PodCon 2: A Month Later

For one glorious January weekend, hundreds of podcast nerds descended on Seattle for PodCon 2. Between the convention itself and several pop-up fan events, I was surrounded by podcasting for seven days straight. It was a life-changing experience. Yet through it all, I had the sense we were making our own fun, not following the curated experience every convention strives to be.

Now that I’ve had a month to ruminate on my first podcasting convention experience, let’s talk about the things PodCon 2 did right, the things it didn’t quite nail, and hopes for the future.

Section 18

If one wants to simulate the general feel of PodCon 2 from the moment the IndieGoGo was announced to the end of closing ceremonies, all one has to do is look at section 18 of the PodCon 2 exit survey.

A brief aside on a Twitter thread of my hopes for Podcon 3

The clock starts around 7:30 pst on Monday, January 21st. Event founder Hank Green mentions in a tweet he’s working on the exit survey that’ll be sent out to everyone who attended. I respect the hustle. It was after business hours on Martin Luther King Day and “write the exit survey” does not feel like co-founder-level work that needs doing the literal day after PodCon 2 ended.

The survey arrived in attendees’ inboxes four days later, Friday the 24th. It’s a sizeable document taking a healthy amount of information and asking for direct feedback multiple times (including two different prompts asking for constructive feedback over things the attendee might not have liked). As a package, it’s a pretty well put-together survey.

Until you get to section 18.

Section 18 asks the attendee to go through a list of every podcast represented at PodCon and check off favorites. It should be noted “represented” simply means “had a host present in some capacity.” This greatly expands the list as shows like Join the Party were technically represented even if they didn’t have a live show or meetup. It’s a big list.

Sprits: Kida Crepy, Kina Col

And in that big list there are two glaring mistakes butted up against each other: the McElroy podcast Still Buffering is listed twice by accident, and the Multitude show Spirits is misspelled as “Sprits.”

These two mistakes are by no means a big deal. Were I in the driver seat, I’d make a post-it note combining the results of the two Still Buffering entries, send the hosts of Still Buffering and the hosts of Spirits an apology email. Busy week, this one slipped under the radar, my bad.

It would be ridiculous to expect the team to spend four straight days copy-editing the exit survey multiple times when they had much more pressing business to deal with. It’s nowhere near as expected or important as the release of remote access content or reimbursements to volunteers. That all said, one more pair of eyes and half an hour’s effort probably would’ve added that extra layer of polish.

The true problem lies in the fact that PodCon 2 was plagued with a series of “Spritslevel mistakes that served to amplify each new problem as it popped up. It wasn’t uncommon to see people on Twitter frustrated with the convention before registration had even begun.

Community Engagement

Back in the summer of 2018, the IndieGoGo campaign was chugging along nicely, and everyone was getting stoked. Panel submission forms were up, it was looking like the con would get 100% backing, and a lot of cool guests had already been confirmed.

Then the campaign ended and . . . well, that’s all anyone heard for a long time. The official PodCon Twitter only posts nine times between the campaign ending in August and the end of December. Besides a list of 40+ people on the PodCon website, there’s nothing to indicate what’s actually happening at the convention.

One attempt to sell tickets was made on Black Friday, offering an “I like podcasts” enamel pin to anyone who’d purchased a ticket on that day. The majority of engagement with that tweet is people who’d bought tickets during the IndieGoGo campaign wondering why they effectively got less for sponsoring the con early than Johnny-come-lately on Twitter. People asking if they could simply buy the pin since they already had a ticket were ignored.

Four months after the IndieGoGo campaign ends, a newsletter is sent out featuring a confusing survey asking for podcasters who can speak on a variety of topics; ranging from being trans to experience with headcanons. Given PodCon had dozens of panels submitted during the preceding months, including some directly related to the topics in the new survey, there was frustration aplenty (for full disclosure’s sake: I did not submit a panel, but I was on a list of proposed hosts for one that didn’t get selected).

