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Third Coast 2018 Notebook

When I first started writing a podcast column in 2016, my first piece ended up being approvingly passed around on social media among American radio and podcast producers — I think because I was arguing that the legacy media should be paying more attention to their work. That article ended up being quite widely read, and I got dozens of friendly emails and Twitter messages from people I didn’t know in the industry, most of whom were asking if I would be at the Third Coast conference, which happened to be taking place in a couple of weeks’ time.

I had only vaguest concept of what Third Coast was at this point, both because I was in the UK and because I was the producer of several “people sitting around a table talking” shows that were far from the kind of narrative storytelling and sound art the conference has more traditionally been aimed at. But I checked out the conference archives online, and found myself having mixed feelings on what I heard. The calibre of speakers were undeniable, but there was also a slight closedness about the whole thing. I worked in audio, but I didn’t really recognise any of the budgetary or editorial pressures I was dealing with everyday discussed.

Nick’s report from the 2017 Third Coast conference — the first one that he had attended — was invaluable to me both for its context, but also for confirming that I wasn’t the only one who had some reservations about the exclusivity of this community. I remember re-reading his piece around the time the audio of the sessions was released last year, and wondering if I would feel different if I had actually been in the room, rather than listening on my commute thousands of miles away.

Fast forward twelve months, and I am attending the conference at the Hyatt at McCormick Plaza in Chicago (incidentally, the biggest conference centre I’ve ever experienced, it stretched as far as the eye could see). Our plans to be a two-strong Hot Pod team were stymied by the disruption caused by the conference organisers’ handling of the hotel strike, so I’m working there alone, simultaneously trying to take the temperature of the US audio industry and suppress my persistent imposter syndrome that is making me feel like I shouldn’t be there at all.

For the next three days, I felt a bit like when I first went to a Disneyland at the age of 17 — my parents weren’t a fan of mega corporate theme parks — thrilled, but also like the experience wasn’t quite for me. Everyone I met was overwhelmingly charming and welcoming, delighted to talk about their work and positive about what we are doing here, but the sessions themselves were focused primarily on the kind of immersive reporting or sound art that only a tiny fraction of those working in the industry can afford to make. Everything I attended was interesting, well-delivered and, in some cases, inspiring, but I didn’t come across a huge amount that would be practical advice for someone who had just got a job producing podcasts in a newsroom, say, or for a brand. But maybe that’s not the point — when Kaitlin Prest turned the lights down at the end of her keynote “favourite things” session and spun disco balls while Roy Orbison’s “Dream” played, there was a collective exhale in the huge Hyatt ballroom, as 800 people briefly allowed themselves to be transported by smooth sounds and glittering lights.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the overwhelming feeling I picked up from the conference was one of a community persisting in adverse political times. People spoke to me time and time again about how good it felt to be among others trying to make good, meaningful work at a time when every day brings fresh outrages. At the Third Coast awards ceremony on Saturday night, many winners used their speeches to exhort those in the room to keep going, because these stories need telling. It felt significant that many of the pieces honoured that night dealt directly with injustice, whether it was Snap Judgement’s “Counted: An Oakland Story,” which documented a year’s worth of homicides, or WLRN’s “Overnight in the ER,” about child gunshot victims.

Yet I felt that some of the injustices in the industry itself deserved more attention than they received. Alex Sujong Laughlin addressed the recent shift in some places towards more freelance and fewer staff producers in her provocation session on the first night — “Chances are you aren’t a freelancer by choice but by circumstance,” she said, going on to talk about how well-cared for workers do the best work — but there wasn’t much more exploration of this that I discovered in the days that followed. So many of the indie producers who I spoke to had day jobs in other fields, making audio in their evenings and weekends, yet many of the panels felt a little more skewed towards those with full-time positions in public radio or equivalent resources. This is maybe a hangover from the early days of Third Coast, but as the diversity of conference sponsors suggests (AIR were on the list, as were PRX and NPR, but so were Stitcher and Panoply), the way people are compensated in the industry has changed.

This year, the start of the conference was overshadowed by the fallout of a hotel strike, and I was somewhat taken aback by the amount of slack people who had been substantially affected (financially and physically, I met people who were paying hundreds of extra dollars to sleep on uncomfortable couches) were willing to cut the organisers. Wrapping up after the last session of the conference, Third Coast artistic director Maya Goldberg-Safir was very open about what had happened: “We made mistakes, and we’re sorry,” she said. Like the majority of people I discussed the matter with, I felt that the decisions taken had been ethically right, but pragmatically flawed, but there was far less grumbling and acrimony about it than I would have expected at an event of this size. Even as the audio industry grows and matures, the goodwill towards Third Coast as an institution remains extraordinarily strong.