Planning for the Podcast Movement

“Are you in your room?”
“No, mommye, I’m in Chicago.”

I guess I forgot to tell her. We drove all day, Rob and I, twelve hours to get to the Podcast Movement in Chicago. We were too cheap to buy plane tickets, and between the AirBnB, food, and tickets, this conference was already costing us near a grand. To further cut costs, I brought instant coffee and a ziplock bag of sugar along for the ride, and proudly asked the lady at the service stop for a cup of hot water. But I couldn’t stomach the questionable meat of their “chicken” sandwich, so I got an overpriced salad instead. We spent $22 on lunch. But at least it wasn’t $24. Winning.

It was barely midnight when our host met us at the local CVS to walk us to the apartment and give us our key. The whole AirBnB thing is so weird. Strangers letting strangers into their homes? I can’t believe it actually works. But 30 minutes later, I’m in this woman’s bedroom, sprawled on her bed and taking over. I find a place for our suitcase, spread clothes across the closet, and pull out my laptop while Rob looks for a parking spot.

I look at the schedule for the conference, tired but excited. I’d been looking forward to this for months, and here it was. I read each session description they offer, putting together a schedule for Rob and I. But I keep getting stuck. In the last two years, I’ve spoken at a dozen conferences and read hundreds of talk proposals. I know how to spot bullshit, and I know when it’s too fuzzy to see the bullshit. So much of what I read felt fuzzy. There were panels that offered expertise, but didn’t demonstrate the source of that expertise. Others promised increased audience engagement and sky high downloads, based on a case study of one. Some offered strategic advice on topics where the speaker represented a company that benefited from me taking that strategic advice. It all made me feel funny.

I’ve been watching too much Newsroom. It brought me back to my short-lived journalism days, where every fact needed multiple sources, every statement needed to be supported, every story had to be balanced. I loved that pursuit of pure truth — a noble, unattainable, frustrating pursuit. I was told to constantly remove myself from a story, pushing away feelings and opinions that tried to creep in and taint my piece. Sometimes they’d win, and leave their mark in guests selected or sentences crafted. Sometimes it was obvious in hindsight, but most times we’d find out in a disappointed email or a hostile tweet, calling us out on not asking the right question, incorrectly framing the conversation, or calling it “anti-this” instead of “pro-that.” We were truth seekers, and when we failed in predictable, controllable ways, it hurt.

I assumed that everyone cared about the truth. I assumed that everyone cared about facts, required proof, demanded context and explanations for grand claims and bold statements. But as I read through the descriptions, I found my engrained skepticism rise. I found myself asking, “Why are you qualified to speak on this?” Or, to pull a quote from my internal monologue, “Who the fuck is you?!”

To be fair, many of the speakers are impressive. With over a decade in the industry, they’ve built businesses, created whole categories of storytelling, and are deeply invested in the future of podcasting. There’s a lot to be excited about and tons to learn. But as a content creator, I’m critical of content, even in the form of session descriptions, and I found myself frowning more than I’d like to.

I select our sessions and show them to Rob. He likes them. We go to bed. I lay there, flipping the descriptions over in my head, and hoping my skepticism disappears in the first few talks. I hope the speakers are all insightful, and smart, and true. I hope I leave Chicago filled with new ideas on how to take the CodeNewbie Podcast to a whole other level. I hope I end the conference inspired and full of wonder. Because I better not have lugged this sugar across state lines for nothing.

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