The Craft of Scripted Podcasting
Scripted podcasting is relatively new, but the art of oral storytelling ages back to the beginning of time. In fact, many early television shows came from radio shows, such as The Lone Ranger, The Jack Benny Program, Dragnet, and Adventures of Superman.
Today, some of the most popular fictional, scripted podcasts include Homecoming, Harlem Queen, Wolverine: The Long Night, and Limetown, but only around 5 percent of the Top 100 podcasts are in the fiction genre.
That said, the scripted podcasts that have gained popularity quickly led to a cult following, where Hometown and Limetown have led to streaming services starring Julia Roberts and Jessica Biel.
While this sounds a little like winning the lottery, some screenwriters are creating podcasts as proofs of concept to pitch ideas for an eventual TV series. That said, what does the scripted podcast market look like? Are there standards to follow, or is it simply the Wild West?
The Rise of Scripted Podcasting
While working on the series Limetown, Serial became a surprise hit thanks to This American Life (Serial was No. 1 before it was even released). But one hit didn’t exactly change the market. And, when the creators of Limetown pitched the idea to HBO, no one had a market for the idea.
Limetown creator Zack Akers told WGA East correspondent Kaitlin Fontana for The OnWriting Guide to Crafting Scripted Podcasts, “We told ourselves, ‘If we don’t find a backer in eight months, we post this ourselves.’ We had a hard deadline for ourselves, and at that point, we had the first episode and I had written a draft for the second, outlined the season, but we had only produced the pilot because we didn’t know if anyone would care or listen.”
Surprisingly, within a few days, Apple featured the pilot on the New and Noteworthy homepage of iTunes and everything changed.
Alicia Van Couvering, a producer known for Lena Dunham’s first feature Tiny Furniture and the podcast Homecoming said, “That was actually the main hurdle is that most people were like, ‘I’ve heard of podcasts, [but] what are they? What do you mean? Do you want to interview David Schwimmer…?’”
Van Couvering described the scripted podcast as a “radio drama, but different” in the early meetings. Now, most people know what a podcast is, but they don’t necessarily listen to them.
By the second season of Limetown, the team shifted to an advertising-sponsored model, but this was a product of the popularity of the project. “We did eat a lot of money in the first season for a period of time, but then because of the TV show, we had a book deal, we had more than our money back on the front, but we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Coming at it from this approach, one concern is how companies are going to make money. This model can be explored with interview podcasts, where sponsorships are everything. Spotify and various other companies are working on subscription models, like Netflix for audio, but what’s most important on the creative side? There’s clearly a demand, so how can you prepare your scripted podcast to meet this demand?
Stories Meant for Audio
Scott Conroy, who transitioned from political articles to a political comedy called Embeds, launched the series Blackout. The thriller, which stars Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek (who was looking for a podcast project like this one), is a suspense story about a small-town radio DJ who was forced to fight for his family amidst a coordinated attack that destroyed the power grid in a small town.
With this series, Conroy wanted to tell a story that was actually better as audio than visual, because it focused on the unknown aspects of darkness, how a radio host could communicate over the airwaves despite cell phone towers being taken down and must discover the mystery.
“My former feature agent at CAA started his own podcasting company and he read a TV pilot I wrote and asked me about making it into a podcast,” said Conroy. “It made a lot of sense to me right off the bat. You want to come up with an idea that makes sense for the medium.”
Since the characters couldn’t see what was going on around them, the creators wanted to spend more time on sound effects, along with dialogue, and really think about audio storytelling.
Conroy wrote the pilot and had some help scripting the series. “It sounds obvious, but we had to write some sound. When you write TV or film, there are a lot of visual cues and we couldn’t use any of those. We had to be really confident and reliant to trust the audience to follow the narrative when you take away sight.”
This meant using sound to ground the listener in what was happening in the story. There are obvious sounds, such as a plane crashing into a mountain (along with the DJ’s description of the incident), and then tires squealing, transitions between characters, or birds chirping to show it’s morning at a campsite.
“There are little cues you might not even notice overtly, but hopefully they enter your subconscious. There’s a common refrain musically, which was helpful. But those big things, like a plane crash, are obviously much cheaper than [filming for a] series. It’s the little things like actor breaths, little reactions, or leaves crunching under their feet to sound like New England in the Fall. Those little things are what make it work and they’re trickier to implement.”
Focus on the Little Components
The creator said there are several components to consider in a complex audio plot. First, there’s the action amongst the different characters. Second, there are the two worlds of Rami Malek’s character (as his DJ voice is different from his regular voice). Third, there’s the voiceover, also from Malek, which is different still. “These three narratives all have to sound distinct, so the big takeaway for me is that a lot of the work is the post-production.”
This particular project is also more grounded than some larger stories. For example, it mostly exists within a small town rather than a larger perspective (perhaps it’s not so ironic two popular shows have the word “town” in them). Like the plot for The Walking Dead, it’s character-focused and about how real people would relate to this type of incident, versus how the President or military personnel might handle a blackout, which is less relatable to the majority of people.
Podcasts are appealing to many writers who want to enter the business because the risk of losing money is much lower than creating a pilot TV show. As a proof of concept, it’s something that is also more doable, as it might be easier to gather actors and pay for sound effects, which is drastically much less work than creating a visual series.
Logistically, the writers’ room took about six weeks (not even meeting daily), which meant they had to make decisions, and “then go for it.” Then, after a few weeks of casting, they recorded everything in the studio over three days with the actors. As far as post-production, they release an episode each week, so it takes a few months, but there’s time to make adjustments.
“You don’t get stuck in years of development hell,” said the writer. “You can come up with the idea, put it together, and then bring it to the world, which is really exciting.”
Entering an Untapped Market
As for the world itself, it’s an untapped market. “I think there is a giant untapped podcast market. It’s a really exciting time,” said Convoy. “I don’t think it has to be action or suspense. Those are helpful because people love true crime and that suspense, but I don’t think there are any reasons why a scripted comedy podcast or fantasy podcast couldn’t be great. I think we’re really just scratching the surface and people will find new creative ways to explore the genre.”
But in the end, these projects are still about passion. Van Couvering said, “There’s a cynical way to approach this, which is ‘Well, no one would ever make this in any other medium, so I guess I’ll just make it as a podcast to sell it.’ And, my experience in life doing something just because you’re going to sell it, basically never works.”
Currently, Lowell Peterson and the Writers Guild of America East are working to help people craft stories for television, feature films, radio, and the Internet. The endgame is to create a universal standards and protections agreement for writers. Since the industry is still very new and nebulous most agreements are currently one-offs. Eventually, they will cover additional payments, derivative works, and protecting the underlying intellectual property.
Peterson said, “Our main function is to make sure that not only do the upfront compensation checks look good, but that writers participate both in the back-end on podcasts and also stay with the series or stay with it either creatively or financially as it expands onto different platforms.”
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