“Our heart will always be like that little mouse logo;
small and cute, but happy and powerful.”
by Alex C. Telander
Something special is coming to Cambridge, Massachusetts: on Sunday, October 20th at the Lunder Arts Center at Lesley University the first ever PodTales Festival will take place. What makes PodTales special is that it’s the first of its kind: a festival dedicated solely to audio drama and fiction podcasting, and before you ask, yes, this does include RPG podcasts too.
PodTales is an arts festival, not a professional conference; it’s about the work itself and learning how people do it, whether you’re a fan or a creator (or both, as many of us are). PodTales’ goal is for you to walk out with a whole list of new shows to check out.
Now, why should someone attend the PodTales Festival, other than its free admission and it being the first convention tailored exclusively to audio drama? Well, I had a chance to ask a couple of the organizers behind PodTales all about the festival and what their hopes, fears, and dreams for it are: Alexander Danner is the festival director and Jeff Van Dreason handles exhibitor relations and the IndieGoGo campaign, which runs through July 14th. And yes, these are the guys behind the terrific audio drama, Greater Boston.
Where did PodTales come from and when was it conceived?
ALEXANDER: The Boston area is rich in active fiction podcasters, making it one of the geographic hubs of the form, so I’ve long thought it would make sense to have a major community event here. There was also a particular model of show I’ve been hoping to attend, but which doesn’t really exist—one more similar to an indie comics festival, where new and established artists intermingle, where the act of creating within the form is celebrated no matter the artists level of experience.
My biggest inspiration is MICE, The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, which was founded by my friends Shelli Paroline and Dan Mazur. There’s a palpable joy in celebrating the craft in how MICE is run, and no con anywhere that ever made me feel as valued as an exhibitor as MICE does. That’s what I want for exhibitors at PodTales.
And we wouldn’t be here without MICE for more practical reasons as well. I had mentioned to Shelli just in passing how I wished there was a local show for fiction podcasting like MICE. And she came right back with, “Actually, we’ve got a second space available every year that we don’t use. And we’re already looking for a partner show to put there. You want it?”
That was too clear an opportunity for me to resist! And with MICE and Lesley University providing the festival space, creating PodTales became much more financially viable. At the same time as PodTales is holding its first ever show, MICE will be holding their tenth anniversary show in the building immediately next door. It’s going to be an amazing weekend for celebrating storytelling!
Did you come up with the name early on?
ALEXANDER: No! I spent months trying to come up with a name I liked. I tried to create an acronym based name, something rodent themed that would parallel MICE, but I couldn’t find anything that worked well. And finding a “storytelling” title that wouldn’t work equally well for a festival of non-fiction podcasts was equally difficult. When I hit on using “Tales,” that actually captured a bit of both those goals in a way that sounds fun. I know a lot of people are kind of hoping the prefix “pod” will die, but for the time being, it still communicates what we’re about with clarity, which is more important to me.
What are you hoping to achieve with PodTales?
ALEXANDER: I’m hoping PodTales will become a community event for fiction podcasters, as well as a contact point with their audiences. My experiences at PodCon suggested to me that our community really wants something like that, an event that brings us all together to share our admiration for each others’ work, to make new connections and form new collaborations, and to just get to know each other in real life. I think the strong sense of community our form has historically shown has been vital to the growth of our art form, but with the rapid growth we’ve seen recently, it’s getting harder to maintain a connection with the fullness of that community. I think having a physical world community event will help with that.
JEFF: We want to celebrate the incredible talent of audio fiction creators, in addition to highlighting the awesome possibilities that come with independent audio fiction as a genre. It’s a growing genre that deserves more exposure. It doesn’t necessarily frustrate me that many people automatically associate podcasting with nonfiction shows, but it is unfortunate. PodTales is our small attempt at trying to change that, in addition to making audio fiction podcasts on our own, of course.
What were your first steps in putting it together?
JEFF: A lot of this came from conversations Alexander had with the directors of MICE, whom he’s been involved with for years. Alexander has connections with the independent comics world (especially web comics) and his comics friends involved with MICE have seen how much audio fiction podcasting has taken off lately. They all see a lot of similarity between genres and audiences, and we feel it just makes sense to build off an already existing showcase of independent artists. We’re hoping the audience for MICE might also be interested in learning about PodTales, and vice versa.
