Earlier this month at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, the fourth annual On Air Fest's weekend (March 5-8) of festivities prominently featured a number of literary groups and figures in its lineup. Their involvement in the festival, which had around 1,500 attendees over the course of four days, reflects a growing publishing and literary presence in the podcast sector.
This year, writers Ocean Vuong, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Ashley C. Ford (a podcast host also present last year) joined the Paris Review (which was also present last year, and which puts out its own podcast via the Stitcher service), the Believer, and others in the book world in the festival lineup. Many of the figures present this year had planned, before an outbreak of the new coronavirus hit San Antonio, to attend both conferences despite their distance apart—a sure sign that the writing world has taken the hint and sees podcasting, in addition to the growing digital audiobook market, as playing a major role in publishing's future.
Over the course of the festival, Ford hosted a special session of her podcast with Mastercard, Fortune Favors the Bold; poet Fariha Róisín shared new written works with live accompaniment from musician Zain Alam; the Believer magazine's editor-in-chief Joshua Wolf Shenk discussed the intersection of words, music, and visual art with artist Jason Stopal; Vuong was interviewed by radio journalist Krista Tippett for her public radio show and podcast On Being; Abdurraqib, who was recently named the new host of Santa Monica public radio station KCRW's Lost Notes podcast, read from his latest book and discussed the history of the mixtape with mixtape historian Regan Sommer McCoy; and the Paris Review had authors and actors perform stories, poems, and interviews from its pages set to a live score.
On Air Fest was born out of "the DNA of pirate radio, and draws a sort of dotted line to pirate radio from podcasting," its founder, Scott Newman, said. Thanks to a friendship with the owners of the Wythe Hotel, the first event was held at the hotel in 2017, and all of its New York iterations have been held in Williamsburg to date. (A Los Angeles–based festival was held last year for the first time as well.) Newman, speaking to the members of the books community he includes each year at the festival, said that he and his staff seek out "literary partners who are using podcasts and audio to extend their stories. We look for original thinkers and brands who want to innovate as well as publishing brands, writers, and poets who are bringing voice to their words in a magical, challenging, or inspiring fashion."
Why seek out writers and publishers for a podcast festival? The connection, Newman said, "is, very simply, ideas. If you have an idea and you have something to say and it can play out in words, it should be able to play out in your voice. Born in the DNA of podcasting is radio producers who came from the other side to tell their own story. Not different than a writer being able to tell their own story through their own voice, or to amplify conversation. I think that's why the Believer, the Paris Review, and other publishers are all flirting with podcasting."
Craig Teicher, the Paris Review's digital director (and former PW special editorial projects and content director of PWxyz Studio), confirmed Newman's hunch. "For us, the Paris Review Podcast represents an exciting new opportunity to share the stories, poems, essays, and interviews that have made the Paris Review a central presence in literature for decades in a new way with a new audience," Teicher said. "For me, seeing a bit of On Air Fest made clear that this medium has already become important to literary culture, to book culture, to the ways authors participate in community and reach readers and fans.... Publishers need to be paying attention, because this is where their authors and their readers are going."
Shenk, the Believer's editor in chief, said he saw the podcasting world as a "really wonderful community," and its central art form one from which the book world has plenty to learn. "It's an incredibly intimate form, and of all the things that are being given rise to through the internet, this is an unusually beautiful one," Shenk said, adding that it was only a matter of time before the Believer, like the Paris Review, launched a podcast of its own.
Libby Flores, who is Bomb magazine's director of audience engagement and digital projects, was also present, and said that, while there are certainly already "a lot of literary and publishing podcasts out there," she wants to see more active involvement from publishers in the budding platform—which might translate to more publishers at events like On Air. "People might be missing, frankly, an opportunity for advertising on those podcasts," she said. "I don't think the publishing world thinks of advertising on there. They think of Audible, but they don't think, 'Oh, I'm gonna buy this book, 'cause I heard this person talking about it on a podcast.' I don't know if that connection's fully made."