Balancing Skepticism & Support At A Podcast Conference
I’m a supporter of podcast conferences, happily spending my hard-earned money to attend several each year. But I’m also skeptical of much of the information provided. Too bad too many podcasters are too gullible.
Last week, I attended the Podfest Multimedia Expo 2020 in Orlando, Florida where I was one of many invited speakers. It’s my 2nd time attending, and I always look forward to connecting with my friends and family inside the podcasting industry, as well as making new connections among the 1,600 podcasters who attended.
Yes, I think you, as a working podcaster, should attend a podcast conference if you can find the budget for it. The chance to build connections among, swap ideas with, and learn from other podcasters is reason enough to go. (And if we met while I was there and the sticker I gave you was enough to entice you to check this out, welcome!)
Beyond the personal connections, podcast conferences are used by many podcasters as an immersive learning experience. There is a lot of information presented on the various stages. But frankly, there’s a lot of misinformation presented as well. The tough part is identifying what is fact and what is fiction (with or without malicious intent). And that’s an especially difficult task if you’re new or inexperienced with podcasting.
During my time at Podfest, I did an informal poll with some of the vendors and other speakers to kind of get a sense and a feel for the experience-level and savviness of the attendees, some 1,600 people (who were mostly very COVID-19-aware and largely managed to maintain social distancing to stay healthy there and upon their return). The consensus was that 20 to 25% of Podfest 2020’s attendees were quite inexperienced. Some hadn’t even started. Some had recorded but hadn't yet released an episode. Others had released a handful of episodes but were still struggling to make sure they were doing things correctly.
That’s a lot of brand new people looking for lots of information. Which is why some very basic sessions were overflowing with audience members. With what seemed like a dozen simultaneous tracks at any given time, a lot of information was offered up on small breakout stages and the big keynote stage alike and gobbled up as gospel by a voracious audience.
Some of that information was utter bullshit.
I have the utmost respect for the people who organize these conferences. Most of them -- and especially the Podfest organizers -- take their responsibilities seriously, ensuring that underrepresented and marginalized voices have a chance to be on stage. They understand that “tenure” in podcasting is ludicrous and that new ways of doing things are oftentimes more valuable and usually much more relevant than going-stale processes cobbled together a dozen years ago.
But that presents a vetting problem. Not vetting for experience. Vetting for facts and truthful information.
Also, not vetting opinions. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Everyone is not, however, entitled to their own facts. We each are free to interpret facts however we wish, going so far as to convey our inference of said facts from the stage at podcasting events. Even if I disagree on how you interpret those facts, I think you should be able to get on stage. Take my good friend Rob Walsh from Libsyn, for example. At nearly every conference he and I attended, I’ve seen Rob present his always-updated “state of the podcasting industry” talk, using real data from the tens of thousands of podcasts that host with Libsyn. I believe Rob’s data. But I disagree with some of the inferences he makes about those data.
We’re both fine with that because we're not disagreeing on the facts. We're disagreeing on what those facts mean to podcasters and what they say about the future of our industry. And that’s fine. That’s how it should work.
But regardless of what conference you attend, some people on stage just don't have the proper facts, often regurgitating myths and falsehoods, or making assumptions and generalizations that are demonstrably false.
Unfortunately, attendees in the audience who lack the experience to sniff out the bullshit or keenly tuned into those hard-to-kill myths accept what’s being said on the stage.
If you go to a session entitled “How To Get A Billion Downloads Of Your Podcast In 13 Days”, you may not notice the person on stage never actually gave any evidence of achieving that goal. Nor will you be able to discern that the information provided was basic, low-level stuff that every podcast should be doing. Worse, you’ll have no ability to identify when what they say is a twist on reality. You may not have the knowledge to sift out the misinformation.
Or perhaps you’re sitting in a keynote, eagerly writing down every big concept the presenter makes because they sure seem smart, failing to recognize they’re just repackaging information from a Steven Covey book or self-help lecture series they attended last week, and that you’d perhaps be better served by walking out of that keynote and engaging with the vendors in the exposition hall. Just by way of example, you understand.
So... how do you (and I) continue to support for the organization, the conference, the community, the camaraderie, and all the other great things make podcasting conferences special, yet also maintain a healthy dose of skepticism?
How do conference organizers fight this problem, preserving their own integrity which may be in jeopardy when the signal-to-noise ratio gets too small?
Honestly, I don't know that they can.
I don't know that they have the time or bandwidth. I know it's a lot of work to put an event on of any size. Just considering the time it would take to vet or fact-check each presentation would be massive. And likely untenable.
That means the burden is on your shoulders. When you attend one of these conferences, you have to put on your skeptic hat. And sometimes that's hard to do. Even someone like me who's been a lifelong skeptic (except for one little four-year slip where I lost my mind) it's hard to know what's correct and what's bullshit.
If I find myself in the audience where some questionable information is provided, I make it a point to ask the presenter some clarifying questions. That often exposes the misinformation or gives the presenter a chance to clear up what could be an unintentional misinterpretation of reality.
But I can't go to every single session. And while there are other people like me who’ll happily call out the bullshit, they can't go to every single session.
So be skeptical. The barrier to entry for getting on stage at a podcasting conference is pretty low. Write up a very good description of your talk, give it an amazing title, and the selection committee is going to look upon it favorably. And given all the half-assed submissions they receive, it’s not hard to bubble to the top.
Again, that’s not a bad thing. I don’t want it to be harder to speak at these events. But you need to understand that the person on stage isn't necessarily the expert they reported themselves to be.
Ask your friends who also podcast about their experiences with podcast conferences or events -- physical or online -- and the misinformation they might have encountered. Because it's everywhere and is the biggest reason I don't engage in the various Facebook forums dedicated to podcasting. There’s just too much misinformation, and it bums me out.
How do you maintain that balance of wanting to be supportive of something and skeptical of it at the same time? Tell your podcasting buddies you heard about this episode of Podcast Pontifications and see if it sparks a larger discussion. Because better information is a good thing, right?
I shall be back tomorrow for another Podcast Pontifications.