I ‘d been hearing about the Third Coast International Audio Festival for as long as I’d been a journalist in Chicago.
Reporters’ circles in this city have been shrinking, so if you’re from the newspaper world you’re bound to cross paths with radio people. They rhapsodize about Third Coast as a magical place for audio producers, or as a kind of forum for inspiration and networking, one that transcends your average professional conference. I’d heard it described as a prom, a group hug, a family reunion, a radio lovefest, the “bar mitzvah of radio,” and the “first night of summer camp.” Multiple people told me, emphatically, that they owe their entire careers to Third Coast.
I’d been eager to find out what all the fuss is about, with an acute suspicion that it’s all bullshit. I imagined an event with power imbalances, snobbery, the popular kids and the ones no one wants to sit with. I thought the reason I only ever heard good things about Third Coast was because I was talking to privileged insiders.
I couldn’t resist an opportunity to finally get a glimpse of this inner sanctum. It’s rare for Chicago to be at the center of any industry nowadays. The steel mills and meatpacking plants have closed up shop, but WBEZ, our NPR affiliate, remains an integral part of the local media ecosystem and a titan on the national airwaves. WBEZ has produced some of the most widely syndicated and successful public radio programs of the last 25 years—This American Life, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, Sound Opinions—and Third Coast likewise has its roots at the station.
Back in 2000, then 43-year-old WBEZ producer Johanna Zorn lamented the absence of American conferences or festivals dedicated to radio documentary and audio storytelling. The thought was that “we should be getting attention for the extraordinary work that [was] happening in audio documentary,” Zorn told me. The 90s were a fruitful time for the genre: Joe Richman had been hailed as “a kind of Studs Terkel of the airwaves” for his Radio Diaries, radio documentarian Jay Allison had become the first and only independent producer in history to win an Edward R. Murrow Award, and the Kitchen Sisters—Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva—had been earning acclaim for their oral-history-based broadcasts. And of course, there was This American Life, which then reached about a million listeners per episode and had already won the first of its eight Peabody Awards (honoring television, radio, and online media). In the U.S., audio documentary mostly focused on intimate, personal stories edited into relatable, moving narratives that tried to tell audiences something salient about their times. But Zorn and her first collaborator on Third Coast, then 28-year-old Julie Shapiro, also wanted to draw attention to the more avant-garde radio storytelling they saw thriving in Europe and Australia. They wanted to carve out a space where the artistry of radio could be celebrated in the same way films were—a “Sundance for radio.”
The very first conference, which happened just six weeks after September 11, 2001, demonstrated that Third Coast would eventually become a “scene.” The festival gave radio producers, especially freelancers, a chance to emerge from their solitary, underappreciated, and poorly remunerated work life. They could find a community. The Kitchen Sisters’ Sonic Memorial Project, dreamed up on the stairs of a Streeterville Holiday Inn, was an auspicious milestone. It was a yearlong effort to collect an audio archive of stories about the World Trade Center, which culminated in the most widely aired 9/11 anniversary broadcast on public radio to date.
Since then, producers from the Third Coast scene have spawned hit shows such as Radiolab, Invisibilia, Serial, S-Town, Planet Money, and 99% Invisible. These programs are now part of a veritable “audio storytelling” boom—ushered in by the popularity of podcasting—which we in print media are jealously observing from our shrinking sidelines. According to an Edison Research consumer survey conducted in January and February 2017, 40 percent of Americans, or about 112 million people, say they’ve listened to a podcast; 24 percent, or 67 million people, said they’d listened to a podcast in the last month. These statistics have spurred the creation of a plethora of podcast production companies and have enticed streaming-audio players such as Spotify to produce and distribute new programs. Ad revenue for podcasts is projected to exceed $220 million this year.
And so on the afternoon of November 9, I entered the gleaming white tower of the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place along with 800-odd other (mostly white) people wearing boxy sweaters, floppy beanies, and gauzy scarves, and, of course, carrying tote bags, to soak in two and a half days of lectures, panels, parties, and performances, to rub shoulders with radio royalty, to gather gossip, and to come away with some idea about what’s made this scene a singular breeding ground for today’s roaring audio storytelling industry.
Within minutes of arriving I spotted Zorn, described by many as a “fairy godmother.” She appeared totally at ease, despite some unexpected annoyances. A few speakers had canceled. “Some people don’t understand how big a deal it is when people cancel last-minute like that,” she said unaffectedly, and glided away to make the necessary program changes. A thick black Sharpie line appeared through one of the afternoon’s scheduled sessions—reps from the Knight Foundation and Edison Research were supposed to speak on “public media and podcasting listening habits.”
