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Now Hear This: Anaheim podcast festival aims to introduce you to the maturing medium (plus 5 shows to check out)

A taping of the podcast "With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus." Left to right: Joe Wengert, Lauren Lapkus.
A taping of the podcast "With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus." Left to right: Joe Wengert, Lauren Lapkus.

The mission of this weekend's Now Hear This festival in Anaheim: Become podcasting's Comic-Con. It certainly has the lineup.

Midroll, the company putting it on, is involved in one way or another with many of the largest podcasts out there. They host shows in-house with the Earwolf Network like "Comedy Bang Bang." They also distribute and generate revenue for blockbuster shows like "WTF with Marc Maron" — plus the entire Bill Simmons and Nerdist podcasting networks. 

Midroll also owns one of the biggest podcasting apps — Stitcher — so their influence stretches far beyond the around 250 shows they work with directly. That, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn says, is what puts Midroll in the position to achieve Comic Con-size success.

"In the same way that Comic-Con is for fans of comics, or that a music festival would be for the fans of many, many different groups, bands, 'Now Hear This' is for people who love podcasts," Diehn tells KPCC. "And so the festival is intended to cover a wide variety and a wide breadth of shows and genres and types and audiences, and it's all under one roof."

Diehn argues that, between the number of shows represented and the size of their combined audiences, this weekend's convention will be the largest such event ever held. And it comes at a time when podcasting is rapidly changing.

"In the past, podcasts were either essentially on-demand versions of public radio shows, or comedians doing projects that were fun and easy and interesting, and a way to kind-of develop new material," Diehn says.

The medium, he says, is quickly evolving away from its radio-based beginnings and shoestring production. 

"Now we have companies like ours, and like Gimlet, and like Panoply, and others who are podcast-first companies developing really high quality content," Diehn says. "You have the public radio entrants now focusing on podcasting much more than they ever had in the past as a really, a primary means of reaching people. And I think media companies that kind of dabbled in it a few years ago are now significantly increasing the resources and the professionalism that they're bringing to those efforts."

Diehn says he hopes the Anaheim event will offer both fans and those unfamiliar with podcasts a chance to discover new shows.

"I think live shows, by their nature, tend to be standalone in a way, and designed to appeal to a large audience that may not be following it every week," Diehn says. "And so I think, for people who have either heard of podcasts, or are curious, it is a great way to figure out what is this all about — because what you see on stage, you can hear every week."

One of those in-house shows is "With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus." Actress/comedian Lapkus plays the guest on a different fake show every week; the show's focus is chosen by that week's host, usually without Lapkus' knowledge. 

Now Hear This, she says, will give her a chance to hear directly from the audience. 

"When we do the podcast in the studio, we make each other laugh and it's really fun, but having the actual feedback from the audience just makes it that much more exciting to do the show," she says.

Lapkus has also been a regular guest on "Comedy Bang Bang" and appears on other improv podcasts as well. She says she's excited to get the chance to see public radio's own "The Moth" live at Now Hear This.

"I love watching people tell stories, because it's very vulnerable. And so to see the person as they tell the story, it adds another element to it," Lapkus says.

The Now Hear This festival takes place this Friday through Sunday in Anaheim. Looking for recommendations of podcasts to check out either at the festival or through your favorite podcast app? Diehn offered a few favorites: