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The Third Coast Festival and the Woman Who Brought It to Life

Ask Third Coast International Audio Festival Executive Director and Co-founder Johanna Zorn for her elevator pitch, and she’ll tell you, “We’re the Sundance of radio.”

However, if you spend a few minutes talking to the woman behind Third Coast, you’ll realize it’s more than a festival. In fact, it’s not a festival at all.

“If I had to go back and do Third Coast all over again, I would call it an institute,” Zorn says. “I would separate it. We don’t actually host a festival.”

If the Third Coast International Audio Festival isn’t a festival, then what is it exactly? An audio library.

The Third Coast website features more than 1,700 curated audio stories, interviews with producers, archived conference sessions and updates. It’s a radio show and two podcasts. It’s a competition and a series of public events. It’s an annual conference in Chicago that gathers producers from all over the world to discuss industry trends and share tips.

At its core, Third Coast is a place to tell and hear stories. It was Zorn’s love of storytelling, after all, that inspired the (non-) festival.

Growing up, Zorn remembers hearing an adaptation of “The Hobbit” on the radio and feeling inspired. For a high school project, she turned “The Great Gatsby” into a radio soap opera. In college, Zorn worked at her school’s radio station and then landed an internship at Chicago Public Radio – WBEZ after graduation.

“I just called them up and got some random person on the phone,” Zorn remembers. “I started working on a children’s show, and the general manager at the station eventually noticed me and asked what I was working on. I worked my way up from there.”

Zorn went on to become the executive producer of “Chicago Matters,” a collaboration between Chicago Public Media, WTTW, Chicago Reporter and Chicago Public Library, funded by the Chicago Community Trust. The series explored various community issues including education, immigration and violence. After nearly a year of research and work, the “Chicago Matters” team presented the stories in segments across their various mediums. For Zorn, there was always something special about telling an audio story.

“Feature Stories, a series of first-person stories, lent itself very well to radio,” she says. “There is a certain privacy retained without the camera. Some of those visuals are left to our imagination, so we’re not as quick to judge.”

Zorn points to several “Chicago Matters” stories, including “Ghetto Life 101” about young boys who grew up in Chicago public housing and “Dealing Guns: The Thin Line Between the Store and the Street” about the legal sale of guns at gun shows. The inspiring work of colleagues like Joe Richman also motivated Zorn to start the Third Coast Festival.

“I thought, ‘What if we brought people together and listened together?’” said Zorn. “We’re doing for radio what Sundance did for documentary film and independent work. We’re bringing great work to the public.”

Zorn left “Chicago Matters” in 2000 to pursue The Third Coast Festival full time.

Since then, Third Coast has evolved. In 2009, the team tried a true festival format for the first time. Audiences listened to stories accompanied by film reels created by graphic designers. While the festival was moderately successful, Zorn says Third Coast abandoned that format, opting to host a bi-annual conference open to the general public and producers.

In November 2016, Northwestern students had the opportunity to attend the Third Coast Festival Conference thanks to a scholarship established in memory of Cecilia Vaisman, a Northwestern professor, award-winning journalist and Zorn’s former colleague, who passed away in 2015.

“It’s incredibly meaningful for me that Northwestern has created this scholarship,” Zorn says.

Students will likely return to Third Coast in November 2017, the first year since 2008 that Third Coast will experiment with an annual schedule, in addition to hosting public audio events and opportunities in Chicago. However, students won’t have to wait to take advantage of Zorn’s expertise. She’ll be participating in Northwestern’s speaker series on February 16.

Zorn’s talk will focus on the future of radio documentary in a podcasting era. She says students can expect to hear her take on how the podcasting platform is changing audio documentaries and how what’s being produced is changing what’s on the radio.

As for the future of Third Coast, Zorn says she sees the festival getting bigger and better.

“I think we are really just scaling everything we do. One of my dreams is for Third Coast to actually be a place… a place where people can visit, and you might have a librarian who can lead you to great work. I imagine it would have a coffee shop, and there would be performances. That’s the ultimate dream.”

The Third Coast International Audio Festival offers several opportunities for students, including the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Visit the website for more information:

Learn more about the speaker series event featuring Johanna Zorn on February 16.