So after those initial conversations, our first steps were figuring out how to do it. We had some meetings via Skype to plan who was going to be responsible for what. The thing with this kind of event is even the strictest, carefullest planning gives way to unseen problems popping up, and there’s more work that goes into this type of thing than I think anyone can realize ahead of time. Hopefully it doesn’t seem like a lot of work to anyone who isn’t actually working on it, though.
Jeff Van Dreason
How did you go about putting a team together, who does your team consist of, and what are their respective roles?
ALEXANDER: My team is pretty much self-selected. Anyone who offered to help out, I wasn’t going to turn down the help! But those people have been fantastic. Jeff Van Dreason, of course, I have plenty of history working with, and always like to have him involved in anything I’m working on. He’s taken charge of the IndieGoGo, and is doing a fantastic job. Amanda McColgan is our social media manager, and is just blowing me away with her ability to keep people excited about the show, keeping so many people engaged with us months before the show even happens. And more behind the scenes, my key advisors have been Jordan Stillman and Alex Yun. Jordan has been working with MICE for years, and is organizing their tenth anniversary festival, but she’s also been a huge supporter of PodTales from day one, and has made herself constantly available to share resources and her experience in running a similar festival. And Alex is just brilliant. At one point, Jeff scolded me for waffling on one of Alex’s recommendations, saying, “Look, if Alex gives you advice, just take the advice.” And I’ve learned that lesson, because it’s true: Alex is always right.
Where did the logo come from?
JEFF: The voice of Leon Stamatis himself! Braden Lamb designed that cute little mouse. In addition to being an excellent voice actor, Braden is an incredibly talented artist, and he’s been a comics artist for years now. In fact, his partner Shelli Paroline, is the co-director of MICE, so there’s already a solid foundation of crossover talent extending from MICE to PodTales, and given that we’re spinning off from MICE, it makes sense to have our mascot be a fiction podcast rocking rodent, right?
How is PodTales different from Podcon or PodX?
ALEXANDER: I haven’t been to PodX, so I can’t compare as accurately. But PodTales is going to be a much smaller show than PodCon. Our entire physical area could probably fit inside PodCon’s exhibit hall three times over. So I think it’s important that people with experience at other shows know going in that we’re working at a much smaller scale. It’ll be a much more intimate sort of show.
But also, we’re really inverting the balance between programming and exhibition. The big draw at PodCon was clearly the programming, which was plentiful, and full of well-known podcasters. And that’s great—the programming at PodCon was wonderful, and it was terrific to have so many options to choose between!
By contrast, the exhibition hall will be the heart of PodTales. By numbers, PodCon 1 had 15 exhibitor booths total, five of which were podcasts. PodTales currently has more than 50 exhibits lined up, every one of them representing a podcast or podcast network. The tradeoff, of course, is that we won’t have nearly as much programming, probably only two or three tracks. Though, with fewer programming events, we are going to work hard to make sure those events are entertaining and substantive! Our programming will also be built around our exhibitors, primarily highlighting the same people who are giving the exhibit hall life.
What do you hope attendees get from attending PodTales?
ALEXANDER: First and foremost, I want attendees to leave PodTales with a long list of new podcasts they plan to check out! Discovery is at the heart of our mission—we want to facilitate creators and audiences finding each other. But also, I want attendees with ideas of their own to leave PodTales feeling empowered to pursue their creative ambitions, and supported by a creative community that will help them find their way there.
JEFF: Discovery. Especially independent artists. New and exciting ideas and stories. We want people who’ve never heard of audio fiction podcasting to fall in love with the genre. We want people who do love audio fiction podcasts to find their new favorite shows, meet and learn from creators they know and love, and new, up and coming people as well.
What has been the hardest part of putting PodTales together?
ALEXANDER: Fundraising is always a challenge. Jeff has handled the IndieGoGo beautifully, while I’ve been working on cultivating partnerships with sponsor organizations. It’s a lot of searching for hard-to-find contact information, trying to pitch PodTales as an event various companies would benefit from advertising at, and negotiating mutually beneficial contracts. It can take a couple dozen attempts to cultivate one promising lead, and then weeks or months of discussions before an agreement is signed. Lesley University was with us from the start, which is great, and RadioPublic is a perfect partner for us. We’re close to signing a couple more sponsors, but this is an ongoing effort. But it’s also very important to meeting our aims for the show—we want to keep admission free and exhibitor fees low, but that means finding our funds from other sources. The more successful we are at working with sponsors, the more accessible we can keep the show for attendees and exhibitors.
