I was in Seattle this last weekend for PodCon, doing some research for a secret project (and nerding out a great deal, of course). PodCon is the first podcast-specific convention (at least as far as I’m aware), and it was run by big hitters like Hank Green, the McElroy brothers, and the creators of Welcome to Night Vale. It was a small con for sure, but there was plenty to do, and all the panels I went to were stellar.
Conventions are nothing new to me. I’ve been going to some form of a convention at least once a year since I was about fifteen (Anime Expo was my first con, which even in 2002 was still pretty massive). I’ve been to huge cons (Anime Expo, DragonCon, Emerald City Con), and tiny cons (HavenCon most recently, as well as the fledgling years of KumoriCon, just to name a few). I’ve also attended a smattering of more “professional” conferences, mostly book-related. And I have to say, Podcon felt different.
It wasn’t just the people. Podcasts are nerdy enough that I’m pretty sure many of the attendees had been to cross-over nerdfests before. It felt like a special con, even just down to the careful way everything was laid out. So, lets break it down, shall we?
At PodCon, it felt like space had been carefully considered. It was in the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, which struck me as an odd decision right away for such a relatively small con. With just under 3,000 attendees, Podcon could have easily been a hotel con, but by putting it at the convention center, there was a lot of room to breath (and it was definitely not taking up the whole convention center, not by a long shot).
The layout of the convention was very simple. It was set in two buildings, although it felt like one cohesive unit. On the fourth level there was the main stage and the Expo Hall. Between the two was a generous walkway that include a skybridge, as well as a large hall next to the Main Stage that contained tables and a small food court. This room didn’t have an express purpose other than providing an area for people to congregate. Photoshoots and meet-ups happened here, but there were plenty of tables set up to give attendees a place to take a breather and fuel up, before launching themselves back into the fray.
The Expo Hall also served as a place to gather. The scant selection of booths could have easily been crammed into a room half or a third the size, but there was a large craft area for making fliers (more on this later), a whole lounge–complete with couches and free coffee–set up around the DFTBA Records merch booth, and three areas for guest signing that included designated seating.
In addition to the main floor, there were five panel rooms spread between the three lower levels. They were broken up very clearly: three for panels, one for workshops, and one for “creator chats” (special, more-intimate panels, which you had to gain entry to through a lottery prior to the con, and which I didn’t experience first hand at all). The rooms were all large, and all the panels I attended were pretty full, without feeling crowded.
It was one of the most comfortable cons I’ve been to, because I never felt trapped or overwhelmed. The flow of traffic was clear and organized, and there were always places to break away from the rush of people and gather myself. This could have seemed like the con expected to be bigger than it was, but I personally think it was done very intentionally.
I’ve only seen one con utilize space like this before: Leakycon 2013. It was held at the Portland Convention Center, and had a similar balance of space in its Expo Hall and in the areas between programming. I know that Hank Green was involved in both cons; I don’t know if he had much control over the Leakycon I attended, but I think at the very least he picked up some tricks.
Although it was a small con, I never felt like I was lacking for things to do at Podcon; and I also never missed a meal. This may have just been luck, but while there was definitely some overlap between panels I was interested in (which is inevitable), it felt like the programmers really had a feel for their audience, and balanced the panels and events accordingly. There was also plenty of time between programming; instead of the usual ten minutes, you often had half an hour to run to the restroom, grab a snack, or find your next panel. This encouraged not only a low-stress environment, but healthy practices throughout the con.
Beyond panels, there were plenty of little activities to keep attendees entertained, and encourage engagement. There was a scavenger hunt (a “quest”) going all weekend, where attendees could collect stickers by completing various tasks, and ultimately be entered into a raffle. There was also the craft area I mentioned earlier; a bulletin board and tons of craft supplies which urged attendees to create fliers for their fake (or possibly future?) podcasts. This not only gave people things to do and ways to meet each other, it actively encouraged everyone to think about their own podcasts. I’m sure a few of my future favorite pods were conceived around those craft tables, and I can’t wait to discover them.
There were also designated areas for guest signings, as I mentioned earlier, which included seating. I don’t think I ever stood in a line for more than five minutes, and instead of shifting feet uncomfortably while waiting to meet my heroes, I was able to chat with people next to, behind, and in front of me. For me, this was merely convenient; it was likely a game-changer for people who are unable to stand for long periods of time.
From the program itself (which, as an aside, was lovely and lovingly designed) to the founders to the panelists themselves, it was made clear early, often, and gently, that bad behavior would not be tolerated. That this was made to be a welcoming environment, and that attitude would be enforced. Whenever it was mentioned, it didn’t feel like a required statement; it felt like the staff was truly and honestly committed to keeping the convention comfortable and safe. This one is harder to pin-down, but where some cons seem like they’re just going through the motions, I truly felt like Podcon staff was ready to go to bat for anyone that needed it.
Ok, full disclosure: I’m a white cis able-bodied lady who gets by in the world with a lot of privilege, so I’m not the best person to be calling something out (or not) on matters of diversity. But this is what I noticed.
First of all, the area seemed very easy to physically get around in. Lots of reserved seating for wheelchairs, wide isles, and, as mentioned earlier, designated seating for signings so you didn’t get stuck in a long line. One thing I did miss was ASL interpreters. HavonCon, for instance, seemed to have a small army of them, but I didn’t spot any at Podcon. However, that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, just that they didn’t cross my path.
Although there was about the racial diversity you would expect in Seattle (hey, you’re still more diverse than Portland!), and the con was put on by a group of white dudes, there were a lot of guests who were not-white. And most impressive of all, almost all the panels I attended had guests of a variety of genders, sexualities, and skin tones; even the panels that weren’t actually about diversity. And the diversity panels they had were pretty awesome. I only caught half of it, but the panel “How to Create Straight Characters” was entirely tongue-in-cheek, including the Q&A, and yes, it was as awesome as it sounds.
All in all, this con was pretty damn queer, and as a queer lady, that’s something I can say with confidence. It was up there with HavenCon (a queer-centric nerdy convention in Austin) as far as queer-friendliest cons I’ve been to, and I haven’t felt that comfortable at many other conventions.
I didn’t know what to expect from Podcon. I wasn’t sure if it would be more professional like the book conferences I’d been to, or more casual like the anime and comic conventions I’m more used to. But by the end of the opening ceremonies, it was clear I was among my people. Everyone was so nice, from the founders to the staff to the attendees. It did focus more on creators of podcasts than fans of podcasts, perhaps, but overall the con seemed like it’s main thesis was: everyone can make a podcast, so go make yours; we want to listen to it!
I found out about so many new podcasts that I honestly would have never checked out before. I went with a close friend, and it just so happened we were there for almost entirely different podcasts, which meant we got to share and learn from each other. I got to introduce her to the world of Night Vale, and drag her to the Dear Hank and John live show, and she got to explain the many podcasts surrounding My Brother, My Brother, and Me. I also got to meet some creators of smaller podcasts, and even handed out a few business cards for this very blog.
It was truly a wonderful con. I came home feeling so energized to create; not just podcasts (although…), but just energized to throw myself into work, hobbies, even cleaning my house. I usually come back from cons kind of drained, but this week I feel like I could take over the world.