WTF is a Podcast Festival?

In advertising, a podcast party would be called heroing. In Spanish, it might be a marcha. I’d accept “show” maybe, though under no circumstance could I get behind celebration (too stuffy) and obviously, neither jamboree nor jubilee are acceptable words for public utterance.

There aren’t many great options, as it turns out, for labeling an audio gathering. Festival is the only noun on a very short list that kinda-sorta works. But it leaves room for confusion. For instance, my roommate guessed without a hint of irony that I would be shuffling around from stage to stage as each podcaster performed simultaneously. I assured her that neither Tape Fest’s nor Cast Party’s producers were terrorists, as the blood returned to my face. Could you imagine the psychopathic horror of a bunch of people talking all at once and wandering around, trying to make sense of it?

Something as amorphous as sound being set to stage is almost easier to define in terms of what it’s not. For instance, the many podcasters I spoke to prior to fest time tended to liken the event to going to see your favorite band perform live. After going to both Tape Fest and Cast Party, I can assure it isn’t like that at all. For one, no one—that I could see—was using recreational drugs. For two, once you were in your seat, you were in your seat—both for Tape Fest, which was held only in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and Cast Party, which was performed at NYU’s Skirball Center and then beamed out to theaters across the country. Third, there weren’t any food or drink vendors, save for the movie theater popcorn. Neither festival built in time to interact with the audience or for the audience to interact with each other, like say, a mosh pit would. You couldn’t even see your fellow podcast fans’ faces. There was no festival wear, unless a bunch of upper middle class people with average style sense that tended toward spectacles and Converse counts. And everyone was well behaved—which is decidedly un-rock ’n’ roll.

Before I attended Tape Fest and Cast Party, I tried to decipher from each of the shows’ lineups what I might be in for. Both boasted musicians and fiction podcasts, as well as essay-style and newsy ones. Tape Fest had spoken-word artists while Cast Party had comedians. I could not suss out a theme from either other than podcasts.

Perhaps “variety show” is a podcasting event’s most accurate and succinct description. Mooj Zadie of Tape Fest said that if you start with the premise that everyone belongs on the radio, than the collection of artists that performed at his show makes perfect sense.

The point is, an event of this nature isn’t yet defined, any more so than the medium itself is defined. Listening to a new podcast is an adventure into the unknown—and so are festivals that put them on center stage.

Over the course of two days, I was exposed to podcasters out in the wild, performing on stage free from their sound-proof production studios. What followed was sometimes moving, occasionally poignant, often funny, and wholly delightful.

TAPE FEST, July 26, 2015, The Bell House 

ACT ONE

Anna & Elizabeth, Appalachian musicians

For the eyes: They unwound what they have coined a crankie—cloth-cut paper scrolls depicting scenes from ballads—while singing a wonderful ballad about a great adventure.

Notes: This was a hell of a way to kick off the show. Act One forced me into a very necessary shift of mind, a la, “The foolish man thinks he knows everything, and the wise man knows he knows nothing.” I didn’t know what to expect going into the show, but I was wide open after Anna & Elizabeth. Bring it on, audio artists.

ACT TWO

Yowei Shaw, Independent radio producer, nonfiction 

For the eyes: Shaw told the story of the language barrier between her and her grandparents. When she said that her grandpa was the best, a video clip of her as a young girl appeared. We then heard audio of her learning that a decorative item from her home was actually crafted by her grandmother, not just a gift from her. While we listened, Shaw held up the actual item being discussed.

Notes: Without being diminutive, Shaw was 3D scrapbooking, and I was transfixed. Her segment was an audio-visual collage. I had no idea such a thing could exist. The segment took advantage of the medium in a new and fascinating way, embracing both audio and visual elements.

ACT THREE 

Planet Money with David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein, economics/literary journalism 

For the eyes: Accompanying the story of light, we saw graphs that showed us the ratio of a person’s average daily income to how much light they could buy with it. For hundreds of years, it took all of a day’s income just to buy a few hours of light. Eventually, though, the ratio was completely off the charts—we are now able to buy so much more light than we would ever want or need with a day’s wages.

Notes: Mooj Zadie talked with Kestenbaum and Goldstein before the event. They told him they were worried about fitting in, that their segment might feel like a lecture. But they resembled rock stars most of all, especially with their closing line: “Kerosene lit the world and saved the whales,” one of them shouted as their backs turned away and they exited the stage.

ACT FOUR

Andrea Silenzi, host of WFMU’s Why Oh Why, creative nonfiction

For the eyes: Silenzi took us through photos as she told her story, incorporating voice-from-the-sky audio clips of her speaking with other people as she went. And we were able to see her in person contextualizing some of the situations she described, mainly her relationship with her father and a trip to Maine.

