“I’d like to thank the Academy.”
One hand nervously in his pocket, the other gripping the podium, Danny Peña looked down at a room full of his fans, his peers, and over a thousand people who, when they finished feting him, would go back to being among his many competitors.
“I want to give a shout-out to Jennifer, the love of my life,” Peña said, referring to his girlfriend, Jennifer Diaz, who believed in his potential when he started his business more than 10 years ago.
After laughing at a few jokes, the crowd went silent when Peña talked about his earliest supporter, who is now battling cancer. Peña dedicated the award to Trixie, holding high the slender glass trophy adorned with a star that he was just given, tears in his eyes.
This was Peña’s induction speech into the Podcaster Hall of Fame. That’s right. There is a Podcaster Hall of Fame, and it was inaugurated on the last weekend in July by the Academy of Podcast Awards as part of Podcast Movement 2015, which is quite a mouthful, but the podcasting community has never really put a high value on brevity.
Along with more than 1,100 attendees at the three-day event at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, Podcast Movement 2015 featured (in addition to a $497 final registration fee) 80 speakers, including Marc Maron of WTF, Roman Mars of 99% Invisible, and Sarah Koenig of Serial, a true crime show that since its debut last October has been downloaded more than 94 million times.
If you don’t know who these people are, then you would have been in the minority at Podcast Movement. Their listeners don’t number in the thousands. Think: millions.
Peña joined five others in the Hall’s inaugural class of podcast pioneers, each of whose success attracted fans to the medium in its earliest stages. The ceremony was not ironic or poking fun at itself, like some sort of faux-Oscars parody. It was an earnest and well-funded production. The Oscars might not be a bad comparison, if every actor had a hand in writing, producing, and creating the movies in which he or she starred.
Peña, the founder and co-host of GamerTag Radio and a 10-year veteran of the business, had advice for the largest collection of podcasters ever assembled: “Don’t worry about [trends]. Be yourself. Be unique.”
I walked into the Omni thinking I knew what to expect, having attended similar gatherings of writers. I assumed this wouldn’t be much different, but by the time I was handed my credentials, I felt like what I had just walked into resembled a kind of Coachella more than any conference I had ever seen. There were sponsored pre-parties anywhere the hotel sold alcohol. The lobby area was peppered with cash bars. For no other reason but to liven up the vibe, a mariachi band was wandering around, along with some sort of mascot that I’m fairly certain was supposed to be a pickle, though I don’t exactly know what a pickle had to do with anything.
Fort Worth represented only the second year of Podcast Movement. The first was in Dallas last year and was the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The event more than doubled in size this year and was packed with sponsors and tech vendors, peddling the newest innovations in podcast sophistication to up-and-coming podcasters. Except for during the keynotes, attendees constantly had an option of choosing between six different panels or presentations, all going on at the same time. Choosing one meant missing five, although they were all recorded.
In between panels and presentations, the lobby was an enthusiastic convergence of self-starters whose penchant for talking was surpassed only by their assumption that people wanted to listen. Everywhere were pairs and clumps of attendees networking and handing out mutual encouragement, sometimes with portable microphones and recording devices, because why not make an episode of it? I spent the majority of the weekend talking to these folks about their podcasts, and what became clear is that the podcasters in this “community” had practically nothing in common with one another beyond the fact that they talk into microphones and are giddily excited about the future of the medium.
Podcasting, for anyone a few presidential terms behind the newest technology, is essentially just recorded audio that can be played at the listener’s leisure. The differences between it and radio are matters of convenience. Radio has become a nearly exclusive relic of riding in a car, while podcasts can be listened to anywhere –– the listener can pause them and pick back up whenever he or she wants. It’s hard to say where this concept originated because the technology is not exactly groundbreaking, but the past decade has seen a boom in listeners and, perhaps more notably, podcasters. This might just be because people are realizing, as that weekend in Fort Worth showcased, that you can talk about anything.
There were podcasters there who spoke about specific TV shows, specific NFL teams, rising Periscope stars, time management tips, movies, gardening, cooking, books, and literally hundreds of other topics. I spoke to people from New Zealand, Beijing, Canada, and every region of America, all hoping they’d get the chance to discuss Adnan’s innocence with Koenig at the hotel bar or borrow a page from Maron’s virtual Rolodex at Starbucks.