NEW YORK—A podcasting festival dubbed On Air Fest is set to take place at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel Feb. 23-25. And we know what you’re thinking: Do people spend their days at a podcasting fest just, well, listening to podcasts all day? And the answer is absolutely not!
Jemma Brown, the director of programming and production at Brooklyn-based creative agency work x work—the company behind On Air Fest, where Brown also works as the senior producer—said that On Air Fest is made “to feel like you are entering the world of creative possibilities of sound.”
In fact, the three-day, sound-clad event, which debuted in 2017, was born out of the question, “What is happening in radio today?” Brown recalled attending “the first year of the festival when it wasn’t even called On Air Fest—it was this funky, DIY gathering.” It was here that she met On Air’s founder and executive producer, Scott Newman (who's also work x work's founder and creative director). “Together, we’ve really started thinking about, ‘What is this cultural moment in audio asking for?’”
The duo came to realize that “there were so many talented people out there making really incredible work, with a growing number of people listening, and yet there wasn’t a space for recognition of that work to celebrate it, to uplift it, to call out new shows,” Brown explained. “We really wanted to create a moment in the cultural calendar for audio storytelling, for showcasing the creative possibilities of this medium, and for really championing that this is an art form and not just a business model.”
Cue On Air Fest, which has morphed from its early days centered around radio into a curated series of sponsored breakfasts, educational programming, storytelling shows, musical performances, and evening soirees.
As for what to expect—throw away the idea that you’re just here to listen to a podcast. Brown teased that Kelsey McKinney and Alex Sujong Laughlin, the hosts of Normal Gossip (which Apple Podcasts describes as a podcast on “juicy, strange, funny, and utterly banal gossip about people you’ll never know and never meet”), will be on the lineup for the first time. The IRL iteration of their audio show is titled “Spilling the Tea on Normal Gossip,” and “the creators of the show are going to be creating a hotline and having people send in secrets all weekend, and then will be reading the secrets aloud on stage,” Brown explained.
“Really thinking about all of the creative potential of this medium is very much top of mind as we’re programming,” Brown added, reiterating that its ingenious touches like a hotline that are able to translate what podcasters do to a stage in a fun, experimental way.
Attendees can also get excited to hear from the likes of CNN journalist Audie Cornish; actor and comedian Connor Ratliff; Mo Rocca, the visionary behind Mobituaries; and Susan Matthews of Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade (Apple Podcast’s No. 1 show of the year), just to name a few.
Newman said this year feels particularly powerful because of the newfound popularity around podcasting. “Right now, the most creative people are like, ‘What podcast can I make?’ and it’s not the celebrities, it’s the weirdos. Or it’s the celebrities that are thinking about it in different ways, and playing into the innate attributes of bringing the listeners into storytelling and creating visualizations through storytelling.”
While On Air Fest is welcoming back big podcasting players—like Audible, Simplecast, and Stitcher—as sponsors, Newman pointed to first-time festival sponsor Paramount as an exciting addition to this year. “It’s a heritage, legacy, big media conglomerate brand, and they’re thinking of podcasting in meaningful ways,” Newman said of why he’s thrilled to have Paramount as part of the fest this year.
However, it’s through these stories that “every year feels fresh to me,” Newman added. “The stories change, and the players change. It feels very much made for this moment, and I think that even the idea that Normal Gossip as a show has popped up in the last six months says a lot about where we are culturally [and] the things we’re thinking about.”
This year, the Wythe Hotel will also be home to On Air: The Podcast Experience where, for the first time, work x work is also producing an ancillary immersive experience that Brown likened to the Stranger Things Experience. (Read more on the immersive experience market here.)
“We’re taking over a floor of the hotel and converting five hotel rooms into five different shows,” Brown explained, with expected attendees “in the realm of 4,000 to that [the immersive experience], plus another 2,000 to the festival—all converging across the five days.”
Tickets are still available to On Air Fest via Eventbrite, starting at $187.10 for a day pass. See here for tickets to The Podcast Experience, which start at $39. There’s also a Date Night Package that’ll run couples $425 and includes two tickets to the experience, plus a three-course prix-fixe dinner at the Wythe Hotel’s French-style rooftop outlet, Bar Blondeau.