was no free Wi-Fi in the floors where PodCon was taking place. Primarily, this can cause issues for autistic people, people with ADHD, or other neurodivergent peoples, or people who use screen readers, especially since room numbers for each event were not easily findable (they were at the very bottom of the page for the event in question in small font).

Luckily, the layout of the convention this year was much improved: the Expo Hall and registration, as well as things like some meet-ups and the podcast recording booth were all on floor 4, while all the panels and workshops as well as secondary live shows were on floor 6. Having all of the events not only in the same building, but so easily accessible to one another, was a boon in comparison to PodCon 1, which was located across two different buildings.

The Expo Hall was much improved from last year, even though it was baffling to see a Nissan car sponsor right in the middle. PodCon 2 more than doubled the number of exhibitors, thanks to their decision to move creator chats and meet and greets to their own rooms on the sixth floor, and made purchasing that space slightly more available to independent podcasters and creators with the option of a cheaper table instead of a full booth.

There were several hubs of activity across the Expo Hall surrounding podcast-specific booths and tables in particular, which was undoubtedly a vibrant community space. Attendees were generally in upbeat and positive spirits within the Expo Hall. I experienced some longing for the PodQuest from PodCon 1, which I had noticed helped attendees visit booths they may not have otherwise, but no podcast-focused exhibitor I spoke to (though granted, it was not all of them) experienced markedly poor traffic or attention.

PodCon 2’s Content Meets Expectations

The opening ceremony on Saturday morning featured a variety show of featured guests, hosted primarily by Symphony Saunders and Simone de Rochefort, and had the audience in stitches throughout most of it. For the most part, the opening ceremony brought the energy that starting the weekend needed in the form of skit games and rapidfire introductions of featured guests. Other live shows received similarly positive reviews–especially that of Punch Up the Jam, who received a standing ovation, and The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman, who I heard quoted for the rest of the convention.

My own attendance of the Spirits live show, which was added to the schedule only a couple of weeks prior to the convention, was a definite highlight; the Spirits hosts and their guest, Lisette Alvarez, were graceful and hilarious, and kept the audience in complete stitches over the urban legend letters from their listeners that they had chosen. The My Brother, My Brother, and Me live show unfortunately fell victim to the issue of no pre-screened audience questions; the show itself was a consummate performance by the McElroys, but the Q&A portion was cringe-worthy.

The panels and workshops I attended and heard about were extremely well put-together by guests and speakers; Wil Williams, and other podcasters, live-tweeted a substantial quantity of panels and workshops and you can find those listed here. Without a doubt, the Trans Representation in Audio Drama panel was the most moving and emotionally striking panel I attended, something that would hopefully stay with audience members deep into their futures as listeners and creators.  

Archive 81’s Dan Powell led a workshop on science-fiction sound design that was thorough, accessible, enjoyable, and most importantly, actionable. People left that panel feeling as though they had not only learned something and had fun doing it, but that they could then teach their friends and colleagues one or two new things. While The Bright Sessions Q&A panel did not have pre-screened questions, it intelligently had about a 40-60 time split between questions moderator Lauren Shippen had written up and audience questions, and they dropped news about the new The Bright Sessions universe series coming in mid-2019; this combination made it a well-run, exciting panel.

But witnessing, for instance, the intensity of the trans representation panel or the completeness of the sci-fi soundscape workshop, and knowing that none, or very few, of them were paid and many had been ushered in very last-minute, left a sad note on many recollections of those experiences, both in attendees and certainly for speakers. This reaction was often heightened when comparing the treatment of panels versus workshops–for example, no workshop I attended or saw photos of had the names and projects of speakers on name cards, unlike panels, which had individualized name cards, which was frankly, a weird oversight.

The closing show was organized similarly to the opening, this year hosted by Dylan Marron and Lauren Shippen, who were charismatic and wonderful on stage. PodCon has nailed their vibe for how they want to open and close the experience, and I personally think that these variety shows can and do work as long as they’re well-planned and thought out. There  are definitely instance of there being too many people on stage sometimes, or the openings being awkward and unprepared, but having a marked, singular event to bookend the convention that focuses on positive creative energy is not just a smart move, but a kind one, and one that I would love to see flourish.

