Fiction Podcasts: The Medium Giving Rise to a New Generation of Audio Storytellers
Fiction podcasts are descended from audio dramas, a form of popular entertainment that dates back more than a century, but they’re also one of the most groundbreaking ways that new stories are being told.
If you’ve been even tangentially attuned to the media landscape as of late, you’re bound to have noticed that podcasts are sort of a big deal. Fiction podcasts—shows that use the unique audio-only composition of the podcasting format to tell inventive, intimate stories—are one of the most steadily growing subsets of this exploding industry.
This article will explore the lineage of radio dramas that evolved into the diverse range of fiction podcasts being made today, how storytellers and creative producers can tap into this innovative medium to craft their narratives, and why voice actors play a critical role in the production of fiction podcasts that grab hold of audiences.
A Brief History of Fiction Podcasts
Before streaming services like Netflix and Hulu forever altered the way we consume media from home, and long before that, back when television burst onto the scene to become the dominant form of mass media, people gathered around their radios to hear the local news, learn more about the world around them, and listen to transfixing audio dramas, or radio plays, that told scripted stories using only the sense of sound.
The most infamous example of an early audio drama that captured the public imagination was the 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a novel that tells the story of a Martian invasion. Orson Welles, an actor who would later go on to become one of the most successful filmmakers of all time, performed a reading of Wells’ novel as a series of news bulletins that some listeners allegedly mistook for being an actual announcement that aliens had come to earth.
If you believe that Orson Welles’ broadcast of The War of the Worlds was only so impactful because it predated a world saturated with screens and visual culture, you may want to think again. The growth of narrative podcasts in the past six or so years has only proven that audiences have more of a capacity than ever to be drawn into the tangled tales woven by audio dramas.
Not only are fiction podcasts amassing wide listenership and presenting stories in ways that they have never been told before, but the world of fiction podcasts has become a breeding ground for new intellectual property that is later adapted into films and TV shows.
What are fiction podcasts?
Podcasts have ascended to the status of being one of—if not the—strongest medium for episodic storytelling. In 2014, when investigative journalism podcast Serial burst onto the scene, it ignited a widespread interest in true crime that spawned countless other shows, documentary series, and even parodies. And every weekday morning, The New York Times publishes an episode of its news podcast The Daily, which is like the running narrative of our current moment in time. It’s become clear that the cultural appetite for audio storytelling is alive and well.
Fiction podcasts, which are also referred to as scripted, narrative, or storytelling podcasts, aim to tell compelling stories in much the same vein that a nonfiction narrative, like Serial does—while also harboring the capacity to entertain in the same vein as a TV show or novel. Rob Herting, founder of podcast production company QCODE, believes “people are turning to audio because they can’t stare at screens anymore.”
Although true crime and talk show fare helmed by the likes of Marc Maron and Joe Rogan dominated the medium through its early days, fiction podcasts appear to be the next big trend that are not only influencing the kinds of money and star power descending upon the podcasting industry, but changing the way stories are told in general.
The Benefits of Telling Your Story as a Fiction Podcast
As an aspiring or independent storyteller, one of the benefits of tapping into the podcast medium to tell your story, as opposed to mounting a theatrical production or trying to secure the funding to produce a TV pilot or feature film, is that podcasts are (typically) a lot cheaper.
Once you’ve written a polished script, your next step is to locate a cast of voice actors to embody your characters, and to do some audio engineering work. While there are a lot of additional factors that can play a part in producing a successful podcast, writing a script, recruiting actors, and editing the audio are the three fundamental components needed to bring your fiction podcast to life.
The fiction podcast format really enables storytellers to free themselves of all the costly and physical limitations inherent in filmmaking, so that they can return their focus to the bare bones of what likely inspired them in the first place: the need to tell that specific story.
Marc Sollinger, fiction podcast creator and Innovation Hub producer, explains that “by removing images, it lets the listener create with their mind’s eye and imagine the characters, the settings, the monsters, the situations … the images that they create are going to be so much better, so much more interesting than a film with a $20 million budget.”
