VM 006 – Producing, Vocabulary, and Definitions, oh my!

Image Description: Black and white book close up with words and definitions for diction and dictionary.

I was reading an article recently written by a podcast producer, about great podcasts and their producers that inspires, most notably to me, one of my good friends, Someone Dies In This Elevator Showrunner, Tal Minear. It was fantastic to see my friend recognized by a peer as an Inspiring Indie, and good for them! As often happens when I’m reading something, my brain says hold on, something’s off here. But I don’t know what it is. That’s been ticking in my head, as something was off and I didn’t know why.

It wasn’t how Tal Minear was mentioned – it’s glowing! “SDITE proves that Tal’s talents don’t start and stop with sound design! Writer, Director, Editor, Artist. Tal is a creative force to be reckoned with.”

As having the fortune to sit next to Tal as they pull off yet another season’s development, I was dancing to read that someone else from a distance could see what I’ve known.

It wasn’t the article – Pacific S. Obadiah is constantly a writer who demonstrates their insight is built upon a knowledge of fiction podcasting and the observations and information in the article stood out from the articles I read for Podcast Halloween. The criteria for recognition, similar knowledge of the space for over half their life, their mission a focused purpose, their list factual and detailed.

When It comes to criticism, what a critic likes indicates what they value. Obadiah values storytelling, sound design, cast chemistry, skilled writing, and as a connecting theme, shows which trust their audience as they thrill you, from horror to historical to mystery. Most importantly “Folks who are creating unique ideas and giving marginalized communities a place in the space.”  I related to their perspective within it, as written by someone who is also an artist who practices my disciplines.

Rereading the introduction to Obediah, I settled on it. Powerhouse, founder, podcast manager, listener, sound designer, writer, director, editor, artist, star, actor, something was missing from the list of qualities of these people, including Obediah! Yet again, you see, something was undervalued, because it lacks definition within the Podcasting Industry. Allow me to make my attempt to present a vocabulary that attempts to encompass the term from my perspective.

A Producer is someone who contributes something to the overall work of art that makes it possible.

I know that is not specific enough to be directly helpful, but it’s based on my understanding of collaboration and storytelling and my experiences producing art. Fundamentally, as Math is a Science, a producer is an artist and part of the collaboration is their final work. This is the reason why Sound Escape produces Collective Works when it comes to copyright.

Producer is a catch-all term for numerous jobs within podcasting but the central point is… it’s something you’re credited as! I came to that definition by observing across multiple mediums of art, as I’d argue Creator should be, by default, a producer credit. Unfortunately within Podcasting as an Industry, that credit and term can mean you’re the cog in the machine making things happen, which is dehumanizing – the credit for the work you actually do might not be in the credits. It’s similar to developer in the video game industry, only usually it starts with we’ll put your name in the credits.

Within the credits, a producer may be the person handling scheduling, or accounting. I would assume that if a person did work that contributed to making the production a reality, if they produce something that gets used. We built our budget tracker for productions with the purpose of valuing the contributions everyone brought to the table, yet like many other indie audio fiction producers, often that work isn’t included in the budget a producer may be setting for themselves. Even while crowdfunding Someone Dies In This Elevator, making sure everyone was valued for their contribution was at the heart of it, even if Tal and I as producers put our shares into the shares of people who contributed tangibly. 

Sound Escape and Discover Pods have different arguments, but both say you should pay your people, and we’re right on that. Like many things, we have to cut what doesn’t work, and find things which do, and keep those, in constant revolution. Which brings us to how in films, being a producer is tied to those tangible contributions, negotiated in with studios, distributors, between performers or writers, but easily enough, if you affect the financials of the product, I believe you should be producers. Seize the means of production artists; every writer, performer, gaffer, and ticket holder is someone without whom you wouldn’t exist and is a little bit of a producer, in their own ways.

Lately, I see a lot of critique which I’m going to say has an audience’s perspective, and it’s always troubling to me when someone without knowledge has an opinion, but worse when that opinion consists of… thing bad because thing bad. The comedy in cruelty may be appealing, but to pretend a roast is valid criticism of a person, especially when it’s literally an attack on the person, makes me roll my eyes. I hold it is a freshman mistake to talk about why a work of art “sucks” – focus on what it does well, and well it could have been, if only the execution was better and you may have something worth saying. 

I think if being a fan of Activision Blizzard and watching it go downhill as a production house and looking for ways to avoid those issues as I do want to build a safe an inclusive space, not just for those who look like me, but those I consider my family or who also struggle with physical and mental disabilities, or simply aren’t privileged to not work full time as they make audio fiction. The Lesson I see there, is never let those concerned about the bottom line, prevent you from speaking out and having something to say. I despise how Disney will give the appearance of being progressive, then hold back their directors from saying something which may prove to be controversial, almost as much as the people trolling people and pretending it’s a joke.

