By Allison Matyus
The ways in which we consume information and entertainment is constantly changing in our tech-driven world. Over the past five years or so, podcasts have become more in tune to finding their own niche in the digital media world through broadcasting to millions of listeners over the internet’s airwaves.
From Nov. 17 through Nov. 19, the first annual Chicago Podcast Festival was held throughout various venues in the city to celebrate the medium, its fans and the podcasts that make up the Chicago podcast scene.
“The inspiration [for the festival] was recognizing about a year and a half ago that this was the fastest growing art form in the country,” said Jonathan Pitts, the creator and producer of the Chicago Podcast Festival. “It’s a growing scene that reminds me of the rap scene in the ‘90s.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, podcasts are similar to radio talk show programs, except listeners can download podcast audio files and listen to them whenever they want, wherever they want, without any commercial interruptions or bad signals. Pitts describes podcasts as “less about information and more about perspective.”
While podcasts have been around for more than a decade, the scene is still on the newer side and is getting more and more attention, especially in Chicago.
“[The scene] is still fairly new and developing much like the improv community or the storytelling community,” said Tyler Greene, the artistic director of the festival. “This year we are really focused on representing as many podcasts as we possibly can.”
Thirty-five podcasts were recorded in front of live audiences over the three-day fest, both hailing from around the country as well as right here in the city.
The key players that make up Chicago’s podcast scene have their own niche in the world of podcasting. Like “Hello from the Magic Tavern,” which consists of three improvisers who have created an alternate reality of a bar filled with wizards, talking animals and other obscure fairy tale creatures.
There is also “Random Conversations with Elizabeth,” which offers different perspectives on life, “Black Girl In Om” which creates a wellness and self-care space for women of color, and then there’s “The Book of Ye” which is a podcast that looks at the cultural significance of – you guessed it – Kanye West.
Pitts said the beauty of podcasts is that there really is something for everyone.
“One of the easiest ways to find a podcast to listen to is to type in whatever you are most interested in on Google and put in the word ‘podcast’ after it,” Pitts said. “There isn’t just one genre.”
The Chicago Podcast Festival certainly showcased the diverse shows of the scene, which was the intent: to expose people to all that Chicago’s podcast scene has to offer.
“We really wanted to provide a platform for a diverse range of voices and in doing so, showcasing the talent we have here and across the country,” Greene said.
On the Saturday afternoon of the three-day festival, SteppenWolf’s 1700 Theatre was packed to hear some Chicago podcast favorites like “Tomefoolery,” “MBSing” and “Chewing.” Each show recorded a live segment in front of the audience…a different element to the otherwise private tapings of podcasts.
“Well that was interesting…in a good way,” said a showgoer about “Tomefoolery,” a podcast focused on weird books the hosts recently read; this particular segment talking about a Satanic children’s abuse book, which actually ended up being funny despite the first impression of the topic.
While each show was completely different in topic, the audience was able to connect with the podcast in a unique way by seeing it play out in front of their eyes.
“It’s exciting to see [podcast] festivals popping up all over the country,” Greene said. “I don’t think we have gotten to the critical masses yet, but a significant amount of more people are listening to this medium.”
As far as the future for the medium goes, both Greene and Pitts think podcasts will soon become a part of our everyday life.
“I think we are in the wild west of podcasting. In five years the medium will be as dominant and as understandable as Netflix,” Pitts said.
Greene echoed Pitts thoughts saying, “We are finding that people come together around an interest or challenge or celebration and I think that can have the potential to become even more powerful.”