Then, on December 29th, a “rough draft” of the schedule was posted to convention scheduling site Sched. With less than three weeks until the convention, attendees were presented with a bunch of raw good ideas. Overall good, but lacking a couple final passes to refine out incomplete panel descriptions, double-bookings, and re-think some host choices.

Even the announcement of this feels off in a way. It was tweeted out by Green separately from a PodCon post later on, which itself required a thread to apologize for the state of the schedule and explain their plan. The site Sched collects data for how many users have selected panels (if logged in); therefore, if PodCon attendees all signed up for Sched and then made their schedules regardless of double-bookings/incomplete descriptions/conflicting timeslots, the PodCon team could go in and re-arrange the schedule so more popular events don’t conflict with each other.

At its core, I can see this being a good idea: crowdsourcing out the schedule would allow the organizers to get a feel for how much overlap between the major fanbases there were, maybe bump a few smaller events up to larger rooms to meet unexpected demand.

This could be a workable good idea in September. Maybe in October. Putting it out months in advance while people are still hyped from the crowdfunding campaign. It’s not common to announce a schedule that early (e.g. PodX’s schedule is slated to come out two months early at most), but this Sched scheme must need room to breathe to work properly?

With the PodCon 2 team adding new events to the itinerary less than a week before opening day, one has to question if there was enough time to glean anything useful from the data beyond “a lot of people will be going to MBMBaM” and “more people will be attending the workshops than we initially expected, we need to apologize.”

Then one remembers this hectic “It’s broken, one sec please” mania had a full four months to get its act in gear, and the question becomes, “Why?” Whatever the answer may be, the community collectively shrugged and planned what they could otherwise.

While PodCon tinkered quietly, the Multitude collective of podcasts set up two sold-out variety show performances in a nearby Seattle performance space, bringing on guest hosts Paul Bae, Lauren Shippen, Jeffrey Cranor, and Wil Williams.

T. H. Ponders, host of the art history show Accession, arranged a pseudo-live version of the show, taking fans on a field trip from the convention center to the Chiluly Garden and Glass exhibit.

It was a surreal experience to replay an evening’s highlights in my head on Friday night and realized “saw The Bright Sessions cast in a hotel lobby,” “saw Travis McElroy get in an elevator,” “met James Oliva” and “got a hug from Paul Bae” were all before PodCon. I felt like I’d already experienced a convention before PodCon had started.

Admission and Security

If there’s one thing PodCon 2 pulled off wonderfully, it was security. A plan to keep only registered attendees entering the convention at any given time was implemented and worked without a hitch. I applaud the team for their attention to detail and their prompt communications in regards to security concerns.

The unfortunate side effect of this new plan is the only reason I know the plan is because some colleagues and I raised a stink on Twitter, and one of us got a DM explaining the situation. Returning from the Accession live event in a coat far too thick for Seattle, I was a little sweaty and tired from the day’s event. There was talk of taking a nap in the hotel room before the second Multitude live show, and I was on board with that.

This is the state of mind I was in when I walked up to PodCon registration and an incredibly nice, smiling volunteer took my information and put a red plastic bracelet on my sweaty wrist. It took me a couple of hours to get used to the feeling.

The traditional plastic badge on a lanyard one expects from a convention is cool, but also flawed from a security perspective. If a bad actor really wanted in, they could just pay a friend to get a badge then leave the premises, hand it over, and boom: legit attendee.

Badges are a big part of con culture. Be they tokens of conventions past carried around as keepsakes or even used for important information exchange (name tags, pronouns, show art. Podcasting is an audio medium after all!), people expect and make good use of a badge and lanyard at a convention.

Once again, this good idea gets Section 18’d by lack of follow-through. Imagine the support PodCon 2 might have gotten on Twitter if they’d officially announced the wristband, maybe even with a goofy video? Mayhaps it could’ve been a popular decision if a novelty PodCon 2 badge had still been offered for cheap at the DFTBA merch book, there to scratch that itch if fans still wanted to wear something?

