Jonathan Pitts, the cofounder of the Chicago Improv Festival, believes that podcasting is the fastest-growing art form of this century. Podcasts have certainly gained momentum in the past three years—according to a Pew report listenership has steadily been on the rise since 2013 and there were more than 3 billion podcast downloads in 2015 alone. That helps to explain why Pitts turned his attention to the medium and created the Chicago Podcast Festival.
This weekend the inaugural fest will feature more than 30 live recordings of podcasts at five venues across the city: Athenaeum Theatre, the Promontory, Schubas Tavern, Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, and Vittum Theater.
“It was important to us, now more than ever, to represent as many different voices as possible from all different parts of the country, from all different types of podcasts, from all different kinds of hosts,” says WBEZ’s Tyler Greene, who serves as artistic director, “and particularly in Chicago to do these shows in as many neighborhoods as possible.”
The lineup includes national, well-known podcasts like My Favorite Murder, Risk!, and Guys We Fucked, and celebrities—including Bob Saget, Scott Adsit, Sara Watkins, and Hamilton‘s Ari Afsar—popping up as guests on different shows throughout the weekend. CPF also includes medleys of local and national podcasts so the crowd can, Greene hopes, be introduced to something new. For example, on opening night the Promontory hosts technology podcast Roboism, the Kanye-centered Book of Ye, and a guide to wellness and self-care, Black Girl in Om, all on the same ticket.
Even though the schedule features programs from all across the country, Greene and Pitts wanted to highlight Chicago’s thriving podcast scene. Local podcasts will be popping up around town, too, like the popular shows Arguments & Grievances and Hello From the Magic Tavern, at Schubas and Athenaeum Theatre respectively. Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre serves as home base for the up-and-coming locals to find a larger audience, among them Louisa Chu and Monica Eng’s Chewing, Elizabeth Cambridge’s Random Conversations With Elizabeth, and the Nerdologues’s Your Stories.
While creating the lineup Greene and Pitts zeroed in on the “art of conversation” than more-produced programs—that’s why shows like Serial aren’t on the bill. The result is a combination of podcasts focused on storytelling, improv, and obsessively deconstructing a specific part of modern culture.
“Podcasts offer a really unique and wonderful illumination into other art forms and topics,” Pitts says, citing Song Exploder, Improv Nerd, and Filmspotting (all recording at the festival) as programs that delve deep into one specific medium. “Even Marty and Sarah Love Wrestling—if you listen to it you have a much better understanding of wrestling than if you just watched wrestling on TV.”
A huge goal of the fest, according to Pitts, is to create a cultural connection between the like-minded people who share these experiences through earbuds—now they can be together in one room to see that there are others with the same interests as them.
“Because of the niche of podcasts, so many people are able to get their voices across and their ideas across in ways that don’t have to be set up for mass consumption,” Pitts says. “That puts the strength of the concept and the content in the hands of the hosts and the artists.”
Chicago Podcast Festival 11/17-11/19, various locations, chicagopodcastfestival.org, $20-$45.