Disclaimer: I’m a podcaster and a podcast fan. I was one fourth of the amazing team of the now-retired Scorebored. I have worked with a lot of the podcasters whose podcasts I listen to regularly. I listen to podcasts daily. I attend live podcast performances. I have attended the Los Angeles Podcast Festival four out of the five years it has been going. So I am writing this article as a member of the press, but also as a member the podcast community.
Last weekend marked the inaugural Now Hear This Podcast Festival (NHT). The festival was held October 28th-30th at the Anaheim Marriot which is next door to the Anaheim Convention Center and down the street from Disneyland in sunny Southern California. While I got to attend as press (which has its own perks), I connected with other festival attendees and hung with my friend Dan to do my best to understand how it would be to attend as regular festival attendee. But the experience of attending as a regular attendee would differ for some as NHT had tiered passes from General Admission to Upgraded VIP.
Unlike the Los Angeles Podcast Festival which has either single day passes or weekend passes, the Now Hear This Podcast Festival offered single day tickets as well as three different levels of passes: 3-day General Admission passes, VIP passes, and Upgraded VIP passes. A General Admission Pass (3-day or single day) allowed access to all the podcasts, but no frills past that. The regular VIP pass gave advanced seating in all podcasts, reserved seating at some podcasts, and meet-and-greet photo opportunities with select podcast talent. The Upgraded VIP Pass gave all the perks of the regular VIP pass, but also included the following: a VIP breakfast with podcasters, three vouchers for alcoholic beverages, and access to the VIP lounge that had a bar, and provided food and non-alcoholic beverage service. This is the option that Dan (who has also attended the Los Angeles Podcast Festival) bought for the weekend. Thanks to Dan, I was able to get a much better picture of the Upgraded VIP experience.
While drinks are always nice at an event, having delicious, on-site food provided three times a day in the VIP lounge was an excellent perk for those who opted for the Upgraded VIP pass. The GA and non-upgraded VIPs could buy food and drinks at the hotel bar, in the festival exhibit hall, the hotel Starbucks, or the hotel Pizza Hut.
As press, I had access to the media room with tables, internet, and places to plug in. The festival also kept it stocked with snacks, soda, and water. It was also the place where I got to sit down for a one-on-one interview with the amazing Jimmy Pardo of Never Not Funny and for a press roundtable with Lauren Lapkus of With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus.
Next door to the Media Room was the Meet and Greet room where those who opted for VIP or Upgraded VIP could meet and take photos with select podcast talent. And next to the Meet and Greet room was the Green Room for the talent.
NHT had its share of sponsors for most of the stages: Stitcher Radio for Podcasts, Mack Weldon, Loot Crate, and Casper Mattress. These sponsors received liberal plugs throughout the weekend, had the festival staff hand out coupons and freebies to attendees, and had their names promoted through various promotional materials throughout the festival. It was hard to escape the corporate presence that helped fund the weekend.
The festival staff were friendly and very helpful. They checked in with me throughout my time there and made sure I was doing well. Their care and concern was greatly appreciated. The festival was well-staffed and help was easy to locate when I needed it. What was interesting was the staffing and presence of security guards throughout the weekend. Their presence was most prominent in front of the VIP lounge and the Green Room ensuring that those who were not meant to be there were not there. Maybe it’s just me, but the security seemed excessive for this crowd. I’ve never seen a podcast stage rushed or a podcaster attacked at a festival.
Friday night I stopped into The Moth for a little while, then headed over to catch Never Not Funny, and then finished up the night with Comedy Bang! Bang! On Saturday, I attended the full sessions for Ronna & Beverly, I Was There Too, WTF, Doug Love Movies, and How Did This Get Made? I also saw small chunks of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Found, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, and Hollywood Handbook. On Sunday, I caught Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown and Spontaneation, and stopped in to Worst Idea of All Time in between the two.
While the advanced seating was nice for the VIPs, the VIPs lines were still just as long as the GA lines. However, there was really no shortage of seating in any of the rooms. While I understand the appeal of sitting in the front, which I did for some of the podcasts, I also sat in the back for a few as well. Even in the back, I could see the stages pretty well, and if I needed to I could watch on the screens that hugged each side of the stage in every room.
While this festival had a nice blend of comedy and non-comedy podcasts, the scheduling was not the best. In total there were thirty-four podcasts included. Yet on Friday night there were only six podcasts, and on Sunday there were only four. The remaining twenty-four podcasts were all scheduled on Saturday and almost all of them heavily overlapped with one another. There were a lot of podcasts I wanted to see but they conflicted with a lot of other shows I also wanted to see. So I had to sacrifice a lot of shows and prioritize what I considered to be the most important shows for me to go to. In speaking with many of the other attendees, I was not alone in being frustrated with the scheduling. The thirty-four podcasts could have definitely been spread out better over the three days of the festival which would have avoided so much overlapping. The Sunday programming was over by 2:30pm and I think people would have been happy to have stayed later. If this was your first podcast festival you wouldn’t know any better. However, for those of us who are L.A. Podcast Festival veterans, we are used to all three days being full of podcasts with much better timing.
Podcasts fans are loyal. While most of us are happy to discover new shows, there are specific podcasts that we come to see. And we want to see all of the show. Podcasts are not something you wander in and out of. If you do, you miss storylines, jokes, and special guests if you don’t stay the whole way through. Wherever you listen to podcasts, you can stop when you need to, but you start again, you finish them. What you don’t do is listen for fifteen minutes and then jump over to another podcast and listen for thirty. That’s not how podcast fans listen. But if you really wanted to see a lot of podcasts at this festival it is what you would have had to do. However, I think most of the attendees of the NHT just prioritized the shows that they felt were the most important for them during the weekend. I know that I am happy with what I was able to attend, I am disappointed at some of the key shows I had to miss.
While most podcast festivals are held at hotels, the Anaheim Marriot hotel was an acoustic nightmare. Many of the podcasters commented openly from the stage about not being able to hear themselves or one another and about the constant echo throughout each show. The echo very apparent especially if a room was not as full.
Most podcast fans listen to podcasts in their individual spaces and time. However, as fans we are definitely a community. We enjoy coming together at the festivals and getting to meet other fans and meet the talent behind the podcasts. While we, as fans, may have felt all together once we were all settled into a room, the separation of the GA and the VIPs was very apparent in the halls. Maybe it was because we were so spread out. Maybe it was because the VIP lines, lounge, and separate meet-and-greets created an “us and them” mentality. I missed being closer to people and the feeling like any one of us could be the ones on the stage one day. And while a lot of the podcast talent walked around so that GA pass holders could interact with them, some of the other talent were just not accessible if you didn’t pay for it.
The other thing I thought was really missing from this show was the DIY feeling of podcasting. While the NHT had a very polished and corporate look and feel, there was no podcast lab for smaller podcasts to use at the festival. I missed seeing other podcasters get interviews they might not be able to regularly get. The lab is also one of the places where collaborations begin and people discover smaller shows. I also wished that the festival had panels on the technical ins and outs of podcasting for those who wanted to begin a podcast or continue to better their existing shows.
It will be interesting to see how the Now Hear This Podcast Festival evolves and grows over the next few years. I loved the shows I got to see and enjoyed some of the new shows that I discovered. But I really hope they can work to create less of an “us and them” environment. For a lot of podcasters and podcast fans, we were not the popular kids, we were not the ones with a voice. But podcast fans and podcasters are a community. When we come together, we do so to enjoy the live shows together and to meet other people who love what we love. Hopefully this festival will not only work out the technical kinks in the future but will work on building a place for more cohesive community and not just another high school environment where the popular kids have access while the rest of us are left on the fringes.