Nope. Instead, it was just slapped on one’s wrist with the warning, “Don’t break or lose this. No replacements.”

Nostalgia-induced gripes about the lack of a badge aside, this bracelet idea and omnipresence of guards checking wrists at every entrance did a lot to make the convention feel safe. While other cons I’ve been to make a huge TSA-esque security theater about inspecting cosplay and putting orange tags on everything, PodCon kept it simple and effective.

The only other thing attendees received at registration was a half-sheet map of the convention center on affordable middle-of-the-road coated printer paper. Showing it to an associate who works in printing, I was told it’s confusing as to why PodCon didn’t just put the whole map on one full sheet and then use the back of said sheet to include a schedule.

One half of the map provided, except in color instead of the greyscale provided.

At the bulk rate PodCon had these printed and cut, the price difference for including color wouldn’t have been prohibitive and would’ve increased attendees’ likelihood to keep/study it exponentially. The only reason I still have my map is, as a journalist, I had a notebook with a pocket for scraps of paper on me the entire convention.

No schedule, no program, just a map detailing which room numbers were located on floors four and six. It was nice to have a hard copy of this map, but even with this hard copy, it made planning on the go difficult juggling between Sched on a phone and the physical map.

While the organizers seemed to be going all-out organizing as many fun things as possible for fans while also providing interesting industry-specific content for producers, they never stopped to cover some of the basics one would need to properly navigate such a dense convention. Attendees weren’t notified ahead of time that the schedule would only be available through the Sched website or mobile app.

There were even some important services provided by the convention that weren’t properly advertised/signposted. It took until a conversation on Discord about Miriam Johnson’s fantastic comic thread on Twitter about how overloading PodCon 2 ended up being for me to find out there was a quiet room available. It was on the sixth floor in a hallway I never entered due to not having any panels or workshops in that area. As far as I can find, the only place PodCon mentions the existence of the quiet room is the map handed out during registration.

With unreliable public WiFi and spotty signal at best in the building, relying on an entirely digital schedule without any physical backups isn’t the best idea. Doing that and not explicitly telling attendees through social media and the newsletter everyone signed up for months prior was straight-up frustrating.

My Kingdom For A Panel Track

In the dark ages of pre-2010 the average person who used the word “podcast” either:

  1. listened to NPR
  2. was a fan of an internet celeb who happened to have a podcast

Here in our still-dark-ages-but-with-fewer-headphone-jacks of 2019, there are regularly cheap shot jokes about podcasts in sitcoms. The industry is growing at a fast clip, and there’s a convention circuit to match. As of writing this, there are three conventions cut from similar cloth as PodCon 2 I can name off the top of my head:

  • PodFest Multimedia Expo – Orlando – March 2019
  • PodX – Nashville – May 2019
  • Podcast Movement – Orlando – August 2019 (stay hydrated people!)

On a spectrum between a strictly industry-focused conference and a live show festival/fan convention, PodFest and Podcast Movement live on the former side with PodX leaning to the latter (though this is partially because PodX’s panel/lecture/meetup track won’t be decided on until mid-March, so all we know about right now are the live shows).

PodCon 2 lives in the hazy middle-ground, dipping feet into both ideas. Looking at printed schedules from the first PodCon (something not distributed at PodCon 2), it’s clear to see the organizers wanted to embrace the production side of podcasting at PodCon 2. PodCon 1 was much more focused on live shows and variety content, relying on “look at the famous person doing a quirky thing” moreso than “here’s an hour lecture on sci-fi sound design.”

PodCon 2 straddling both worlds does make it a heck of a deal when looking at ticket prices. The cheapest of the others, PodX, clocks in at $50 for a one-day pass or $130 for the three-day weekend.  That’s not too far from PodCon’s pricing, but at this level PodX is purely a large live show festival.

The tickets for people who want to network/learn professionally increase to $199 for the “podcaster” tier and $450 for “pro.”  Both Podcast Movement and PodFest follow this multi-tiered ticketing practice.

