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Samsung Invests in Audioburst

Plus: Full Q&A with Lauren Shippen, creator of The Bright Sessions

Audioburst secures a $4.6 million strategic investment from Samsung Ventures. You might remember Audioburst from the newsletter I wrote on November 7, 2017, which used the company’s endeavor to create a “screen-free, speech-based technology that enables search and interaction with audio” — that is, Google, but for Audio — as a springboard towards a broader discussion about how a voice-first computing world will feel like, and how that world will account for questions of discovery and distribution. (A world that feels particularly fraught for publishers, I might add.)

The press release also noted that as part of Samsung’s participation, “the Audioburst solution will now be incorporated into millions of Samsung products around the world, beginning with Smart TVs.” The investment extends Audioburst’s Series A funding round, which began in June 2017, to total $11.3 million.

And just to jog your memory, here’s my analysis on the company: Currently, the company appears to be building out a search portal for audio content, but it’s really laying a foundation for a more linear — and to some extent, more opaque, even than Apple’s podcast editorial pages and chart algorithms — form of discovery and distribution: personalized suggestion. Audioburst’s “search to suggest” thesis comes as an anticipation of how the internet, represented visually and aurally, might next shift paradigmatically. And as this one dude Andre Staltz pointed out in a recent blog post about the Internet and Everything Else, “search to suggest” is precisely the thesis currently being operationalized by Google. Cool.

Follow-up to The Bright Sessions. I really enjoyed writing up the mini-profile on Lauren Shippen and The Bright Sessions, in large part due to her generosity in telling her story and, frankly, being so matter of fact about it. The mini-profile was built on an extensive response she sent back to my questions, and there are elements in there — production, process — that I couldn’t quite fit into the ultimate write-up. But I think a lot of it could be useful for the producers and independents who read this newsletter, and so I’m going to publish the whole thing.

I’m repeating the section that features Shippen’s view on the state of fiction podcasts, because it says a bit more within the context of her other answers.

Okay, enough of me:

NQ: Let’s start from the beginning. When did you start the Bright Sessions, and what moved you to build a fiction podcast? Which is to say, why not something else, like a book or a web series?

LS: Thank you! I started The Bright Sessions back in 2015 — I wrote the first 9 scripts in the summer (technically I wrote Episode 1 in 2014 and just sat on it for a year) and then we premiered in November of 2015. I knew I wanted to make something for me and my friends to act in and I’d had this idea of a girl who time travels when she has panic attacks. As for the why of podcasting, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. I wanted to do a project where I could do all the pre- and post-production myself and once I started thinking of this character, I realized that putting her in therapy would be the perfect way to tell her story and also take full advantage of the audio-only format. I don’t really remember ever seriously flirting with the web series route — once I’d heard Welcome to Night Vale, I was so drawn in by the idea of a fiction podcast. Watching two people sitting across from each other and talk can certainly be interesting (after all, In Treatment exists), but there’s something so wonderfully intimate about listening in on these private conversations. Also, I can write things like a character time traveling in the first episode and not have to worry about visual effects.

That being said, aspects of the story actually were developed in other formats. As I was writing the first season, I wanted to build out the Caleb and Adam romance a little bit more as we were only getting Caleb’s side of it in the podcast. So, as an exercise just for myself, I started working on a YA novel of their relationship. Now that novel is finished and actually going to be in bookstores in 2019, so that’s pretty cool.

NQ: Can you walk me through what goes into the production of an episode?

LS: While production has naturally changed a little over the course of four seasons, we are definitely still pretty DIY. My sound designer, Mischa Stanton, has a great in-home studio in their closet that we sometimes record in when we need a really blank audio canvas and my composer, Evan Cunningham, has a music studio that we’ll use for big group scenes, but mostly we record in my bedroom. I write all the episodes – a process that can sometimes take a couple of days and sometimes take weeks or months (our 50th, for example, was a long writing process because of the musical element). Then I’ll often send the script to my sister, a professional psychologist, for her notes on the therapy/mental health aspect and then the script goes to the actors. They’ll sometimes hit back with notes or questions and I might make small edits before we record.

