In case you have yet to discover the joy of podcasts, I feel it’s like you’re living in a world made in shades of greys. If you’re new to podcasts though it can be a bit overwhelming, trying to find exactly what will speak to you. But leave it to the Hot Docs team to bring together a perfect selection of some of the best and most relevant of today’s podcasts. For three days, audiences of the Hot Docs Podcast Festival were entertained, informed, and challenged.

I’ve been an avid podcast listener for ages now, and they are an essential part of my daily commute in Toronto. I enjoy music too, but I’m a fan of stories first, and  I’ve always been fascinated by radio as media. Rather than wanting to hoard them hipster-style though, the explosion of podcasts into the public consciousness has me thrilled beyond words.  I think it’s safe to say that Serial had a lot to do with it, but once the art form captures your attention there is such a wealth of content out there for every interest, it’s like discovering libraries for the first time. Impossible to go back.
Displaying Screenshot_20161127-165104.pngMy personal  podcast library

Two of my favourite shows are Reply All and Song Exploder. Reply All‘s hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt tell human-interest stories through the lens of the internet. Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder is an exploration of the music-making process. He interviews musicians about some of their best songs, while also deconstructing the basic tracks that compose the tunes. Both shows directly appeal to my specific (read: nerdy) interests, so imagine my shock and delight when I found that they would be co-presenting at the festival.


Hrishikesh Hirway and PJ Vogt

The collaboration between Hrishikesh and PJ was a unique combination of the two shows – Hrishikesh  interviewed PJ about the Reply All episode-making process, while PJ also revealed the history behind one of Reply All’s most fascinating episodes (the subject of which was the picture below), Boy In Photo.  Together they broke down PJ’s reporting journey, and we even got to hear some deleted audio from the original tapes. They were also very gracious afterwards, sticking around to chat with the audience.

PJ, Hrishikesh and a Boy

I had a new show introduced to me as well. I wasn’t previously familiar with Mystery Show, but with a name like that, how can you resist checking it out? I listened to the first episode while in line for the live presentation. Already the festival was broadening my horizons!

Unfortunately I can’t say anything about that presentation – the audience was sworn to secrecy, to protect the mystery to which we were introduced. But I can say that it was fascinating, and quite stuck in my head.

Musician Emmy The Great, with Mystery Show host Starlee Kine
After such a great experience, I was pleased to be able to to pass some interview questions on to the co-curators of the festival. Alan Black’s responses are below.

This may be a silly question, because I think podcasts are the best, but…Why podcasts? What sort of audience did you have in mind for the festival?   We were aiming to find new ways to showcase new forms of non-fiction story-telling and presenting ideas. No medium is presenting greater stories currently than in podcasts.  We wanted to bring in a young, hip, and engaged audience who are interested in new ideas and experiences.

You had a really wide variety of presenters. How was the list of hosts chosen? Your personal favourites, or a group of volunteers?   Will [Di Novi, co-curator] and I did all of the heavy lifting in consult with a bunch of podcasters and artists that we respect. We wanted to program a wide array of programming and showcase a “best of” of the shows that are out there currently.  It was also important to us to feature the best Canadian talent side by side with the stuff coming out of the US.

How much leeway did the presenters have to choose their topics/content? Was a theme suggested, or did they have free reign?  We brought in people who we thought were great storytellers and gave them leverage to create the kinds of shows and events that were interesting to them. Some people came with ideas they had already developed and some came up with entirely new ideas that would premiere at the festival.

Which was the most surprising performance?  They were all surprising in any number of ways, but I would say I was most delighted by The Imposter’s Degrassiland show.  They managed to produce a show that was funny, thoughtful, inspiring, and dramatic.  They had Snake (Stefan Brogren) reading mean tweets alongside a Degrassi cover band but were also able to capture how Degrassi is fearless in tackling issues like Aids and sexual violence.

How has the reception of the series been? Does a podcast festival in 2017 seem likely?   We were completely overwhelmed, not only by the packed houses, but by the responses to each of the shows. We heard a lot of positive feedback about the desire for something like this. We met dozens of podcasters and want-to-be podcasters who got a chance to meet each other and get inspired with new ideas and new ways of telling stories.

If yes, what do you think you’d have in mind for it? Themes, or maybe have it go for longer? Once the dust has settled and we have some time to reflect on what worked best, we will start thinking about next year and how we can build on the success of what we have created.

What are your top three favourite podcasts OR, which was the best new podcast you discovered in 2016?  It truly is the golden age of podcasts.  So many great shows have launched over the past few months: Revisionist History, The Run Up, Heavyweight, Science Vs., Undone, How I Built This.  Hopefully we’ll be able to bring a bunch of them to Toronto in 2017.

Personally, I am terribly proud of the outpouring of interest from my fellow Torontonians. Podcasts are a fascinating medium, and from the conversations I overheard in the crowd, more and more people are building up the courage to start their own shows. I have a feeling that by next year’s festival, the list of options to choose from here in the city and beyond will be even longer.