Search icon Looking for something?

Organizing an Unconference
2006, Q1 (February 19, 2007)
By Terry Smith, Carolina Chapter Programs Manager

Unconference: An event where the content of the meeting is driven and created by the attendees rather than by a single organizer. [Source: Wikipedia ]

On the first Saturday of this year, I attended my second unconference, PodcasterCon 2006. Not being a podcaster myself, not knowing anything about podcasting really, I decided to attend because it sounded interesting and because it fit my tech writer budget (free). I learned about the unconference after I saw a web link to www.podcastercon.org at the end of a podcasting article that Brian Russell had written for the Independent, a free weekly newspaper that I picked up from a wire stand by the restrooms in the Durham Center where I work.

Although I learned a lot at PodcasterCon, I don’t want to talk about podcasting here. Instead, I want to tell you about what impressed me most: how this free event with 300 attendees (one-third of whom came from out of state) came to be. In February, I went to Chapel Hill to talk to the organizer of PodcasterCon 2006, Brian Russell, about how he made it happen.

Traditional conferences are a sort of autocracy: they are what their organizers decide they will be and attendees really have little (if any) input into what is offered. Sure, attendees from previous conferences fill out evaluation forms that are certainly used them to help determine what to offer and who to invite to speak, but the goals, budgeting, speaker selection, and all the rest is really controlled by a small group.

An unconference is more of a democracy: potential attendees suggest sessions, volunteer to facilitate, know the details of the budget, and generally have a much larger role in determining what the unconference becomes. Not surprisingly, much of that democratic push-and-pull takes place on the web. We have numerous ways to interact with people on the web: email, wikis, blogs, newsgroups, listservs, chat rooms, and more. Social networking online increasingly extends itself into the physical world through events like meetups. Brian Russell told me, “We socialize online and learn from each other online, but then we get together in person and there’s a cementing of something more obviously real.” Unconferences have grown from that kind of social meeting. Brian has also found that—especially here in North Carolina—the things we have in common with people from our own towns and regions makes it easy for us to bond when we meet.

One of Brian’s influences was the famous-among-online-geeks Doc Searles. Doc has written about what makes for a successful unconference. One of those things is to organize the unconference around a single topic, especially a topic that is new to everyone. Podcasting fits this criterion perfectly. Even the most experienced podcasters are still beginners. As a result, there would be no “500-pound gorillas” in the room, that is, no intimidating experts. Brian’s primary mission was educational, and he assumed that everyone had something valuable to contribute. One of the goals was to have something that was intentionally nonpermanent. There would be no gigantic hierarchy because that would be less flexible, and frankly, “less cool.” It was important to make the event spring from grassroots. That meant it would be as non-commercial as possible. No nifty tote bags and swag from corporate sponsors. Brian purposely avoided a “full-court press, commercial” publication relations push. He did some promotion among podcasters. Of course, before it was over, PodcasterCon had considerable media coverage: it was covered on the radio, television, and in the newspapers. Brian didn’t solicit the coverage, but podcasting was such a hot topic—the right topic at the right time—that the media picked up on the event naturally. Although PodcasterCon was to be a group effort, the truth is that Brian Russell did most of the work himself. After Brian made the decision to hold the conference after a colleague suggested he do it, he worked from March to January getting ready for the conference.

Brian works at UNC Chapel Hill, and Professor Paul Jones was able to ensure that the non-profit, educational event could be held in the spacious auditoriums available at the college. These auditoriums have wireless connections, large whiteboards, theater seating, and good audio-visual equipment. UNC let Brian use the space for free. Without the burden of paying for a large, high-quality meeting space (which is usually the largest single expense for a conference), Brian knew that PodcasterCon could proceed.

Using the DreamHost ISP, Brian used the easy one-click installs to set up a web site with a wiki (which allows multiple people to write to the site) and a blog (which provides dated entries and is ideal for progress reports). He was also able to register the podcastercon web name from DreamHost. Brian paid for the hosting and for registering the name himself. (An aside: Brian often buys domains as he has ideas for things he would like to do!) Usually, most of the planning for a conference is done in the beginning, but that is not what Brian did. Instead, he and a small group of interested folks began brainstorming ideas for what the unconference should be. Brian posted these initial ideas (which were still quite sketchy) on the wiki so people could begin commenting on them. With no strong concept of how to vet the sessions, Brian posted only a few guidelines:
  • The topic must relate to podcasting.
  • The session must be a two-way conversation, not a lecture.
  • The topic could not be a product pitch.

People could immediately see the concepts on the wiki and began suggesting topics. Some people volunteered to run sessions. There were core sessions in the morning. These were the topics with widespread interest that Brian knew would require the large conference rooms. The afternoon sessions were to be open sessions that were smaller and less formal. For the open sessions, people would suggest topics on the wiki, those people would come to the conference ready to facilitate sessions, and finally the folks interested in those topics would all get together informally and find a place to meet and discuss the topic. These open sessions proved to work quite well; they were definitely the most unconference-like part of PodcasterCon. Because no room was officially scheduled, attendees had to self-organize on the spot. Brian believes that everyone needs to practice self-organizing, so he gave his attendees that opportunity.

Brian made one expensive decision: he wanted to provide lunch during the one-day unconference. People think better when they’re not hungry, they don’t need to wander around downtown looking for a place to eat, and everyone is just generally happier. Of course, there ain’t no free lunch, so this decision meant that Brian would need to find enough money to feed everyone.

To raise money for lunch and the other conference expenses, Brian first posted a budget on the web site. He posted every expense he anticipated for the unconference and not a penny more. People coming to the web site could look at the budget; everything was absolutely transparent. A button on the web site allowed visitors to donate to PodcasterCon through PayPal. Brian had expected this to be an expensive way to raise money, but it really wasn’t. It cost about $60 to raise over $3000 in donations. A gauge on the web site showed everyone at a glance how the fundraising was progressing.

A few companies donated some services and money. One company donated a toll-free number. Another donated time and help with registration. Although there was no plan to have swag at the unconference, attendees could pick up a free book on podcasting at a nearby bookstore and everyone received a single ticket for a beer to use during the evening socials. Another sponsor provided enough money to cover lunch costs.

Brian was able to provide a great Greek lunch as part of the conference. While he had originally planned to have only around 150 people (because of the food costs), the event hosted 300 participants and still had about $700 left for seed money for the next PodcasterCon.

Yes, it’s true. Even after all the time and effort and constant attention to small details (like cool name tags made from diskettes or picking up people flying in at the airport), Brian is ready to do it all again.

What will Brian do to make PodcasterCon 2007 even better?
  • First, he wants a two-day conference with twice as many attendees.
  • Rather than a lecture or discussion format, Brian wants more of the sessions to be short, 30-minute tutorials. He will advertise a “call for tutorials.”
  • He wants at least one other person who will be as dedicated to PodcasterCon as he is for the last couple of months before the event. n Brian emphasizes that it is important to have a leader and some hierarchy to make a large event like this a success. The more people who are involved, the messier things get. So what is his plan? More mess, not less.

Podcaster.con budget
Podcaster.con budget


Terry can be reached at Terry dot Smith at per-se dot com. End of article.

More articles like this...
Comments powered by Disqus.