The Problem With Podfest

Podfest is an online (and sometimes in person) expo about all things podcasting. I can’t speak for their in person event, but they push for their online one to be as big as possible. Guinness World Record “largest online podcasting conference” level big. I’ll be focusing mostly on the issues with their online event, but as you’ll see, many of the problems relate to the organization as a whole and spiral out beyond it.

I’ve written this article so that no prior knowledge is required. If you want to know what’s up with PodFest, read below.

High Cost, No Pay

Tickets are surprisingly expensive, given that they don’t pay any of their speakers. The cheapest ticket is $50, and they go all the way up to multiple hundreds for VIP access. For their 2022 in person event, the Virtual Pass is $247, and the most expensive Inner Circle pass is $745 (Source).

As a speaker, you do get a free ticket. But if you want assistance putting your presentation together (the presentation you are giving for free at their ticketed event), you can pay them $199 for a personalized coaching session.

The price is set @ $199 to help anyone that needs additional support.

It’s obviously a matter of opinion if this is unethical. I signed up as a speaker knowing it was a volunteer position — this is not unheard of for podcasting conventions, though usually ticket prices aren’t quite this high. But in my opinion, the offer of $199 “additional support” shows to me that PodFest doesn’t consider their speakers part of the team, but rather, another customer.

UPDATE: Apparently only two people took Podfest up on this offer, and Podfest did not receive money from them. This information was shared in response to my article, and not available when I initially wrote this. I am glad that Podfest did not actually take money from people who needed additional support, though I find it significant they still sent out this PS in their email.

Lack of Accessibility

Speakers are given the info they need about presenting at PodFest via “Town Hall” zoom meetings. These are recorded if you can’t make them live, but no captions are 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?”

The ableism didn’t stop there, though. During the only town hall recording I watched, they wanted the speakers to know that “Miracles can happen at Podfest” — and the example they gave was a speaker standing up from his wheelchair as part of his presentation, as if ambulatory wheelchair users do not exist.

UPDATE: More details about that were revealed in Podfest’s response to my article. I still find the inclusion of this in their speaker town hall incredibly uncomfortable. Obviously, this is my own opinion. I would also like to point out, in my response to their response, that being disabled does not mean you cannot be ableist in any way.

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 outside of the Audio Drama track, they were noticeably absent.

UPDATE: While I did not personally see captions, they were included outside of the audio drama track in some sessions. I appreciate this immensely, and I apologize for the single factual error in this article.

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 (Source). This meant they could do it for free.

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.

Endorsement of NFTs

A few months after the event, PodFest sent an email their mailing list, advertising their Bitcoin and Blockchain Event and advocating turning your podcast into an NFT.

Did you know you could turn your podcast into an NFT?

I’m not going to get into the whole NFT thing, besides a quick comment that the energy cost to create a NFT consumes an incredible amount of energy (Source, Source, Source, Source, Source, if that’s too many just read this one). To borrow from that last article, climate change is happening and we truly don’t have time to wait. This is my primary issue with NFTs, beyond the fact that they’re a scam (Source, Source, Source, Source), don’t do what they claim to do (Source, Source), are bad for artists (Source), and bad for buyers (Source, Source).

I do not like NFTs. So suffice to say, I was pretty unhappy to see the PodFest team advocating for them.

I tweeted “It’s incredibly disappointing to see some of the folks behind @podfestexpo promoting NFTs. I was a speaker this year, but I won’t be attending PodFest again — I cannot in good faith even tangentially support the environmental impact of the NFT market.”

I felt obliged to give the gentlest of criticisms and the smallest of push backs because this is something I feel strongly about. I did my best to word this as kindly as I could while being as clear as possible.

Podfest blocked me.

Evan Tess Murray also tweeted about this the same day as me. His comment was less a criticism and more an expression of continued disappointment: “PodFest Guy is promoting NFTs and running a summit about cryptocurrencies. I’m not even vaguely surprised.”

Podfest blocked him.

ADDITION: Podfest says in their response to this article that “We’re aware that people disagree with our stance on this, however our approach is always educating our community about updated tools and resources in the industry.” and I would like to point out a factual error in their article that blocking people who express disappointment in your affiliation with NFTs does not count as educating the community.

Lack of Transparency

It seems like Podfest and NFTs might hold “sort of being a scam” in common. Information about ticket sales, where money was spent, who is employed by them, or what goods and services they offer is all hard to come by.

Here’s the entirety of their about page:

A Podfest event is so much more that just a mere conference. While we pride ourselves on featuring the most engaging speakers, exciting topics and in-depth content, the thing that sets a Podfest event apart from all others is the tight-knit community we’ve been building since 2013. You don’t just attend a Podfest event — you become part of the Podfest family. But don’t take our word for it. Here’s what members of the Podfest community have to say…

(The video is 2 minutes long and only has YouTube’s auto-generated captions.)

Murray observes “My primary concern is that someone with no credentials and no evidence of success is calling himself an expert in business success in order to charge as a consultant and speaker while also artificially inflating prices for his events and selling tickets at steep discounts in order to convert registrants, many of whom paid nothing at all, into potential sales contacts. He doesn’t pay speakers and expects speakers to assist with promo. Speakers become sales contacts as well. He chose a sales-focused platform for PodFest.”

In the interest of avoiding getting sued, Murray says his conclusions are his own opinion, and is extra clear in this twitter thread. Their actions aren’t illegal, just shady.

This section is short because it’s difficult to find sources for a lack of transparency — there’s nothing to link! Poke about their website yourself.

Don’t ask them on twitter though, they’ll block you.

Silencing Critics

Basically, if you ask PodFest

  • Why they’re promoting NFTs
  • If they plan to make their event(s) accessible
  • Why they’re hiding replies
  • If they’re going to address any of the concerns brought up
  • Why they don’t pay presenters
  • If they’re going to stop blocking people

You will get blocked. In fact, if you say anything vaguely negative in their mentions, they’ll block you too.

ADDITION: In their entire response to this article, they failed to address the fact that they are attempting to silence critics. I find this significant.

Here is a compilation of tweets that have gotten people blocked by PodFest. I’ll be updating this list as I find more.

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This one was hidden by PodFest:

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UPDATE: Podfest has included this specific tweet in their response, implying that it’s inclusion here was meant to make them look bad because of the subject matter. I do not care that they are celebrating Native American Heritage Day after celebrating Thanksgiving. I do not care that their social media manager is Native American. I care that the person asking the question in the screenshot was blocked. That’s why this is in the section of “here are tweets that got people blocked on twitter.”

I find it incredibly interesting that they’ve chosen to use my inclusion of this screenshot as evidence that “anything Podfest does will be misconstrued as negative by these select individuals” when they themselves are misconstruing the context of this tweet. I did not personally comment about the content of this tweet or the reply, and I would LOVE to know how I am twisting their tweet saying NOTHING about it.

This one was also hidden by PodFest.

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tldr: Don’t Support PodFest

Tal is a SoCal based podcaster who cannot be stopped from making things and will occasionally write about audio fiction.