The lesson for me is that I, someone with an artistic brain, should become someone with a financial brain. I went business over screenwriting for that purpose, and while my education has been meandering, it’s been eternal. I must consume each library as voraciously as I can and push myself to explore, find, learn from and other artists, and that builds into the arguments I make as a person. Often, I find myself wondering why something is off, only to crack it several days later.

Artist’s Brain

This is part of the frustration of Artist’s brain, as I refer to what happens once you’ve studied art enough to have not only a critic’s perspective, but an artist’s perspective, where you can see the choices of the artist behind their art. You will always feel like a Magician at a show. I fully believe you should steal like an artist, and that means not just consuming your peers in your medium, but other mediums as well. Every artist should be creating their own Appendix N of inspirational and educational reading that you draw upon.

Being an artist is being a gardener, Alhambra, Tipón, Ryoanji, and Versailles are spatial art that plant seeds in your mind, which you nurture and grow in your work as you process them physically. I believe the ultimate goal of Storytelling in Audio is to transport you to that location when you close your eyes and listen. Yet, my understanding is in constant revolution as I encounter new ways to use other art forms, even if they are not my chosen discipline. I plant those seeds in my mental garden.

Since being an artist is about making choices that shape your art, Music’s terminology is wonderful for sound design, as is emotion. Even this article is stealing from the collective knowledge of human history I’m aware of to say “I think this word means this” because language is a social construct defined by its users. Crunchy, is a wonderful term for how sound design in footsteps can immerse you in a scene.

The artist says “Yes!” The Improvisor says “Yes, and…” The Producer says “Yes, but … , so…”

Getting back on topic, while Obediah is mentioned as a podcast manager, looking at their track record, I think we can safely call them a producer and a force to be reckoned with. I’m looking forward to what comes out of their feeds. So, what does a producer do?

A producer brings things to the table and makes them happen, management is definitely part of that, but you don’t have to be a manager to be a producer. If a Person writes a script, performs and directs themselves, edits their dialogue, sound designs and composes the entire audio fiction they schedule, release and market themselves? They are Producer, hear them roar.

Anyone who brings those elements to the table, as well as financial or marketing resources is eligible to be called a producer. A performer with sufficient star power can become a producer on a project. Why not a Writer? Why not an artist who paints something used for your cover art that inspires the rest of the production team?

Bob Kane came up with “the Bat Man”, but Bill Finger created Bruce Wayne and his tragic past, and the character “The Batman” – Both creations are inseprably linked and improvised and improved upon by Gardner Fox, William Dozier, Steve Englehart, Dennis O’Neil, Frank Miller, Alan Grant, Tim Burton, Chuck Dixon, Paul Dini, Jeph Loeb, Christopher Nolan, Grant Morrison, Zach Snyder,  Scott Snyder, even audio fiction creator Meghan Fitzmartin has changed the Batman Mythos. I haven’t forgotten Pete Milan’s writing, either and Seth Adam Sher’s performance in the fan podcasting space. Who does art belong to is a complicated mess because the best art inspires revolutions, and characters take on a life of their own.

I am the executive Producer for Sound Escape Productions, my job is to crew, develop, produce and release guidelines for them to create audio fiction. I am the Producer Department Head, essentially. My job is not to make shows, it is to help showrunners make their shows. That’s what my credit on Someone Dies In This Elevator is for executive producer, but my paycheck, and Tal’s were for being a writer, performer, sound designer, director, etc. Until the full value of a production for it’s tangible content is met, we as showrunner and the collective, don’t see income from our projects. This is typical for many audio fiction creators.

Tal however, as the Showrunner, doing all the work of producing Someone Dies In This Elevator, such as assembling the crew and making sure things get done as we’ve planned, is also an executive producer, however, Tal outranks me, as the showrunner, they have final say. We recently had a decision where neither of us felt sure what to do, so we left it up to the writer and director, and that’s great! We trust our people to make great work, and that’s the difference between X and Y style management. As Producers, our job is to create a space and environment that enables artists to make art, and art is self-expression. 

It has been healing and overjoying to see the model I’ve been working on for five years come together with Tal’s skills as a producer to bring together Someone Dies In this Elevator. It couldn’t have a better Executive Producer. We learned a secret in approaching things that’s served us well, “Yes, this is your idea, but here is the limitation we have to work with, so let’s do this” and its results speak in the show.

Ah, I guess, there’s distinctions in types of producers. 

Executive – Direct Influence

Executive I think means you made those decisions, a Head Writer might have an Executive Producer Position, with writers underneath them, or Lead sound designers, like Unwell. I think in terms of direction, the executive producer’s touches are present in the final work, as in music, different artists alter each other in collaboration.