Notes: This performance was enhanced by the visual element simply because we could see that she was okay. After discussing some pretty nightmarish, though not uncommon, familial relationships, that Silenzi was laughing and basically comfortable with her material injected a sense of relief.

ACT FIVE 

Sharon Mashihi collaborating with Kaitlin Prest of The Heart, collage/performance

For the eyes: Mashihi and Prest used enough props to put Carrot Top to shame, not that anyone needs to bring him further shame. They used their bodies—which had to be weird for people used to only having their voices recorded. Mashihi started the set by drawing on a unibrow. She traveled in her mind—on a stage using a tarp and sound effects—to a beach that turned into a nightmare and then into an elevator. Prest, who initially seemed like just the sound gal, ended up being a character in the fictive world these two created.

Notes: Sound was at the center of this experimental format. I worried the whole time that they would go so obscure, the audience would become alienated. It never happened, and once again, my understanding of what this festival was about expanded.

ACT SIX

Steve Roggenbock, poet, blogger and YouTuber, fiction/performance 

For the eyes: Roggenbock paced around the stage with spoken-word presence wearing a backpack and reading from a journal.

Notes: Though it was a monologue that depended mostly on the audio, Roggenbock stirred up a ton of energy by pacing and did what is so often impossible: he redeemed a cliché, “Don’t be someone else, be yourself.” He metaphorically, if not literally, dropped the mic.

ACT SEVEN

Nate DiMeo, The Memory Palace, narrative nonfiction

For the eyes: A trichromatic animation of a bird’s journey played in perfect sync to DiMeo’s words.

Notes: As a hugely popular podcaster, the room gave DiMeo a big welcome. He was nervous, but not distractingly so. His nerves, though, reminded me that Tape Fest wasn’t just for the audience—for our amusement, yes—but the participants were obviously growing and being challenged, too.

ACT EIGHT

Gold Tape Competition Winner

For the eyes: Tape Fest put out a call for sound bites for which the winner received a $1,000 prize. The winner was the sound of a man praying to himself in a whisper before hugging his mean-as-hell grandmother, who spewed all manner of hellfire at his show of affection. We heard the bit, and then the winner came up and context was added to the clip.

Notes: The long-form capabilities of podcasts is what made me a listener, so the quickness of these moments allowed me to more thoughtfully consider the possibilities of the super short form—like flash fiction or haikus.

ACT NINE

Maria Catt, writer 

For the eyes: Maria Catt showed up in a blue dress, done hair, and cute kitten heels. She read her work into a microphone and sometimes she laughed with us.

Notes: Her piece, “Ice Balls,” was a story about how she moved to San Francisco to acquire insurance that would cover her transition into a man and what she did for a living to acquire said insurance: she made ice balls for scotch drinks at an expensive boys’ club. I knew there was a possibility that she had transitioned and now enjoyed drag (she was presenting as a woman, not a man). Her story resolved these questions—but since you can find the story at The Tusk, I won’t spoil it for you here. She didn’t embrace multimedia, but her presence added to the tension of her piece, a layer that would not have existed in audio or print.

ACT TEN 

PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, Reply All, technology/literary journalism 

For the eyes: The screen behind them played, on repeat, a scene from The Perfect Crime, a play that allowed them to explore the topic of a creative journey versus the creative destination.

Notes: This played somewhat like a recording segment of theirs might, but it was enhanced by the presence of the video as well as the notable chemistry and playful banter between Vogt and Goldman.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Tape Fest was tightly run and beautifully performed. Every element of it felt purposeful and charged with meaning. As an event, it was full-on art house, in the most wonderful way.

Credits: Mooj Zadie, executive producer; Hannah Paveck, associate director; Mickey Capper, technical director

CAST PARTY, July 27, 2015, NYU’s Skirball Center; July 28, 2015, theaters nationwide

INTRODUCTION

Seth Lind, Cast Party producer and host

Seth Lind addressed the tropes that have emerged about podcasting: that it’s having “a moment,” that it’s the golden age, that Serial legitimized the form. It gave it an insiders-only feel and a nod to the presumed intelligence of the audience. As opposed to the intimacy Tape Fest captured, Cast Party needed to reach a large number of people with theaters across the country sold out. From the start, though, it did not feel like this was a watered-down event designed for the masses. Lind kicked it off as a celebration for the die-hards.

ACT ONE 

PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, Reply All, technology/literary journalism 

For the eyes: See Tape Fest.

Notes: It was a little odd to see these two riffing the same riffs from the night before. For the most part, the jokes still played well, but I felt like I could see behind the veil. Ah, I realized, these two are practiced at the art of sounding spontaneous. Make no mistake about it, these scripts were edited and every awkward pause and sidelong glance was part of the show. As an opening act, they were a smart pick as the material was an easy blend of humor, history, and human interest. It was, in short, the very essence of their podcast.

