Hot Pod is a trade newsletter about the emerging podcast and on-demand audio industry, by me, Nick Quah. It’s also syndicated on Nieman Lab, and the work here has also been cited by the New York Times, Bloomberg, Wired, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. If you’re wondering what my deal is, check out my profiles on Poynter and Fast Company. I also review podcasts for Vulture.
Tell me about your current situation.
I’m a producer/reporter for ESPN’s 30 for 30 Podcast where I work with a talented team to tell great stories that happen to be about sports. We launched the podcast in the summer of 2017 and just wrapped up our second season a few weeks ago, where I oversaw production on two episodes: No Rules: The Birth of UFC and Madden’s Game. And in our first season I reported on two really amazing stories The Fighter Inside and The Trials of Dan and Dave.
So now I’m working on a couple stories for future seasons of the podcast. My day to day is focussed on research but soon I’ll be going back into interviewing and cutting tape. I can’t say much about the stories I’m working on but I can say I’m ‘pumped’ about what we have coming up (that might make more sense towards the fall of 2018 or maybe not and it’s a bad pun about what I’m working on).
How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?
I fell in love with radio and storytelling while at college in Montreal first on campus stations and then at various local stations but it was all on a volunteer basis. I never really thought working in radio was something I could make a career out of. But when I finished my masters in the UK I landed a reporting gig at 1Xtra, a BBC digital radio station. I still remember how elated I was when I got that first paycheck. I was getting paid to do something I had loved doing for years for free and it made me realize that my work had value.
Long story short I had to return to Canada and after a few months I took a detour and went to Zambia for a year to volunteer doing HIV AIDS prevention education for young people. But that volunteer gig then turned into 6 years living in 4 different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa working for the United Nations. While most of my work with the UN was focussed on program management I figured ways to bring my photography and writing skills into my daily job to tell the stories of the young people who were benefitting from the projects we worked on.
While overseas I met my eventual wife and when she got a job in New York I followed her there and did some consultancy work with the UN. I was got more into doing photography and that led to another change when an opportunity came up to work on a documentary film about the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, aptly titled The Gettysburg Story. As with most documentary films it was a small crew so I got a chance to do almost everything at one point or another.
While I was working on the film I was keeping an eye out for other opportunities and got connected with Radio Rookies at WNYC who do incredible work helping young people report stories that are important to them. I was a big fan of their work and when an opportunity came up I started out as a freelancer and then got a full time position. My colleagues were amazing to work with and I learned a lot from them, but I also learned plenty from the young people we worked with, mainly about patience, building trust and snapchat filters.
Sports has always been something I’m passionate about and I’m a big fan of the 30 for 30 films so when an opportunity came around to be part of the team that was starting up a 30 for 30 podcast I met with Jody Avirgan the podcast’s host and senior producer and was excited to be a part of it. The past year has been an amazing ride, we’re thrilled with the response to the podcast so far and with two season already under our belt I’m excited about what we have coming up.
What does a career mean to you, at this point?
At this point I’ve been on such a meandering road that I don’t tend to think of myself as having a career in any traditional sense where you specialize in one field and make that your life’s work. I really enjoy storytelling, both as a consumer and creator, so I hope that I can continue to do that as long as possible but that can take many different forms.
When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?
I knew I wanted to tell stories but I didn’t think anyone would pay me to do it so for a while I was actually thinking I would be a civil servant or teacher. I mean I always thought I would be doing storytelling in either radio or film but I just thought I would be doing it on the side for fun.
For as long as I’ve been writing this newsletter, I’ve heard about Third Coast, the non-profit audio documentary conference event with a distinct focus on art and craft. I’ve heard about it from old producers, from younger ones, from executives who run organizations, from college students thinking about getting into the business. There’s a certain mythology around the conference, a kind of hagiography. I’ve heard of it described as a sanctuary, where producers, reporters, and creators huddle together in the cold (literal and professional) to trade notes and stories, anxieties and ambitions. Equally prominent are the various criticisms I’ve consistently heard of the conference; that it’s too fancy pants, too self-congratulatory, that it reflects much of what is wrong with the specific creative culture that largely, though not exclusively, emerges from the public radio community.
