Community and Storytelling at ‘Now Hear This’ 2017

by Luis Gómez
Co-editor in chief

Podcasts are a strangely personal form of media. Unlike film or TV, the notion of podcasting as a communal experience is new. Radio, podcasting’s direct predecessor, grew out of a shared cultural, communal experience of gathering around a gigantic wooden box in the living room and listening to The Andrews Sisters or FDR (this is the extent of my pre-1940s radio examples).

Podcasts are more individual than that–they are something to listen to while you commute or try to drown out Dave from accounting’s insufferable ‘super quick story’ about his ‘dope adventure’ to ‘Brooklyn.’

The mere notion of a live podcast festival, then, is at least a little bit weird. You’re essentially taking a typically private media consumption format and making it public, and it’s not like hosts don’t know this. During a live taping of The Weeds, Matt Yglesias suggested that we could use the back of the auditorium to do calisthenics or mime washing the dishes if we needed to get our ~nervous podcast energy~ in the right place.

Let me back up a bit.

Courtesy of Now Hear This Festival

Now Hear This is a podcast festival produced by Midroll Media, an advertising firm founded by Scott Aukerman of Comedy Bang! Bang! fame. The festival’s lineup had a full suite of panels, from NPR productions like Planet Money or Nancy to mainstays like How Did This Get Made?, Criminal, and Beautiful/Anonymous. Oh, and LeVar Burton Reads, which was a delight and made me feel eight years old and wrapped in a Reading Rainbow-esque blanket of security again.

Also, I somehow never listened to Comedy Bang! Bang! before walking into a two-and-a-half-hour live taping of Comedy Bang! Bang! so I had no idea what I was getting into.

For some podcasts, a live show is a natural extension of the show. The Cracked Podcast regularly holds live tapings at the UCB Sunset theater in California, so its format already is designed to allow for open-ended audience questions at the end.

Others are explicitly conceived of as live events. Lovett or Leave It, a weekly comedy-news talk show hosted by Pod Save America co-host and self-described “gay Adonis” Jon Lovett was designed around a communal setting.

Courtesy of Now Hear This Festival

On Pod Save America, where Lovett’s modus operandi is “I can say whatever I want,” Lovett or Leave It mixes hosting duties with the need to keep the mood lighter and more energetic.

Pod Save America is more just a conversation, and we get in the weeds. Lovett or Leave It, we break down the news in a not-dissimilar way, but we’re talking to a mix of journalists and comics.”

Other hosts, like Lore’s Aaron Mahnke had to find a way to make the distinction between podcast and live show more explicit.

“The early live shows for Lore were basically me trying to recreate that [podcast] experience. I had an iPad with music, a mixer on the table, a stationary mic pointed at my mouth, and then I had three of my favorite episodes printed out and I just read them into the microphone,” said Mahnke. But this setup wasn’t truly effective.

“What I found was, people didn’t want anything in the way of the story. So, me looking at paper, or me tapping away at an iPad to control things made it more difficult for me to tell the story well and for them to hear the story well.”

For Mahnke, the solution was bringing pianist Chad Lawson on stage during the show, giving the author more space to concentrate on the act of storytelling itself, and recapture some of the communal magic of telling stories that’s been lost in recent decades.

“[Storytelling has] always been this thing that unites cultures. Whether it’s a family, or it’s a town, story brings people together. But I think we lost that in the last twenty or thirty years with the advent of technology and people moving farther from their true communities. You lose this communal experience.”

Podcast festivals like Now Hear This, then, have come to stand in as a sort of makeshift town square, a Rooseveltian fireside chat with a few hundred others, just for a night or two. By taking the personal and making it public, hosts and audiences can do something more than just spend time listening to one another. They can spend time together.

“That’s what I love about the live shows,” said Mahnke. “I get to pop back in town, and gather hundreds of people together, and say, ‘we’re all gonna sit around the fire tonight. And we’re back to that primitive experience that all our ancestors had, where we’re just telling stories’”

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