Focus on Festivals

What’s on at the virtual Hot Docs Podcast Festival

Highlights from the 2021 podcast bonanza


Like most things planned for 2020, Hot Docs’ annual Podcast Festival was delayed due to the pandemic. For a second, it seemed like one of the world’s premier audio storytelling events was cancelled altogether, but just like the podcast industry was able to adapt to the new “normal,” ”the organizers were able to pull through and create a three-day virtual festival. Not only that, but it also featured some of the greatest minds in Canadian and American podcasting as well as new voices that will shape the landscape in the years to come. This year’s festival was held online from January 27-29 for a worldwide audience.

Each day of the festival was jam packed with panels, podcast previews, masterclasses, and interactive gatherings as well as exclusive live conversations with star creators and hosts from podcasts like The New York Times’ 1619, Gimlet’s Finding Cleo, and Luminary’s Hear to Slay. Usually, an opening act kicks off the festivities, but the Hot Docs team spread the love, featuring up-in-coming podcasts before each session.

Here’s some of the best of the fest.

Personal Storytelling: How To Do It Right Without Selling Your Soul

At a time when there seems to be an insatiable appetite for personal stories in podcasts, is there such a thing as going too far? How can we responsibly handle stories of lived experience when it comes to race, class and abilities? Media Girlfriends and podcast producers Tori Allen, Garvia Bailey, Nana aba Duncan and Hannah Sung talk about the highs and lows of producing personal stories for podcasts.

Canadaland on Breaking the Big Story OR How to Take Down a Giant Without Getting Sued Into Oblivion

In this no-holds-barred conversation, Jesse Brown and his colleagues dive deep into their work on the WE charity and discuss their thorough investigative processes, the legal and practical considerations when breaking an explosive story with political ramifications, and how to translate journalism into the podcasting medium.

The Epic Journeys of Radiolab: Latif Nasser and Jad Abumrad on The Other Latif and Dolly Parton’s America

Two of the storytellers behind the beloved WNYC show Radiolab discuss their hit off-shoots, The Other Latif and Dolly Parton’s America. In this live Hot Docs exclusive, the Radiolab’s new co-host, Latif Nasser, and its founding host, Jad Abumrad, discuss their editorial process, the fascinating characters they’ve brought to life, and their efforts to use the podcasting medium to foster empathy and a deeper understanding of our “irreconcilable contradictions.”

Reckoning with Race: 1619 and Nice White Parents

The award-winning hosts of the New York Times’ 1619 and Serial Productions’ Nice White Parents discuss how their respective hit series use podcasting to advance the cultural conversation on race.

Over the past year, amid a long-overdue reckoning with the effects of systemic racism, no podcasts have got more people talking than 1619 and Nice White Parents. The first, hosted by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, won a Pulitzer Prize for its illuminating stories about the legacy of American slavery. The latter, hosted by longtime This American Life producer Chana Joffe-Walt for Serial Productions, was a revelatory series on the racial inequities at a Brooklyn public school and was named the best podcast of 2020 by Time Magazine. In this meeting of two of the world’s most inspiring journalists, Hannah-Jones and Joffe-Walt discuss the creative power of longform audio series and the important role their shows have been playing in making us reckon with race.

Reclaiming True Crime with Gimlet Media’s Connie Walker

Investigative reporter Connie joins award-winning Anishinaabe author, journalist and host of the Seven Truths podcast on Audible, Tanya Talaga to discuss her new series for Gimlet and how she uses podcasts to tell the stories of Indigenous women, a group often erased from the podcasting landscape.

Internet Explorers: Up Close with Reply All

Is there a more innovative, topical and consistently rewarding podcast than Reply All, the Gimlet Media smash hit that tells captivating stories about the digital age? If millions of monthly listeners, and the rave reviews of tastemakers like Ira Glass are any indication, the answer is probably no. Reply All’s new co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi and producer Anna Foley break down the creative process behind their hugely influential, Gimlet Media mega-hit, and what it takes to tell captivating stories about life in the digital age.

The Post-Trump World: What’s Next for Political Podcasts with Crooked Media’s Tommy Vietor and Tanya Somanader

The years since the 2016 election have seen an unprecedented boom in political podcasts. In this live Canadian exclusive, former Obama administration officials Tommy Vietor and Tanya Somanader discuss the future of politics and the media in the post-Trump era and the rise of Crooked Media, the wildly popular podcast studio behind Pod Save America and Pod Save the World.

Stories for Beautiful Nerds: Roman Mars on The 99% Invisible City

With over 400 million downloads, 99% Invisible is one of the most popular podcasts in the history of the medium. In this exclusive Canadian debut, host Roman Mars discusses his legendary design podcast and The 99% Invisible City, his new New York Times bestselling book based on the series.

Finding the Funny with The Daily Zeitgeist

Between a bitterly polarized political sphere and once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, recent headlines have offered little to laugh about. In this candid conversation, the hosts of the daily news show The Daily Zeitgeist help find the funny in the often-daunting events of the day. Hosted by Cracked.com co-founder Jack O’Brien and comedian Miles Gray, the TDZ hosts will be joined by their Toronto-based writer J.M. McNab to discuss Canadians’ everlasting appetite for U.S. news.

Big Stories, Big Ideas with Nishat Kurwa, Executive Producer, Vox Media

As the VP and Executive Producer for Audio at Vox Media, Nishat Kurwa has overseen the development and execution of some of the most popular and critically acclaimed podcasts in recent memory. Nishat will discuss the tough creative choices that her team makes when it’s building shows for millions of listeners, her success at turning cultural thought leaders into entertaining audio storytellers, and her ongoing efforts to carve out a platform for talented women of colour.

Nostalgia Trip: Pop Chat meets You’re Wrong About

From OJ to Diana, Tonya Harding to Y2K, this program examines the hot—and often wildly misunderstood—topics that You’re Wrong About puts in perspective, delighting its millions of listeners all around the world. CBC’s second most popular pop culture show joins forces with You’re Wrong About to make sense of the cultural drama blowing up the internet— and explore the rise of pop culture nostalgia.

Stories That Slay: Roxane Gay in Conversation with New York Magazine’s The Cut

To her endless list of talents and titles— best-selling author, fearless social critic, queer and feminist icon —Roxane Gay has recently added another accolade: beloved podcaster. The Hear to Slay host joins Avery Trufelman, host of New York Magazine’s The Cut, to discuss building the Black feminist podcast.

The podcasts are available on via Hot Docs until Feb.28.