PodFest: Accessibility as an Afterthought

PodFest is an online & in person expo about all things podcasting. I was a speaker at their Feb 2021 online event, and I ran into multiple issues with the organization. I wrote about them in November 2021, and PodFest published a response that did not address their issues with accessibility. In the interest of holding them accountable a year later, I’m resharing that section of my article. What you’re about to read has been read by the organizers too, and they have chosen not to address them, despite having a year and ample opportunity to do so.

If You’re Hard of Hearing, You’re on Your Own

In 2021, speakers were given the info they need about presenting at PodFest via “Town Hall” zoom meetings. These were recorded if you can’t make them live, but no captions were provided for the multiple hour long meetings. When I participated, there were also no summaries sent out if you didn’t have the time to watch them, or if, say, you were hard of hearing and couldn’t listen to the meetings. According to Andrew Weiss, the PodFest Project Manager, you were required to watch the Town Hall Meeting.

Here’s the RECORDING form the speaker’s TOWN HALL MEETING (required to watch)

Caroline Mincks, who is deaf, emailed Andrew Weiss of Podfest about this, and was told to run the town hall recordings through otter.ai themself (Source). Anyone who has used Otter for transcript creation will tell you it’s hardly a perfect system, and requires quite a bit of work to fix up the auto-generated transcript. In my opinion, it’s also pretty unfair to expect a hard of hearing person to do that work.

And yet, this was their standard response to anyone who asked about an accessible version of this town hall meeting. Cassie Josephs also asked and was told the same thing (Source). He said in a twitter thread, “Autocaptions are not accessibility. They just are not. Autocaptions are better than no captions in the way that being punched in the face once is better than being punched twice: it’s an improvement, but like, could you just not punch me at all?”

Mincks had additional correspondences with PodFest, which revealed a total lack of any accessibility plan. Eventually Andrew agreed to do auto captions, automated transcripts, and have an ASL interpreter for their session — but only their session. Mincks said in their twitter thread about this, “Accessibility isn’t a favor and it shouldn’t be a pick-and-choose situation,” and I fully agree. I got auto-captions enabled for my presentation after several emails of my own, but my experience as a speaker showed me that PodFest genuinely doesn’t care about accessibility. It took an incredible amount of pushing from those of us speaking on the Audio Drama track to get live captions on our talk. Andrew Weiss only agreed to have them after discovering Zoom (which speakers used for the event) had auto-captions, which meant PodFest wouldn’t need a third party plugin and could do it for free (Source).

A Slow, Painful, and Frustrating Road to Access

Josephs said on twitter that PodFest “ shows a disturbing pattern of requesting guidance from marginalized people and then backing out when they learn that they’d have to pay. When an event has 40 sponsors and is selling tickets priced from $50–1000 yet is insisting that they can’t afford to 1) pay speakers 2) make their event accessible and 3) hire paid accessibility/diversity consultants, I have to wonder: where is the money going?” Josephs withdrew their talk from the event, stating “I’m not remotely comfortable speaking at an event that displays such a disregard for accessibility and for the safety of marginalized people.”

To quote Mincks’ twitter thread once again, “We are long past the point where we should be reminding people to consider diversity for these events.” PodFest should have had an accessibility plan from the beginning. Mincks and I should not have had to repeatedly email them to get a single auto-caption switch flipped on Zoom.

Cole Burkhardt had a similar experience. He was hired by PodFest to create a diversity and harassment policy, and said “Every step of the way was like pulling teeth, radio silence, one sentence emails, it felt like i was being used for damage control, over actually caring about their Impact.” One thing Burkhardt, Mincks, Josephs, and I all have in common is that correspondences with PodFest were slow, painful, and frustrating every step of the way.

Mincks ultimately withdrew their talk from the event, saying “I made the decision to pull out because I just can’t justify doing an unpaid presentation about deafness for an event that isn’t even fully accessible to me.” Despite the promise of transcripts, PodFest did not respond to Mincks’ queries about how they would be finalized, even after Mincks explained what that would entail (Source). After receiving their email about dropping from the event, PodFest repeatedly asked them to attend a meeting about an ASL interpreter for their session. “It made me DEEPLY uncomfortable to have my “no” so thoroughly ignored twice over. I made it clear again that I was not participating and that if they wanted me to attend that meeting or offer any more help, I would serve as a paid consultant,” said Mincks. PodFest did not take up their offer for help.

In fact, after Mincks posted their thread on twitter, PodFest blocked them.

(NOTE: Now we enter the portion of the article PodFest has not read)

The Silencing of Any and All Criticism

Blocking people on Twitter is PodFest’s MO. If you ask them:

  • How they plan to make their events accessible
  • If they’re going to address any of the concerns brought up
  • Why they have blocked so many people

You will get blocked. In fact, if you say anything vaguely negative in their mentions, they’ll block you too. They’ve written an entire medium article attempting to discredit me instead of address the concerns raised by myself, Mincks, Josephs, or Burkhardt. At this point, it would probably be easier to address the issues from 2021 instead of constantly hide the criticism.

Where Do We Go From Here?

PodFest is now back to focusing on their in-person events — and it’s worth noting that a majority of these issues were related to running an online event. One might think if online events aren’t happening, then it’s problem solved. But it’s not okay to sweep concerns under the rug and hope they go away. This is why I continue to write about PodFest over a year later — they want people to forget and move own. They don’t want to have any accountability for their actions. This is a failing of the organizers as a whole; it’s not specific to running an online only event.

If you attend PodFest, look around at how accessible it is. Would a blind person be able to navigate the venue? If a speaker was using a wheelchair, could they get onto the stage? Could a deaf person get information from the panels? Beyond that — what safety measures do they have in place? Is there a harassment policy?

By not addressing any concerns about PodFest, what the organizers have done is make an event that is not only inaccessible to people with disabilities, but unsafe. They have been actively sending the message for over a year now that they do not welcome disabled people at their events. If you’re a disabled podcaster, PodFest has shown again and again that they do not care about you. This is not a message we should be sending as an industry. This is not a message anyone should support.

PodFest, do better. There’s still time to make things right.

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Tal Minear

Tal Minear

Tal (they/them) is fiction podcast producer who cannot be stopped from making things and will occasionally write about audio fiction.