The convention standard of having at least three brackets, each containing more granular industry-savvy information/activities the more you pay (and in the cast of Podfest, access to a masseuse), doesn’t carry over into the PodCon setup. There was simply a ticket, and when you turned up, there was a convention.

From reading reviews and talking to those who attended the first iteration of PodCon, the sequel incorporated more industry and behind-the-scenes topics this time around. I applaud them for the inclusion; it was very much appreciated, as a fan who also wants to grow as a creator. It feels like the organizers saw a niche–creators so passionate they’ll buy a cross-country plane ticket for a two day convention, maybe they’d like some creation-focused content–and filled it. Bravo, PodCon team.

When one has these distinct tiers and different badges with different access permissions, the scheduling naturally works itself out. Someone who’s dropping $500 to come to Nashville for networking probably isn’t going to be star-struck at a meet and greet or be miffed if they don’t get to see a live performance of The Polygon Show. They’ve got exclusive keynotes and panels and VIP lounges in which to schmooze.

PodCon offered some of the best of both worlds for a mid-range ticket price, but at the cost of the scheduled being a hot mess of intertangled events and workshops, multiple things appealing to the same demographics happening at the same time (see Elena Fernández-Collins’ coverage for a breakdown of the infamous Sunday 1:00 p.m. timeslot).

The flip side of this is, of course, that it created unnecessary competition amongst the existing events. Looking at photos of friends’ old PodCon 1 schedules, it seems far more relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, they dedicated an entire block of time to putting Hal Lubland in a room for him to host a game of Werewolf? That sounds like it could’ve been a fun time for everyone involved, but if there ever was a “let’s fill out this time slot with something” event it’s that.

Once again I find myself thinking about other conventions. With PodCon 2 trying to dangle its toes into being A Serious Convention With Industry Information we end up with effectively three types of content all happening concurrently:

  1. Fun Fan PodCon’s live shows, swaps, Q&A sessions, and meetups.
  2. Industry PodCon’s workshops, serious panels, the expo hall, and more.
  3. Boutique Podcon with events only accessible if chosen via a lottery drawing. This included creator chats and invite-only meet and greets.

Oh, the lottery events. Each hour-long block of PodCon 2 scheduling included at least two events whose audience was entirely invite-only, be they 12-person creator chats or larger less-formal meet-and-greets. Each block of time came with at least two events whose audiences were comprised entirely of people chosen by a lottery weeks prior. These intimate creator chats (and larger meet and greets) were not recorded as part of the PodCon remote access, meaning if you won a spot, you effectively had to go or give up the spot for someone else.

Not only was I skipping out on fun fan events in favor of industry events with the knowledge I could just catch the fan events on the remote access, I also had to dip out on an industry panel I was excited for, purely because it happened to be scheduled at the same time as the Roman Mars creator chat I won a spot for.

I thoroughly enjoyed the creator chat as an attendee, and I get why a convention would want to do as many as possible. The featured guests are featured, after all. They were brought on to sell tickets and drum up interest, plus their hotel, airfare, and per diem has already being paid by the convention. It’s effectively free to have them show up in a small room for an hour to chill with 12 people.

The trick is how many lottery events there were throughout the convention. There were enough that I’m sure others went through a similar experience to mine: skipping a panel they were interested in to attend the not-recorded lottery event.  With a more comfortably paced schedule that had room to breathe, I would’ve been over the moon at the prospect of getting to hang with Roman Mars for an hour.

In practice, it just made an already confusing schedule a smidge more frustrating. Save for the blocks dedicated to the opening and closing ceremonies, PodCon 2’s schedule had no fewer than nine events happening concurrently, with some blocks having as many as 11. The second outing of PodCon felt like in attempting to pad things out and erase any Lubland Werewolf time-fillers they crammed three days’ worth of convention into two.

Organization Frustration

Event planning is not my job. I can’t claim to have professional experience or educated opinions to impart when it comes to running something the size of PodCon 2. What I do know tells me that a big part of running large events is putting out dozens of small fires. I’m sure that on top of the little irritants we know about on the surface, there were dozens of other things that almost went wrong.

