The London Podcast Festival attracts a very specific type of nerd. That was the verdict on social media in 2017, when the gathering was still new and Londoners were still new to the unexpected joys of being surrounded by fellow podcast obsessives.
Three years after its 2016 launch, the festival has grown from a three-day event to a two-weekend spectacular. It returns to King's Place in London this Friday, bringing some of Britain's most beloved podcasts to the venue's three rooms, along with popular US shows.
"Really, all people mean when they say nerdy is that people are really passionate and enthusiastic about something. And I certainly feel that same way about podcasting," says Zoë Jeyes, producer and programmer of the festival.
Though podcasting is still a niche interest, the medium is growing in popularity. Ofcom found that 18.7% of people in the UK listened to a podcast every week in 2018. And if you're prepared to go and see your favorite podcast recorded live? Well, you might be the kind of nerd who'd be right at home at King's Place.
The biggest American podcasts represented at the festival include The Cracked Podcast, the surreal Beef and Dairy Network, and Chris Gethard's Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. Homegrown shows on offer include Kermode and Mayo's Film Review, the award-winning Have You Heard George's Podcast? and Deborah Frances White's The Guilty Feminist, in which White navigates the contradictions and hypocrisies involved in sticking to her principles in the modern world.
But the festival also prides itself on introducing fans to new voices. Comedy and true crime podcasts are the biggest hitters in the UK and America, but the festival lineup also includes storytelling, poetry and shows with musical elements. Jeyes says she's made a conscious effort to bring a diverse range of voices to the lineup and offer something the average fan might not have heard before.
"I think you have to make an effort to ... push yourself outside of your comfort zone in terms of what you listen to regularly, and seek out new shows and new voices across different genres and styles of podcast," she says.
Between podcasts, organizers hope to cater to fans' enthusiasm with the help of a pop-up "fan experience zone" provided by Spotify. This interactive relaxation area promises to bring podcast listening and recording booths, as well as opportunities to meet your favorite podcasters.
Britain's podcasting scene has always been a few steps behind America's, where more people listen regularly and independent studios such as Earwolf, Maximum Fun and Nerdist have long been producing their own shows. The UK podcasting charts have traditionally been dominated by legacy media such as the BBC, newspapers and magazines. Many commercial podcasts are supported by Acast, a partner of the festival, which offers hosting and dynamic ads. But Britain doesn't have an equivalent to America's industry of original podcast powerhouses.
At least not yet.
Taking live podcasting seriously
King's Place is a relatively new arts venue, but it's no stranger to live podcasts, which it's been hosting since 2010 -- something most UK venues weren't doing at the time. What changed everything? A businesswoman with breasts like pomegranates and access to her office's "leather room."
My Dad Wrote a Porno had a simple premise: Host Jamie Morton's father had self-published "a modern story of sex, erotica and passion" under the pen name Rocky Flintstone. And now an increasingly horrified Morton had roped in his friends to read and discuss its thrilling plot twists and his dad's peculiar grasp of anatomy. The show was a runaway success, leading to internet and comedy awards, a spin-off book, an HBO special and worldwide tours that reached London's Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House.
"I think [My Dad Wrote A Porno and The Guilty Feminist] selling out the Royal Albert Hall, for example, kind of probably woke up a few venues who would not have even considered hosting a live podcast back in 2010," Jeyes says, noting that the show's first live appearance was at King's Place. It's not returning for this year's festival, but she hopes to welcome the podcast world's most dutiful son back once his dad produces some new material.
But why go and see a podcast recorded live in the first place? Most of them are free to download, after all. And for many of us, they're just something to listen to while doing something else, whether that's commuting, cooking or playing video games.
Jeyes says there's one big reason why people turn up: You meet other people who are in on the joke. It can be hard to get a loved one into your favorite podcast. You can bribe a friend to watch your favorite film with you -- all it takes is a convincing array of snacks and a comfy sofa. But sending over a link and insisting someone find time to listen to two Kiwi comedians watch the same bad film every day for a year can be a harder sell. That's where the festival comes in, bringing fans together and helping them create networks of fellow enthusiasts to trade recommendations with.
The event also does its best to support those trying to get their own podcasts off the ground. The festival's "makers weekend" strand runs in parallel to the fest. It's helmed by Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist and Answer Me This, who also runs the Podcasters Support Group on Facebook. She's worked with a team of volunteers and her husband, Martin Austwick, to host workshops and panels for people already podcasting or who're curious about getting started.
The celebrity invasion
Is that homegrown, do-it-yourself spirit under threat from the so-called podcast revolution? A recent issue of Variety caused consternation among podcasters and fans by placing Conan O'Brien at the vanguard of 2019's podcast boom. (A rewritten version of the headline now tactfully says that O'Brien is "tapping into" the podcast revolution instead of leading it.) This year has seen , the podcasting studio behind Reply All and Homecoming, while Apple and Sony have expressed interest in funding original podcasts.
Jeyes says it was "ludicrous" of Variety to give O'Brien that much status, but she says celebrities can bring more attention to podcasts as a medium. And that'll lead listeners to further discoveries once they're hooked. She also points out that famous people, like the rest of us, have their own passionate interests. And passionate interests are what podcasts are made for. She points to Years and Years star Russell Tovey's Talk Art, in which he and gallerist Robert Diament set out to make contemporary art more accessible to ordinary people. "There's no cynicism attached to that show," she says.
Still, there's no denying the medium is becoming more commercialized. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for up-and-coming podcasters, Jeyes argues. Even with bigger companies that have more money for PR and that're able to leverage bigger social media followings, podcasting is still closer to a meritocracy than a lot of other art forms, she says.
"Anyone can start a podcast," Jeyes says, "and that's kind of wonderful."
The London Podcast Festival kicks off on Friday, Sept. 6 at King's Place, London.