The Cambridge Geek

PodUK Convention 2020

It's the second year for this event, the UK's only fan convention for podcasts, run rather impressively by a relatively small team, compared to a large corporate entity. I attended last year, and there was no way I was missing it this year.

As last year, there were three spaces, but this year they were a little more separated in terms of their content, because there was a swivel away in some cases from meet and greet events to more educational components.

The auditorium was dedicated entirely to live performances this year, with panels separately ticketed in their own smaller room, and the workshop component being more intimate but allowing a more scholarly feel. As last year, I spent a bit too long running from one room to another, and unfortunately occasionally having to sneak into or out of rooms. I'll give a run through of the parts of the schedule I managed to get to, but you can see the overall schedule here.

9am - Event opening and general meet and greet

Naturally started the day with a wander around the event space, looking at all of the podcasts with (tables on the promenade. Had a nice chat with Gamma Radio, and was mildly overwhelmed by the combined energies of The Prickwillow Papers, Seren, Y2K, and Arrivals. Also finally managed to meet Ella Watts in person.

This was also where I managed to acquire more badges for the now dedicated lanyard, as well as a few other bits and pieces from different podcasts. Still too fond of the overly sweary beermat from A Scottish Podcast, but also nice to get the customised offerings from King Falls AM.

All of the stuff.

10.15am - The Actual Play Panel

This was an insight into things you might want to consider when you're producing an actual play podcast, with Maximillian John of Definitely Human and Ellie Sparrow of Flintlocks & Fireballs.

First up was just how much of a timesink actual play podcasts are. You'll find it rather annoying how much time you'll have to spend on it if you don't love it, so make sure you're passionate about it. Time is also important in terms of the schedule you've set for yourself. No matter what, stick to the schedule. Listeners will be much more likely to stick around if you can maintain consistency in releasing, and you hopefully want them looking forward to a certain time of the week when you release.

Related to that, make sure your intended schedule is sensible. You may want to build in breaks in your releases, and also work with a buffer, of somewhere between 3-10 episodes. It's very easy to spend the buffer, but very hard to rebuild it. That's what breaks are useful for. Some people prefer a weekly schedule, due to its matching up generally with TV and other schedules, but don't try it if you can't manage it.

While you're using an ability to maintain deadlines as a draw for your audience, you might also want to decide what your niche is, and use that as a marketing capability. There are people out there who want every sort of show, so use your characteristics to your advantage. You might want to advertise as LGBT-friendly, or simply as British, which can often appeal to the USA, or something in setting, such as Flintlocks & Fireballs' pirate theme, or Draw Your Swords, an actual play created by a collection of artists, who can therefore add a lot of art to their marketing.

They touched upon the importance of your team, which can have multiple impacts on a show. Firstly, a team of players can bring a diverse number of skills to the mix. You're potentially going to want writers, editors, foley artists, marketing and production experts, and someone to deal with the website. While it's useful to specialise, people can occasionally step in where needed to give people a break. There's also potentially unusual skills that your cast can bring to make your show a bit more appealing. For example, Flintlocks & Fireballs made use of their songwriting experience to include sea shanties as part of their theme.

Social media is naturally important. You'll want to set it up at least a month before you release your show, as well as have your website and all other distribution channels ready. You want to be able to launch episode 1 and have all of the information available for anybody who wants it. You can check all this by having a trailer, which goes up on the feed ahead of your official release date. The trick to productive social media time is to replace all of your wasted scrolling time with podcast time. Make sure whenever you're on eg Twitter, you're working on the show's brand.

You'll want to look at interacting with other shows, especially if you're a new show. Don't think of them as competition for your audience, but people who can bring in other listeners to your show. People will often look for more things that they enjoy. There's obviously a bit of give and take to this. You're going to want to get onto the social media of larger shows, but you've then got to help lift up the smaller shows. As always, consider the importance of hashtags.

