The Problem with Podcast Dramas

TV drama has entered its platinum age. Novels are being written by more diverse and talented authors than ever before. Even games are getting decent stories. But in the world of podcasts, dramas are being outearned and outlistened by their nonfiction counterparts. Why?

Here’s the easy answer: just as television killed the radio (drama) star in the 1960s and 1970s — with families turning their sofas and their attention to the captivating screens in their living rooms, and radio networks focusing on news, talk shows, and music — television is drawing attention away from podcast dramas.

True, podcasts are different from radio: they’re easier to distribute, cheaper to produce, more convenient to consume, and more diverse in form. But as freely-accessible audio content, they’re more similar than not. And while a few radio dramas remain on the loose, with BBC Radio 4’s The Archers attracting over four million listeners every episode and the Afternoon Play with one million, the field has never recovered.

And yet in the past year, we’ve heard predictions of an ‘audio storytelling renaissance’ emerging from studios like Gimlet, Panoply, Earwolf, Two Up Productions, and Night Vale Presents in the form of dramas like Homecoming, Fruit, Limetown, and Within the Wires.

So could it be true? Could we be witnessing the rebirth of audio dramas as mass entertainment? Or is this just wishful thinking from a genre riding on the coattails of true crime podcasts and talk shows?

The Charts

Take a look at the iTunes Podcast charts. What don’t you see? Dramas.

On 22nd June 2017, the sole podcast drama in the top 100 was Welcome to Night Vale, at #98. Back in 2015, Night Vale frequently placed in the top 20, but these days it floats between #70-100. When I looked at couple of week later, Night Vale was joined by Homecoming at #31 and RABBITS at #47; a slightly better performance, but still only 3% of the top 100. In comparison, out of the top ten US primetime TV shows last year, six were scripted dramas.

The iTunes Podcast Charts don’t even have a ‘Fiction’ or ‘Drama’ category

Things used to be different. In September 2015, Limetown was #1 for a whole week, and Panoply’s The Message equalled the achievement in November 2015. A few months later, Alice Isn’t Dead by Night Vale Presents was #1 for four days. Since then, the only drama that hit #1 was RABBITS, and that was only for a single day in March 2017.

It’s hard to fully grasp how podcast dramas are performing given that barely anyone shares real download numbers. Perhaps they’re doing a roaring business that isn’t reflected in the charts. Perhaps there are plenty of dramas lurking unseen, just below the top 100. But there’s no denying that podcast dramas are only getting less popular relative to other genres.

In November, Homecoming, with formidable production values, heavyweight promotion across Gimlet’s network, and an all-star cast of Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, and Oscar Isaac, still couldn’t get above #3 on iTunes. And debuting a couple of weeks later, Panoply’s LifeAfter only reached #15. It’s possible the US election is to blame, but the charts around that time show podcast audiences opting for the classics: true crime, documentaries, and talk shows.

Or maybe these big shows cannibalised each other’s audience, launching so close together. I don’t buy that argument. No-one thinks Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is hindered by Invisibilia or the TED Radio Hour. Quite the opposite; listen to one good nonfiction podcast and you’re more likely to seek out another. There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be capable of following two podcast dramas each week given they do plenty more for TV and nonfiction podcasts.

The truth is that dramas are slipping.

What about Audible?

Full disclosure: Audible paid my company, Six to Start, to produce The Way of All Flesh, an audio drama written by Naomi Alderman and based on our app Zombies, Run! Audible has also advertised on Zombies, Run!

How much money does Audible make? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

As befits an Amazon company, none of its graphs have y-axes, but we do know that they had 2 billion hours of audio downloaded in 2016, up from 1 billion in 2014, indicating many millions of active subscribers. Then there’s the small matter of them selling 95% of all 50 million audiobooks in 2016.

Not all of Audible’s content is audiobooks; they also have Channels:

Audible Channels are podcasts (commercial free!) that can be streamed or downloaded (to listen to without an internet connection). If audiobooks are like movies, then Audible Channels are like tv shows! They are shorter in length and have various episodes … The different channels include comedy, history, drama, mysteries, documentary-style storytelling and much more. We have something for everyone!

So, yes, there are drama Channels (including the one for The Way of All Flesh), but they make up a small proportion of Audible’s overall library, and presumably income.

Look, I know. It seems foolish to disqualify audiobooks from a discussion on podcast dramas, especially given how popular and profitable they are, and how they’re now delivered via mobile apps. But they aren’t the same!

You can’t seriously compare the low cost, low risk adaptation of books into audiobooks with the high cost, high risk creation of original audio or podcast dramas. They’re totally different kinds of businesses, and the content is totally different. Podcast dramas are written for audio. Audiobooks are not.

Despite Audible’s enormous success with audiobooks, they’ve yet to demonstrate they’ve cracked the nut of producing massively popular audio dramas. Maybe they have secret data that contradicts this, in which case I’d be delighted to eat crow.