“Nooo!” wailed a short African-American woman in jeans and a gray cowl-necked sweatshirt. “How’d that happen?!” She’d been looking forward to that session more than any other that day, she announced. I used our shared disappointment as an opportunity to introduce myself. Lynnae Brown, 50, is the director of a mental health advocacy and job-training center in Harlem and is working on her own podcast. A fast walker and an even faster talker, Brown spent many years working in corporate training, specifically teaching postproduction professionals how to transition from film to digital. But seven years ago she decided to switch careers and go into social services. Her podcast project, which she’s calling Late in the Game, is intended to combat stigma around mental illness and dispel myths about the people who experience it. This was her second Third Coast, and she said she was doing a better job keeping her cool about seeing her favorite radio personalities in real life. “Last year I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s Sam Sanders! There’s Audie Cornish! ” she said, bursting into giggles.
Since the Knight Foundation session was canceled, I opted for the “Radio Atlas” presentation. The brainchild of British radio producer Eleanor McDowall, Radio Atlas is a Web and mobile platform that provides English subtitles for foreign-language audio pieces from around the world; the subtitles soothingly appear against a blank background in the same rhythm as the spoken language. If I was going to get a glimpse of what goes on in audio storytelling outside of America, this was probably my best chance. (Third Coast is dominated by Americans; just 94 of 805 attendees this year were from outside the U.S.)
McDowall is a tiny, elfish woman with a short-cropped pixie haircut who could be anywhere between 17 and 35 years old. At one point someone described her to me, not without a hint of resentment, as “the fucking darling of European radio people.” At the screening she treated us to a mix of voice mails French mothers left for their kids, an experimental Czech piece that captured people’s descriptions of meeting strangers in darkness, and a Norwegian narrative of a retired postal worker and amateur physicist who thought he’d invented an “everlasting” battery powered by cosmic energy. The pieces were complex, and at times confusing—artier than straightforward American radio. During the Q&A, McDowall shared tips for finding non-English radio and podcasts. “English-language podcasting is flowing across borders, but it’s not a two-way conversation,” she said. “I find that disturbing. I think we’re gonna become poorer for it. . . . We’re not hearing the majority of radio in the world, or the majority of podcasts.”
Afterward I made a brief stop at a way-too-crowded workshop on podcast creation led by Public Radio Exchange (PRX) executives Kerri Hoffman and John Barth—short, middle-aged characters whose jovial manner and approachability belie their power and influence as the heads of America’s largest distribution platform for public radio programs. Their core message was that one should think about one’s audience and its needs when developing an idea for a show. A slide on the projector read: “The place that we start is EMPATHY.”
The rhetoric of empathy turned out to be integral to Third Coast: throughout the conference it was brought up repeatedly. That radio is a particularly intimate medium is an article of faith, and thus, the logic goes, it’s uniquely capable of making us empathize with others. I can’t contest radio’s intimacy, as I frequently find myself weeping while listening to episodes of This American Life. But whether I’m empathizing with the people I’m hearing, or with the community and experiences they represent, is harder to determine. I suspect that rather than empathizing I’m more often just relating things to my own experiences, moved by a stranger’s voice sharing feelings I’m all too familiar with.
“We’re looking for empathy for your prospective audience,” Hoffman emphasized as she explained how PRX approaches figuring out which shows are worth producing. It was a nod to the suggestion that audience, not content, is king, an argument increasingly advanced by those interested in the growth of podcasting as a business. Detractors believe that if the work is good, it’ll find its audience no matter what.
Back in the hallways of the Hyatt, more and more people were milling around, catching up with old friends at coffee stations, and proudly sharing quirky business cards with new acquaintances. Soon we were all summoned to the “Audible Ballroom,” the largest of the conference venues, for a meet-and-greet in randomly assigned groups. I wound up in a conversation between Hans Buetow (a bald, bespectacled senior producer with American Public Media) and Sarah Richards, a diminutive, middle-aged white woman. She said she’d worked for years in university communications but was once a print journalist. She was considering returning to media and it seemed like radio might be interesting, but she really wasn’t sure whether there was money to be made in it. She was worried she’d find herself in the same hustle mode she’d been in years ago as a young freelance writer.
“It’s a medium that resonates deeply with most people who try it,” Buetow told her.
“But does it pay?” she wanted to know.
“It’s a producer’s market,” he told her confidently. Buetow pulled out his phone. He showed us a page on the crowdfunding platform Patreon, for a show called Last Podcast on the Left. The woman and I had never heard of it, and he said he hadn’t either. “But look, they make $25,000 per month,” he said. “If you figure out your niche and touch people deeply you can make $25,000 per month.”
Third Coasters soon swarmed Reggie’s Rock Club for the opening-night reception, filling every cranny of the cavernous South Loop venue. Weaving my way through the crowd, I bumped into a tall Illinois assemblyman. Word quickly spread among the Chicago journalists that he was there on a date with a podcast celebrity. I quickly lost sight of them amid the throng of people, who were mingling, guzzling their free drinks, and eviscerating a spread of chicken wings, mac and cheese, and vegan sliders. Up in the front bar I had my own brief moment of feeling like a celebrity when a Nordic-looking woman mistook me for a WNYC program executive. Her illusion dispelled, she was nevertheless up for a chat and said she’d been coming to Third Coast since the very first conference. A producer at KUOW in Seattle, she recalled a minor breakout session on podcasting at one of the early gatherings, then expressed amazement at how much this world had grown since then. “Suddenly it was like, Who the fuck are all these people?! They’re so young and stylish!”