But always make marketing announcements with content. A tweet that reads "we're going to tell you about a cool thing in two weeks" is far less interesting than one that reads "here's a cool thing". For marketing before a show, that can be artwork, character or cast details, trailers or music.

Given how lengthy actual play shows can be, and how many episodes they can have, it's useful to build relatively frequent jumping off points into your show. If you create in seasons, (eg using those scheduled breaks previously mentioned), you might want to ensure that the first episode of each season gives a pretty thorough reintroduction of characters, settings, and where in the plot you're up to. That way, people don't necessarily feel overwhelmed by having to start at episode 1, but also aren't completely lost when they drop in halfway through.

(I have a personal take on this, which is that I often like to skip the "setup" episodes, often episode 0, and jump straight into the story. Which means I find it helpful when people build some of the explanation of their world and characters into the story as time goes on. Given the large number of different games and character types, some description of a previously unseen skill or perk is often useful.)

When it comes to technical points, an omni-directional microphone is a decent starter to pick up all of the people around the table, but you'll get the best quality if you mic everyone independently. It lets you isolate people and edit all the tracks as needed, but does have the downside of possibly missing out dice sounds.

Dice sounds got quite a good talking around. Firstly, they can be quite satisyfying as punctuation in monments of high tension. Imagine, someone preparing to take a final strike against a cruel villain, with the attack's success depending entirely on the roll of a single die. There's a moment of silence as people watch to see what the result is and you want to deliver a really powerful, crunchy sound of the die on the table, rather than just the players eventual reactions. You can, if you wish, create a whole set of dice tracks, with various sounds as needed that you can edit in.

(It was not recommended that you record each different type of die separately, and the correct result for each, but if you had a free afternoon, you might consider it.)

Individual mics can be imposing, however, with people suddenly much more aware that tehy're "acting", rather than just playing. You need to decide what sort of style you're going for, either a cosy "round the table with chatty friends" show with a lot of mechanics table-talk and some miscellaneous chat, or a more edited, discussion-lite version that acts more like theatre. Don't be afraid to let people re-do lines either. If they've got a cool interaction with an NPC, but fluff the delivery, there's nothing stopping them saying it again, possibly cooler.

In terms of sound quality, if you're doing it from your house, rather than a conditioned studio, aim for as dead a room as possible. This means lots of soft furnishings (books are good), as well as possibly sheets or blankets on the walls. The biggest problem, with eg reverb, is related to the hardness of ceilings, though that's often difficult to solve. Playing remotely is possible, but you want to always record locally, as tech problems are frequent and nasty, and it is very easy to get bad sound over eg discord.

You also need to think about how you edit. Opinion was divided on whether you want to leave in chat, or aim for as short as possible, while still maintaining coherency. It's a style choice. But if you save 10,000 listeners 1 minute by editing it out, you've technically saved 10,000 minutes. Makes you a time hero. Similarly, at moments of high drama, you probably don't want to interrupt the flow with five minutes of someone reading a handbook to decide whether that lich does take damage from holy water or not.

There was a discussion of character voices, which have two obvious benefits. They're a good separator between in-universe and meta talk, but they can also be valuable for helping tell who is talking. If you've got two players who sound similar, try and make it obvious who is talking when.

There were then audience questions. Sound design was discussed, with the useful value of music helping separation of in-game versus meta-talk, though that does mean you can't rapidly jump back and forth between the two without being a bit jarring. Flintlocks & Fireballs play music while actually playing, which aids player immersion, but does essentially require someone to be a live DJ, which is a difficult trick.

Playing over skype versus locally was discussed, with F&F having something of a mix to allow regular long-term play, whereas Definitely Human tend to get together and run very long days (eg 10 hours) to produce a season in one go. There's a difference in how you might behave over Skype versus in person, so you'll need to spend some time working out how you are best interacting, handing over the speaking role and so on, without the usual visual cues. You might want to consider an etiquette at some point.

