Unconference PodCamp is what participants make of it

Attendees at the daylong event about podcasts call the shots--anyone could come and anyone could create an event for the agenda.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
NEW YORK--The hot topics of the day on Saturday were freedom of information, media democracy, globalization and personal empowerment. But this wasn't a political rally, or at least it didn't claim to be one.

This was PodCampNYC, a daylong event devoted to any and all aspects of the burgeoning art of podcasting. But any attendees who came to PodCamp expecting a traditional industry conference with the usual panelists, breakout sessions and keynote addresses would be, at best, disappointed--and, at worst, shocked.

That's because PodCampNYC, the latest in a series of PodCamps that started in Boston last year, is an "unconference." The philosophy of an unconference, which started several years ago with events like BarCamp and FooCamp, is that it's the participants who call the shots. At PodCamp, which filled up several conference rooms in midtown Manhattan's New Yorker Hotel on Saturday, anyone could come, and anyone could create an event for the agenda.

If someone wants to speak, our answer is yes."
--Eric Skiff
a PodCampNYC organizer

"If someone wants to speak, our answer is yes," Eric Skiff, a PodCampNYC organizer and tech evangelist of Clipmarks.com, said in an interview with CNET News.com on Friday. "Whatever they want to talk about, there's got to be people who will come to listen to that. The number of people that signed up is an example of how that works really well." At a pre-PodCamp reception Friday night at the chic nightspot Slate, the event's organizers announced excitedly that more than 1,300 people had signed up through a wiki on the official Web site. It's likely that not quite that many people actually came, given the holiday weekend, but the crowd was certainly sizable.

Plus, attendance was free of charge--another characteristic of unconferences. As a result, PodCampNYC relied on a long list of sponsors. Some, like the Seth Godin-founded Squidoo, YouTube rival Revver, and video blogging platform Blip.tv, were recognizable Web 2.0 brands. But many of the other sponsors were small contributors, just as many of the PodCamp speakers and panelists weren't necessarily well-known themselves.

"There are so many small voices, and I don't mean small in a bad way," Skiff commented. "I mean small in a wonderful, sort of long-tail way. There's an infinite number of people who are experts on topics that are not necessarily mainstream."

And many of the "small voices" agreed that it was a format that worked for them. "I really like it so far," Patricia Crowell, who runs a wine-tasting podcast called The Wine Scout, observed at an unconference mixer on Friday night. "I think the reality of what people really want to hear about will come through."

Panels and pitches
That isn't to say that there weren't big names in attendance. But even the more orthodox highlights of PodCamp's lineup were somewhat quirky. Rocketboom founder Andrew Baron, for example, used his 45-minute slot to give a 10-minute slide presentation called "The End of Time" that looked like it had been thrown together in the Microsoft Paint application. Baron then opened the floor up to a round of questions, which soon turned into a semi-philosophical debate about who really controls the direction of seemingly "independent" new media.

All in all, the panels and lectures at PodCampNYC--more than 90 of them--were just about as niche-oriented as they could get. There were talks about how to podcast from a cell phone, how to create a podcast about your favorite sports team, and how to turn puppet shows into video podcasts. And of course, a handful dealt with the nitty-gritty details of monetization, marketing, and running a podcast as a business.

A few panels weren't even panels at all, but rather live tapings of podcasts like the Best Damn Tech Show, Period. Another, hosted by Skiff himself, was "entrepreneurial improv theater" where the audience competed to come up with a business plan in 15 minutes. (The plans included a jellyfish that shocks people as punishment, and an iPhone-like "everything device" shaped like a banana.)

With its offbeat, free-for-all atmosphere in which any attendee could become a featured speaker, self-promotion became an obvious problem--and a potential source for criticism of the unconference phenomenon as a whole. Some speakers' presentations were, indeed, thinly veiled infomercials for their own Web sites and products.

For example, a representative from podcast directory Podcast Pickle gave a talk that concerned "how Podcast Pickle's new upgrades can help your podcast grow." But the PodCampNYC organizers, perhaps to combat potential criticism, provided a disclaimer. In his opening remarks, co-organizer and podcasting consultant John C. Havens reminded the audience that if they wound up in a talk that sounded too much like a marketing pitch, to just walk right out and head to one of the 10 or so others that would be going on at the same time.

Considering the format and philosophy of an unconference, it's no surprise that much of PodCampNYC seemed politically charged. Any observer could pick up an aura of feverish excitement over the newfound empowerment that comes with the ability to podcast your thoughts and opinions to anyone on the Internet, but there was also a certain bitterness at the power that big media players and government forces continue to exert.

More subtle political statements were found everywhere from the organizers' choice to release all recordings of the event under the Creative Commons license to the stacks of anti-DRM stickers up for grabs on a table.

Let's just say Steve Jobs would have been a little bit uncomfortable at PodCamp--as may have been some attendees with disparate political views.

But if you're a podcasting newbie, starting out with a few good ideas and a USB microphone, the power-to-the-people talk was probably reassuring. After all, there's a massive Internet out there: an unconference like PodCampNYC, however diverse and (intentionally) disorganized, undoubtedly served as a very effective support group.