For as long as I’ve found myself in this peculiar practice of writing about the podcast industry, I’ve heard all of these things. But I’ve actually never attended one until this past weekend.
This year’s proceedings took place at the Hyatt in McCormick Plaza, a large conference park situated in the no man’s land between Chicago city proper and the southern neighborhood of Hyde Park, close to Lake Michigan. The Obama Summit had recently taken place in the nearby Wintrust Arena, where Chance the Rapper curated the closing concert. The compound was vast, it’s shape an endless variation on an airport hanger. This was the second time the conference was held at the venue, and the second Third Coast after the festival declared it was returning to an annual production. (It was originally an annual affair until 2004, when it began being portioned out every two years.) That change was, in some ways, a sign of the times. “Frankly, sometimes it felt like there weren’t much new to say,” Johanna Zorn, the executive director and co-founder of Third Coast, told me, referring to the earlier editions of the conference. That isn’t quite the case these days.
The first Third Coast took place in October 2001, a relatively small affair hosted nearer to downtown Chicago at a Holiday Inn that no longer exists. Back then, the festival was conducted under the auspices of WBEZ, and that year’s after-party was said to have involved a keg being hauled into the station’s Navy Pier studios. (Third Coast would later spin out as an independent non-profit entity when the Chicago public radio station’s board opted to drop the festival after the 2008 financial crisis.) In that debut year, the festival saw about 200 attendees.
In 2017, that number has ballooned to about 800, and it shows. Bodies gush through the hotel conference grounds, flowing in and out of breakout sessions, clogging hallways. The crowd brims with a constant hum of excitement. At the Hyatt, a dense ball of executives, managers, producers, and freelancers pile on top of each other and a few other miscellaneous figures: software peddlers, a book agent, a reporter from a local magazine, myself. The phrase “these are heady times” was uttered to me multiple times, independently of each other, in various conversations over the weekend. Four different people made a point to highlight to me the fact Audible had sponsored the main ballroom, perhaps as some way to remark upon the changed state of money in the radio and podcast business.
All this seems to stand in stark contrast to the image I’ve built in my mind from all the stories I’ve heard about earlier Third Coasts. In those tales, there existed a strong “us against the world” quality; a vision of a small forgotten tribe who practice a largely under-appreciated craft coming together to give each other the sweet taste of recognition. “You’re basically talking about a group of people who worked in a system that’s constantly telling them ‘no,’” an executive and long-time Third Coast attendee described the old days to me. (Maybe those days aren’t so old?)
That, as the story goes, engendered a strong sense of shelter within the conference. “I came from photography, and the world of photographers often feels like they’re trying to keep the door shut — like they wouldn’t want to let any new people in,” said Youth Radio’s Brett Myers, during his team’s on-stage acceptance speech after winning the Third Coast Radio Impact award. “When I came to Third Coast for the first time in 2004, it felt like a giant group hug.” That community-building function is at the heart of Third Coast’s operations, on top of all the other things conferences naturally tend to facilitate. Here, much like everywhere else, conversations are accelerated, deals are closed, talent is courted, wares are advertised, announcements are made, late night hotel suite parties are thrown to further engender goodwill.
But that feeling of community, of shelter, along with some internally articulated commitment to a sense of inclusivity, is the bulk of the promise being given. And so the question arises: as Third Coast has grown over its sixteen years and twelve editions — perhaps as tethered to an industry that has experienced an utterly unexpected and supremely bizarre digitally-enabled burst in fortune — has its original sensibility, its fundamental feeling, changed or become diluted in some way?
Frankly, it’s hard for me to tell. For one thing, it’s methodologically difficult to compare a present experience to historical ones that you never participated in. And for another, I found it challenging to get an objective sense of historical change from talking to the different types of attendees. Speaking to long-time conference patrons revealed a perfectly unsurprising mixed bag of responses: there were those who argued that the festival had stayed true to its roots — or at least, has made a commendable effort to do so — and there was what seemed to be an equal number of long-returning patrons that felt it had outgrown its youth. This latter group reminded me of a sentiment that I suspect many in my generation often encounters; that many things that were once authentic and cool are no longer so, like SXSW, Lollapalooza, Comic Con, New York, Portland, being a disaffected young person.
