There's no dead air inside the Podcast Lab.
On Saturday afternoon, conversations overlap as carafes of water clank against a table inside a room at the Sofitel Hotel. The sound is cacophonous, but endearing. Interviews are captured. Connections are made. Friendships are cemented.
For the past five years, Los Angeles Podcast Festival has brought together fans of the internet-driven phenomenon. They come to see live versions of popular shows like Welcome to Night Vale, which kicked off the weekend-long gathering on Friday night. They sit in on how-to panels where stars of the medium share their tips. Those inside the Podcast Lab are also here to record their own shows.
Los Angeles Podcast Festival began as a Kickstarter-funded event founded by comedians Dave Anthony (The Dollop), Graham Elwood (Comedy Film Nerds) and Chris Mancini (also of Comedy Film Nerds) to bring these downloadable shows to the stage. But, the organizers noticed that audience members wanted to record here too. "We had a lot of people that we saw walking around with their equipment asking the bigger podcasters to podcast with them," says Anthony by phone on Saturday evening. After moving to the Sofitel in Beverly Grove a few years ago, they decided to make a space for the podcasting attendees. Anybody can grab a spot at the table to set up their gear inside the Podcast Lab. Convention guests pop in and out of the room to chat on the mics. Sometimes the podcasters see someone outside and convince them to join in the fun. Sometimes, they start chatting with each other.
Co-founder Mancini had just left the Lab when we spoke at the event. He says, "The advantage is not only do they get to record here at the festival, they get access to all the great talent that's here."
Last year, Cheryl Jones, host of Movies Made Me, was a novice podcaster. "I didn't know anybody," she recalls of her first day in the Lab. She soon met and befriended Brendan Creecy and Phil Vecchio, hosts of Radio BrendoMan. All three returned this year.
Jones primarily stays inside the Lab. She thinks about the other programming she wants to see, but, if she leaves the room, she might miss a good interview. Last year, she hung around the Lab late into the night. As a result, she landed time with renowned podcaster Marc Maron. Today, she already had the chance to chat up T.J. Miller, of Silicon Valley fame. She's not just gathering voices for Movies Made Me, she's building up contacts for the show. Hopefully, some of the people she meets will want to join her later for full-episode discussions on the films that changed their lives. She planned on meeting some of her own listeners over the course of the weekend too.
Brendan Creecy and Phil Vecchio have already clocked in about six hours inside the Lab. They're racking up interviews for Radio BrendoMan and are planning to stay here until the room closes at 1 a.m.
Creecy and Vecchio are longtime friends who worked together at Biola University's radio station. Their personal radio backgrounds aren't surprising. Podcasts are, essentially, radio-style shows that eschew the constraints of the old medium. You can listen to them anytime and from anywhere in the world. They exist free from the narrowly defined formats of radio stations and rules of the FCC. If anything, it's like having the chance to be a pirate radio DJ — think Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume — without the outlaw status.
Creecy was podcasting in 2004, while working as an English teacher in China. "When I started Radio BrendoMan, I was projecting into nothing," he says of the medium's nascent days. He retired the show for a while, but, five years ago, Vecchio convinced him to revive it. Now, Creecy, a computer specialist, and Vecchio, a stay-at-home dad, typically meet on Monday nights to talk about a variety of nerdy interests. They livestream the conversation as listeners respond via online chats.
"We have a lot more people that listen now than listened to our college radio show," says Vecchio, who also hosts a podcast with his wife called The Mandarin Orange Show.
Creecy estimates that 300 people listen to Radio BrendoMan regularly. "We're not getting giant sponsorship-level numbers, but we have a dedicated fan base that is invested in what we do," he says, "and I feel like they're our friends and we know them and we meet up with some of them." The show brings in enough revenue through programs like Amazon Affiliates to pay for hosting costs. Additionally, the podcasters were able to hold two successful Kickstarter campaigns. One funded Radio BrendoMan T-shirts. Another resulted in the release of a podcast episode on 7-inch vinyl. For some podcasts with large audiences, the shows are income-generating entities, but people aren't necessarily getting into it for a potential payday. "I don't make any money from this and I still love doing it," says Creecy.
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Matt Slayer (yes, like the band) arrived at around 1 p.m. to save a spot where he and pal Draven Star could work. The two are new to podcasting, having launched weekly drinks-and-conversation show The 288 last May. "We both are diving in head-first," says Slayer. In fact, he's missed metal extravaganza Ozzfest Meets Knotfest for this.
Star, an adult-entertainment performer, had a following coming into the podcast and says that she has received positive feedback. When we spoke, their first trip to the Podcast Festival had been going well too. On Friday, they did a "swapcast," a joint production between different shows. "It can get a little crowded in the lab," she says, and teaming up for shows helps the podcasters make use of the small space.
By evening, Slayer and Cheryl Jones are sitting down in front of her Movies Made Me gear and it appears that another connection has formed. Earlier in the day, Jones described podcasting as a "really supportive, collaborative environment."
From the looks of the Podcast Lab, she's right.