The general opinion of Third Coasters seemed to be that the industry boom wasn’t abating anytime soon, despite the overhyping of certain shows (e.g. Dirty John, a pulpy true-crime podcast many at the conference considered lowbrow and unoriginal). Some predicted a decline in the artistry of audio storytelling as it became more and more commercialized, but most were excited by the evident growth in audience numbers. However, some anticipated a drop in ad revenues and investments in podcasting ventures due to an analytics feature currently rolling out in Apple’s podcast app. Right now the barometer of success for a podcast is the rather crude tallying of downloads, supplemented by listener surveys. Apple’s analytics feature will provide information about whether or not people are actually listening to downloaded episodes, what they skip, and how long they’re listening.
Before I knew it, I was discussing all this with Roman Mars, the creator of 99% Invisible, a crowdfunded design podcast that averages a million downloads per episode. It was somewhat surreal to hear Mars pipe his velvety voice directly into my ear, unmediated by headphones. Standing inches away from me on the bustling lower level of Reggie’s, Mars delivered his take on the podcasting business. When he began producing Third Coast’s Re:sound radio show back in 2005, people interested in audio storytelling “just hung out in Chicago to maybe get a radio job.”
What success stories like 99% Invisible—on which advertisers are now paying rates on par with in-stream commercials on Hulu—prove is that “if we reached the public directly, they valued the material that public radio directors did not,” Mars said. Before becoming a podcast entrepreneur he worked at public radio stations, where he’d been frustrated that producers seemed to matter least and get paid least. “I wanted to change that,” he said. These days, if you’ve got talent and the right idea for a show, “there’s enough money for everyone to have a job. If you have talent, you’ll make it.” I asked what he thought about recent corporate encroachment into podcasting, and whether he fears there could be a bubble. “[The companies] are gonna exist outside the real economy of what is,” he said. “If you don’t offer the real-world value of a thing, then you get a bubble. The correction only scares you when [the value of what you’re making doesn’t] reflect reality.”
After about four hours of sleep I was back at the Hyatt the next morning at 7 AM for breakfast. I found a seat next to two young women and a man in his 50s who seemed like he’d be up for talking that early. The man turned out to be Trey Kay from West Virginia, who produces a podcast on class and cultural differences called Us & Them. He wore a purple gingham button-down under a gray fleece vest, Keen hiking boots, and khakis; he didn’t exude the hip aura of so many other Third Coasters. But he’s got a Peabody Award, which he owed to a creative collaboration that began the last time he came to the conference, in 2004. Back then, he said, people were more competitive—it seemed like attendees were really “clawing” at the few jobs in this sphere, and he felt like he “needed to measure up.” He admitted he was still feeling a little insecure, but being older, wiser, and surer in his footing put him more at ease. Before long we were joined by two more guys—a producer from a San Diego public radio station and a Canadian podcaster and college instructor. The instructor, Duncan McHugh, a man wearing a full beard, oxford shirt, and cozy beige cardigan, clarified that he’s not Duncan McCue, the famous Canadian radio personality.
The first big event of the day was a keynote address by Radiolab creator and industry giant Jad Abumrad, a slim man with huge, puppy-dog eyes and dark, curly hair. The talk was a summary of important lessons from his career punctuated by amusing sound effects, reflecting the sonic style of his radio program. “How do you learn to recognize these little moments before pfffft! they’re gone?” he asked, rhetorically. Abumrad reminded everyone of the somber mood of last year’s Third Coast, which happened just three days after the election. “People kept asking ‘Does what I do matter? ‘Cuz it doesn’t seem to matter in the culture at all.’ ” Over the last year, Octavia Butler helped him find the answer. He brought up “Speech Sounds,” the late sci-fi writer’s short story about a violent world in which people either can’t speak or can’t read. Abumrad told us that through that narrative, Butler was “writing herself to hope” in the future and humanity after witnessing a fight on a bus. His answer to the questions shell-shocked Third Coasters kept asking themselves last year was to keep doing whatever work mattered to them.
After Abumrad’s talk, there was excited chatter about the arrival of Michael Barbaro, of the New York Times‘s 11-month-old podcast The Daily. Barbaro is this scene’s hottest and most recent celebrity. I bumped into a young man from New York City named Ben Ellman, a freelance audio producer and writer who bears a slight resemblance to a brunet Alfred E. Neuman. He was chosen to be one of 25 volunteers to work two-hour shifts in exchange for free admission to the conference. “I helped Michael Barbaro check in!” Ellman informed me. “That was pretty nice.” I asked if he got to exchange any pleasantries. He said he spotted Barbaro a few feet away and dutifully prepared his assigned badge and tote bag filled with swag. The process went quickly and smoothly. Ira Glass’s name tag was also in the stack, but alas Ellman didn’t see him on his shift.