I love anthologies when they bring a crossover of people from all over audio fiction as each of their individual lessons in execution strengthens and informs the final work as a whole. We make each other better. 

Associate – Indirect Influence

Yet again, we’re forced to define a vague term with a multitude of uses. I’ve been called an associate producer when all my duties consisted of adapting, casting, and sound design and scoring a show as it’s showrunner, which is absolutely an EXECUTIVE role, as without the person, there would be no show. I think Associate Producer is a bit classist under that distinction, as it’s a meaningless term again, usually used by an Executive Producer to keep themselves elevated, over another producer. I guess Associate Producer is one step up from a Junior Executive, but my point is, if they contribute to the show in a way that the show would not go on without them, they should be an executive.

Who should an Associate Producer be? How can we redefine a term that’s vital, in a way that respects the artists who make the content? Do they just contribute to the production in a way that’s part of an executive producers team, such as a head writer as executive producer and each writer in the room is an associate producer? Why not just call them staff writers? It’s a better term we can understand easily. 

As you might have noticed in our crowdfunding for season one of SDITE, we set associate producer as a tier you could pledge to! You see, we found on average 10 minutes of scripted, directed, sound designed, scored audio fiction costs ~$1,000 to produce. We decided that we were going to make the show no matter what, and that if someone was willing to give us that money, they were worthy of being an Associate Producer. We’re incredibly thankful to our associate producer on Let the Elevator Die because without their contribution, we wouldn’t have been able to pay our people something for their work.

Did they directly influence the product? Of course not, but they saw something in the product worth contributing to, and without them it wouldn’t have happened. That’s the bar I think between Associate and Executive Producer, and when it comes to my art, this is as far as I’d like capitalism to extend its influence. 

Which brings me to the real distinctions I’ve seen in producers in the audio fiction industry. Consider these different levels of success, but I’ve also taken steps to separate this from a certain download number or budget, as the actual answer is more depressing than you realize.

Hobbyists – I <3 My Audio Fiction Podcast

I think the first thing we should think of when I say hobbyist is the Student Podcaster. I was 15 when I put together my first production of a radio drama, and it was a blast. You can absolutely make audio fiction in your spare time as a hobby.

However, the elephant in the room is that this is a position of privilege, whether it’s sustained by a family member supporting you, financial safety nets, or your own health as you side hustle, it’s unsustainable for us as a medium in the long term as life goes on. In my experience all hobbyists either eventually burn out, become embittered, or move on to better things once the fun is over.

That’s good! If it’s your hobby, enjoy! The issue for me is when the Hobbyist pretends that their experience is what everyone’s experience should be and after 7 years as a hobbyist, it just feels like you’re being exploited if you’re not sitting on the top. If you’re not sure what you can do in this space, feel free to have fun with you and your friends, as a student. I hope you move up like others do.

I draw the line between a Hobbyist Producer and an Independent Producer as an Independent Producer will pay their collaborators a dollar. Hobbyists should pay their collaborators and that’s what separates them in my mind. Free Podcasts are not free to make.

Independents – I make an Audio Fiction Podcast… somehow.

Independents value the work that goes into audio fiction and it shows. They do their best to pay their people, which is why I set the line at a dollar. They’re still figuring many things out, but repeatedly I have watched small shows such as Our Fair City, We’re Alive, Welcome to Nightvale, the Nosleep Podcast, Wooden Overcoats, The White Vault, Wolf 359, Ars Paradoxica, The Bright Sessions, The SCP Archives, Here There B Dragons, SuperOrdinary, Station Blue, Kalilia Stormfire’s economical magikal services, Girl in Space, The Magnus Archives, Arden, grow into larger fish within this ocean, and many others, I’m just overthinking this paragraph.

That’s it, as a simple line, try to pay your people, welcome to the audio fiction podcasting industry. We’re not making enough but we’re working at it. That’s what all the screaming is. We just want to be able to make audio fiction, but unfortunately we’re not in a position where we can do it for free. Thank you for listening to us, and we’re interested in what you make.

A Studio –  I make Audio Fiction Podcasts! It’s a lot!

This one’s going to be controversial, but I need a way to define and discuss podcasters who create more than one podcast either by themselves, or as part of a larger group. Is Sarah Rhea Warner an A Studio because she can produce Write Now with Sarah Werner and Girl In Space concurrently? I’m going to say yes, because Sarah doing just one podcast is a lot, and having an artist’s perspective on it? That’s a lot of moving plates.