However, it isn’t necessary for you to be a veteran in the spheres of podcasting or broadcast radio in order to venture into fiction podcast production. Mimi O’Donnell, executive producer of scripted fiction at Gimlet Media, notes that she has witnessed the medium of fiction podcasting being embraced by writers from all backgrounds, including “creators that have never done anything in audio but are really well-known in film, TV or theater.”
The internet has altered the way we consume content and enabled 21st century storytellers to uncouple themselves from being married to a single medium. Some of the most esteemed writers and creators of today are ignoring traditional barriers and working across mediums as multiplatform storytellers. If a writer has produced a promising script that they’re struggling to get financed as, say, a traditional network TV program, they now have the option of producing it instead as a web series or fiction podcast.
With that being said, not every narrative that was originally crafted for another mode of presentation can be fluidly transformed into a fiction podcast. There are a handful of considerations you ought to address before deciding which medium is the right one for telling your specific story.
Things to Consider Before Making a Fiction Podcast
1. Is the story you’re telling through your fiction podcast intimate? Benoni Tagoe of Issa Rae Productions explained that when he’s on the lookout for the next scripted podcast, that’s one of the earliest questions he poses: “Is it a world where you get to hear a person’s inner thoughts? This is the personal side that will keep listeners around.”
Podcasts can’t command an audience’s attention with flashy visuals or riveting gameplay, so it’s important that the story can grip listeners through its immersive level of intimacy.
2. Is the premise riveting enough to amass an audience in the first place? Tagoe notes that, when he’s developing fiction podcasts, the show’s ability to engross an audience is equally important. “That’s the marketing component for podcasting,” he asserts, “something tantalizing that will draw listeners.”
3. Is the story uniquely suited for the audio format, and does it make the most of the singular limitations and opportunities that the audio-only format brings? Gimlet’s Mimi O’Donnell states that her central question is typically: “How does it work for audio?”
“At Gimlet,” O’Donnell explains, “I feel like we also have the opportunity to find stories that maybe someone else won’t take a chance on and risk. So I try to find things that people wouldn’t maybe have seen before or heard before.” That means that if it’s a story that’s just begging to be turned into a feature film, O’Donnell views it as a less attractive property than something that really seizes the podcast medium.
4. Another question creators ought to pose to themselves before setting out to create their fiction podcast is: do you really want to tell this story as a podcast?
While there are certainly numerous scripted podcasts that are now being picked up and adapted for both the big and small screens, you may be preemptively setting yourself up for failure if you only view your fiction podcast project as a stepping stone toward landing a movie deal, with no conception of it existing on its own as a purely audio entity.
“There’s no way you could be developing audio thinking about, ‘it should be a film,’ because it’s just completely different,” O’Donnell says. “We’re not choosing something in the hopes of what might happen after.”
Marc Sollinger echoes that sentiment: “I like stories that don’t feel like they’re just television scripts with the images cut out,” he declares.
Fiction Podcasts Are the New Hollywood Calling Card
Now that we’ve outlined the reasons why you might want to tell you story as a fiction podcast and take advantage of the immersive audio experience that podcasts offer, we’re going to circle back and present a counterpoint that has really gained traction in the past few years: reverse-engineering your podcast so that it can be used as a proof of concept to be adapted into another form of content one day.
Chris Gilberti, head of Gimlet Pictures at Gimlet Media, underscores that the development of content for a variety of possible outputs is inherently worked into Gimlet’s business model. “Gimlet Pictures serves a variety of purposes,” says Gilberti. “First is revenue. Gimlet is predominantly an ads business, but selling a television property or feature off of a podcast is obviously a nice revenue opportunity for the company and the creators of the podcast.”
It’s important that creators understand that they don’t have to choose between one or the other. Producing a singular story that captivates audiences, and then goes on to get picked up by a TV network, doesn’t mean that one medium takes precedence over the other. “It’s another way to reach people with our work,” says Gilberti. “We’re first and foremost an audio business, but when you produce a TV show off a podcast (like Homecoming on Amazon), people will come back to revisit the podcast afterwards.”
