Sook-Yin Lee's Sleepover at Hot Docs Podcast Festival. All photos by: Taku Kumabe, courtesy of Hot Docs
This past weekend, Hot Docs hosted what was billed as "Canada's first international podcast festival."
Podcasts are hardly a new medium, but they've exploded in popularity and scope since the viral success of Serial. Since then, according to the Globe & Mail, 21% of Americans listen to the on-demand, serially downloaded audio format, and many of those who do are total converts, listening to five or more in a week. Canadian data is harder to come by, but increased attention to podcasts by the national broadcaster CBC and the advent of mini-podcast networks like Canadaland have suggested Canada is starting to treat the medium like more than just a novelty.
Podcasts obviously aren't as popular as movies or television, but they are starting to be treated as a distinct medium rather than a genre. You can say you're into podcasts, but that's a bit like saying you're "into" music. There's music podcasts, comedy podcasts, podcasts about politics and media, race and urban planning, even podcasts about other podcasts. Which are you into?
The first Hot Docs Podcast Festival focused most specifically on storytelling podcasts, leaving the more casual "shooting the shit" genre to comedy events like JFL42. That makes sense for an organization that has hitched its identity to documentaries; at their best, narrative podcasts have as much in common with film docs than with radio. But how would they work live? To find out, I went on a live podcast binge, attending 5 out of the 9.5 podcasts the festival was presenting.
PJ Vogt of Reply All and Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder.
Song Exploder, the most fascinating music podcast out there (go listen to every episode if you haven't already), gets a band or artist to dissect a song by taking it apart track by track. The version at Hot Docs Podcast Festival, however, used the same approach to "explode" a classic episode of Reply All, Gimlet Media's ultra-nerdy show about the internet. While getting a peek into the arduous editing and writing process was interesting to someone who produces media for a living (hi), I wonder how much appeal it had to a more casual listener, especially since the episode they were talking about was not divulged in advance. But maybe it says something about the audience these things attract: are there casual listeners?
Truthfully, it would have been more rewarding to hear a traditional episode of Song Exploder or Reply All than the mash-up version we got, but considering the amount of work the interview demonstrated it takes to produce a high-quality piece of audio narrative, that seems like it would be a tough ask. Reply All isn't the kind of podcast where you just set up a microphone and go. These take a lot to produce, with a lot of unseen labour making it sound smooth. Have you ever seen someone put on a live documentary?
Emmy The Great and Starlee Kine, Mystery Show.
Case in point: Mystery Show. Starlee Kine's charming investigation into people's unGoogleable queries (an immediate hit on the iTunes chart) recently had a not-so-friendly breakup with its distributor Gimlet Media and, so, hasn't sent out a new episode in over a year. If that wasn't enough to raise the anticipation, we were told in advance not to reveal any details about the mystery she was there to solve. And if that wasn't enough intrigue, she went on over 45 minutes late.
Unfortunately, that last part wasn't part of the show, and it set the tone for the rest of the performance. Showing how hard it is to pull off a heavily produced documentary podcast in a live setting, Starlee Kine fumbled with her printed script pages, mistriggered recorded interviews on her MacBook, struggled to describe a picture that wouldn't load, and came off generally clumsy and under-prepared. She later acknowledged the bumpiness of the show and admitted there was a learning curve in seeing how Mystery Show could work live.
If you were charitable, you could see how the story could and probably will make a great episode of Mystery Show. As it was, the best part of the show was the gorgeous musical accompaniment from British singer/songwriter Emmy The Great, who played a handful of cover songs including Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz."
The Canadian podcasts curated into the festival were a bit looser in format, which gave them an advantage. The self-explanatory Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids has its roots in live performance, and so this incarnation felt smooth, if a bit too long. The vulnerability and absurd logic inherent in this type of storytelling is pretty much a guaranteed laugh, though a more diverse set of readers (and fewer overall) would have made it seem less homogeneous.
Sleepover. Photo by: Taku Kumabe
Sleepover, the new CBC show from Sook-Yin Lee, presented a special "power nap" edition, condensing the concept — three strangers spend a night in a hotel room and help each other with their problems, producing a whole season of podcasts — into 90 minutes on a stage with a bed. Some of the intimacy got lost in this setting, but Sook-Yin Lee's attempt to manufacture it almost worked. It didn't help that one of the participants, a sugar-rushing 10-year-old boy, constantly tried to grab the audience's attention by dabbing and yelling while everyone else got teary eyed.
Germpahobes as Zit Remedy on The Imposter
Out of the five podcasts that I saw, the one that worked best was The Imposter. Canadaland's arts and culture podcast put on a special Degrassiland episode (which just dropped in audio form this morning), coming at the iconic Canadian TV series from just about every angle. Germaphobes played Zit Remedy songs, Snake read fan-fiction about himself (the word "dingaling" was used liberally), Bruce McDonald admitted that when Aubrey Graham talked about hanging out with Dr. Dre, he didn't believe it.
There were a lot of moving parts (including video, audio, interviews and spoken word), but it was a tight and well-produced variety show. Host Aliya Pabani also showed herself to be a thoughtful interviewer in the final wide-ranging chat with Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler, which proved with humour and wit that, at least to a degree, the history of Degrassi is the history of Canada.
Aliya goes inside Degrassi pic.twitter.com/EAUZNNn2fp
— The Imposter (@IMPSTR) November 23, 2016
Taking something that's so personal to so many people — the voices that live in their heads — and putting that on stage is a necessarily a strange sensation, but also one that, when it works, is like nothing else out there. The first Hot Docs Podcast Festival had some growing pains, but it set a good tone. Here's hoping they see this thing out.