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Insider April 15, 2022 — A new narrative for narrative podcasts

Hi, everyone. Today’s guest story comes from writer and audio producer Michael McDowell. Michael wrote one of my favorite audio stories of the last couple years — a provocative piece about “Pro Tools proficiency” and how lack of access to high-end tools can limit audio industry diversity by gatekeeping knowledge.

For today’s Hot Pod Insider, Michael dives into another problem he sees in the current podcast industry: the conflation of podcast style with the podcast medium and how creating new opportunities to branch out could provide the next big leap forward.

His story is below. As a reminder, we’ll be off Tuesday, but I’ll be back in time for next week’s Insiders. See you all then!

A new narrative for narrative podcasts
by Michael McDowell

When was the last time it seemed like all of your friends were talking about a compelling new narrative podcast they couldn’t stop listening to? About 10 years ago? Despite the remarkable amount of money flowing into podcasting, there hasn’t been another Serial since Serial. Part of the reason is that podcasts are difficult to find and often receive little effective promotion and marketing. But I think the biggest problem holding us back from having a universe of podcasts that regularly catch fire is that narrative shows have become locked into a rigid shape — and major networks like Spotify appear to prefer to make safe bets and invest in talent with established audiences rather than invest in new voices.

Before I invite the invective of friends, colleagues, and an entire industry in which I myself work, I want to be very clear: there are many producers out there making fantastic, narratively innovative, and boundary-pushing shows that ought to receive more attention than they do (in nonfiction alone!). It absolutely is the case that many compelling and zeitgeisty podcasts are languishing away in semi-obscurity simply because only listeners who are committed to the medium (or committed to a niche subject) know how to find them. 

What I’m arguing is not that narrative podcasting is boring or out of steam, but that breaking the narrative mold and creating space for new voices will have a purely positive impact on our industry and the kinds of podcasts that producers have the freedom — and budgets — to make. 

A relatively small group of people have set the standard for how narrative podcasts are made, and they’ve been at it for decades (most of them are even immortalized in a graphic novel, Out on the Wire, which is an excellent and entertaining how-to manual for learning to make narrative podcasts). Narrative is a recognizable, even formulaic style, and while there isn’t necessarily a single way to do it, there are a few recipes, and the recipes work.

One such recipe is the “e” structure: open an episode with a dramatic moment, “rewind” to the beginning of the story and relate the story chronologically through the dramatic scene which opened the episode, and ultimately arrive at an elegant conclusion. Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard this structure if you regularly listen to This American Life or Radiolab, and you’ll probably hear it in many of the other narrative podcasts you listen to if you listen to many other narrative podcasts. 

You may have noticed something else, too, which is that there are recognizable types of stories that are told in narrative podcasts of this kind. Certain stories work, and others do not: the form constrains the types of stories producers working in narrative are able to tell because a story needs to fit a fairly well-defined structure. Some stories do it, and others do not.

In this type of narrative podcast, there are conventions to which a creator must adhere. But it’s easy to conflate this style of show with the format’s inherent storytelling possibilities. Podcasting is a medium, and this narrative style is but one means of constructing stories in that medium. There are limitless ways to tell a story, and whether or not a story captivates audiences has nothing to do with what the story is about and everything to do with how it is told.  

What does this mean for narrative podcasts? Television provides a useful analogy, and what I’m arguing is essentially that narrative podcast is in a pre-Twin Peaks, pre-Seinfeld, pre-Sopranos moment. In order to make compelling and innovative shows that catch fire like Serial did, producers have got to stop making narrative shows the way that Ira Glass makes them and start making shows that are like nothing they’ve ever heard before.

To do that, producers need something else, too: imaginative execs who are willing to take a risk on something new, something different, and often — but not always — somebody new. That means more than just throwing a couple hundred thousand dollars at a producer with an idea. It means a real distribution strategy, real marketing, and all of the standard support an organization would bestow on a promising product it hoped to see succeed.  

There’s an enormous potential upside, of course, which is plainly visible in the conversational domain. Shows hosted by established names with established audiences tend to reign supreme, but it was the work of a pair of unknowns that became one of talking podcasting’s most recent “hits”: Call Her Daddy, for which Spotify recently paid $60 million.

Imagine the podcasts we might have heard had Spotify bet small on hundreds — if not thousands — of unknown unknowns. And in fact, because those unknown unknowns come cheap, it probably still could.

It’s time for podcasting to free itself from the constraints of a style and for platforms and gatekeepers to take chances on — and adequately support — new voices working in the medium. But as long as we keep making narrative podcasts the way that Ira Glass makes them, I suspect we will continue to await those elusive hits and continue to wonder where the compelling, innovative, and new shows are (unless we figure out how to find them — or are already in the know). 

Podcasting is a medium that is uniquely capable of elevating new voices and novel stories. Those voices are out there. Those stories are out there. Those hits are literally waiting to be made.