JEFF: For me, the hardest part has been balancing how much to be involved. I love helping out, especially with something as exciting as this, and I’ve already committed to more than I thought I would originally, but I also need to step back from it soon. My personality sometimes pushes me to try to do too much, which I’ve been actively trying to change because it’s gotten me into a bit of trouble. I don’t have the time to co-run PodTales, unfortunately. But I set up and I’m running the Indiegogo campaign, and I’m helping with our exhibitor list and exhibitor relations, which I’m really excited about.
There’s also been a hard time just planning everything and getting the word out. Everything has to happen at once and it takes a lot of organization and coordination. There are only so many of us trying to do a huge thing, so things take longer than we’d like, but there’s not much we can do about that, unfortunately.
What has been the easiest?
ALEXANDER: Filling our exhibit hall! Starting a show like this, we’re taking a big gamble on whether there are enough people who see exhibiting at a festival as worth their time, especially since it’s not really an established facet of our process. But there was an abundance of interest, and we filled every seat we had available, then went back to our floor plan and rearranged to squeeze in a few more! And I’ve still got a few people on our wait list. This has really been one of the most encouraging outcomes we’ve had; it’s incredibly gratifying to know so many people are excited to show their work at PodTales!
JEFF: Working with exhibitors and our incredible featured guests. I’m really excited about everyone who is coming, and every single person has been a pleasure to work with.
Do you hope to make PodTales an annual podcasting event?
ALEXANDER: Yes! We’ve still got a long way to go before we’ll know if that’s feasible, but I’m definitely trying to build the show in a way that will make the process of doing the next one easier. If possible, I’d like to expand the show to two days as well. We’re keeping the scale small this year because this is our learning experience. But our hope is to grow from here.
What do you want to get out of PodTales?
ALEXANDER: I’m really hoping that this festival will contribute to spreading enthusiasm for fiction podcasting in general. Given our central location, free admission, and partnership with MICE, I’m hopeful that we will have a significant audience of people who are discovering fiction podcasts for the first time at PodTales. It’s really all about celebrating the art itself, and showing just how much we have to offer!
JEFF: I want it to be fun, diverse, informative, and safe. I want people to come and feel safe and celebrate our fabulous genre and have a great time. That’s it. I’d like it to grow and be sustainable too, but I would also like it to be sustainable in a way where I’m not as involved as much as I am now. I do a lot of the type of work that it takes to put on PodTales with my real job, and between my real job and this work, there’s not a lot of time left over for the type of creative work I cherish. So I’m really missing that right now, and we have two more seasons of Greater Boston to do, not to mention whatever comes after that. So I want PodTales to last forever, and I’ll always want to be a part of it. Maybe just not as much of an integral part as I am right now.
Five years from now, after this festival has exceeded goals every year, what does PodTales 5 look like for attendees?
ALEXANDER: Well, I’d certainly like PodTales to be a two-day show, and I’d hope to be able to move into a larger event space that can accommodate more exhibitors and larger audiences at our panels. (Probably the same space that MICE uses, once we’re ready to go out on our own.) But there’s a limit to how big I want it to get—I want to stay true to the missions of focusing on indie creators and keeping the show financially accessible to as many people as possible. This is an arts festival, not a large convention, and that’s how I want it to stay.
JEFF: I’ve gone to MICE for years and it’s absolutely grown, to an extent, and only gotten better every year. But it’s also been surprisingly consistent in its nice, niche, small, independent qualities too. I’m interested in seeing PodTales grow in terms of sustainability, kind of what I was speaking about before. And I always want more and more people to discover audio fiction podcasting, But I’d be lying if I said I wanted record breaking attendee numbers out of this thing year after year. I want people to come and be excited about this genre, and I’m involved because I love audio fiction podcasts and I want more people to discover them. But I also love how MICE is a small little show celebrating a unique type of independent art, and I’d never want PodTales to become this huge thing that feels like it exists solely for networking and business. That’s not to say that industry conversations aren’t important, they are, but I also don’t want to lose that independent spirit. So no matter what happens in five years, ten years, or fifty, I hope we just remain consistent. And I believe we will.
Our heart will always be like that little mouse logo; small and cute, but happy and powerful.
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