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Podfest Berlin: What a time to be live

From October 13-15, meet your best-loved podcasts in Berlin for a full weekend of live-tapings, meet ups and more.

Festival director Dan Stern. Photo: Jasper Q

If you’re reading this, you probably have a fair idea of what a podcast is. But if your definition goes something like ‘that audio I syphon into my ears while I get on with other stuff’, you may need to expand your parameters. Berlin’s podcasters are increasingly choosing to record their shows in front of live (and frequently raucous) audiences; in recent months, Berlin-based stalwarts Megan’s Megacan, Corner Spaeti and Adults Only have all recorded live at Selina Berlin Mitte’s weekly open studio for podcasters. And in October, the Podfest Berlin festival will offer a comprehensive roster of live podcasts recordings.

Podcasts, in other words, can be something you do as well as something you hear. “It’s an experience people aren’t used to having,” says festival director Dan Stern, who also co-hosts the Berlin news show Radio Spätkauf. “When I started the festival [in 2021], people would say, ‘I’m not a podcaster, why would I go to a podcast festival?’ But you know, people go to an asparagus festival even if they’re not asparagus farmers,” he says. “What happens at every single live taping is that there are people there who have never heard of the podcast itself but are happy to go to a ‘thing’ with their friend.”

For Julia Joubert, the host of beloved improv comedy podcast What’s The Mate? and cofounder of Berlin-based podcast production company Bear Radio, adapting to the vagaries of live recording has been a steep (if enjoyable) learning curve.

“One time somebody brought their dog to a recording, and you know how dogs in Berlin have like 37 tags around their necks? It was like, jingle-jangle-jingle-jangle,” says Joubert, who readily admits that her background in radio production makes editing a live-recorded show “absolute hell”. “I had this moment where I thought, ‘At what point do I acknowledge the dog in the room?’”

I love when I get to hear a room full of other humans laugh at the same time

All this begs the question: why bother?

“The simple answer is that it’s an absolute joy to do,” says Joubert. “When you start off as a podcaster, it’s you and your microphone in your bedroom, recording by yourself. Even if you open it up to guests, it’s still just you in your little echo chamber sending stuff out into the world.”

Stern laughs. “For most podcasters, it’s not even an echo chamber, it’s just a chamber,” he points out. “Podcasting is a very, very one-way medium. You might occasionally get five stars from ‘mintyavocado23’ but that’s very, very different from that same person walking up and telling you, this podcast is important to me.”

Photo: What’s The Mate?

“What’s The Mate? is a comedy podcast,” adds Joubert. “We’re relying on the laughs. So instead of me quietly snickering in the background, the performers have an entire audience to laugh with, and then the listener at home feels like they’re part of a community.”

For longtime fans of a podcast, attending a live recording can be an unnerving if joyful experience. “People are used to me being on the other side of their earphones. It’s fascinating to watch that translate into a group experience,” says Joubert, who’s gotten used to strangers addressing her as though they’re already friends. “As a listener myself, I love when I get to hear a room full of other humans laugh at the same time as I do. It creates this sense of community I wouldn’t otherwise have.”

At a time when nascent podcasters face two considerable hurdles – finding an audience and monetising their work – it’s precisely that sense of community that’s driving Berlin’s uptick in live-recorded podcasting. Dynamically-inserted ads – those annoyingly banal promos for the likes of Aldi and Lidl that increasingly interrupt our favourite shows – can bring in as little as €5 per month for podcasters with less than 10,000 listeners. In comparison, a €7 door fee, plus the opportunity to sell merchandise, attracts more fans and signs up a couple more Patreon supporters, and can mean live podcasting makes financial sense.

“Word of mouth is a podcaster’s best friend,” says Joubert. “The community and networking aspect of podcasting is so crucial, and it’s very difficult to do without things like festivals or live shows. Without them, you’re stuck trying to figure out what Zuckerberg has done with the algorithm this time.”