Back to The Past:
Future Alex Has a Few Things to Say to Past Alex
by Alex C. Telander
Let me take you back in time for a second. I know; you should be used to this now, since I write a show called Ostium all about time travel. But I’m going to take you back a couple of years, to the first month of 2017. The first two episodes of Ostium have been released and I’m feeling like I’ve got this podcasting thing just right and it’s all going to be smooth sailing from here on out …
I decided to share some of my well-learned knowledge and experience about podcasting in an article obnoxiously entitled “Episodic Writing: The Golden Era of Podcasts,” published on January 17th, 2017. Flash forward two years and three full seasons of Ostium later, with a fourth season coming April 7th, as well as a spin-off show (Circe), as I look back on this audio drama freshman who was me and think:
You didn’t know a thing, man!
And to prove it, let’s deconstruct this high-brow, insightful article about podcasts he wrote a couple years ago and blatantly expose where you were way off!
Episodic Writing: The Golden Era of Podcasts
Writing a podcast is very different from writing a novel or short story, in fact I believe it’s more akin to writing for a TV series, but can’t confidently say since I have yet to be hired on to write the next episode of Game of Thrones. The big difference with this type of writing is that it’s episodic: you’re writing shorter pieces in each episode for a longer overarching story. You might think, well, this is pretty similar to writing a novel with individual chapters each telling a part of the longer story of the book. And yes, there are some similarities, but when you’re working on a novel you usually have a deadline in mind many months or sometimes even a year or more down the road. When it comes to a podcast, especially an ongoing one, the deadlines are a lot more … oncoming and perhaps seemingly never ending.
Hey, Future Alex here. Yeah, you kind of got this right. But writing a podcast is also a lot like writing a novel: you do have lots of deadlines to achieve different goals otherwise that novel will never get finished. The crucial difference is the novel gets submitted as one whole piece to the editor, whereas podcasts are released to the listener in episodes or “chapters.”
Of course, there are alternative ways to offering podcasts to listeners, which you yourself will eventually participate in, such as releasing seasons in “supercuts” with multiple episodes grouped together to give the overall story a comprehensive feel.
Also future you will be releasing the Ostium book, which essentially contradicts exactly what you say in your opening paragraph.
And finally, hey, isn’t it crazy that Game of Thrones is now in its final season! Also, guess what – and you totally won’t be surprised by this – but George R. R. Martin STILL hasn’t finished the books. In fact, he wrote a whole separate book set centuries in the past. Yeah, crazy, I know, but it’s actually pretty good.
Some podcasts release a new episode every month, like ars Paradoxica, while most, as is the case with my podcast, Ostium, release a new episode every two weeks. This means within a two-week period, a podcast episode has to get written, recorded with a cast of one or more actors, and produced with the possible addition of music and sound effects. And the big difference here is that it’s an audio recording versus something you read on the printed page or digital screen. You’re usually working with actors (unless you’re doing it all yourself, which has its own extreme demands), and words sound very different when they’re read aloud compared to being read on the page. Everyone, when they’re reading, has their own voice inside their head giving life and depth to the characters and plot. When words are read aloud they are given a specific life, as read by that particular actor. Actually, some authors choose to have their drafts of works in progress read aloud to hear their words read back to them and edit and rewrite accordingly.
So yeah, all the things you say in this paragraph are pretty much true, but you also make it sound like a podcast creator is kind of screwed from the beginning with these seemingly insurmountable odds, and yet they all manage to get made.
In most cases, podcasters have a number of the episodes (if not the whole season) mostly done in advance, with maybe a few minor finishes to be made. This will in fact be an important organizational choice for future you: wanting to make sure the whole 10-episode season is set to go before the first episode drops. Another example is Paul Bae’s The Big Loop, with his six-episode season schedule, where he won’t release the first one until at least three are in the can. Because if there’s anything you’ve learned as both a podcast listener and creator, it’s being consistent and keeping to a release schedule.
Also once you start getting feedback on that Ostium book, you’ll literally be seeing what you described come true: readers of the book will have a different interpretation of Ostium with its story and characters versus those who listen to the show.
Also can you believe it, ars Paradoxica actually released its final episode and is all done now. Yes, it is sad.
