On Air Fest came to Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel this weekend, as makers of sound gathered for a series of panels and live recordings. With heavy hitter sponsors including WNYC and Stitcher, On Air attracted a mix of professionals and fans, creating steady enthusiasm from panel to panel regardless of industry clout. The festival’s holistic curation, produced by the company work x work, allowed for avant garde artists (Laurie Anderson), Hillary Clinton interviewers (Max Linsky), and NFL linebackers (Cameron Lynch) each to take the stage over the three-day program.
What became clear over our three-day coverage is the intimacy of New York’s audio scene several years into the podcasting boom. Robust attention accompanied every event we attended, and the general mood was overwhelmingly positive and collaborative. As echoed throughout the festival, the tens of thousands of podcasts in the world still leave plenty of room for new voices, for audio territory not yet explored. One can imagine an event like On Air growing and becoming more eclectic every year. Our collected highlights from the festival make obvious the incredible ground a podcast festival in 2018 can cover.
Our coverage kicked-off Friday with the event dearest to our hearts, “The Art of the Podcast” panel with Sarah Larson of the New Yorker and Nick Quah of Hot Pod and Vulture. “Critiquing podcasts is a sensitive thing because it’s intimate, emerging, and you’re critiquing people’s voices,” Larson told the audience, offering excellent advice for podcast criticism and writing itself. For podcast-obsessives who wonder how Quah manages to cover such a vast amount of the industry, the answer is the 1.75x speed at which he listens to shows.
As the Brooklyn weather turned to hell Friday afternoon, WNYC’s Kai Wright took the stage to discuss his multi-year exploration of gentrification in New York. Wright’s understanding of gentrification, as demonstrated in his 2016 series There Goes the Neighborhood, eludes the easy, acknowledging both the obvious damage rising property prices do to neighborhood residents and the desire for improved resources held by those very same residents. Wright’s public radio style, easygoing and curious, translated excellently to the festival’s Q+A format, which allowed him to move beyond his role as reporter into political analysis.
A presentation by ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast team immediately followed Wright on-stage. 30 for 30 debuted a trailer for its upcoming third season, which will break from previous seasons in covering one story over the course of several episodes. 30 for 30: Bikram will tell the history of Bikram Yoga, the man who invented it, and the last half-century of fitness in America.
The first event of Saturday’s schedule explored the audio world beyond podcasting, that very famous one called music. Surface Magazine hosted Mario Hugo, who worked on Rihanna’s Unapologetic, and Jimmy Turrell, who has worked with Beck, for a discussion of album art and, naturally, the return of vinyl. Hearing from two artists whose work is so deep in the cultural imagination, whether we consciously know it or not, was an unexpected treat of On Air.
Among the highest-profile events of the weekend was the “Art of the Interview” panel with the Longform guys and Pineapple Street Media co-founder Jenna Weiss-Berman. The tone of the panel reflected the reputations of Longform’s trifecta of hosts: Max Linsky played ambassador, Evan Ratliff the most interested in the craft of journalism, and Aaron Lammer the charismatic outsider. That Lammer charisma was on full display when the Podcast Review sat down with him after the panel to discuss his cryptocurrency podcast Coin Talk, an interview coming to our site soon.
The true centerpiece of the weekend was The Paris Review Podcast’s live performance. Aided by a three-man orchestra, the live-scored podcast featured a reading of Lydia Davis’ work, a recording of George Plimpton with Eudora Welty, and a reading of Michael Robbins’ “Walkman” by the man himself. Robbins’ poem, a long one about youth and pop songs and how our memories of the former are scored by the latter, was accented by occasional interjections by the orchestra and faded recordings of the songs Robbins referenced in the poem. This session more than any other spoke to the potential of a podcast festival. To have a visual reference of how The Paris Review Podcast is made, to see the musicians at work while taking in Robbins’ performance, forged something grander. The ambition of The Paris Review Podcast is in the collage, in the belief that the podcast medium can fit pieces of other art forms inside it seamlessly.
One of On Air’s final events surely had its most mainstream appeal, with the reveal of sound clips from Marvel and Stitcher’s upcoming Wolverine: The Long Night. The enthusiasm in the room suggests that Marvel’s foray into podcasting will be another success in its continued market-domination.
The existence of podcast festivals is something to celebrate. Gathering people in an auditorium for no other reason than to listen was On Air’s feat, and this weekend offered a blueprint for the types of festival that are sure to become commonplace as podcasting continues its rise.
Jake Greenberg is a culture writer based in Brooklyn. He has written about music and film for The Mac Weekly, and blogs for RealClearLife. Feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org