VM 005 – Capitalism, Audio, and Why the Screenplay Format Should be Your First Step

Image description: Blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table.

Audio writing is a practice that is decades old, but, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise, is still being discovered year after year by writers and creatives alike. I have a theory about the correlation between a scarcity of resources and the popularity of audio. In a digital age, where more and more people are empowered to tell stories in ways only they can, we’re faced with an almost insurmountable problem. How do I share my work with the world at large?

Let’s look at playwriting.

Similar to writing an audio script, you can, as the writer, create any type of world you want. You might think of theatre as couch plays, living room settings where we watch a family’s dark secrets get unpacked over the course of an evening, but the world you craft on stage can be as big as you imagine. I’ve written horror plays set in the desert, resort plays with dinosaur puppets, a haunted Mars base with immigrant ghosts, but none of these worlds can exist in a vacuum.

You’ll need designers and actors to bring a play to life. You’ll need funds to make sure everyone is being paid fairly. You’ll need an audience to fall in love with your work and sing your praises. You’ll need all of these things for an audio drama too, of course, but the biggest hurdle? A stage. Space. A physical room where your play can live and breathe. That is the insurmountable challenge. In film, it often comes down to equipment costs. Film permits. A distribution partner. As creatives in flooded and expensive markets, it’s likely that your work lives in a very chaotic Google Drive folder waiting until all the stars align. Until then, those stories, those characters, they live silently in their digital pages.

This is where my little pet theory comes in, and audio writing as a whole.

As we all should know, audio has been a storytelling medium that dates back to the 1920s when commercial broadcasting first became big. Since then, it’s popularity wanes and waxes, but still, every year we’re all bombarded by articles praising podcasting as a new frontier in storytelling. It’s easy to roll your eyes at these headlines, but let me try to ever so slightly shift your perspective.

More often than not, these headlines are spurred by some megacorporation discovering the money that can be made from audio, whether through shows directly or the intellectual property they generate. We’re in a sort of golden age of audio, but it’s more like an industrial revolution than the renaissance. The market has Audible, HBOmax, Marvel, and Spotify now.  It’s easy, as the passionate creatives we all are, to look at these AAA production houses and turn up our noses. But, and it’s a big but, this flooding does one really wonderful thing. It’s making podcasting accessible on a scale we’ve never seen before.

I’m not afraid to admit that the first podcast I ever listened to was Serial. And it was years before I listened to my first audio drama, Fool & Scholar Production’s amazing The White Vault. I listened to both of these shows for one reason and one reason alone – Spotify’s algorithm delivered them right to me. It wasn’t long after this that I started ravenously devouring other indie podcasts. And of course, it wasn’t long after that that I considered creating my own series, but the thought didn’t become serious until I saw how hard it was to make art as a whole.

Making art in a capitalist society is hard.

Often, it’s almost impossible. I went to school for theatre and it’s heartbreaking seeing the number of passionate creatives I know who have turned away from their art, but I don’t blame them. We all have to survive. When the pandemic hit, the theatre industry imploded, and, in a lot of ways, it still hasn’t bounced back (and don’t even get me started on the way the industry has treated digital theatre). I was fortunate enough to already be working in podcasting when this happened. I was able to pivot to a medium that I had slowly been falling in love with. Since then, I’ve helped guide other playwrights to audio, always telling them that, “if you can write for a blackbox, you can write for audio,” but it’s more than just another space. Another medium.

It’s a community.

The podcasters I’ve worked with, created with, even organized with (shoutout to the WGA Audio Alliance), each and every one of them is in it for the art. Each and every one is passionate and creative and dedicated to helping lift up each other’s voices, because, let’s be real, no algorithm will ever fully capture the breadth and beauty of the indie podcasting sphere. But, what the algorithm does do well, is bring podcasts right to those creatives slowly typing away, filling pages with stories and worlds that desperately want to be shared.

None of this is to say that any singular medium is above another. They’re all different lenses, different perspectives with their own tools to tell a story. But in a world where we’re all fighting for the same crumbs, where we’re all waiting for our art to make us a living, we shouldn’t be surprised when the indie sphere is flooded by “bold and brash” new creatives taking on this “wild frontier.” There’s an endless number of shows, of apps, of production houses, and yes, it all is very overwhelming. But it’s also beautiful.

Now, this has gone on long enough, I think. This conversation, this backstory, it’s all been in service of saying one, simple truth. Audio writing is accessible, but it’s okay if you need your hand held for your first few steps.

Writing for Audio Plays

Below you’ll find a wonderful guide that breaks down the structure of your first audio writing script. It’s building off of the tried and true screenplay format and that’s for a few reasons. If you have writing software, there’s often a preset format you can use that does most of the leg work for you. Additionally, it’s instantly recognizable. It lowers the barrier for both you the writer, but also the readers you’ll surely have along the way.

Now, there will be instances where you may write for a show that has its own format, its own rules, and you’ll have to adjust to them when given those opportunities, but know this. Writing is the fun part. Wait, no, developing it is the fun part. Wait, scratch that, it’s the recording bit. Or was it release day? Oh. That’s right. It’s all supposed to be fun.

Don’t get lost in the weeds. Don’t overthink the process. Jump in.