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Notes on Third Coast, 2017

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.