So what’s the problem?

The Money?

Podcast dramas can be much more expensive to produce than nonfiction podcasts. Writing the scripts often takes far longer, and they usually spend more on actors and sound engineering. Some shows like This American Life do burn a lot of money on research and travel, but they usually have massive audiences to match.

What about on the other side of the ledger? It may be harder to target ads against podcast dramas compared to tech or health podcasts, but then again, fiction provides the perfect opportunity for safe brand sponsorships (as opposed to direct marketing). If you’re Coca Cola, you might be reluctant to advertise on a show like S-Town, but you needn’t worry when it comes to scripted dramas like The Message and LifeAfter, both sponsored by GE.

Panoply has a Malcolm Gladwell category, but no Fiction/Drama category

Fiction also lends itself better to merchandising — just look at Disney! If you can get your audience invested in your story and characters, they’ll want to literally wear their passion on their chests, and believe me, we’ve sold a lot of Zombies, Run! T-shirts. Even better, fiction podcasts don’t age as quickly as topical news shows or talkshows, so they’ll generate money for longer.

If there is a money problem, it lies in the understandable reluctance of investors to take a risk on podcast dramas. There are talented writers out there, but no Alex Blumbergs with 18 years of experience, no surefire bets like Roman Mars, no showrunners or studio heads who’ve turned out a wide stable of dramas for multiple seasons. Night Vale Presents are the only team even getting close.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this is a problem time can solve.

The Format?

I’ve listened to more than a thousand hours of podcasts in the last three years, and I spent almost all that time walking, running, cleaning, or cooking. Unlike TV or games, audio is ideal for passive consumption.

The flip side of passive consumption is that our attention can often wander from what we’re listening to. This hasn’t been a big problem for the talkshows and conversational podcasts I listen to since I can drift off for a while and still catch the meaning, but I’ve struggled with some podcast dramas that have required continuous focus.

I’m not saying that everyone’s like me or that audiences are incapable focusing their attention on audio — there are plenty of tales of people ‘sitting in the driveway’ listening to the end of an intense S-Town episode — but rather that when we choose to focus our attention on media, we prefer to spend that time on film and TV and games.

Prof. Hugh Chignell, Director of the Centre for Media History at Bournemouth University, describes how this process began decades ago:

The radio critic David Wade suggested that after a golden age of radio drama in the 1950s and early 60s, a decline set in … Wade put this decline down partly to the loss of listening ability in the audience who no longer had the ear for serious and sustained listening.

Podcast dramas have accordingly shortened their episodes to prevent listener fatigue, with most coming in well under 30 minutes. Likewise, back in 2012 I designed Zombies, Run! such that our audio story clips would be no longer than 5 minutes long, and always broken up by a full music track in between. That may sound like a recipe for a fragmented narrative but two hundred episodes and 250,000 monthly users would suggest otherwise. Similarly, we spread out The Walk’s 12-hour story across 51 short episodes.

Blatant self-promotion of ZR 5k Training 2.0, Zombies, Run!, and The Walk 2.0

We can also learn from the innovations in radio drama that followed the devastating exodus of audiences in the 1970s, as Chignell describes:

There was, however, a possible solution in the creation of a more cinematic approach to radio drama. Hendy contrasts the safe ‘middle ground’ of radio drama, full of adaptations of well-loved classics (P. G. Wodehouse, Just William, Dickens and so on) with a growing body of work based on a fascination with stereophonic or hi-fi radio. One of the most interesting and celebrated dramatic productions on Radio Four was not produced by the drama department but by Light Entertainment. This was the comic science fiction serial The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978) by Douglas Adams and featuring ‘The Book’ played memorably by Peter Jones. The production made use of the Radiophonic Workshop and extensive post-production to create a “richly textured comic-book style of production”. Its success with a younger audience helped to change commonly held views of Radio Four and attract younger listeners. The combination of comedy and science produced a drama serial which was both ‘low brow’ and ‘high brow’.

I’ll concede that geniuses like Douglas Adams aren’t ten to a penny, but we can still break new ground. There’s an intimacy that audio drama offers; there’s an exuberance to the tonal shifts and layering music and sound effects; and there’s potentially an accessibility — thanks to the unique ability for audio to be passively consumed — that other media can’t equal.

The Talent?

Podcasts are exerting a strong gravitational pull on comedians, journalists, commentators, ‘thought leaders’, documentarians, and plenty more besides. There’s money, there’s creative freedom, and there’s the chance to establish a personal relationship with your audience. I’d argue our best and most innovative documentarians are working in audio right now, drawn by the opportunity to tell stories that aren’t financially viable or creatively suited to film or TV. Even subjects that, on the face of it, make absolutely no sense being delivered via audio, such as design and architecture, are made to work beautifully by passionate and talented journalists on shows like 99% Invisible.

