At the top of February, I headed off to Birmingham to attend the first PodUK convention. There have been a few different podcast events debuting in the UK in the last few months, with new festivals in Brighton and Manchester and workshops in London, and I consider the viability of these things as a good test for the health of the industry here as a whole. Live shows and associated events have proved to be good revenue streams for podcasts elsewhere; if the UK can now support more of them, it’s a decent sign that the audience and awareness here is growing.
Consistent with its positioning as a convention, the day’s programming saw a mix of live performances, talks, meet and greets and signings, mostly dominated by independent fiction shows, but with a few appearances by other kinds of podcasts such as the BBC World Service’s historical true crime series Death in Ice Valley and Ewan Spence’s Eurovision Song Contest Insight.
The day took a hit from adverse weather conditions, with snow preventing some ticketholders travelling to the event, but there were still plenty of attendees at the Millennium Point venue. The programming was interesting, but what really stood out to me was the atmosphere: it was one of the kindest, most supportive podcast things I’ve ever been to, with strangers striking up conversations in the halls and plenty of listener-talent mingling. I would guess that this relaxed vibe partly stemmed from the fact that most of the shows in attendance were smaller and independent, so there was a feeling of easygoing equity around and none of the uneasy tension that I’ve experienced at other events where you can have hobbyist, semi-pro and superstar podcasters all sharing a bill.
Jess Anson, the woman behind Rocksalt Events, the company that organized the convention, told me that the whole thing grew out of her participation in fandom culture elsewhere — and her own growing love for podcasts. “I used to make events for the TV show Supernatural… like little fan events,” she said. “And then I found these guys the McElroy brothers, who make The Adventure Zone, My Brother My Brother and Me and so on. I realised that there were a lot of fans in the UK, but there was no one getting together and meeting up. So I started making fan events for that, and that kind of spiralled into ‘hey, there’s not really a fandom hub for for podcast fans in the UK’, and I’m looking for a new event to do so why not make one?”
The aim of the day was so simple” for people to have fun and enjoy their favourite shows. “We’ve tried to keep [the line up] kind of lighthearted, let’s say. So we wouldn’t want to bring any business podcasts, or serious podcasts, let’s put it that way,” said Anson.
The decision to hold the event outside London was partly cost-driven — “it’s a lot cheaper to do an event in Birmingham!” — and partly because it gave PodUK a unique selling proposition, since so many other British podcasting events take place in the capital. Even then, they had people travel from all over Europe to attend, with fans, performers and sponsors coming from Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Sponsors, such as Hindenburg, also started getting in touch as news of the event spread, enabling Ansom to up her offering for attendees and get some help with merch.
PodUK definitely had the feeling of a passion project rather than a commercial one. But the goodwill towards it both from podcasters and listeners was really striking, especially as the UK audio space has become more profit-aware over the past few years. Ansom feels like she’s found “a gap in the market” — and I’m tempted to agree. It’s good to see that fan-driven enterprises like this can still thrive in an increasingly professionalised industry.