I also ran into Lynnae Brown again, this time engrossed in enthusiastic conversation with Third Coast cofounder Julie Shapiro and producer Nigel Poor (a woman wearing a fuzzy green sweater and shit-kicking combat boots), whose Ear Hustle podcast, created with inmates at San Quentin State Prison, is a major inspiration for Brown’s fledgling work. We chose the same breakout session a few minutes later, a panel convened to take stock of the first year under Trump.
In the audio storytelling world, as in most of the liberal media, Trump’s election was largely viewed as a crisis. Many journalists felt like they were somehow complicit because they hadn’t been telling the right stories or reaching the right audiences. In the last year Third Coasters compelled to respond did so, loosely, along two paths: Doing stories that attempt to humanize Trump supporters, and doing stories that attempt to hold Trump supporters accountable. In both cases, the established traditions of the audio storytelling medium—focusing on the individual as a vehicle to explain history and systems—has mostly persisted.
(One notable exception is John Biewen’s “Seeing White,” a series on his podcast Scene on Radio. Across 14 episodes, “Seeing White” explores the origins of the concept of race and its deployment in American history. Rather than focus on race as something nonwhite people are afflicted with, Biewen examines how whiteness has been constructed over time and used for social control. He also sets the record straight about white people being the primary beneficiaries of government handouts. Rather than merely telling moving personal stories, Biewen convenes experts to discuss the complicated subject matter in an accessible manner.)
Al Letson of Reveal (an investigative podcast that, full disclosure, I contributed background reporting to this past June) said that after the election he felt hopeless. It was like all the work his team had done to expose corrupt capitalists, dysfunctional institutions, and hate groups was a waste of time. But over the last year his show doubled down on its coverage and paid particularly close attention to white nationalists. Letson takes every opportunity to challenge them in tense, squirm-inducing interviews. In August, Letson (who’s black) made headlines when he saved a white nationalist from a vicious beating by antifa protesters at a rally in Berkeley. Shortly after this incident, Letson had the guy on Reveal to grill him on the violent and damaging consequences of his views. In Letson’s opinion, the job of journalists right now is to figure out how to address their audiences without compromising their values; he didn’t think the solution was more stories humanizing white Trump voters. “I feel like I grew up on a life of understanding” people like that, he said. “I feel like I am now always angry, and the way I channel that anger is through the work.”
Eve Epstein of Marketplace, who for years worked at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia before moving to Oregon, said that she wasn’t surprised by the election results at all. Nor was she new to the feeling that none of her work mattered. “I’ve always felt like we failed,” she said. Nevertheless, she too thought the only option was to just keep reporting. She suggested that the way to transcend the disagreements dividing the country was to bring people with opposing political views into conversations that would reveal the absurd paradoxes of what they claim to stand for. She said this dawned on her shortly after the election, when she watched, baffled, as a right-wing white guy she knew expressed his excitement about Trump to a black liberal man with whom he’d had a professional rapport going back many years.
“At the very foundation this country is white supremacy,” Letson responded, as a wave of blond heads in the audience bobbed in agreement. He didn’t have much patience for trying to find common ground with the sort of people who would, throughout his career, ignore him when he asked questions or turn to talk to a white colleague next to him instead. “They do not understand how they don’t see me and my experience at all,” he said. “And I am so done justifying my humanity or anyone else’s.”
Letson’s message resonated with the “woke” white conference attendees. (Though Zorn and her team are aggressively trying to diversify Third Coast through scholarships and work exchanges, 75 percent of this year’s crowd was still white.) It challenged the audience to get better at telling stories about people with abhorrent views who influence our politics by forcing them out into the open. But it didn’t necessarily challenge the impression that storytelling is the antidote to the social and political realities that appall us. The radio people were able to take comfort in the thought that if they just asked their subjects the right questions, did the story in the right way, it might inform, persuade, and perhaps even change something out there in the world. And even if they fail, Letson left them something to contemplate: “We all maintain illusions in our lives to keep us going,” he said. “Walk to the future, fuck everything else.”
Minutes after leaving the panel I was at lunch (a do-it-yourself pasta and salad bar), once again discussing this economic moment in the industry. Dan Misener, a blond Canadian producer in a blue zip-up hoodie and clear plastic-framed glasses, told me and Shane McKeon, a blond Northwestern undergrad also wearing a blue zip-up hoodie and clear plastic-framed glasses, that “to tell the story [of the industry] only through the Third Coast and American public radio lens is to not tell the whole story.” He was confident of the robustness of the business and told us of a world beyond the iTunes charts, filled with very niche yet well-monetized podcasts. In addition to producing his own show, Misener works a day job as the head of audience development for Pacific Content, which makes branded podcasts bankrolled by companies such as Dell and Slack. A consequence of big corporations getting into this game (besides all the jobs) is that their podcasts will help “grow the [audience] pie,” he said, and “create more fans of this medium.” He assured us that we shouldn’t be worried about an oversaturation of podcasts any more than we’d be about an oversaturation of music.