Related to etiquette, some consideration was given to the need to tweak some of the more visual safety features (eg the X-card, for example by using a direct chat system when players are playing remotely.

The 10 hour sessions of Definitely Human raised some questions, and were explained that they're mostly written as 45 minute segments, which are played through and then potentially edited down into shorter episodes. The short-form recording means that players start to work to build to an end together, though can often go a bit over the top trying to find a significant line to finish on.

10.15am - Pitching your podcast

Simultaneously, there was a workshop by Ella Watts regarding "Pitching your podcast". I couldn't attend that (not two people), but she's kindly put her notes up online.

11.15am - Escape Artists Live

Terrible behaviour on my part this one, sneaking in partway through (curse you, multiple streams!), but I've been far too big a fan of the Escape Artists podcasts for far too long not to take the opportunity to catch at least some of it. I managed to hear "The Mindfulness of Horror Practice" by Jon Padgett, and then got to enjoy a few questions for the various speakers.

My own question (cheeky, I know, but you occasionally have to indulge), revealed a few of the speakers' (Kat Day, Katherine Inskip, Marguerite Kenner, and Alasdair Stuart) favourite horror stories, including:
The Jamcoi
The Coven of Dead Girls
Knife Fight
20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism

There was then a discussion of the YA genre, the existence of the label as a marketing term, and how Escape Artists interpret it for content. Specifically, they tend to use it to exclude any on-screen visceral sex, violence or gore.

Then onto tropes that the speakers enjoyed or found overused. Stuart is apparently looking out for a story told through letters about sea monsters and near-earth orbit shenanigans, but could do with less lady-murder, which was the consensus opinion. Killer plants were contentious, but unreliable narrators were a firm favourite (especially in audio).

Regarding getting new people into horror, there was a recommendation for their list of introductory episodes as a jumping on point for horror, as well as Poltergeist - The Legacy, and via satire, such as The Thames Valley Catastrophe.

12pm - Flintlocks & Fireballs Live

My second live show, and one I had to shamefully leave halfway through, but a show I've recently started listening to. Flintlocks & Fireballs is an actual play D&D podcast, set in a pirate heavy world, with a range of characters who are mostly amusingly incompetent, but also frequently horrible to people, and more full of flaws than you might expect from "heroes". That's what you get from privateers.

Had a very cheerful audience, happy to sing along with the theme shanty, and had an impressively characteristic feel, being mostly about going on a massive bender, though I also found myself slightly very lost by the fact that there's apparently something called the dreamworld that comes in later. Oh and giant tentacles. An excellent excuse for people to roleplay being drunk in an amusing manner.

Still can't take good photos.

1.15pm - Audio Drama Panel

This is what I sneaked out for, as I enjoyed it last year, and it's probably the most relevant of all of them to me. Panel members included Kyle Brown (King Falls AM), Maxamillian John (Definitely Human), Eric Kimelton (King Falls AM), Alex Newall (Rusty Quill), Maddy Searle (The Prickwillow Papers), and Kc Wayland (We're Alive), with Ella Watts as Chair.

There was a discussion of how to improve diversity in audio drama, with various possibilities. While it's good to improve representation, both "on-screen" and beyond the microphones, it shouldn't always simply be hiring marginalised creators into existing (mostly white) companies. Instead, to properly get their voice out, need to find some way to empower them to start their own companies and create themselves. Perhaps by making space, or through mentorship. This can't rely on individual creators, who are often small organisations themselves, but may need action from the bigger platforms.

Three strands of action were identified for improving diversity in existing companies. Firstly, it's important to ensure that the opportunities exist. Then need to ensure that people don't feel unsafe, and are able to do what they want to do even if they have certain disadvantages, which may eg act against certain schedules or workspaces. Finally, it's important to signal these opportunities. For example, if you're only advertising in universities, you're only going to get graduates.