But attendees, as a whole, struck me as especially young and abundant with newcomers. And interacting with them tended to draw out all the dynamics that come with being young and new: the excitement of discovering a community, the awkwardness of navigating a developed scene with many pre-existing relationships intact — ever tried hanging with a bunch of friends who know each other really well? — the baseline fear of missing out. The festival’s programming and design seemed focused on reducing these potential social frictions (ample time to mingle between sessions were provided, first night icebreaker introductions strongly pushed), and in doing so, seemed very much focused on those younger, newer souls. Which, I suppose, could be read as the fundamental purpose of the whole business, given its pedagogical nature. Such feeling of loss, then, could perhaps be interpreted to some extent as a story of a generation aging up, and perhaps out. “I’ve seen people join the community, grow up, and start to grow bald,” Zorn joked. Sixteen years, indeed, is a long time.
Despite the focus on inclusivity, however, one could still easily spot struggles on that front. I’m told that the conference has improved in racial and ethnic diversity over the years, but it was still pretty evident that conference goers were predominantly white (in parallel, I suppose, with the industry as a whole). The youthful focus did yield a re-examination of what it means to be new to a community; I had a few conversations with newcomers above the age of forty that felt a little left out. And I couldn’t get past the sense that I swimming within a very specific corner of the broader creative audio community, one that explicitly focuses on questions of art and craft in a way that projects a fancy-pants vibe. “Pay attention to who is not here,” a podcast executive told me, closer to the end of the weekend. He would later bring up the myriad new conferences that were emerging in this period, and how they were simply better at doing certain other things, serving the people who were not there. Later, I tried rearranging my schedule to check out the upcoming PodCon in Seattle, organized by Hank Green and Night Vale’s Joseph Fink, just to see how different it will feel.
All of which suggests a potential answer to the question of whether Third Coast has changed as it’s grown over the years: you could argue that it hasn’t, really, and you could perhaps further say it has instead become more itself. Third Coast’s commitment to art and craft has persisted every so strongly, but so does its various struggles with the frictions between who is in the community and who is not. It remains a place for old friends to see each other again, only now they are so much older as the world around has completely changed. It is still an event where high-profile talent shares the space with increasing volumes of new blood being brought into the fold. It embraces new successes — The Daily was all but coronated, achieving near celebrity status — as it continues to grapple with whether its curatorial tastes will remain at the center in the years to come.
Above all else, it carries on striving for a feeling of shelter. This year, the highest honor of the Third Coast awards went to the team behind 74 Seconds, Minnesota Public Radio’s thoughtful and profoundly well-executed examination of the Philando Castile shooting. Here we have an exceptional piece from an organization whose on-demand experiments outside its core broadcast product hasn’t seemed all that coherent. The show did not get much critical attention, or mainstream pickup. In my email and text inbox, often bursting with opinions from readers about so many shows and projects (actual sample message, from a few months ago: “Why don’t you fucking stop writing about The Ringer and start talking about The Last House From The Left?”), I barely heard anything about the project.
And yet, here, the team was brought in from the cold, and they were recognized.
I love running this feature, mostly because it’s often a miracle that even a fraction of anything ever happens the way you hope it would. This week, I traded emails with Robin Amer, a Chicago-based journalist, editor, and audio documentarian who is in the midst of leading the development of a long-form investigative podcast, The City, that she sold to the USA Today Network over the summer. Amer’s on the up-and-up, and it’s great to catch her at this point in time.
What’s going on right now?
I’m working to launch my podcast, The City, in 2018. It’s a long-form, investigative show that explores how our cities actually work — I’ve described it as being like The Wire, only true. By that I mean that every season will go deep into one city and one story. And every story will have a gritty sense of place, a memorable, multi-racial ensemble cast, and will be as revealing about the power struggles of all cities as it is about the particulars of the city where it’s set. Season 1 is set in Chicago, where I live. I can’t say much about the story right now except that when I started reporting it I thought, holy moly, this really is like The Wire, only true.