From there, I headed to the “Bitchin’ Pitchin’ Panel,” a Third Coast tradition. Producers apply to deliver story ideas to specific shows and have their concepts approved or rejected in real time. However, true to the spirit of the conference, the attitudes of the judges were more Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul than Simon Cowell. They represented a podcast (Kevin Sullivan from Reveal), a podcast production company (Jenna Weiss-Berman from Pineapple Street Media), and a public radio station (Alicia Montgomery from D.C.’s WAMU). The five freelance producers who took turns pitching were visibly nervous, their tension amplified by distracting mike feedback. Some talked too much, getting lost in the weeds of their ideas; some crumpled in the face of unexpected questions; some had dull tape to share, or no tape at all.
Just two ideas were green-lit right away, both of them pitches for Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, which Weiss-Berman produces. The proposals were for short segments about ordinary people. One was an elderly black woman who had a successful career in the public transportation sector and wished she could thank her mother for the good example she set for her in life. The other was a young black woman and childhood friend of the producer, a hard-core Christian who’s attracted to women and fears she turned the producer into a lesbian when they were teens. The key factor to the success of these pitches, it seemed, was the gripping pieces of tape the producers shared—moments of recorded interviews during which the subjects projected raw emotion. That these pitches were approved made sense, since “good tape” is by all accounts the ore of the radio business. It’s hard to sell a story without good tape, but what makes for good tape is circumscribed by numerous, commonly held American ideas about what constitutes compelling speech. What happens when the people on your tape aren’t very good talkers?
Luckily, there was a breakout session dedicated to that problem: How to embrace working with tape from subjects who speak with accents or in confusing idioms, or who, e.g., don’t come from cultures where people make sense of the world by talking about their feelings. Unfortunately, the session was boring. A half hour in I felt drowsy and distracted. Looking around, I caught people tapping on their phones; elsewhere, an older man with thin, curly hair, pulled back in a tiny ponytail, was asleep in his seat. I escaped into the cool air of the deserted hallway and struck up a conversation with two burly, middle-aged guys—one white and one black—wearing black T-shirts and sitting behind a small table. They were from the AV unions and frequently worked conferences at the Hyatt. I asked what they thought of the Third Coast crowd.
“This conference is mostly empowered women,” the black guy said, “like 94 percent.”
The Third Coast people are nice, they said, unlike some of the doctors and pharmaceutical-industry types who come through here. How did they know the women were empowered, I wondered; the white guy quickly took over the conversation. He said that he can tell because he’s got a daughter. I also learned that he’s a northwest-sider who loves Superdawg, and that his partner at the table was from the south side. They’re frequently mistaken for cops or security guards.
Asked if they listen to any podcasts, the white guy erupted into a story before his colleague could get a word in. “I like listening to ones about my culture,” he said. “There’s some pretty neat ones out there about Irish music and Irish dance. The strength and the money that’s involved in that right now is mind-boggling.” (I asked if he meant in podcasting, but he meant Irish dancing.)
I turned to the other guy: Did he listen to podcasts? He thought for a few moments. “Is Howard Stern a podcast?” he asked. “I listen to Howard Stern sometimes.”
“I think,” the Irishman opined, “he was the first one to do a podcast.”
Later that evening, I wound up at a happy hour hosted by Transom, a nonprofit organization founded by Jay Allison that produces shows, curates a vast array of free online resources like technical how-tos on audio-recording hardware and software, and runs an exclusive boot camp for those just entering the radio-production field. The event was held at Chicago Athletic Association’s Game Room, amid a typical Friday-night crowd of drunk, white-collar workers. I was hoping to meet some young strivers just breaking into the audio storytelling business, which I did, but I also unexpectedly met Planet Money host Robert Smith. A compact white man with a bouncy, energetic walk and salt-and-pepper hair and beard, he gracefully accepted the compliments of nearby admiring fans and showed interest in talking to everyone about their projects. He admitted to feeling like a fanboy himself at Third Coast, where he sees so many people whose work he considers better than his own.
Minutes later, I escorted the avuncular Smith across the street for a live taping of Code Switch—part of Third Coast’s new listener-oriented program called the Fest, which brought live shows of six popular podcasts to Chicago in early November. I thought I’d be remiss not to ask one of America’s pop-economics gurus whether there’s a podcasting bubble looming. Was being at Third Coast now like being at a real estate developers’ conference in 2005? “I probably was at a real estate developers’ conference in 2005!” Smith exclaimed. But the thing about bubbles is that almost no one ever sees them coming. He predicted that the worst that could happen with podcasting, though, is that in the future “it just won’t be as easy to make stupid money.”
After watching the Code Switch taping, which sold out the 1,525-seat Harris Theater, I caught wind of a party being thrown by Pineapple Street Media back at the Hyatt. This seemed like the best opportunity to witness whatever drunken debauchery goes on behind the scenes.