When you hear your written words read back at you, any errors, inconsistencies, and glaring typos becoming very apparent and is not at all embarrassing, especially when these actors happen to be good friends of yours and you swear you proof read that episode like five times. But, ultimately, this all helps to make the story better, more compelling, and correctly read. It’s also a lot of fun and offers a dynamic very different from the lonely writer working away at the screen listening to the voices in his head.
Voice Actors are the unsung heroes. They are the podcast creator’s editors, copy editors, and beta readers: they catch typos, fix phrasing, and they’ll tell you when something just doesn’t sound right (that’s why I like to keep all the outtakes of my actors scolding me for my failings and release them to the world, so everyone can see how invaluable they are).
But they are also so much more, as they bring these characters and creations on the page to life, give them vitality and nuance and depth. They can take someone bland and boring, and make them the exact opposite. I know full well I am just a single cog is this magnificently complex podcasting machine.
Ostium is a podcast about a man who discovers a hidden town in Northern California while playing the game GeoGuessr. He eventually finds the town and within discovers many buildings with many doors, each with numbers on them. He starts with the first door and behind subsequent doors discovers other worlds. The idea for Ostium began to germinate in the fall of 2015 after I got hooked on a podcast I discovered called Welcome to Night Vale. This was at the beginning of my blossoming interest in podcasts, and I am now subscribed and regularly listen to anywhere from 12 to 15 podcasts. I started talking with my friend about the idea of doing a podcast, and wanted him to voice the main character, Jake Fisher. Now, over a year later, all 10 episodes of Season 1 of Ostium have been written and recorded. Ostium premiered with Episode 1: Population Zero on January 1, 2017, and Episode 2: CROATOAN was released on January 15. Team Ostium now consists of four people, including myself, with two actors (one of which is starting to do some writing for the podcast), and an artist doing artwork for transcripts of the episodes.
You’re subscribed to 12-15 podcasts! Hahahah! Oh, how simple ye of the past was when it came to listening to podcasts. Would it scare you to say that you’re now subscribed and regularly listen to over 100 podcasts! And you keep adding new ones weekly! Yeah. This “Golden Age” keeps getting better by the month!
Podcasts are free to listen to, so creators use sponsors to help fund and support their shows. They also use Patreon and offer “extras” and incentives to those who donate at various levels, such as mini episodes, transcripts, music, exclusive interviews. Ostium has a Patreon page and at the highest donation level offers the opportunity to be on a future episode of the show. Welcome to Night Vale has become a vast enterprise, with the cast performing live episodes to sold-out crowds around the world, as well as publishing an original novel and two collected volumes of transcripts.
“Podcasts are free.” Ahh, a phrase that in essence is true, but not really. With the advent of pay-walling for some shows, and the birth of paid podcast apps such as Stitcher Premium and the forthcoming auspicious Luminary app, there’s usually a free version and a premium version where access to certain “elite” podcasts is only available for a price. A forthcoming example of this is the spin off show of The Bright Sessions, the AM Archives, which will only be available at the premium level with Luminary.
There is also Spotify’s recent acquisition of Gimlet Media, which spells a potential new age in podcasting as shows begin to take center stage, or at least a more visible one, for regular music listeners who may not have actually known fiction podcasts existed until Spotify told them “Hey, take a look at this!” The question is how Spotify will look to monetize it.
Despite this encroachment by bigger “more traditional media” giants, for the moment podcasts remain a medium that anyone with a simple mic and some free software can make and release to the world. this has led to a number of shows written and performed by minority voices, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, making the audio drama world one of the more diverse arenas of entertainment. For those that still think a podcast is three smelly white guys badly recording their inane banter, there is a whole world they’re missing out on. (Sadly, those mundane white-dude shows featuring lengthy discussions of pizza toppings are still getting made.)
We are now well into the age of the episodic podcast, with new shows revealing themselves to the world every week. There are not really any set rules on what a podcast has to be, or how long it has to be, meaning really there are no limits to what a podcast can be like. It can be fiction, or nonfiction, or perhaps somewhere in between. It can be ten minutes, twenty minutes, or an hour long. However, creators do have to consider when their listeners will be listening to their show: when commuting, while working, or in their spare time, for example. I personally am able to listen to podcasts at my work as a city mail carrier, and have no problems with the length of episodes. But if you have a twenty-minute commute, you may only be able to listen to only part of an episode, depending on its length. Some have profanity, some not. Some have beautiful original music. Some feature atmospheric sound effects that all help to immerse the listener deeper into the story.
