5 Questions with On Air Fest 2023 Host, Ronald Young Jr.

On Air Fest
February 9, 2023

First things first? Ronald Young Jr’s enthusiasm for the art of storytelling is absolutely infectious.

The Virginia-based creator, producer and podcaster radiates an easy charm and innate passion for everything pop-culture, leaving no doubt that Ronald has a finely-tuned finger (and ear) on the pulse of podcasting. 

It’s the reason just about everyone in the industry is clamoring to work with him: Pushkin and Pineapple Street have tapped him to host hits like Solvable and HBO Docs, he’s produced VPM’s powerful Seizing Freedom, served as a long-standing panelist of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, and even had a delightful turn as storyteller on Peacock’s ‘True Story with Ed & Randall’. And don’t forget his own 2022 breakout review pod Leaving the Theater.  

And it’s also the reason that Vulture named him one of their Four Podcasters to Watch in 2023. And it’s why we’ve asked him to host Day One of On Air 2023, live from Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn.

Ahead of the fest, we caught up with Ronald to get his take on the industry’s emerging trends, exciting new voices and why he believes the true art of podcasting is all about making moments that stick with you.

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It’s no secret that the podcasting industry has been going through it. There's some uncertainty in the air, but personally, we believe that while these times are challenging, the uncertainty can also unlock a lot of creative innovation. When you look ahead to the rest of 2023 are there any trends or concepts you think we'll start to see evolving in the industry this year that might take podcasting into a new direction? 

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what will be the new direction in 2023. But I definitely know a lot of creative folks who are working to get their projects out. And I think what we will see is a resurgence of independents making independent projects, and maybe new partnerships with bigger podcast shops. [Over the past few years] we saw a lot of folks buying up ideas and producing them, but we didn't necessarily see what was great about podcasting to begin with: The scrappy independents making creative ideas out of nowhere. 

But with the success and popularity of shows like ‘Normal Gossip’ (and I don't want to plug him just because he's hosting!) and Connor Ratliff’s ‘Dead Eyes’ right now, it seems like there is space for us not to worry so much about whether or not it's going to sell and [instead] worry about whether or not it's going to be good. 

It's kind of vague — and I’ll probably be easier to be proven right because I am vague! — but I think in a year we should be able to see a lot of very good creative endeavors from independent folks who finally can just go out there and make whatever project they're going to make. 

That makes a lot of sense, especially thinking about the last couple of years. We have this opportunity for the indie to rise again. 

It seems like now we're seeing an opportunity where we say, alright I’m just going to go shoot it myself. I'm going to record it myself, I'm going to produce it myself and we'll see what happens. I know I have a project like that, and I could think of several of the independents who are working on projects like that. So I'm just interested to see who gets what out [there].

You’ve had your hands involved in a variety of shows both behind the scenes and hosting, from the delightfully indulgent film & tv review show ‘
Leaving the Theater,’ to the illuminating ‘Solvable’ and the very necessary ‘Seizing Freedom.’ How do you balance being involved in so many projects and devoting enough time and attention to each project as the stories unfold? 

That was really born of necessity. The production projects and stuff that I'm not creating  occupy different brain space for me. [For example] for Seizing Freedom, I'm helping produce, direct and source the voice actors — I’m helping other people with their vision. And when someone else has their vision on the line, [I ask] what is the best way that I can help them? What's the maximum amount of effort I could give them to help them get their vision to where it's supposed to be?

Whereas the projects based on my knowledge, on something that I'm passionate about, feel different and I'm operating differently. And that's [when I bring in] producers to come and work with me, because then I need help creating a full vision. 

So I think it's really a matter of knowing whether you're a part of the team, or if you're the one that's creating the vision. If you're driving the vision or if you're supporting the vision. That's how I've made that separation between projects. 

You were named one of the four podcasters to watch in 2023 by Vulture. While we're watching you, who are you watching? Are there any storytellers or creators in the space that are really catching your attention at the moment by doing work that feels exciting or fresh? 

I’ll try not to shout out all of my friends… but I'm probably going to shout out all of my friends! I like what Laura Mayer did with 'Shameless Acquisition Target’. That was an exciting show to listen to and I like the way that she set herself up for success. It was inspiring to hear really heady work from somebody being really vulnerable in that moment. 

As far as other interesting projects, I think there's a podcaster you probably you may or may not have heard of named Nichole Hill, who is currently showrunning ‘I Am America’, the Tracee Ellis Ross project that just started. It's in its second week now. It's very, very good. Good storytelling. I would definitely encourage people to listen to.

There's Morgan Givens, who has a podcast called ‘Flyest Fables’. It's a children's podcast, and she’s also working on some new stuff (which I don't think I can say right now!!) but I'm very excited to hear what Morgan comes up with next. 

Oh, and of course Avery Trufelman and 'Articles of Interest’. I'm actually working with her and Sarah Daly, another producer, on a weight based show called ‘Weight for It’ coming out later this year. So we're working on that one together. 

[There] are a lot of projects that I'm pretty excited about that are directly in my orbit.

We'll have to do a follow up in like six months to see where these projects land!  

So now, talking On Air Fest and what makes it so special: Conversations we hear in our headphones from different creators coming to life on stage in really exciting ways. When you think about recording or performing live, how do you translate and build on the energy from the studio? What are the differences when it comes to building community live versus listening in traditional formats? 

When I make something, I make it to last. A podcast is meant to exist in perpetuity [as a thing that we] can revisit. We can go back and listen, learn, compare, see how we've changed and see how our relationship with that material has changed.

When you're engaging in a live event, it's going to happen once. There's no streaming, there's no recording. If you're not in the room, you're going to miss it. The only thing that's going to exist of the live show is [maybe] some video clips and pictures… and the stories that people will say “you had to be there!” And after that it will exist in your memory. So I think the energy that I bring is creating a sense of FOMO for people [to eventually say] “Oh my God, I heard it was so good! I’ll have to come to the next one!” 

Whereas like with podcasting, there's really no FOMO because you could catch up and then be a part of it…

Last year was the first time I went to On Air Fest, and I met a couple of people for the first time that I still hang out with, connect with, talk to… There's something generally about friends I've made at any conference or festival where we go out into the world, live our lives, but when we reconnect, the magic is still there. And so I think like live events… for lack of a better term, [they] make the world a little smaller. 

Ronald Young Jr. on stage at On Air Fest 2022

ON AIR FEST: Last question. What excites you most about hosting day one of On Air Fest 2023?

RONALD YOUNG JR.: Oh man, I'm the tip of the spear! I get to kick it off. People are going to be excited. And when they sit down, I'm going to be the first person that they see and get to talk to. So I feel excited to be a part of an event that's creating a mark, especially in Brooklyn, in audio. It feels good to say that. You know, when you go to [festivals] there's sometimes only a couple of moments that really stick with you. So I'm really excited to do that and really excited to create that experience and memory for everybody that's coming. 

ON AIR FEST: Beautiful. Thank you so, so much.