But things turned out to be quite friendly and tame. On the 33rd floor of the hotel, with sweeping views of the glowing city grid, Pineapple Street cofounders Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky welcomed the audio-storytelling elite to imbibe craft beers, Four Roses Bourbon, and Tito’s vodka (straight or mixed with Canada Dry). Linsky was wearing a black, conical patch on his left eye to hide a gruesome recent corneal scratch. Before long, the living room and bedroom of the suite were packed. A low-stakes dice game led by Missing Richard Simmons creator Dan Taberski took shape around a table, and someone had a couple of pizzas delivered.
Though this party—and, frankly, the whole conference—was dominated by New Yorkers (nearly three times as many people came from New York City than from Chicago, the next-most-common provenance), it felt nothing like a typical New York party, where people’s eyes glaze over as soon as they discover you’re not that important. Ryan Kailath, a Marketplace reporter based in New York, was all too happy to explain the significance of Third Coast. “It’s literally my favorite part of every year,” he said, “more than seeing my family.” He’d gotten into radio only recently, after years as a software designer. In 2014, at his first Third Coast, he landed on the pitch panel with an idea for an All Things Considered segment on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” It got green-lit and catapulted him into a full-time job within six months.”I would take a bullet for Third Coast,” he said. At Third Coast, you don’t feel a sense of stifling hierarchy, as you might at other conferences. The old guard of audio storytelling comes from public radio, and they’re people who’ve spent much of their careers making work that has nothing to do with getting rich. On the other hand, the podcasting vanguard originate from DIY spaces and freelance hustles and have only recently landed in a position to cash in. Perhaps this is why the audio-storytelling industry is living the dream with the same down-to-earth disbelief that would befall librarians or storefront theater operators if they suddenly found themselves in a pool of $220 million.
Here, unlike the movie or publishing businesses, the distance between those aspiring to make something and those deciding what gets made isn’t so vast and riddled with bureaucracies and middlemen. For now, the audio-storytelling community can still maintain the appearance of a meritocracy. Standing at the front of the room near the half-eaten pizzas, Kerri Hoffman, the PRX executive, surveyed the suite and said confidently, “In this world, it’s the best work that rises to the top.” An executive at WBEZ would later liken Third Coast to what Sundance was 30 years ago, before it was “overrun by Hollywood production houses looking to ink deals.”
Foremost among those who commercialized Sundance was, of course, Harvey Weinstein, whose shadow has crept into the radio world too. NPR newsroom executive Michael Oreskes lost his job in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations just a week before the conference; allegations against Garrison Keillor, John Hockenberry, Leonard Lopate, Jonathan Schwartz, and Tom Ashbrook surfaced in the month after. Despite the efforts of Zorn and her team (four of them are women, one is trans nonbinary, and one is a man) to diversify Third Coast, the wider audio storytelling world, like the rest of the media, is still dominated by white men. Last year, the Radio Television Digital News Association reported that more than twice as many men than women work in radio news. Meanwhile, a 2016 analysis of iTunes’s podcasting charts found that nearly 80 percent of podcasts were hosted by men—a phenomenon that’s even given rise to a podcast called Sooo Many White Guys.
Many Third Coasters see podcasting as a democratizing force—anyone can teach themselves how to do it and put their work out there. Maybe this will prevent the calcification of power structures that allow sexual violence to thrive. But just in case it doesn’t, Weiss-Berman and some other women from this scene have begun an “anti-sexual assault/harassment task force.” Nevertheless, some attendees feel that all the money’s changing how people behave around each other. Andrea Silenzi, host and producer of the popular dating-and-relationships podcast Why Oh Why, was nostalgic for the days when people were just making their podcasts on their own, when they were excited to trade tips and ideas and talked about their work freely. Now, she says, even friends are “tight-lipped” with each other, especially those producing for big companies. “People will say, ‘I’m working on a project, but I can’t tell you what it is.’ ”
The last morning of the conference I caught up with Brown, who’d been having a blast. She was particularly psyched to have met John Biewen, who she said gave her lots of helpful tips. Our conversation was interrupted by Barbaro, who delivered an announcement from the stage about the rest of the day’s events in his signature “Here’s what else you need to know today” tone from The Daily. The early birds at breakfast hooted with delight. “One of the things I love about this conference,” Brown said after he finished, “is it’s very thoughtful.”
I attended a talk by Christopher Swetala, who’s in charge of This American Life‘s fact-checking. It was packed. Swetala, a soft-spoken man with kind eyes and a warm smile, shared the details of his process, which he learned from years of fact-checking magazine stories. He showed us slides of marked-up TAL scripts, eviscerated by red and blue pencil markings and some fun notes Glass and the other producers have left him and each other. He said that in radio fact-checking wasn’t as common as at magazines, and that TAL got particularly serious about it after the “Mike Daisey incident.”
