VM 001 – What is the Value of a Fiction Podcast?

What is the Value of a 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010’s Style Non-Non-Fiction Digital Audio Radio Internet Podcast Youtube Soundcloud Play Comedy Drama Series Production Recording Movie for Your Ears and Earholes in the 2020s that is Making a Come Back an Evolution of the Art of Aural Storytelling it always was?

Or how wonderful and varied the garden of stories humans tell grows.

Over the past five years, I have been obsessively spending hours researching audio fiction productions, driven by a single question. I’m fortunate to have constructed for myself a vantage point of audio fiction by working with the Audio Verse Awards team. I’m not caught up on anyone, but I love spending time with many of the fantastic stories and storytellers who have guided my journey since I first won an iPod Video in a school raffle fifteen years ago.

I remember the first fiction podcast I found on the iTunes store. A dramatization of a prequel comic for the 2006 video game: Justice League Heroes for the Xbox and PS2. I found online mailing lists and forums and eventually that new thing Facebook had groups. I remember when the most popular fiction podcasts were groups of volunteers spinning stories “for the art”. As a teenager in the midwest, I found an escape from my life in the books I read and the podcasts I listened to.

As I grew older I learned a reality; many of the people in the community stopped making podcasts. Sometimes quietly, if we were lucky, they’d finish their projects and just… never return. How tragic, I found, to have listened to people whose work I would compliment as the Mozart or Bach of fiction podcasting, only for them to stop releasing.

Then I started shifting from the audience to the other side. I was part of a review team that discussed shows I followed. I wrote scripts where kind editors took the time to educate me as I reworked and relearned my understanding of the craft. I apprenticed under several sound designers, asking for feedback, trying to grasp every opportunity to make content. I auditioned, recorded lines, and did everything but sit in the producer’s chair. Through my love of audio stories, I met Anna Rodriguez, who refused to move to Nebraska so I came to LA.

Five years ago, I decided to stop and walk away from audio. In many ways, my life had shifted to a point where my unpaid volunteer hobby had become an all-consuming eye that had ceased to give me joy. Undiagnosed, I had been having depressive episodes regularly, and I wasn’t in a position in my life to seek professional help. Eventually, the choice was made for me, when I discovered how little time I had left between sleeping and working sixty hours-a-week. That job wound up being my salvation as the small business valued people, working to find ways and retrain me in other skills. I had wound up there because I chose business over screenwriting since I wanted to write audio dramas.

As I learned models and organized teams, I found myself drawn in again by audio fiction. Burnt out, I rebuilt my life and found I needed to escape from it less, and thanks to my day job, medication and therapy keep me stable and able to function instead of the grey my world becomes. Turns out lying in bed listening to podcasts is one of the better ways to ride out my dips. Surprisingly, I found many bright people sharing and celebrating each other, reminding each other of the central tenet of their community: a rising tide raises all boats.

As I kept working on myself I found that instead of an escape, entertainment offered the opportunity for self-expression. As I set to relearning who I was, I found myself relearning how to write audio again, as old characters reminded me their plots still waited to be unfolded and a new one captivated me as they walked between worlds.

In rejoining the audio fiction community, I have wandered to many corners, learning and asking questions. Watching large investors try to figure out how to profit from the space, the Mages weave their audio sorcery, and people asking “How? How do I make a show? I have a story, but I need someone to help me. Does anyone know how to do this effect in this program?”

I watched as the ones who found success shared their knowledge, pondering what I learned. I wanted an answer to the question no one was talking about. The business side of podcasting, the quiet budget sheets that explain how something was put together. I found a style guide on what your script should look like, and how to use it. Tips on marketing and branding. Models for production, systems for writer’s rooms, casting calls, crafting first seasons. Great masters shared what they had done, and the tools they had learned.

Discord’s rise in the community springs from the ease of use to connect with an audience, but it has to lead to a current state that reminds me of when I first started in the community – There are many kingdoms, some ruled with different levels of construction and moderation. Once a server reaches 300 or so people, I find it hard to follow. However, when pinged, I found a calling in helping answer questions if I could.

I found myself in Seattle for Podcon 2, connecting with an old master. Eventually, he asked me to make a project of his into a reality. Soon I found myself asking the question again, but this time, to myself. If I was going to make audio fiction again, it would be Hippocratic, sustainable, and it would put people first. I found others who were willing to work with me, and we joined into a collective, we would design a budget that would give us a guide as we planned the system to create, launch, and market

Sound Escape is in many ways the culmination of fifteen years of experience listening to audio and marveling at what you can do with it. In design, I hope it helps small and medium podcasters own their shows, but have a system and model to fall back on. Creative Control means many things: who you work with, what your idea becomes, and so I sought to create a profit-sharing framework for smaller podcasters. I read union guides and video game company organizations – I’ve seen many attempts to unite audio fiction under a banner fail, but I wound up with exactly that: a banner.

A banner that anyone could wave, and if they needed help on an episode, we could get another person to lighten their load. A framework where the show itself would be independent. It would be the showrunner’s show and if I had a role as executive producer, it would be to guide and assist. A model where when tragedy strikes (like a global pandemic) the show can go on. In going through onboarding, one indie producer quipped it was more like joining a guild than a company.

Each production operates under phases with the Showrunner pushing it forward. First, we write our seasons and edit them to be as powerful as possible – beginning, middle, and end. Even if we never came back, once we had a satisfying story for our audience, we’d move into production. We’d get that organized so that when we were ready, we’d crowdfund with the season ready for release. A model where the impatient have a solution to their problem of having to wait for what comes next. I find the fastest way to get more audio drama is to make it yourself, followed by supporting the people who create it, so they can make more.

Sound Escape as a collective produces collective works, each episode belonging to the people that have worked on it. I have collected indie rates and plugged in numbers based on scripts. I have worked spreadsheet magic, thought I had an idea as I puzzled, challenged, and rewrote, strategized, and researched. Ultimately we’ve wound up with a very federalist model of organization, but hopefully, we’ve learned from the mistakes and successes of others. We are human-focused and independent together.

Audio drama, fiction podcasts, sound plays, whatever you call them, continued onwards despite radio shifting away. In the digital age, it has found a home in podcasting. However, unlike how other mediums shifted, there is no solid standard for how we should pay the creators, and what value you put on their work. Yet even film students are given budgets. We need to build a path and plan to educate fiction podcasters under the current consensus of the audio fiction community.

The new wave of fiction podcasts in the 2020s must go beyond “make art for art’s sake.” They need to be accessible to our members who are deaf and hard of hearing or have auditory processing issues. They need to be ethical under the Equality in Audio Pact. They need to be experiences designed for this medium of storytelling. Lastly, they need to be sustainable – no more dead podcast feeds because the fire that drove it went out.

I’d like to thank many of the numerous professionals, especially those with imposter syndrome about them being professionals, who have guided me with the information they’ve shared. I need to specifically cite the Voice Acting Club’s Indie Rate Guide, as it was the first answer I had to this puzzle. Everything flows from the script and our writers, but no one ever achieves anything alone. I’m incredibly thankful to find myself in the chair of the executive producer as our first production readies for release, not bringing my vision to life, but others making their ideas incarnate. Each person’s input in the production process has made it better.

Make a Sound Escape with us, close your eyes and go someplace else – places and events we’ve envisioned on paper, characters brought to life, environment and actions you can hear, and music to guide you on your journey.

Come back different.