The community of a show was discussed, with it being considered very important to have a couple of well curated spaces that you can build to have a positive environment. You'll want a good community manager for this, and a range of mod tools. (When all you have is the banhammer, everyone looks like a nail.) The positive environment will then preferably become self-sustaining, with you able to hand over some of the responsibilities to trusted volunteers.

Some thoughts were given on how to deal with large ensembles, with the answer mostly being spreadsheets. This then turned into a discussion of different recording styles, depending on whether people came from a theatre background or a voice acting (eg games, animation) background. Theatre groups will get together in a local space, and build the show via rehearsal, whereas groups that record individually will need to work hard on individual direction.

Then some thoughts regarding recording, with the environment being considered in some cases more vital than the equipment. If you can't get all of your actors in the same room, get each of them in as dead a room as possible. But if you can't get a perfectly acoustically prepared room, play to your strengths. Can you set the show in the sort of room you're in? A setting is a backdrop, not a conceit, so you may not need to get hung up over it.

Also, it doesn't matter if you're setup is ridiculous looking (see eg blanket forts). The nice thing about audio is that no one can see your fort. Oh, and apparently egg cartons are a lie?

The open garden nature of AD was generally considered a good thing, though all of the panel expressed some concern about how long it could last, with bigger players creeping into the space.

Finished up with a few audience questions, with a recognition that AD can be very intimate and speak to the listener's emotions, and music helps that. There were some suggestions that you might want to mostly have a completed package before you hand it over to your musician, so they can work with the correct timings. And a reminder that if you're making a new thing, you can do that by creating a new combination of characteristics, rather than having to invent an entirely new characteristic. (Compare inventing a new cocktail, vs inventing a new booze.)

2.45pm - We're Alive Audio Storytelling Workshop

I didn't attend any workshops last year, but thought I'd best take advantage of Kc Wayland's visit to this continent to try and learn a few things. (If you also happened to be in the presentation, I was the nerd scribbling away.)

Wayland is the creator of We're Alive, a post-apocalypse Zombie audio drama, which has been in existence for a decade. You might therefore suspect he has a few interesting things to say.

The aim with audio storytelling is always to get the audience to suspend their disbelief. This involves the work of many people: writers to create realistic dialogue, actors to bring characterisation, directors to find different versions of the idea, editors to select the best version, and musicians to enhance the scene. It's a delicate balance required between the need to communicate clearly and set the scene well. If your audience need to rewind it too often, you're going to lose them.

Wayland then covered the seven aspects of sound he considered for building a soundscape. 'Vocals' are hopefully obvious. 'Sound effects', are pre-recorded "hard" effects, which aren't customisable, but need to just be used to match whatever you're planning. 'Foley', on the other hand, is created "live", so you can change it however you like to get the correct sound. For example, if someone is writing, there's a different between florid romance and spiky anger.

Also, don't forget 'silence', which can be wildly powerful, for example if some is walking into a haunted house. Then 'processing' can allow you to move any sounds or talking into whatever environment you want, for example with reverb for indoors, versus no reverb for outdoors. 'Synthesizers' allow the creation of sound effects with a human input, such as walking on a keyboard, or Ben Burt's modulation pen for Wall-E.

Finally music, which can push the scene along, and is one of the most useful and manipulative ways of controlling/connecting with the audience. It can also tell what visuals usually would.

Then a few hints on dialogue and performance, which he characterised with 4Cs. Character (does it sound like them?), cohesion (do the actors sound like they're talking to each other?), cadence (is one of them fast, and one of them slow) and clarity (beautiful words are no good if the audience can't understand them). There were several examples of Goldrush provided, to illuminate the various points.

An interesting thought about montages, using segments of precisely identical length, so that the brain can automatically fill in where the transitions are.

Then a few thoughts on foley collection. If you're going to make sound a character, such as a car, you're likely to want to record your own. Sound effect libraries may well often only contain average sounds, such as a motor running, whereas you might need acceleration, braking, throwing around corners. You're going to need to make your own. Avoid forgetting sounds by making yourself a "punch list", by going through the script and finding all of the elements you might need.