At times this article feels more like I wrote it fifteen or twenty years ago when there were only a handful of podcasts and that was it, and not two years ago when the podcast avalanche was already well on its way with so many great and new shows starting every month. But I attribute this more to my ignorance and relative newness to the medium.
Yes, podcasts continue to vary in length from a few minutes per episode to some that run over an hour, depending on the type of podcast. With the number of podcasts I listen to, they run the gamut in length, and yes with my work I do get to listen for about six hours a day, but that’s never continuous. I have to stop and start my listening multiple times an hour and yet somehow that’s still okay. Episodes are going to be as long as they need to be to fit the show, no matter what the listener is doing when listening to them.
This marks a clear difference with books and most notably with the advent of ebooks, where there has definitely been a shift with many genres and authors to shorter and more numerous chapters, so ereader users can get that chapter done by the time they reach the end of their commute.
Creators continue to do what they intended to, in telling the story they set out to tell, how they wanted tell it, and not kowtowing to any listener’s wants or whims, though along the way they also deal with some of the hurdles of podcasting, with how long episodes should be, and what level of sound design they want to use. It goes to show why so many of them are amazing, compelling stories that totally deserve to be adapted to novels and TV shows. Though there are also a number of shows, such as Girl in Space, that fully use the medium of podcasting and would only be a lesser creation in any other form.
There’s no limit to what a podcast can be, and there’s no limit on what the listener can do, picking and choosing accordingly like shopping at a bookstore or visiting a library. If you don’t like a podcast — I usually give them ten minutes to hook me — you can move onto the next one. If you love the show, you can rate and review, and support them through their Patreon page or buying from their sponsors. When you subscribe to a podcast through iTunes, as soon as a new episode is available, it automatically gets downloaded for you.
Ahh, back when I was pretty much getting all my podcasts via iTunes and then moving them over onto my phone . . . how naïve I truly was. And this is exactly how iTunes and Apple wants it to be: your one-stop “shop” for everything podcasting; you don’t need any other apps; you’ve got your reviews and all the podcasts perfectly curated with their totally un-gameable listings and tabulating algorithms, so just trust whatever they want to throw at you. Also hence their whole metadata grandstanding debacle in late February when they emailed every podcast creator telling them the metadata of their respective podcasts had to adhere to their new sorting algorithm and couldn’t contain any numbers in the title and threatened to pull down shows if this wasn’t done… and then a few days later were furiously backpedaling at their ballooning blunder.
There are now many apps to choose from, almost all of them free, and all of them work better than Apple Podcasts in ways of curating, listing, and subscribing. And then there’s RadioPublic, a relatively new app that is one of a kind in that is pays podcasts for each episode that is listened to, and while it isn’t much, cumulatively it adds up.
Podcasts are really the perfect medium in today’s fast moving, easily-distracted world of entertainment where if it doesn’t grab your attention in a five-second window, you’ve lost interest. Podcasts come in all shapes and sizes, all the better for the listeners of all shapes and sizes.
This is all true, but the world of audio drama is still very much a work in progress. It is more inclusive and representational of diversity and the LGBTQ community than other genres of podcasting, or even TV, when it comes to listenership and casting, but it still has a long way to go. And there is also the ongoing mission to have the rest of the podcasting world not just discover but acknowledge that audio drama and the audio fiction world exists and is very much its own thing. There are still so many who think when they hear the term podcast; they imagine a couple of white guys talking about inane stuff with some crappy mics.
Perhaps with the optioning and hopeful adaptations of shows like The Black Tapes, The Bright Sessions, Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, and Tanis (to name a few) to TV, when these shows might start reaching wider, more mainstream audiences, then maybe the audio drama world will start receiving the attention and respect it so truly deserves.
Also, I wouldn’t consider this being honest with myself if I didn’t finish it up with the acknowledgement that I fully expect to be critiquing my critique of this two year old article two years from now in 2021.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in podcasting it’s that I’m always learning and making myself better at this podcasting gig.
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