Our scripts these days tend to be around 25 pages on average, which take about 2-3 hours to record depending on how dense the material is. Group scenes go quick, therapy takes a long time. For the most part, we record in my bedroom – two actors sitting across from each other, reading off of iPads while I sit on my bed and run recording, giving them notes between takes. We tend to do about 3 full takes of each scene and then go back and do pick-ups to get different reads. I then edit all the dialogue and send that to Mischa with the script with my sound design notes. We go back and forth a little bit on the sound design but we’re usually done by a third draft. Then I record the credits and the ads, put them on either end of the episode and send it to Evan, who composes music under the ads and credits and then sends it back to me to be uploaded.

NQ: Were you able to build a business around the Bright Sessions?

LS: Yes and no. The show is doing pretty well business-wise. It’s a mix of our Patreon support and advertising, with the Patreon really being our bread and butter. All those funds enable me to pay everyone on the team, pay for equipment and whatever else we might need, and go all-out on an episode like 50 where we spent a lot of money to do something really big and different. The “no” part comes in on my own personal finances. I didn’t pay myself for writing until this season because it was always more important to me to make the best show we could and pay everyone for their hard work. This project has led to so many opportunities for me that I consider it more of an investment in my career rather than a real, stable source of income. I’ve had an at-home data entry job for years that has enabled me to make the show and, while I could now drop that and write full time, I think I still have the mentality of “this could all go away tomorrow” so it seems like asking for trouble to quit an easy, flexible side gig. But with everything I’ve got coming in the next 10 months, I think I’ll probably be moving to full-time podcaster/author by the end of the year.

NQ: Fifty six episodes is a lot. What has the show taught you about keeping creatively sustained and keeping a production going for all this time? What are your biggest insights into creating an audio fiction production?

LS: Oof, that’s such a big question. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that, if you’re going to go the scrappy, independent, DIY route, you have to love it. My schedule for the past two years would be completely insane if I wasn’t incredibly passionate about the story that I’m telling. It’s also important to find people who are just as passionate as you – that can be a tricky thing and I’ve been unbelievably fortunate in that department. I’m not going to say that anyone else cares about The Bright Sessions as much as I do, because how could they, but I have the best collaborators I could ever ask for. Having people I can rely on to do an incredible job and also help me when I get stuck with a character or story point has been integral to staying creatively sustained. Everyone who works on this show really cares about it and that goes a long way.
I think when I first started, I had these assumptions about what was and wasn’t possible in audio storytelling. If I’ve learned anything about audio fiction in the past few years, it’s that we haven’t found the outer limit of what’s possible yet. You can do action scenes, sex scenes, montages, flashbacks, a musical etc. etc. I’ve learned so much about writing from pushing my own format and especially from listening to the work of my peers. There are some incredible shows out there doing really interesting things with audio fiction and I can’t wait to hear more.
In terms of production, I think the biggest thing we don’t talk enough about in the industry is acting. As a former(/still sometimes) actor, I’ve always felt that directors and writers should take acting classes because, at the end of the day, those are the people who are translating your vision to the audience and you need to understand how they work. You should do everything you can to find great actors and give them an environment that’s going to bring out the best performance. In my opinion, actors should always be in the same room – even though they don’t have to be for audio – and I tend to prioritize performance over sound. Meaning that, if an actor wants to move around a little bit or get physical, I want them to do that, even if the sound is slightly messier. That’s not going to be everyone’s priority, and it’s not going to be necessary for every audio drama, but I’m not going to sit here and pretend that the reason The Bright Sessions is successful isn’t 80% the incredibly talented actors I have.

NQ: The Bright Sessions is coming to an end. What’s next for you? I know you’re working on a novelization — tell me about that! — but what else is on your mind? Would you like to keep working in audio fiction?