It’s hard to see why fiction writers would be drawn to podcasts. Want to reach millions? Become a screenwriter. Excited by technology? Get into games. Require total control? Write a book!

But let’s say you ignore the doubters and wave off your worried parents. Where do you send your script?

The process for becoming a screenwriter or novelist, while hardly easy, is nevertheless well understood. The process for becoming a podcast drama writer is practically non-existant. Audible’s new $5 million fund for emerging playwrights is an inspired idea given that the golden age of the 1950s and 60s saw playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett write and adapt works for radio, but details of the fund remain scant. As far as I can tell, you’re meant to just email!

My hope is that more visible opportunities become available for talented writers, not just in the form of cash from Audible for one or two-person plays, but as prizes, commissions, grants, and development deals for a wide variety of budgets. Some stories can be told on a shoestring, if only the right team were assembled; other stories need much more.

Chignell suggests that playwrights in the 70s were discouraged from writing for radio due to bad pay (roughly one quarter of that paid for television drama) and the lack of radio reviews in the press. Today, no-one’s expecting to become rich, but it’d be nice to pay the bills.

If we broaden the road for aspiring audio storytellers, we all benefit.

The Stories?

There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just get it over with: I think too many shows are skipping straight to ‘prestige podcast drama’ without passing through ‘normal drama’ or even ‘soap opera’ first.

Don’t get me wrong: I love prestige drama and I’m a sucker for high concept, plot-heavy fiction, but I still found it hard to love shows like Homecoming. Honestly? I thought it was boring and overwritten, and many of my prestige TV-watching friends felt the same; I listened to the whole season, but they stopped at the first episode. The problem isn’t just the editing and time-jumping tricks they use; it’s their characters, who are more like ciphers to be solved than real people. Even Alice Isn’t Dead baffled me for the first couple of episodes.

Docufiction podcasts (i.e. “Serial, but fictional”) like Limetown, The Message, and Rabbits circumvent this problem by writing within the lines of formats we already understand, but those lines can equally become a constraint. I had to laugh when one character was diligently recording and narrating her door being battered down by a psychopath for her podcast show — it brought back fond memories of Pamela, an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, where the protagonist would furiously scribbling letters to her parents as, yes, her door was being battered down. And even if you don’t go quite that far, there’s still far too much throat-clearing in the form of “Is this recording?” or “Hey, is this on?”.

I don’t have a problem with docufiction. Some of my best friends are docufction, like This is Spinal Tap, or more recently, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. But it’s a delicate device, unsuited to most stories. Thankfully, the creators of The Message dispensed with the format in their follow-up, LifeAfter, which even included a voiceover, Blade Runner-style.

And while I don’t personally enjoy soap operas, I’m baffled that no-one’s tried them. Not every podcast drama needs to be magic realism or science fiction! BBC Radio 4’s The Archers — the most popular English-language audio drama in the world — is an unabashed soap opera. There are TV shows that’d kill for its numbers.

Of course we shouldn’t only write soap opera podcasts. But we should learn from their strong characterisation and compelling dialogue (yes, that’s two or more people talking to each other), and merge those things with the other things we’re excited by, whether that’s docufiction or high concept fantasy or whatever. Night Vale does this, and and I think Zombies, Run! similarly combines vivid characters with a gripping plot.

Hey, I’d like to make Mad Men as well. But we aren’t there yet.

More Experimentation is Required

You might be wondering, does Adrian even like audio drama? He’s spent all this time going on about how it’s not good and how TV and games are way better. So I’ll confess: dramas are not a big part of my podcast diet.

OK, I’ll really confess: I barely listened to any podcast dramas at all before I started writing this. But since then, I’ve listened to a shitload — and I enjoyed it! Yes, I said that Homecoming was hard to get into, but the sound design and acting is impeccable. Yes, Limetown is constrained by its format, but it has some beautifully written and performed monologues. And I found myself propelled through these dramas far faster than I expected. They were just even more bingeable than Netflix shows, because even going to the toilet couldn’t stop me.

So I’m optimistic about the future of podcast dramas — but I’m pragmatic about the challenges they face.

There’s no single solution because there’s no single problem. Podcast dramas need more variety and more writers and more investment. Let’s make docufiction, sure — but let’s also try soap operas and action thrillers and comedies and musicals. Let’s pressure Audible and the BBC and NPR to invest in new talent. Let’s make wikis and videos and conferences that explain how to make dramas, and swap our good ideas. Let’s support the people who are creating good work right now, like Night Vale Presents, Panoply, Gimlet, and Two Up Productions.

Let’s write, perform, edit, produce, listen — and Share and Enjoy!

I’d like to thank Matt Wieteska, Alex Macmillan, Ryan Dilley, and Laura Hall for their thoughts and contributions on this topic.

Listen to a version this article that I recorded as a podcast.

Also, if you listen to Crimetown, that’s me you’re hearing right at the top of Episode 1.

Top photo CC-BY drestwn

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