Because I’m the show’s executive producer as well as its the host, I’ve spent the last few months building the foundation for the show on business side as well as on the editorial side: building a whisper room studio in our offices in Chicago; hiring a team of journalists; working with my company’s product and sales teams to design our website and secure sponsorships; that kind of thing. I’m hoping to have most of my reporting and production team in place in the next few weeks, at which point we’ll dive back into the reporting for Season 1.
How did you get to this point?
In a narrow sense, I won the WNYC Podcast Accelerator competition in 2015, piloted the show with WNYC studios last year, then sold the pilot to the USA Today Network in May. USATN was interested in the show because the company wants to be a player in the premium podcast space, and because my vision for the show — to go to a different city every season — fits perfectly with its overall editorial strategy. The company owns 109 local news outlets, and we’re already soliciting pitches from journalists in the network for stories for Season 2.
In a broader sense, I’ve been working up to this project for more than 15 years. I feel in love with public radio-style storytelling à la This American Life when I was in high school, then talked my way into an internship at NPR when I was 18. My senior thesis at Brown was an hour-long radio documentary that aired on several public radio stations in New England and that I premiered as a live performance in front of about 200 people.
That doesn’t mean it’s been a straight trajectory. I moved to Chicago in 2007 to work for Vocalo and then for WBEZ, and truly thought I’d be there forever, because it had always been my dream to work there, and because I loved Chicago, and Chicago was sort of a one-horse town when it came to opportunities in radio. But at a certain point I started to stagnate, and I wasn’t able to do the kind of work I wanted to do most, so I took a risk that not everyone understood, and left my stable job in journalism to go back to journalism school at Medill.
It seemed a little crazy at the time, even to me. But it was totally the right move. I got a full scholarship, and then a fellowship with Medill Watchdog, where I trained with Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Tulsky on how to be an investigative reporter. That opened a lot of doors for me. After I graduated, I freelanced for a year, which included a stint at the interactive audio walking tour company Detour, before I was hired to be the deputy editor at the alt-weekly Chicago Reader. Then I won the WNYC competition just a few weeks after I started at the Reader. (It was kind of a heady time!)
What does a career mean to you at this point?
The most important thing to me is the work, in whatever form it takes, and to keep making it. I think it’s really important to be adaptable and nimble, given both the incredible opportunities in media right now and the incredible instability in the media job market. It’s so boom and bust, feast and famine, that you have to figure out what really drives you, so that you can use that to guide you through various opportunities and challenges.
So for me, I’ve figured out that as a journalist and storyteller I’m incredibly inspired by place. Typically I come across some place that is strange or confusing or surprising or upsetting, and I want to figure out, in a very literal sense, what happened here? How did this place come to be the way it is? And what are the consequences of this place being the way it is for the people who live here?
But I’m very open to and excited by the idea of exploring these kinds of stories across a variety of media and in a variety of contexts. I look at someone like Alex Kotlowitz as a model here. He writes long-form magazine articles and books, produces radio stories, and is involved with making feature films like The Interrupters. But his work always has the unifying themes of poverty, race, and inequality (and often education and/or childhood), so regardless of the “container” it’s in, you can tell it’s his. I’m also newly inspired by Ira Glass right now, because he somehow manages to be deeply involved in the journalism coming out of TAL, Serial, S-Town, etc., while also managing and growing what is essentially a business empire.
When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?
In one sense, I thought I wanted to do more or less what I’m doing now: make long-form audio stories. When I was younger I was in love with old-school, sound-rich European features by people like Peter Leonard Braun and Kaye Mortley, people whose work I had been introduced to by the Third Coast International Audio Festival. But it took me a while to articulate the kind of subject matter I was drawn to, and to realize that what I was doing was journalism, and that the ethics and tools and practices of journalism were an important component of my work. Fifteen years ago I would have self-identified as a radio producer or a radio documentary maker. Now I tend to self-identify as an investigative reporter. More recently it’s been a shock to see myself as somewhat entrepreneurial. I didn’t see that part coming.