Then a few audience questions, which gave Wayland an opportunity to talk about how much he likes recaps, which are incorporated into the We're Alive theme. That gives the audience a chance to catch up, without being onerous.

Then a few questions regarding marketing and how podcasts get reviews, which got the rather sad answer that they generally don't. (Though I think the UK papers are generally getting better.) And a few thoughts on the requirement for multiple revenue streams, and how advertising is important but currently done rather badly.

Also a very good point about the noise of people. Skin contact can be through tapping, slapping, prodding, and all of these sound different.

4.15pm - Not the same old story

Another workshop I couldn't attend, but What Am I Rolling? and Power Word Roll have shared their resources online.

4.30pm - Amelia Project Live

This didn't even need a question as to whether or not I would attend it. The Amelia Project is an audio drama about a company which arranges fake deaths. This was an entirely new episode, about a warring couple, who were desperate to escape their upcoming wedding, having discovered they hate each other.

And of course it was riotous. The Interviewer and Alvina are greeted by Phil and Amber, played brilliantly by Felix Trench and Emily Stride, and there's a good half hour of shouting back and forth with an increasingly vitriolic level of insult. I'm especially fond of the one about cactuses. Keep your ears on the feed for that one.

5.15pm - The Horror Panel

The final event of the day (for me at least) was a decision between King Falls AM Live or the horror panel, and in the end the panel won out. In hindsight, it was an excellent choice. It featured Gemma Amor, David Ault, Alex Newall, and Alasdair Stuart, all of whom have no small input in audio drama horror, with Stuart playing host.

There was some discussion as to what brought the panel to horror. The routes were varied, some through science fiction, some fantasy, some convenience and Stuart through watching horror films far too young, and one of Paul Daniels' most unfortunate tricks.

They're all kept in horror by the permission to be imaginative, making timeless stories, and the fact that horror is secretly hopeful. The audience for horror is growing for similar reasons, but also the fact that the world is basically awful (Brexit, Trump, all of the fire) and horror lets people explore uncertainties with a set of controlled rules.

Some thought was given to what the next phase of horror might be. The general idea was genre-blending, such as cosmic-folk horror, but also the reclaiming of Lovecraft and re-contextualising him in a world which has recognised the problems with him. Given horror is reactionary, you might also want to think of the existing dominant style, such as the omni-Disney run of massive superhero films, and then find horror in the small, the personal.

A discussion of the panel's favourite tropes flagged up creepypastas, long-form slow build-ups, and also the tweaking of audio as the horror comes slowly forward from the background into the front.

Favourite shows came up, and included Down Below the Reservoir, Duggan Hill, Everything is Alive, Mirrors, Pseudopod, The Black Tapes, and The Six Disappearances of Ella McCray.

Audience questions started with why audio horror appeals to people who aren't usually into horror. There was some consensus that it was due to the control available to an audience. They can easily turn the volume down, and only pay half attention if it's get to a grisly bit. Go do the washing up.

Then onto the combination of horror and non-scripted podcasts, with the idea of horror and eg actual play podcasts. Always the risk with that sort of cross-over of finding that the horror audience don't enjoy gaming, and the gaming audience don't enjoy horror, but one person will absolutely love it. Audience definitely exists though, and there was general concern that it was appealing to bigger companies who might be trying to find a way to make money out of it, in a way that might lose the value of the existing open garden environment.

And a final point on the comparison between comedy and horror, both of which use a setup-beat structure, and so needed to be combined very carefully, to ensure the beats pay off the setups correctly, rather than making a mess.

And that was it. A long train trip home, and a collapse into bed. Excellent day, greatly enjoyed. Here's looking forward to PodUK2021.

You might also be interested in this retrospective from the PodUK team, a view from one of the volunteers and a blog post from an attending podcaster.

Tagged: Event Convention Podcasting