Recently, Tom Webster wished in his article “Podcasting, Audiobooks, and the Third Thing.” for an elusive “Third Thing…crafted with all of the creative force of the novelist or biographer, but designed from the ground up to be heard–not just through sound design, but packaged for easy episodic consumption, and written to be heard, not read.”
Do you suppose this could be audio drama?
It’s the least densely populated category in podcasting, and the most difficult to promote. How do we get folks to realize that podcasting is more than simply, as Webster says, “some person with a mic and an opinion?” Introducing new audiences to audio drama can have benefits for creators and sponsors. But, it takes effort on the listener side, the creator side, and the hosting or app development side.
What Listeners Can Do for Audio Drama
Audio drama competes with television, video games, and movies for new audiences. Many people have no idea what it’s like to immerse themselves in a story and let their brains light up. Tiffanie Wen’s This Is Your Brain on Podcasts describes audio drama listening as an experience like meditation and/or light exercise. Whether scary, thrilling, or funny, it’s good for your mind and body.
If you want to introduce your friends to audio drama, think of them first. Share individual episodes with them and explain what it is about your friend that makes you feel they’d enjoy it. Don’t shove your favorite show on them, saying, “You have to hear this. You have to.” Instead, say, “Hey, I know how much you enjoy English literature, so I thought you might like Silly Old Bear,” or whatever fits the bill.
Winter holidays are a great time to share audio drama, especially with older relatives who are used to radio drama. It’s not hard to find productions of It’s A Wonderful Life for family listening. Striking 12, Hannukah Haunting, and Holiday Greetings from Sugar and Booze are also fun.
Treat your favorite audio drama podcast like a band. Buy your favorite show’s merchandise and wear or display it. Share your opinions about your favorite episodes on social media the same way people share Game of Thrones opinions.
If you’re a superfan of a podcast that has many seasons and it’s hard to follow, make a [favorite show] explained or recapped video and put it on YouTube. Vanity Fair did this for HBO’s Westworld, and Marvel summarized half a dozen movies in 60 seconds in advance of Loki’s launch on Disney+. Imagine what this could do for your favorite audio drama. The creators will thank you.
How Developers Can Make Introducing New Audiences to Audio Drama Simpler
Fiction series depend on the ability to consume the episodes in the order the podcast producer intended. Newest to oldest is great for a podcast about current events or the latest developments in beauty products. Oldest to newest doesn’t always do the job for a long series. Some apps will skip from the oldest episode to the newest episode without stopping in between (i.e., from episode 1 to episode 10, instead of sequentially).
Users need to be able to make custom playlists, and apps have to show the sequence clearly. Apple Podcasts is notorious for “disliking” numbers in episode titles. But, the audience needs to be able to set up how they consume the content. Maybe you don’t feel like listening to the in-between-season bonus minisodes about the town taxidermist or the history of the abandoned ribbon mill. Or, maybe you really do, because it clarifies a point in a later episode. Audio Drama listening is different than with other pods, and the developers for Apollo and other listening apps have unique challenges. They’re worth the investment, though.
Hosting services can make technology to improve accessibility with complex material. Podcast transcripts help. Hosting services that include a website can provide more options than the description and an embedded player. A page for content warnings or a press release can provide context that incites repeated listening and sharing.
Audio Drama Creators: Start With an Appetizer.
Audio drama creators need to try producing podcasts that are accessible and easy for audiences unfamiliar with the genre to understand. Make immersive audio that brings the setting and space to life. But make your plots straightforward, cast a variety of voice actors and promote the podcasts in a way that helps understanding. To introduce new audiences to audio drama, make at least one gateway podcast.
Mix Audio Fiction to Life, or Write For Your Restrictions
Make the environment as real as you can, or change the story’s environment. If you can’t make cinematic sound, write a story that includes rough sound. Homecoming, for example, uses lots of phone conversations and doctor’s office recordings. The Goblet Wire, The Tower and Quid Pro Quo use rough-sounding audio to heighten the unearthly presentation. If you can’t get your actors in one room, make the characters talk on the phone or have online chats. Poorly mixed audio that’s inconsistent with the narrative and setting isn’t a good way to introduce new audiences to audio drama; it’s distracting.
Binaural audio, or “you really have to have headphones to appreciate this” sound is exciting. However, it can be a barrier for some people. Write at least one episode or series where people can listen on speakers, together. A recent study by Sirius XM says that “the mindsets and moods of listeners during these shared audio moments is important to keep in mind. While listening with others, people feel a host of positive emotions, with relaxed, happy, entertained, productive, and carefree topping the list.” Shows like The Thrilling Adventure Hour are meant to be heard by a group. They’re recorded and presented for radio that existed before stereo, and easy to share.
Keep The Plot Straightforward and Clear
For just one series, keep your plot straightforward, and your character voices varied enough so that it’s easy or the audience to keep track. I love a multi-layered story with plot twists too. But, when you’re introducing your audience to the audio drama medium, save prestige-style storytelling for your next big project.
Diversity in casting means more than you think. The more your performers in a scene have different ages, voice pitches, regional dialects, etc., the easier it is for your audience to tell the characters apart and follow the story. The more the characters sound alike, the more confusing the story is to follow.
Promote It Like Cable TV: Recap, Explain, Warn.
Recaps are extra work, but they help. Again, with a podcast that has more than one season, many characters and complex plots, do what you’d love your fans to do. Make a recap video, explaining everything that happened in the last season and promote it on YouTube. Or make a recap episode as part of your regular RSS feed. Write your recap so that it avoids or warns the audience about spoilers.
Content warnings don’t have to spoil any surprises. We’re used to ratings for television and films; they give us a vague idea of what to expect. Put them in the show notes, or put a link in the show notes to a blog post with detailed content warnings.
Take advantage of comparisons; they’re obvious, but they work. I’ve told people that if they like the Thor movies and the Loki tv show, or if they play God of War: Ragnarok, they’ll like Jarnsaxa Rising. Introducing new audiences to audio drama works best when you start with something they like. Bait the hook with cheese, not caviar.
Lots of Things Are An Acquired Taste: That Doesn’t Mean They Have to Disappear.
Wine, chapulines, and hákarl aren’t the first foods most people would reach for, but they all have nutritional benefits. Some people grew up with audio drama and some seasoned podcasters have never heard of it. Audio drama podcasts give the audiences’ brains and emotions a workout without the risk of real danger. Advertisers and sponsors need to know that fiction podcasts have a higher conversion rate than non-fiction podcasts, because audiences pay attention longer.
Finally, podcasts with emotional stakes and changes help us build empathy, which we could all use. Tom Webster’s wish for a broader, deeper, more intimate and immediate podcast experience is here; it simply needs more people to share it. When creators, fans, and developers work together, we can all benefit.