For all its faults and frustrations, PodCon 2 happened. They promised a convention for two days in a specific place, and that convention did indeed happen. That said, PodCon’s very identity trades on the fact that Nerdfighteria and podcast fans, in general, know about VidCon. PodCon’s quiet selling point is “VidCon but for podcasts.”

VidCon hasn’t been a perfect convention without issues, but it has been well-run and well-advertised for over a decade. Well enough to be bought out by Viacom, even. Were PodCon organized by low-to-mid tier producers, this review would be far shorter and much more glowing, but it’s not. PodCon makes a point of highlighting its pedigree by showcasing “the founders” during the crowdfunding campaign and in the opening ceremonies.

From the outside looking in, it feels like there were not enough people with authority to make decisions working behind the scenes to watch the shop while the celebrity founders were off tending to their unrelated day-to-day businesses.

This is pure guesswork on my part, but it feels like the convention reaching 99.85% of the $300,000 IndieGogo goal set it up to be an organizer’s hell. Instead of having the scaffolding of a convention laid down that could then support the addition of new featured guests as they were added/confirmed, PodCon found itself having to make room for 46 featured guests, giving them all something to do at once, while also figuring out the rest of the convention proper.

In the end, we got some featured guests who, as nice as they were, felt like they were there just to have their name on the website and host one panel while a core group of featured guests ended up shoe-horned into as many panels as possible. There was also a noticeable amount of double-dipping guests from the first PodCon’s roster. I shudder to think about the logistics of just organizing featured guests’ rooms, airfare, and per diem payouts.

PodCon 2 was going to happen whether or not it reached its full crowdfunding amount. Reaching the full IndieGoGo goal was supposed to provide the biggest and best convention the creators could put on, with as many cool guests and fun events as possible.

In practice, we got a convention that did indeed work, but at times only just. It’s not difficult to see why there wasn’t much time or headspace for someone to hop on the official Twitter account. Instead of drumming up ticket sales beyond the IndieGoGo or engaging with the fanbase, they were putting out the hundreds of small fires event planning presents. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that interaction was sorely missed.

One Big Sandbox

Around midday of the last day of the convention, I took a seat in a quiet area just outside of the convention proper. I could see a steady stream of people entering and leaving PodCon. At one point I looked up from my phone to see Clint McElroy and a small squad of fans taking pictures not 50 feet away. An impromptu meetup and photo session had just happened nearby.

If you scroll back through Clint McElroy’s Twitter feed to that date, you’ll find several retweets from fans tagging him, all featuring that person and McElroy cheesing in front of the same foliage. He even shot a quick fun video with an administrator of the MBMBaMBino Podcaster Facebook group.

While I did not partake in a photo myself, it was fun to see fans interacting with a big industry name in a respectful, polite way. All the while, said industry name seemed excited to be there. A fun little ray of spontaneity and sunshine, a rare moment when I wasn’t stressing over which event would be more beneficial to attend next or whether I should prioritize growing as a creator over for-fun event.

Now that I’ve had a month to reflect, it’s easy to say “oh the convention was a big chaotic sandbox of fun.” PodCon 2 was life-changing, and I don’t regret a second of it, but it also came packaged with a lot of unnecessary stress and confusion.  Fingers crossed when the time comes to begin organizing the crowdfunding campaign and scheduling of PodCon 3 more time and funding is earmarked for behind-the-scenes use to iron out the issues.

There is so much potential here for PodCon to be the podcasting convention anyone can contend. It really could check all the boxes VidCon manages for the YouTube sphere. PodCon 2 came close but fell short on communication, planning, and accessibility. It has the star power and fan support to fill this niche in the podcast convention world. A sizeable convention that allows newer creators to expand their horizons without having to pay as much as a purely professional conference costs.   Warts and all, PodCon 2 leaves me thrilled to see what Podcon 3 has to offer.

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