Which means, there are many independent podcasters which fall under this definition of A Studio, and say no, Colin, are you kidding me? I would need X resources, or maybe if I had staff I was working with, in order to be a studio, and hey, I’m saying that’s true. This definition technically includes Night Vale Presents though, it is intentionally vague. I’m saying if you’ve managed to pull off two podcasts at the same time, you are a powerhouse of a producer who should be reckoned with as a studio.

The point of language is to help us communicate. When I say A Studio Producer, I want you to think that they pulled off releasing multiple shows running concurrently. This gives them a tool in negotiation to say, I am worth more as a producer and if we are to shape our industry as an indie space, we must define our terms for ourselves. 

I challenge you to come up with your own better distinction, but here’s my question, at what point are you just setting an arbitrary line? Number of Cast, Number of crew, that you have cast or crew. Given time Everyone’s got an example that should revolutionize this term, which is terribly defined in the gaming industry, but maybe it’ll help them as well.

By the way, A studios, Indies, and hobbyists, are targets where I think you can be seen as punching down on them, and I read this in reviews from their audio quality, especially in student productions. I would like to nudge you to be specific and educational and give newer productions and podcasts your suspension of disbelief.

Many of those Indie shows birthed A studios like the Nightvale Presents, the Whisperforge, Atypical Artists, Hartlife NFP, Tandon Productions, Stormfire Productions.

AA Studio – We make Audio Event Podcasts! JK, okay, this one is about budget.

I think the dividing line between A and AA is whether or not they’re able to receive funding from an outside source, which usually has a nascar-esque logo. I do think that whenever outside money enters the industry, it’s controversial enough, but sometimes it comes with a clear lack of thought, but also elevates the space as being worthy of attention or even elevates struggling indie creators to a better standard of living. This can vary in so many ways that there are positives and negatives to take away from their outputs.

I do feel these productions from Luminary, Marvel, Spotify, HBOMax, whatever last week’s headline was, are attention grabbing, but either receive praise in ignorance, abuse without evidence, or little recognition that they are shifts within this market compared to the frustration I see. As Podcasting grows as an industry, I believe it’ll continue to receive more attention.

Which is why when it comes to criticism of these AA players in this space, and I’m sure I’ve outraged someone in that I consider Apple Podcasts AA, but it’s a weird space. However, I’m saying in terms of the standards we hold them too, and the criticism we give these targets, reasons why the A and Indie Producers are making content with less resources and better results.

Which brings me to the royalty of the audio fiction industry, those sitting on top who we all should aspire to be: 

AAA Studio – These studios make audio fiction at market rates, paying their people what they’re worth, benefits, vacation, and their podcasters will one day retire.

404. Cannot be found?

Okay, there’s got to be someone in here that’s managing to do this, who isn’t continuing to hustle despite what success they’ve achieved. That hasn’t also received a huge outcry at putting a finale on their podcast, or is called a sellout for shifting from A to AA, maybe they received a large amount of funding that, well, I suppose one would have to run their transcripts through the budget calculators we made, and that’s a lot of work.

I may have done it for the Bright sessions first season and it broke my heart. Audio Fiction is criminally undervalued, and that doesn’t stop the argument that we should pay people enough to make their art we consume for free. 

I’ve seen hobbyist producers drive their collaborators into faking their own deaths, having repeated panic attacks, or severe trauma and depression, gaslighting that this is just what it means to be a professional. That’s the hidden cost of fiction podcasting is that it costs us ourselves. We will be unsustainable as an industry until we solve that problem and I cheer on groups like Fable and Folly and the Audio Alliance who are causing their own shifts.

The Hidden Cost of Audio Fiction Podcasting

I work full time, I live with a mental illness, I’ve lost family who are close to me and cling to the ones who are left. I make audio fiction as an expression of self, no longer an escape from my reality, but instead to bring you into the world as I hear it.

Sound Escape is my argument for what it should take. Eventually I hope to grow from this indie studio to AAA, because those are our goals, and those are everyone’s goals in this industry. Because I’ve had the fortune to hand my guidelines and let Tal make them a reality.

Personally maybe that’s the line between AA and AAA, if AAA is outside money from somewhere. An AA studio could be one that’s able to let go of exerting control over a production team and see what happens, stepping in only to nudge and to guide.

I’m getting married to my partner and best friend Anna Rodriguez on November 19th, and traditional marriage is complex but at the end of the day, we recognize that we need to focus on what works, and fail in new ways to move forward. During this planning, Tal put together the development of Season Two of Someone Dies In This Elevator, and again, their producer skills have been a wonder to behold during casting.

I’m incredibly fortunate to make audio fiction with these people who, with Ali Fuller, are the reason things came together and to share this industry with these people and productions I’ve mentioned. Maybe I am an imposter as I write this, but I hope I’ve started a conversation.

How do you define these terms? Not how they’ve historically been, what do you think they mean for your podcast?