A Positive Experience That Needs Change

So, PodCon 1 was an incredible experience from beginning to end, and PodCon 2 was not; the lead-up to PodCon 2 was rife with frustration and hurt ultimately stemming from miscommunication. These are not insurmountable problems. PodCon is new, still young, and has the time and opportunity to figure out where and how it needs to grow and change, if it will listen.

The most fundamental change that has to occur is their standards of communication. Exhibitors, panelists, speakers, and attendees experienced some level of silence when there should have been at least a form letter of some kind. While they are on the ball about certain core aspects, that must extend to the rest of the community as well, even if that means just using the newsletter more often and scheduling tweets way in advance.

The most complicated, but essential change, is in adjusting what they envision for their featured guests. Important to take into account is to honestly consider, and not be uncomfortable with the conversation about, equitable and just diversity in featured guests. Whose voice is not represented yet, or is tokenized? Can it be fixed before the schedule goes out? Are they being compensated? Who has not been represented in the past, and who can we reach out to so that they are going forward?

Within these considerations comes also the decision to have small, indie creators as featured guests, and to not re-invite guests from previous years. The variety needs to be not just in identity, but in that of craft and audience; combine smaller, lesser-known indies with big names on a more regular basis, and pay them, as they are also therefore the ones most likely to be unable to pay their own way. And when making the schedules for the featured guests, the amount of work they do needs to be evenly balanced; otherwise, a guest that’s doing five or six or more hours of work at the convention needs to be compensated more.

Tailoring Tracks

There are podcasters in the audience of PodCon. They may still be in planning stages, or have small audiences and small press, or are growing rapidly in popularity, or maybe they haven’t even considered making one yet, but they would love to hear from people like them, and to see people like them up on stage or in a program. It is not an easy conversation to have even with oneself, and would definitely require the ongoing input of marginalized and independent community members or staff members.

PodCon seems like it would benefit from implementing tracks, such as one for fans, one for fiction creators, and one for nonfiction creators, as a very loose example. Having tracks would ensure that there is one event per time slot that belongs to each track and an attendee who has come for one specific reason is able to attend all relevant events. It’s still entirely likely that there will be overlap of highly desired events. But someone who doesn’t want to miss anything related to their particular subject or interest will be better enabled to do that live and then purchase remote attendance to enjoy other things that were not as key to their current situation.

It would, as a result, make the schedule feel less overwhelming and easier to manage, similar to Austin Film Festival and Podcast Movement, both of whom have tracks and printed schedules, as well as online app-based ones.

Some other possible changes that have seen success with in other conventions include extending the length to three days, starting programs earlier and ending later, moving to a less expensive location (something addressed in particular with the PodCon 2 exit survey sent out last week), and modifying the costs of attendance to include options for less expensive day passes and perhaps more expensive special tracks. I’ve also seen suggested planned late-night events to accomplish networking and relaxed meet-ups without worrying about missing panels; it’s that kind of hybrid program planning that best encourages fans leaves as creators of art, instead of just fans.

From a mostly outside perspective, the problems I had with PodCon seemed to stem from a case of five people doing the work of ten or fifteen, which means that in the future, hiring more full-time staff may be necessary, if only to relieve the staff currently in place. I am absolutely certain that organizers were doing the best they could given the combination of their resources and the needs of the convention, and I want to reiterate my appreciation of the energy they put in to putting together and running this convention in a rather expensive location.

Convention running is difficult and often thankless, and PodCon 2 was still a good space for podcast creators and listeners to gather and trade advice, respect, and appreciation. It’s unfortunate that PodCon was that positive, vibrant, energetic feeling all weekend in spite of itself, but I would encourage podcasters and fans alike to continue to push and encourage PodCon, and other conventions, to better themselves and their work and to listen to the needs of the communities they serve.

PodCon already proved that they can provide a space that encourages the creation of art; now they just need to address the flaws before they become ingrained and we lose that momentum.

Thanks to Erin Speckley for sharing her compilation of relevant PodCon 2 livetweets.

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