NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! has broadcast weekly live recordings since 2005. The standup comedy NerdMelt Showroom in Los Angeles has hosted a couple of live podcast tapings every week, including Harmontown and Doug Loves Movies, for years. But for listeners beyond NPR’s 67 percent white audience or the crowd that NerdMelt Showroom program director Caitlin Durante describes as “very white,” live shows affirm a community beyond the podcast consumer stereotype. Increasingly, shows like The Read—as well as 2 Dope Queens and Another Round, both hosted by women of color—are using live performances not only to open up podcast listenership, but to help listeners forge IRL connections.
You’re Not the Only One Listening
Gamers can share experiences on Reddit; Game of Thronesviewers can use hashtags to react in real time on Twitter. But despite podcasts’ increasingly central role in our cultural landscape—according to the latest Edison Research report, 150 million Americans are now aware of the term “podcasting”—there’s no infrastructure for a fan community around podcasts.
“Podcasts are such a self-contained, intimate experience,” says Jesse Thorn, CEO of comedy podcast network Maximum Fun. “It’s really important to put it in front of someone as a group experience, to give them a sense of connection and identity.” Thorn began doing live podcast shows 10 years ago for his podcast, The Sound of Young America; as Maximum Fun has expanded, most of the shows on the network have done live tours. Thorn recognizes live shows as essential when first building a community of listeners, offering a reassuring sense of unity to listeners new to the form—a demonstration that he believes podcasting needed early on, “especially when it was still a real niche activity.”
Listening to podcasts may not be niche anymore for the comedy fans who tune in to Maximum Fun’s slate of shows, but many people—and communities—are just starting to discover them. Chris Morrow founded the Loud Speakers Network four years ago to give a platform to new voices in podcasting. The network now offers 13 shows, including The Read; Fan Bros, a show for “geeks of color;” and Brilliant Idiots, featuring Charlamagne Tha God, who’s a morning radio host on NYC’s popular Power 105.1.
As Morrow sees it, the audiences for his shows are at that early point described by Thorn, where live shows offer physical proof of a like-minded community. “When you seeThe Read’s audience, it corrects the misconception that podcasting is still a predominantly white, male-dominated genre,” he says. “African-American women come out in droves for this show—if you create content that speaks to people, they’ll support it.”
His team at Loud Speakers has designed the live shows to capitalize on that sense of belonging. “The Read is so successful because people really feel like they’re friends with the hosts,” says Morrow. When stuck in traffic or at a mind-numbing 9-to-5, listening to Kid Fury and Crissle dissect every verse of a Beyoncé song, fans feel like they’re hearing a conversation between friends. That conversation continues in a physical sense at the live shows, even making fans into participants thanks to a popular audience Q&A segment. During an ask-The-Read segment in San Francisco, dozens of people lined up to engage with them as friends, from asking for advice about how to handle an altercation in the McDonald’s drive-thru to expressing gratitude for how Crissle’s rant “Say No to Fuckboys” inspired one man to end a bad relationship. All those audience members spoke to the personal role that The Read has played in their lives (and, in a true Bay Area gesture of friendship, many of them offered the hosts bags of marijuana edibles). “Those are the magical moments,” says Morrow. “You can feel the energy of the crowd, and how much they want to interact with Kid Fury and Crissle.”
“When you see the audience, it corrects the misconception that podcasting is still a predominantly white, male-dominated genre. If you create content that speaks to people, they’ll support it.”CHRIS MORROW
Morrow hopes to parlay the fierce connections that listeners feel with the hosts into a broader fandom, by offering joint shows with other podcasts. That’s a model that several networks have experimented with, including Radiotopia Live, a recent live event in L.A.’s Theater at Ace Hotel featuring 10 podcasts from the Radiotopia network. The show was more along the lines of a variety show than a podcast: 99% Invisible featured a five-piece band; The Kitchen Sisters enlisted members of the audience to grind coffee; Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace turned up the house lights and talked about the murals on the wall of the theater. “We could’ve sold it on 99% Invisible shows alone, but it’s really about a community of shows reaching a community of listeners,” says Kerri Hoffman, CEO at PRX, which supports Radiotopia. “It was a great showcase moment for the other shows.”
Radiotopia Live sold out its 1600-seat show at The Ace, andThe Read comes close to selling out its 1500-person shows. That’s about as big as you’ll see them go; both Hoffman and Morrow shy away from larger venues, for fear of diminishing the fan experience of an intimate community. As Thorn says, “nothing drives home that feeling of caring about something more than being in a room with hundreds of people experiencing it in person.” Judging by their cheers, the thousand fans dancing to Beyoncé at The Read’s live show would agree.