In 2012 TAL aired an excerpt of Daisey’s monologue about a trip to China, wherein he claimed to have witnessed the horrendous working conditions of people making Apple products; it turned out that while the conditions he described truly existed, what he said about his own trip was largely distorted or fabricated. Daisey’s story is TAL‘s only retraction since 1995, but it began a larger conversation about how the narrative framework of the show makes it inherently susceptible to tall tales.
When Swetala concluded his remarks, more people than I saw at any other panel rushed the mikes for a chance to ask questions. They wanted to know everything from how to vet experts to how to fact-check impressionistic details that are subject to disagreement. One anxiety that animated many people in the room: What if sources get cold feet about being in the story when you call to fact-check? Ultimately, Swetala said, if the facts check out, he’s usually comfortable green-lighting the pieces.
The flood of questions underscored the apparent dearth of fact-checking in audio storytelling. They also spoke to the risk of creating neat, palatable narratives to explain life’s complexities. As Joan Didion pointed out in her 1979 essay collection The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. . . . We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. . . . We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Whether these ideas are expressed in printed word or recorded sound, fact-checking can be a threat to a carefully constructed narrative.
That afternoon, I joined the stream of conference-goers piling into the ballroom for Ira Glass’s address, entitled “Seven Things I’ve Learned,” with AV components Glass was very particular about. (At one point, when the tech guy lowered the lights before cuing up an audio clip, Glass interrupted himself to say, “Don’t bring down the lights when the tape plays, just bring down the lights when there’s video.”) Most of Glass’s presentation repackaged anecdotes he’s been telling for years. The lessons—on how to prepare for interviews, how to talk to kids, how it’s important to have fun and not be afraid of failure—were ones he’s imparted through myriad books, essays, interviews, and media appearances. Glass’s affinity and respect for this particular venue manifested less in the talk’s originality than in his willingness to deliver it for just $350. (Three years ago the New York Times reported that he now makes the bulk of his money in five-figure speaking fees.) He was on home turf, enjoying the moment of arrival at the head of the procession. The godfather of audio storytelling was playful and confident, and at times emotional, bringing up his divorce and that he hadn’t seen his dog in a year because of it, and that now the dog didn’t recognize him, which prompted a chorus of 800 awww!s.
If there’s anyone who’s a true believer in the emotional power of audio storytelling it’s Glass. In this talk and elsewhere, he’s referred to radio as a “machine for empathy.” His theory is that when, unmediated by visual distractions, we hear the voice of people sharing their thoughts and feelings, we’re more able to connect with them as human beings, to see ourselves in their shoes.
But so what? Glass didn’t offer an answer about what that’s supposed to lead to, what the value or impact of that connection might be. Ultimately, he’s a pragmatist. In a recent interview with Zorn’s husband, Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, Glass said he had no problem with people listening to TAL on double speed—an infuriating trend for those who see the stories they produce as art. The work, he said, is “Disposable. Meant to be heard, remembered a while, then forgotten.”
It’s hard to square that utilitarianism with the soul-searching insecurity brought on by the election. That could be because the election, for this milieu, was a stark reminder of the disposable nature of their work. As many at Third Coast told me, this past year they pondered whether what they’re doing has value; if it matters, then it seems like this political moment shouldn’t have happened, or at least they should’ve seen it coming. They wondered if they should give up storytelling, go do something else with their lives. But the response they came up with was that no, storytelling was still the answer, they just needed to keep going. And Glass was careful not to deflate the egos of those gathered around him, telling them instead what they wanted, or perhaps needed, to hear: that they did indeed matter, that they could safely take comfort in their success.
“We’re in a part of the media that’s growing and thriving,” Glass said as he was wrapping up his talk. “One out of four Americans has listened to a podcast in the last month. It’s the wild west.” He also offered an uncharacteristic glimmer of hope that this work could change something in the world. “Hard-core Trump supporters listen to our show,” he said. “In this room we have the ability to make the future.”
He delivered these parting words sincerely, which isn’t surprising, given that Glass has long had opportunities to take solace in his professional triumphs when life might have left him feeling insecure. Before he came to Chicago in 1989, Glass was in a relationship with a woman in New York, a public interest attorney he felt was much smarter than he. “For her it was very important that things be very serious and deal with serious issues,” Glass told Stop Smiling magazine in 2005. “I always felt like the things that were interesting to me were fluff compared to the big things that were on her mind.” They temporarily separated when she had to travel for work, and the break allowed him to suddenly feel secure in his own head, with his own interests, he said. Later, he came to Chicago for another woman—cartoonist Lynda Barry—and perfected his craft of collecting ordinary people’s little stories and packaging them with big, satisfying narrative bows. In 1998 Barry described Glass to the Reader as a “person who changed my belief in human nature.” Going out with him was the worst thing she ever did, she said. “When we broke up he gave me a watch and said I was boring and shallow, and I wasn’t enough in the moment for him, and it was over. I had to go around for a year saying, ‘Am I boring and shallow and not enough in the moment?’ ” She added (and also cartooned about) how he used to call her his “‘little ghetto girl.’ We were reading the New York Times one morning a couple of weeks in, and he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know what the IMF is, do you?’ ” (Glass never disputed her account of the relationship.)
