I arrive at the London Podcast Festival with a guilty secret: I'm not a fan of The Beef and Dairy Network Podcast. And no, I'm not talking about a dry debate on cattle futures and the price of milk. Ben Partridge's intricate spoof of a beef industry podcast is a cult sensation, so successful that the BBC bought the rights to broadcast it on the proper radio. Fans tell me they love the surreal humor, offbeat characters and in-jokes about the wrongness of lamb. But it's never tickled me.
Believe me, I'd tried to enjoy it. From the handful of episodes I listened to over the years I could appreciate the well-observed pastiche, but I never stuck with it. Life is short and the ever-growing list of podcasts is too long to listen to something you don't love. Still, in certain circles, admitting you don't get the joke is like telling a cinephile you snoozed through The Godfather. So when festival curator Zoë Jeyes tells me a live Beef and Dairy Network recording is something special, I keep quiet about my reservations. I'll give it one more try, I decide. Maybe I'll change my mind.
Making hard work look easy
Despite my low expectations, it really is something special. The podcast is performed entirely in character, complete with quizzes, interviews with guests and in-universe adverts for farming implements.
There's a live pianist providing atmosphere, a hilariously perplexing "catch up" sequence for the uninitiated and an onslaught of obscure references, many of which I assume fly over my head. There's also a joyful energy among the fans that I can't resist being swept up in. I may've arrived at the recording feeling like an undercover lamb dealer, but I leave a convert.
Jeyes has packed the two-weekend festival with big names from Britain and around the world, with a lineup that includes The Cracked Podcast, Throwing Shade and a live episode of Beautiful / Anonymous with Chris Gethard. Browsing the schedule is as overwhelming as scrolling through the iTunes charts: There are so many podcasts nowadays, it's impossible to keep up with all of them, no matter how hard you try.
Like Wooden Overcoats, a scripted sitcom about rival funeral homes in the Channel Islands, the live Beef and Dairy Network show feels slicker than the off-the-cuff interview shows I see at the festival. Others, like comedian Adam Buxton's podcast, are no less accomplished but embrace a more ramshackle approach. Buxton begins his Friday night recording by introducing his guest for the night. He's interviewing spoken word artist George Mpanga, also known as George the Poet. Mpanga is the award-winning creator of Have You Heard George's Podcast, a musical and sociological exploration of London's inner-city culture.
"I was gonna come out on my own and then sing a song and then do some lame audience banter and then introduce George," Buxton says. "But then I thought, 'Nah, I'm just going to bring George on and then do all that other stuff in front of him and see how he feels about it.'"
Then he launches into a live rendition of his ridiculously infectious theme song. "I added one more podcast to the giant podcast bin," he sings. A chunk of the audience joins in, some belting it out while others are more self-conscious.
"Good singing! It was a little half-hearted but that's OK," Buxton reassures us afterward. "You were probably just thinking, 'Wow, this is going to be embarrassing for George.' And I feel embarrassed for George, as well. I don't want George to see me singing along with the podcast theme."
This disarmingly haphazard tone is part of the magic trick that podcasts play: The best ones seem effortless, like you're listening in on your friends. But the more time I spend lurking around the festival, the more conscious I am of the work that goes into them.
Take Buxton and Mpanga, for example: Both opt for an intimate approach, giving the listener a glimpse into their day-to-day lives. But despite their podcasts' homemade feel, both are richly produced. Buxton's interview segments are broken up with sketches and original jingles. He's also brought along a presentation for the live audience, complete with animated segments and crowd-pleasing videos of his dog.
Meanwhile Mpanga's mold-breaking podcast weaves poetry, sociology and personal history into an audio experience that pushes the medium into new artistic territory. That doesn't happen by accident: He calls out his collaborator Paul Carter, also known as Benbrick, a classically trained composer and physicist, who produces the podcast and composes its original score. Benbrick's understanding of sound is "crucial" to creating a unique experience for the listener, he says.
A clubhouse for creators
But everyone has to start somewhere. Coinciding with the second weekend of the event, the Podcast Makers' Festival is a series of panels and workshops for would-be podcasters. They include guides to writing audio fiction, creating soundscapes for imaginary worlds, monetizing a new podcast and getting your voice heard.
I sit in on the Introduction to Podcasting session, hosted by Kat Molesworth, who interviews bloggers, artists and ceramicists for her Blogtacular podcast. She's presenting alongside Sarah Myles, who's edited The Monocle Daily and The Week Unwrapped, and podcast project manager and diversity consultant Lianne Alie. They cover the basics: How to make sure your recording sounds good, how to get started with editing and how to get people listening.
The session takes place in a conference room in Kings Cross on a Saturday morning. It feels a bit like school, as one of the attendees says afterward. But podcasting is more of a craft than an academic discipline. It requires practical skills, from editing audio to photoshopping social media assets to constructing a makeshift sound studio out of duvets.
Amateurs are welcomed and encouraged. "I have no formal training in anything but still somehow I flourish," Molesworth says. Myles taught herself to edit using YouTube videos. So can we, she says, but she wants us to take this seriously: It can take years to get good. Alie advises us on market research and social strategy, including a two-week launch plan that wouldn't feel out of place in a media company's boardroom.
After the session, a crowd forms around the table with questions for the panelists. One woman tells me she's recorded a handful of episodes of a still-unpublished podcast but wants to ask if her sound quality is up to scratch before she sets it live. I suspect she's not the only one. Sending your creation out into the world is a scary prospect.
Molesworth tells me events like this are a good way to connect with others and get some moral support. "[Podcasting] is such an isolated business, there are very few opportunities in the year to come together," she says. Even if you're speaking to people online all the time, it's good to have a space where you can meet members of your community in person. She recommends the Podcaster's Support Group on Facebook as a useful place to get information and meet potential collaborators. "I talk to podcasters on Twitter, of course, but PSG is like our little clubhouse," she says.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice is the one that the panelists keep repeating: Keep trying. Your first podcast might not get a million listeners, but you can't learn without practice. It's also true of making YouTube videos. And writing, for that matter. I'm not a podcaster, but I know the crushing uncertainty in the space between creating something and asking another person what they think of it. It must take some of the pressure off to remind yourself that you're just adding one more podcast to a giant podcast bin.
And that bin really is giant. I have a playlist of 33 "favorite" podcasts, most of which pump out at least one episode a week. (Right now I'm obsessed with Dan Pashman's The Sporkful and Vanessa Zoltan's Hot and Bothered.) I've also got 36 backups that I dip in and out of -- sorry Michael Barbaro, but I'm not listening to The Daily on the daily. But even then, I'm barely scratching the surface of what's out there. For every podcast that can fill a concert hall, there are hundreds that have only a handful of fans. Unsung passion projects that're still the product of countless hours of toil in the audio mines.
It's hard to spend a few days surrounded by podcasters and fans without feeling the weight of all that work. But it's also inspirational. It reminds me of the many things I've started to write and abandoned. If all these people can find the energy and courage to create something and send it out into the world, maybe I can too.
But first I'm going to plough through the Beef and Dairy Network back catalog. Beef out.