The On-Air Fest last week in Brooklyn was an incredible explosion of artists and creators sharing their vision of the future of podcasting and audio and what they learned from trying, failing, and experimenting to be their most interesting authentic selves while working in the medium of sound. It lasted three days at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn and was mostly divided between panel discussions in the main hall and in the smaller area, the Simplecast Audio Lounge. The main hall had a stage for the presenters who could command the large audience that the room provided and the Simplecast Audio Lounge had smaller scale more intimate discussions where creators discussed their craft on couches with the audience just a few feet away from them on the floor and in chairs opposite them. Much of the talks in both areas seemed focused on the nuts and bolts of podcast making which makes sense because a large percentage of the audience seemed to be involved in the industry in some capacity.
With that in mind, and assuming most of the readers of this piece will be or are already inclined to work in audio, it seemed like it would be helpful to present the most important lessons learned from having so much collective wisdom together in one room.
In an industry that forces people to pay close attention to what is being said
The festival felt like an incubation from “the real world” and the long discussions of the panelists were filled with nuance and context which was a welcome reprieve from our “hot take” society on social media and the news. The first thing out of our mouths and in our minds in response to sometimes controversial subjects aren’t always filled with the most clarity and in our ephemeral world of swiping right and scrolling through Instagram feeds I was glad that some of the speakers stood up and talked about it.
In a conversation with Nick Quah, the editor of Hot Pod, Dan Taberski of Missing Richard Simmons, and Surviving Y2K was asked why he likes complication.
Surviving Y2K is a six-episode series that focused on the lives of people that were most affected by the Y2K bug from computer programmers to doomsday preppers and even the host of the show himself. The show takes us back to just how surreal a time it was when one out of six people believed that Jesus Christ was returning. Dan said he spent a year on Surviving Y2K and he wanted to earn the right to talk about something instead of just issuing a hot take. He took the time to explore people’s feelings about a confusing time and showed us how context can provide a much deeper picture of a subject than what a simple cursory exploration would uncover.
Later, the host for the first day, Dylan Marron, talked about his podcast Conversations with People Who Hate Me and how he works to uncover context from talking with people about subjects they were angry about. In the show, Dylan calls up people who have written angry hate-filled comments online about his other video and audio work. He doesn’t argue. He just listens and asks questions to find out what’s really going on with people when they express themselves in such a violent manner online.
“I don’t work to change their mind in a conversation,” Dylan said onstage at On-Air Fest. “I leave them a safe space because debate is gamefied conversation where one person wins and one person loses.”
Difficulties and Problems with the State of Podcasting:
The Great Audio Debate in the main hall was a mock debate where the panelists spoke candidly and lightheartedly about problems with their industry and uncovered some real gems for the audience in the process. The most revealing answers happened when the question of “how podcasting has failed” was asked.
Ken Freedman, of WMFU radio, said that podcasting failed at getting a general use music license for programming which severely limits the choices his radio station can use when making a podcast.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, recently of NPR’s Code Switch said podcasting borrowed a bad idea from television, that of the weekly serial model because it was something listeners could understand. She explained that it’s a resource drain spacing out and promoting individual episodes and she plans on experimenting with full drops of shows in the future.
The “Your View Your Voice” session continued talking about the issues facing podcasters today as Christine Elliot of Mastercard said that getting her bosses to see podcasting as a good use of their money is hard because there aren’t enough statistics other than downloads.
Strategies for Successful Audio Making
During “The Making of Crimetown” session Zac Stuart-Pontier said that audio is more difficult to create than tv and can be confusing if you have too many active voices. His show Crimetown is a serial documentary series that looks at different cultures of crime in America and has a strong narrative storytelling arc. To tell the best story in a documentary style production, Zac recommends creating a simple through-line for the audience with cinematic moments that work in terms of scenes from a film. During interview segments of production, Zac says to pull as much of yourself out of it as you can and focus on the subject.
During the “Worldbuilding Through Audio” segment audio fiction makers Alexander Danner, Jordan Cobb, and Kevin Vibert shared specific strategies to make audio fiction more engrossing for the lister.
Jordan pointed out that it’s the little things that cement the listener into the world and make it seem more real. For Kevin that involves thinking specifically about sound effects and how to create what the listener thinks they might sound like versus what they actually sound like. “What sound does a snake make?” Kevin asked as the audience made a big “hissssss” sound. “It doesn’t normally make a sound,” Kevin said with a grin. “It’s a snake. It sneaks up on you.”
“You have to make the sounds interesting,” Alexander said recounting how in his show Greater Boston they set a scene in a conference room and it was boring for audio because the background was so quiet. He recommends using a fun location with a lot of ambient sounds like a bowling alley.
Audio has a limited language that forces creators to explore the options available to them and Alexander Danner says you can combat that by developing a different language. He talked about how in cinema you can set a mood with silence but how that doesn’t work with audio and so a single constant noise like a fan can grab attention in the same way that silence can.
Archival History and the Process Behind It
In “Reclaiming History with Science Friday” Elah Feder and Annie Minoff, the hosts of the Undiscovered podcast about quirks of science history, brought up one of the main issues with celebrating hidden figures from the past. It’s hard to celebrate them because there isn’t a lot of info available about them.
They were trying to make a podcast about female botanist Jeanne Baret who is recognized as the first women to circumnavigate the globe. They thought she was an important figure but unfortunately, she left no diaries or letters. She had to pretend to be a man to become a crew member on an expedition and thus was very secretive and everything written about her comes from the perspective of someone else. Without a firsthand account, Elah and Annie didn’t think they could create a narrative around her and why she wanted so badly to sail the world and discover and catalog plants.
The panel from “Saving the Sounds of Brooklyn” picked up on this thread of history belonging to those who archive it as Virginia Marshall of the Borrowed podcast spoke on how poorer people from the past aren’t recorded because they didn’t have the means to be recorded.
In order to combat that loss in the future, the panel from the Brooklyn Library described in explicit terms what has to be done to store audio for the future.
Analog audio has to be recorded digitally and quickly because it degrades as soon as it’s created. Even a digital file is stored on a server somewhere, so create backup copies and then store them in multiple places and save on multiple devices and have one copy far away from you in case of a natural disaster.
When in Doubt – Make the Pie!
During the Kitchen Sisters live session, Susan Rogers of the Berklee College of Music told a story of when she started working with Prince as a recording technician during the time of Purple Rain. She was nervous and wanted to make a good impression on him and show him that he could count on her. She loved to bake and knew Prince had a sweet tooth and thought he would really love a break in the middle of all of his hard work. She got to work and arrived on set around midnight with a pie and knocked on his trailer all the while thinking how ridiculous she was. Prince answered the door and she said: “Prince I baked you a pie”. He looked at her like she was insane but thanked her and devoured the whole thing and that began the start of a working relationship between them. Her physical action crossed the boundary that her words alone couldn’t do and was a sweet moment literally and figuratively that transformed the situation.
So when in doubt, make the pie!
At the end of the story, the hotel door opened and hotel and On-Air fest staff appeared with pieces of pie that were delivered to everyone in the room.
We got the message: Make the pie and don’t be afraid to go overboard with gratitude. Words matter but it’s a person’s actions that can create a positive sweet impression of who they really are, and that’s a lesson worth remembering for podcasting and life.