This year’s second annual Hot Docs Podcast Festival — let’s call it Hot Pods for short — offered a mix of hits and how-to’s covering the increasingly popular audio stream of long form non-fiction. The festival drew impressive numbers of people willing to pay TIFF-level prices for live recordings of some of their favourite podcasts such as the humorous comedy show Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids and the alt-political news pod’ Intercepted featuring host Jeremy Scahill in conversation with Naomi Klein, Desmond Cole, and rapper Narcy aka Yassin Alsalman. (The Intercepted show was mostly notable as a testing ground for Cole’s candidacy in Toronto’s next mayoral race.) There might not have been much in the way of “documentary” per se, but the festival was an engaging showcase of variations in reportage and non-fiction storytelling. It was exciting to hear a variety of stories about breaking new ground in non-fiction.
The live performances were entertaining recordings of hot podcasts, but showed that some series play live better than others. Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids, for example, was a lot of fun as several brave guests, including a number of hosts of Hot Pods selections, pulled out their diaries, early poems, or high school writing assignments to relive their early years with good humour. The podcast offered readings of everything from coming out confessions to angsty reflections on enduring a war “like Anne Frank.” The show was akin to a comedy routine, or an evening of live storytelling, and was one a festival highlight. Listen to the Hot Pods episode of Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids below:
Kinks and Cooking
There were a few more kinks to be found in the semi-live recording of The Fridge Light, a fun foodie podcast from the CBC. The Fridge Light was only three episodes young when it appeared at Hot Pods and the relative freshness of the series showed, particularly for the extended periods in which the audience sat in the dark and listened to pre-recorded segments of the show. However, the live element of the podcast was a lot of fun since The Fridge Light was one of few events at the festival to incorporate audience participation.
The event challenged attendees to bring their favourite sweet and salty cravings in a snack food smackdown. Host Chris Nuttall-Smith and guest panelists Dustin Gallagher, Neda Maghbouleh and Janis Thiessen evaluated the entries, which included Swedish Berries, Korean beef jerky, dried snap peas, Old Dutch chips accompanied with an artery-clogging dip that featured at least four kinds of cheese, and some cinnamon Pop Tarts that had the judges gagging. (They were also missing icing, as noted by the murmurs of disapproval grumbling around the room.) The recording ended with a the fire alarm going off, as all good sessions in the kitchen should, and gave audiences a taste of the exciting bloopers that don’t make the final cut of the released podcasts. By remaining seated and watching the panelists re-record the final verdict and try to capture the same sense of spontaneity, the event pulled back the curtain to show that even top-level producers like the CBC have to work out some kinks while exploring relatively new terrain. Listen to the episode of The Fridge Light recorded at the festival below:
On the industry side of the festival, Hot Pods featured informative sessions for crowds that mostly consisted of active or prospective podcasters. Some pointers might have seemed like common knowledge or no-brainers for the experienced, like offering something original and pursuing a podcast that reflects one’s passion, but the event gave helpful tips like incorporating media like photos and videos across channels and having a strict publishing schedule complete with release strategy. Don’t just record a conversation and throw it into the void. (Oddly enough, few of the live podcasts at the fest incorporated visual elements.)
The festival’s first panel, “Beyond the Blood: Turning True Crime Stories Into Artful Podcasts,” highlighted the sub-genre that helped the art form explode with Serial. Panelists Connie Walker (Missing and Murdered), Tally Abecassis (First Day Back) and David Ridgen (Someone Knows Something) discussed their choices for pursuing their stories as podcasts, rather than as news stories or feature films. The decision came down to context, space, and aesthetics. In Abecassis’ case, she added that the choice to do a podcast stemmed from respecting her subject’s privacy and access in addition to the practical factor that the setting of her story (a halfway house) wasn’t aesthetically pleasing for a visual work.
The question of access and accountability arose in Walker and Ridgen’s talking points with the journalist and filmmaker noting the challenges of gaining releases for subjects whose voices appear in a podcast. Ridgen advised the audience that the archaic nature of the Canadian Broadcasting Act doesn’t account for newer forms such as a podcast, so storytellers do not need to obtain a release from a subject to include a voice, which means that cold calling interviewees or catching them by surprise doesn’t bring the bureaucratic hurdles entailed in journalism and film. Ridgen added that changes to the Act are inevitable, though, so true crime podders can expect the field to become tougher.
The three panelists agreed, however, that a selling point for podcasting is its ability to add context. How much time the story needed or how far the panelist wanted to develop the story were crucial decisions to make, since podcasting allowed for more breadth and depth of coverage than a snippet on the evening news or a two-hour feature film might have. Walker noted that by expanding the investigation of the cold case of Alberta Williams beyond the news story in which it was originally intended to be told allowed her to situate the young woman’s disappearance and death into the larger histories of colonialism and Residential Schools in Canada. This expansion, Walker added, capitalized on the popularity of true crime to share this dark side of Canadian history with a wide audience that might not have tuned into it had it appeared in a conventional news form.
Finding a Voice
Walker’s point about context and using the freedom of podcasting to inject an original perspective to the story complemented the consensus offered by the Hot Pods panel “Finding Your Voice: The Art and Craft of Hosting a Podcast.” Panelists Sook-Yin Lee (Sleepover), Ryan McMahon (Red Man Laughing), and Dan Misener (Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids) agreed that people who seek out podcasts generally want to hear unique voices. Lee’s key advice was to “let ‘er rip!” and take full advantage of the freedom of podcast to create an uncensored and unafraid message that cuts through the increasingly cluttered iTunes store.
McMahon offered his own success story that illustrated Lee’s advice. He told audiences about exploding in popularity after venting a lengthy rant about the pitfalls of “reconciliation” and publishing it online, which then went viral after tapping into a frustration that others were too shy to voice. It was on this note, though, that McMahon and the other panelists emphasized the importance of good listening and editing to convey a sincere voice that reflects the character of the podcaster and will engage the audience week by week.
Ready for Take-Off
The festival’s most productive panel, “Ready for Take-Off: What It Takes to Launch a Successful Podcast,” drew upon the experiences of three peas in the pod world. Jesse Brown (Canadaland), Eric Eddings (The Nod), and Leital Molad (Missing Richard Simmons) emphasized the value in creating an intimate space that absorbs listeners for the thirty minutes to an hour and immerses them into the world of the podcast. The panelists noted that this intimacy lends itself towards suggestive selling and makes podcasts appealing to advertisers, which is something to consider when resources for independent producers might otherwise be restricted to self-financing or crowd-sourcing.
Brown noted the latter proved successful for him after a year of mostly financing Canadaland out of pocket when his initial sponsor dropped after after the early episodes. With the average subscription coming in at $5 through Patreon, Brown told the crowd that one can make a living off podcasting provided there is a loyal fan base to support it.
Eddings and Molad echoed this sentiment with the former adding that partnerships and aggressive strategies to get The Nod noticed on iTunes helped increase its numbers and make it attractive to advertisers. Molad, an executive producer for First Look Media, brought a corporate perspective that similarly emphasized persistence and strategy. She noted that a well-executed plan of earned media and social media should take advantage of trends and newsworthy topics to gain support.
It all comes back to the originality of a voice, though, and the industry side of Hot Pods circled back to a general question that ran throughout the festival: when every other outlet records podcasts, why should people bother listening to you? There was no definitive answer to the question, nor should there be, but a few hours of active and engaged listening is a good place to start.