ACT TWO

Lulu Miller, Invisibilia, psychology/literary journalism 

For the eyes: Miller delivered a charmingly nervous (was she actually nervous or did she just know it would play that much better? It’s hard to say.) segment about a man on a mission to break the four-minute mile. It was complete with audio and video samples, including a cameo from Invisibilia co-host Alix Spiegel who challenged Miller to deliver the segment in four minutes.

Notes: Though the four-minute challenge was designed to add a layer of tension, what worked best about this was Miller herself. She’s been a podcast fan favorite ever since her days with Radiolab and her likability translated just fine to the silver screen. If anything, I would have liked to have spent more time on this story, as it takes Miller much longer to wear out her very warm welcome.

ACT THREE

Jonathan Mitchell and company, The Truth, scripted narrative fiction

For the eyes: A set and cast of characters were arranged in the spirit of a celebrity roast, with the United States playing the part of the roastee. Guests included China, Russia, Cuba, Mexico, and the U.K., who took cheap shots at American exceptionalism and imperialism.

Notes: This act was one of the most form-forward as it fully embraced the visual format of Cast Party. It unfolded like something out of the Saturday Night Live playbook and it drew chuckles and even a few belly laughs from audience members. The segment devolved a bit as it went as many comedies do, but this was clearly a carefully scripted and strongly acted performance. And using the live audience at Skirball as the laugh track for the audio was a brilliant touch.

ACT FOUR

Lauren Lapkus and Bobby Moynihan, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, improvisational comedy

For the eyes: Lapkus and SNL-member Moynihan sat in armchairs and engaged in an improvised conversation about celebrity sightings.

Notes: Though this act would have drawn plenty of laughter as a recorded segment—as Lapkus’ podcast does—the high-stakes nature of watching it play out in front of viewers offered a wonderful new layer. Both performers were outstanding and it was mesmerizing to see the ease with which they could yes-and their way through a hilarious conversation. It might have run a bit too long, but no one was complaining. And giggling with a bunch of strangers is the best.

ACT FIVE

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab, science/literary journalism

For the eyes: This act featured a string quartet from Carnegie Hall on stage to help antagonize some of the mysteries surrounding Beethoven’s metronome and the speed at which his music should be played. Krulwich and Abumrad (who by the way gesticulates like a maniac in a way similar to a composer—apropos for the topic he was tackling) sat at the sleek table, consulting their scripts and their computers as they told their story. The movie screen behind them alternated between a drawing of a metronome and Beethoven. Previously recorded audio interviews chimed in throughout in as voices from the sky.

Notes: This act drew some complaints, as it was recycled material from an old show. However, if it was your first time seeing it, there was a lot to love about the goofy, mock-improv conversation between these show veterans. Like Vogt and Goldman’s performances, the parts designed to sound off-the-cuff were as scripted as everything else, though it was far harder to believe in this performance with Krulwich striking notes of complete confusion (as though he was told five minutes before the show that he was needed on stage). The quartet was dazzling as they were ordered to play Beethoven’s masterpiece ever-faster and ever-faster.

BETWEEN ACTS

Cacoon Central Dance Team performed bizzaro dance routines, pushing modern dance way over the edge into humor. The Westerlies, a band of four horn playing, tall and skinny men, also filled in some of the blanks. The did a routine together at one point that Lind participated in, too.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Cast Party proved the numbers—with 17 million people in America enjoying at least one podcast a month—and the heavy listeners consuming as much as six hours a day—and that listeners want more. Theaters sold out, people had a good time. Afterward, it did feel like I had just donated to one of my best friend’s causes.

CREDITS: The show was produced and hosted by SETH LIND. Executive Producers for Cinema: BY EXPERIENCE, INC.

~

Having gone to the shows doesn’t necessarily give me insight about what a podcast festival is or a crystal ball by which to predict what will play out on stage at one of them. But, I think looking at the credentials of an event’s producer can help gauge the potential vibe of an event (Lind has worked in comedy and with This American Life for years; one listen to Zadie’s podcast Tape and you know he digs deep thinkers and people who push the edges), and in that way, you can see if it’s something that speaks to your own preferences. But what will undoubtedly be the consistent motivation to turn up at a festival of podcasts like these is the camaraderie, the doing of something in a group that you normally do alone. It’s important to come out of our own heads and see the other people responsible for downloads. Podcasters and listeners need not be faceless numbers. But if it is a numbers game, then the numbers have spoken. In our on-demand culture, we want to have a time and place to show up every once in awhile.

~

Author Description

Laura Jane Standley's work has appeared in The Guardian, The Believer, Vitamin W, The Rocky Mountain Oil Journal, American Contemporary Artist, 303 Magazine—where she was the editor in chief, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art—where she was the managing editor. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, works as a copyeditor at an ad agency on Wall Street, and lives in the dumpy part of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York.

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