Glass ultimately came to think of his work as something that made life easier, even if it made personal relationships more difficult. Working obsessively on TAL “simplifies your life,” he told the Tribune, in an interview that preceded the Reader article. “It makes your life about something instead of about nothing.” The Reader revealed not just that this insight may have been achieved at Barry’s expense, but at the expense of a professional collaborator. Before TAL became WBEZ’s first national hit, Glass spent the first half of the 1990s working with local producer Gary Covino on a weekly radio program called The Wild Room. Covino felt strongly that the show was the incubator that produced TAL. He told the Reader a story of being left behind, of watching Glass take their idea and maneuver himself into the perfect position to seize on WBEZ executives’ eagerness to produce a nationally syndicated show and $275,000 of MacArthur Foundation money. It was an archetypal story of capitalism, public radio’s version of The Social Network.
In the weeks following the conference, I came up with a narrative to process Glass’s talk: in a way, his story of insecurity, conflict, and resolution through a blinkered devotion to work is an allegory for what’s going on with the Third Coasters. Focusing on the process is a way to suspend the cognitive dissonance between the commercial success of audio storytelling and the election-prompted shell shock of realizing that their audio storytelling might be deeply out of touch with American life. Glass’s success could be attributed to the power of his work, but a less idealistic way of framing TAL is as a product hawked by an expert salesman. Back in TAL‘s early days, Glass found himself in opportune proximity to the right WBEZ suits and all that MacArthur money and capitalized on a moment in time: the relatively carefree 90s, when the bourgie public radio audience could shamelessly enjoy his kind of program. Now the DIY radio makers and podcast producers who grew up listening to him have found themselves in proximity to iPhones and venture capital in a moment when we’re desperate—to feel like we can navigate the riptide of terrible events around us, but also to be told that we’re gonna be all right. Whether audio storytelling makes us better people or changes the world or is truly worth doing won’t really matter as long it remains a way to pay the bills.
The conference concluded with the much-anticipated awards show, preceded by a “red carpet,” which consisted of little more than Third Coasters goofing off on thin sheets of red polyester felt that quickly tore and knotted at their feet. For the first time in this entire three-day affair I found Zorn flitting around with a worried look on her face. It was 8:17 PM and the award ceremony still hadn’t started. It turned out that they’d have to pay double time to the AV unions if the show ran past 10 PM.
But the awards host—British broadcaster Helen Zaltzman, channeling The Magic School Bus‘s Miss Frizzle in a black dress printed with white-and-gold lightning bolts—was graceful under pressure. She smoothly and humorously presented winners with customized radios—Third Coast’s version of the Oscar statuette—and the ceremony unfolded at a timely clip, punctuated by TAL producer Sean Cole’s hearty whoops and cheers of appreciation.
Afterward, the Third Coasters trekked over to South Loop brewery Baderbräu for a final celebration. I ran once more into Trey Kay, the West Virginian, who seemed elated. He said that any anxiety he might have felt early the previous morning had completely disappeared. He’d reconnected with people he’d known for years who’d never heard of Us & Them, met people he didn’t know who praised the show, and he felt just fine about it all. He also mentioned that he appreciated Glass bringing up the pain of his divorce so publicly—Kay himself recently got divorced and was comforted to know that he wasn’t alone in his troubles. Later in the evening, I caught him busting a few swing moves with Zorn on the periphery of a dance floor to the pulsations of Estelle’s “American Boy.”
Producers young and old swayed and jumped with uninhibited joy that night, all relaxed around each other. In the bathroom, a woman said with public-radio sobriety: “I’ve never done cocaine before. Now is not when I’m trying to start.”
All the hand-wringing and soul-searching could stop temporarily as they soaked in their final moments of communion. Tomorrow, it would be back to the real world and the often lonely work of interviewing, and editing, and mixing, and sitting in dark little soundproof booths for hours on end, and wondering if any of it made a difference and how to make it matter if it didn’t. Around 1 AM the lights of the microbrewery came on and the reveling conference-goers began to disperse to the waning sounds of Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “The Way It Is.”
On my way out, I stumbled into one last conversation. A small cluster of people was gathered around a woman on the verge of tears. They listened intently, exchanging shocked looks as she spoke in anxious, uncertain circles about how a powerful and influential industry player had apparently been sexually and psychologically manipulating a friend of hers for years. The conversation was a jarring reminder that for all the ways Third Coast turned out to be true to its reputation—as a warm, accepting, and inspirational place—it’s an extension of, not an escape from, the world we all have to live in.
There was a nauseous silence in the group. People made some tentative guesses about the alleged perpetrator’s identity. The woman squeezed her eyes and gave a decisive shake of her head. “No,” she said. “But he’s here.” v
Corrections: This article has been amended to reflect Ryan Kalaith’s employment history and the gender identity of one of the Third Coast staff members.