LS: Though this main run of The Bright Sessions is coming to an end, we’re moving into some other shows within the space. We’ll be doing nine one-off bonus episodes (thanks, Patreon goal!) and then two spin-offs: one in 2019 and one in 2020. Those will be limited run and accessible for people who’ve never heard a single episode of the main show before or, at least, that’s the idea. We still have some stories to tell and I want to use these spin-offs as a way to bring more writers into the medium. There are lots of stories I haven’t been able to tell because of the limited perspective I have, and I really want to expand the TBS family to include people of different genders, races, sexualities, backgrounds, etc. I especially want to bring more women writers and directors into the medium because, as we know, Hollywood is not a super equitable place when it comes to women behind the camera and I’ve found podcasting to be a lot more accepting in that respect.
I’m actually working on three novels, which is daunting and exciting in equal measure. They’re all in the TBS universe, but deep character dives. The first one, as I mentioned, is about Caleb and Adam, the second is a prequel of sorts about one of our antagonists, Damien, and how he became who he is, and the third is about one of our newer characters, Rose, who gets addicted to her dreamwalking ability. They’re all YA books that have a little overlap with the podcast but are mostly about individual journeys. I’ve just turned in the first one to my editor and I’m so excited for people to read it. I’ve been a big YA book reader my whole life – I still read mostly YA – so this part of my career has really been a dream come true.
As for things outside of The Bright Sessions, I’ve got a couple different audio dramas in development that are very different from TBS and from each other. I absolutely adore working in audio fiction – there’s so much flexibility and creative freedom. I can’t say anything definitive about these podcasts yet, but I’m hoping to release the first one in mid-2019. Regardless of what happens in my career, I can’t think of a time when I’ll want to stop making audio fiction.

NQ: Tell me about your views on the current state of US audio fiction. What are you seeing, what’s changing, what’s the same, and what would you like to see?

LS: Audio dramas have had such a massive boom these past few years and I really hope that continues. I think it will. Especially now that big studios like Marvel are getting involved in audio fiction, I think we’ll start to see more and more big productions with famous actors. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in my opinion. On the one hand, I definitely ascribe to “rising tide lifts all boats” – if big studios make good shows that pull listeners into the medium, it’s good for all of us. On the other hand, I am a little wary about people using audio fiction as a place to make proofs of concept for TV or film. I think a lot of audio dramas will make amazing TV shows – I’ll certainly be the first one to tune in to the Night Vale Presents shows and I’m really excited about what we’re developing for a TBS show – but there’s a difference of intention. I certainly never intended for TBS to exist in other mediums and, while I’m excited about the prospect of telling the story in different formats, the podcast is the podcast and can stand all on its own. I’ve heard a little bit of chatter in LA about how podcasts can be a great place to develop IP and I don’t love that. I’d rather people get into audio fiction because they appreciate the storytelling medium for what it is. The end goal should always be making a good audio drama and if other stuff comes along with that, great. But don’t make a podcast because you want to tell that story in another medium and podcasts are just less expensive. I want big studios to get involved in the medium, but I would be sad if their proofs of concept edged out all the amazing independent producing that’s going on.
All that said, I think there’s so much to be explored in audio fiction for both independent producers and the big budget studios. The medium has definitely been dominated by sci-fi and horror for a long time and there are so many other genres that could work really well in audio. We’re starting to see that already – 36 Questions and The Fall of the House of Sunshine have both proven, in very different ways, that a musical podcast can work. Steal the Stars showed me that audio can do sex and romance just as well as any other medium; Wooden Overcoats still makes me laugh more than most of the sitcoms on TV. There’s so much swinging for the fences that’s happening and that’s paying off and I hope that will continue.
I think the biggest shift I’ve seen is the move away from the found-footage format. The Bright Sessions starts this way and some of my favorite audio dramas have this conceit. And it absolutely works. But I think the podcast audience is a lot more willing to listen to a more traditional “radio play” format that we initially gave them credit for. I think we’ll continue to see found footage stuff because when it works, it really works, but that’s been the biggest storytelling shift I’ve noticed in the industry in the past three years.
As for what I’m hoping to see…I think there’s massive opportunity to tell an immersive, multi-media story with podcasting. Some of these things already exist – the app Zombies! Run!, Panoply’s The Walk. Both of these mix a story with a degree of listener participation and I think there’s so much room for that kind of stuff going forward. A choose-your-own-adventure podcast, a mystery podcast where you have to solve something to get the next episode, a drama in the vein of the Norwegian teen show Skam that uses social media to expand its world and story – I don’t know what it’s going to be, but there’s going to be an audio drama that gets the listener involved. There are so many Gen Z-ers who love audio dramas and those kids know how to use technology and multi-task to a degree that even I, at the advanced age of 26, find mind-boggling. I know I’m biased because I love making content for young people, but I definitely don’t hear a lot in the industry about teens and podcasts. There’s a big wave of audio fiction for kids, which is awesome, but students 15-22 are super into audio drama and incredibly engaged. I personally would love to make more content for young people and integrating technology into it would be a very cool challenge.