Right before we wrapped for the holidays, Ella Watts, a London-based podcast producer and consultant, shared the results of a research effort on the fiction podcast genre that she had undertaken off a commission by the BBC Sounds team. It’s an interesting piece of work, and I recommend taking the time to read it in full. The report provides an analysis of the main trends in audio fiction both in the U.K. and the U.S., examining size, audience, budget, funding method, and genre.
Watts argues that there are three distinct “phases” of fiction podcast production so far: from 2008 to 2014, with the emergence of shows like We’re Alive, Our Fair City, The Thrilling Adventure Hour, and Sayer; from 2014 to 2016, as Welcome to Night Vale and other indies found international popularity; and 2016 to 2018, as bigger networks started to invest in the genre. She says that “fiction podcasting is due for its next major phase,” which “looks likely to be its biggest yet in terms of reach, scale and international appeal” — even though the actual shape and structure of that phase “has not yet been defined.”
Watts’ analysis resonated with several hunches I’ve had about the genre. For instance, it turns out that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are, indeed, the most popular genres, or at least within the parameters of her analysis. In the U.K., nearly all shows in the fiction podcast genre are independently produced, and most are developed on very small budgets: “It’s informally considered a mark of success in the U.K. for a mid-level to major podcast drama to be able to pay travel expenses.” And while crowdfunding is a popular — and in some cases, successful — way of funding a fiction podcast, she also advises caution.
On her mind: The fact that PodCon, a relatively new podcast convention with a heavy emphasis on the fiction genre, has missed its crowdfunding target for two years in a row. (Worth noting: The second crowdfunding only barely missed its target by less than $500. That iteration, PodCon2, is slated to take place this weekend, by the way.)
Of course, the whole “fourth phase” idea is particularly intriguing. I would agree the ecosystem does seem to be moving towards a different kind of fiction podcast market, with the lure of TV deals bringing big networks firmly into the space and big hits like Night Vale continuing to get more listeners on board. In the U.K., we’ve already seen a handful of original fiction commissions for BBC Sounds, and I’m sure there will be more in 2019.
The part that I’m less certain about, and which lies beyond the scope of Watts’s report, is how these two areas of fiction podcasting — network-driven and independent — will interact with and impact each other as they grow. On the one hand, you have a cluster that’s increasingly fueled by bigger budgets and resources, and on the other hand, you have the pre-existing cluster of dedicated, passionate creators who are bringing in money via direct audience support, merchandise, and live shows. Is there a future in which the health of the two clusters are co-mingled, or are we headed to a strictly two-tiered future, in which it’s not really possible or fair to consider the fiction output of, say, Gimlet Media and the fiction output of independent creators as part of the same ecosystem?
Bigger networks acquiring either talent or IP from smaller audio drama shows straight-up feels like an obvious potential arc for this fourth phase, and I hope to see some of those larger budgets and resources making their way to the people who already know how to build an audience for a fiction podcast. To be honest, I’m a little surprised why this isn’t happening more already. Like, I’ve always found it baffling that one of the more successful independent U.K. fiction podcasts, Wooden Overcoats, hasn’t been picked up by the BBC in its current form for rebroadcast and more episodes. (Maybe there’s an obvious reason for that, but I can’t think of it.) Though I know that the Beef and Dairy Network podcast has been aired on BBC radio already, so there are inklings of this direction. Anyway, I’ll be keeping an eye on what happens here and will check back in later in the year.