A lot of the time, the evolution from one medium to another also just seems natural. Some fiction podcasts, like Welcome to Night Vale—which crafts its own universe but doesn’t possess a straightforward narrative—has materialized as novels that are set in the world of Night Vale. Since other fiction podcasts are composed of a single narrative broken down into episodes, it “becomes really clear to a TV buyer how the source material would transpose.”
Successful fiction podcasts don’t just show TV producers what a concept is—even more than that, it can also prove that a concept works.
“One of the selling points is that podcasts come with performance stats that help prove that audiences are not only tuning in week after week, but also sticking around for episodes that can run over an hour,” says Gimlet co-founder and president Matt Lieber.
Hollywood producers and financiers have recognized that the voices coming up through fiction podcasts aren’t merely skilled within the fields of podcasting and audio drama, but like Orson Welles, are the burgeoning next generation of filmmakers. “If I’m the next Quentin Tarantino,” says Brett-Patrick Jenkins, head of development at Propagate (a content creation company behind the adaptation of several popular television shows based on fiction podcasts), “I’m probably not working at a video store anymore, I’m probably trying to make my own podcasts.”
Types of Fiction Podcasts
When you’re setting out to pen your own fiction podcast script, you’ll first want to define its genre and decide how you want to tell its story. You may be tempted to follow in the footsteps of your favorite fiction podcasts, or you may decide to experiment with an entirely inventive format. The good news is that fiction and scripted podcasts are a relatively embryonic medium, so that there are no rules to be restrained by, and limitless possibilities for you to break new ground.
For your inspiration, here’s a (by no means exhaustive) list of a few of the more popular ways that writers have chosen to frame their fiction podcasts:
The Traditional Audio Drama
This style of fiction podcast most resembles the radio plays of the past. They feature a cast of characters performing a script, and the audience is generally granted a fly on the wall glimpse into the story that is told entirely through audio. Some examples include Homecoming, The Two Princes, and The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel.
The Diegetic Fiction Podcast
In this format, the podcast that the listener hears is cleverly pieced together from recordings that occur within the world of the narrative. For example, Limetown is styled as its own investigative journalism podcast, The Bright Sessions is constructed from a series of recorded therapy sessions, and Welcome to Night Vale is presented as a radio broadcast.
The Anthology Fiction Podcast
Instead of telling one story over the course of many episodes, there are fiction podcasts that tell one contained story per episode, with each episode being linked by a common theme. For example, Day by Day is a podcast series inspired by the new normal of life under quarantine. There are also enthralling series like The Magnus Archives, where each episode delves into a new case stored within the fictional Magnus Institute.
The Existing IP Podcast
‘IP’ stands for intellectual property, and it’s what Hollywood is currently preoccupied with: properties that come with built-in audiences. One example of popular intellectual property that Spotify has seized for forthcoming podcast development is a series of original scripted podcasts based off of characters from the Archie Comics universe.
Spotify also recently signed a multi-year deal with Warner Bros. and DC Comics to develop a spate of new scripted podcasts based on the movie studio’s intellectual property: “the deal will involve using DC’s iconic roster of characters, which includes Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and more in new podcast shows,” writes Wade Sheridan in UPI. “Spotify will also draw upon Warner Bros. Studio’s broader collection of titles and characters for standalone podcast series and will collaborate on programming related to an original intellectual property.”
Casting Your Fiction Podcast
Casting is one of the most critical elements of producing your fiction podcast, and whether you do it well or not can make or break your end product.
Since your audience won’t be able to see the actors portraying your podcast’s characters, it’s important that they can stand out from one another based purely on their vocal performances. You can achieve this by writing distinct dialogue for each character, and casting talented voice actors with experience embodying fictional roles in commercials, theater, TV, movies, and other podcasts.
To enlist a cast of voice actors for your fiction podcast project, you ought to peruse the competent voice actors featured on Voices. The option to search for voice actors based on style of performance, vocal role, age, accent, and more, makes it easy to source and assemble a diverse range of performers all on the same platform.
Hire the voice for your fiction podcast today.