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Why are indie fiction podcasters suspicious of the better-funded studios?

Nick’s Note. Hey folks — I’m supposed to be on vacation from Hot Pod, but I’m dipping here briefly to set up this next piece.

One of the more curious things that have popped up on my radar recently is the proliferation of new, presumably better-funded fiction podcasts that often feature screen actors as top billing. It’s an obvious outcome of institutional players from other media finding their way into the podcast ecosystem, but something I’ve wondered is how the core community of fiction podcast creators — typically independent — feel about this trend.

So I thought I’d commission and edit a piece about it. To do the job, I turned to Wil Williams, a podcast writer and creator who knows the ins and outs of the fiction podcast world way more than I do.

Here we go:

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Over the past few years, there’s been a growing tension point within the fiction podcast (or “audio drama”) industry. It’s the one that exists between the long-standing community of scrappy independent creators — which usually builds shows on a shoestring budget, sweat, and tears — and a newer batch of better-funded studios like QCODE, Parcast, and Gimlet, which typically assembles projects with well-known screen actors in the roster.

To a large extent, this tension is a variation on the dynamic that’s become increasingly present in podcasting more broadly for a while, but it’s still worth asking the fundamental question. These better-funded studios seem like a great way to boost the industry’s reach; after all, big name actors like Patti LuPone and Tessa Thompson can attract new listeners who might not otherwise try out a fiction podcast. More listeners means a bigger pie, which means potential value for the native community of independent fiction podcast creators.

So why do indie podcasters seem so suspicious of studios with hefty financial backing?

The problem is layered. Some of this has to do with the actual question of quality. It’s come to light that most large studios make fiction podcasts with the purpose of selling the IP for adaptation in other more lucrative media, like film and television. This podcast-to-video pipeline is made explicit with recent deals like the partnership between Blumhouse and iHeartMedia. When asked, a Blumhouse representative confirmed to me that the purpose of this partnership was, indeed, to test IP in a less expensive medium before taking it to video.

The end result of these operations are shows that feel to me like the H&M of audio drama: fast fashion meant to sell, not last.

Rashika Rao — my colleague from Radio Drama Revival, an audio drama interview and showcase series — recently spoke to me about her lackluster experience with QCODE’s The Left Right Game. “I think a fundamental misunderstanding is that podcasting is TV lite,” she said, when we spoke last week.

Rao went on to highlight a more crucial disparity: the fact that the potential for better product quality and actual work opportunity for seasoned fiction podcasters are not actually being realized by these better-funded studios. She notes the frustration felt by the skilled members of the indie fiction podcast community as they struggle to get by — passing around the same $20 to support each other — while seeing these studios hire professionals from other media to do jobs they could do, and do well.

Not only does this allow little upward mobility for people within the industry, it also results in a poorer product, she argues. Rao continued: “Indie audio dramas tend to have a much better concept of sound design and music use than [non-indie] stuff I’ve heard, and I wonder if that’s because [non-indie] studios are hiring people who have only done these things to go with visuals before, which is a related but still different skill set.”

Greater Boston’s Jeff VanDreason said: “[Larger studio projects] get more attention because they have bigger budgets, resources, and stars, but I wouldn’t want that to be what defines this art form, because it’s capable of so much more.”

This concept also applies to casting decisions. Many of the podcasters I interviewed for this piece agreed that having a big-name actor on a project is a major selling point for audiences, and there was no reason not to use that in the marketing. But they also argued that the problem arises when those names are the only selling points.

“Personally, it doesn’t excite me when I see ‘starring XYZ blockbuster superstar,’ as screen acting and voice acting are two very distinctly different arts,” said Sam Mbatha of String Cast Media.

Jordan Cobb, of No Such Thing Productions, concurs, giving her perspective as not just a writer, but an actor as well. “My issue isn’t with who’s in the role, or how famous they are,” she said. “My issue is when companies sacrifice the story for the sake of getting a little better PR by casting someone famous over someone who is talented or better suited to the role, but less well known.”

Mimi O’Donnell, Gimlet’s Head of Scripted Content, pointed out that well-known actors aren’t really coming to the podcast game for the money: “Our budgets are certainly not comparable to TV productions, so the talent that we work with are not getting compensated at the level that they do for on-screen roles. My sense is that actors gravitate towards scripted podcasting for its versatility. Actors can be creative, tell the stories they’re passionate about and perform in the convenience of their own clothes. (No hair and makeup!)”

Lee Davis-Thalbourne, of the Melbourne-based Passer Vulpes Productions, offered a different perspective on the podcast-to-video pipeline. “In the Australian context, this is something that a few state film organisations have been investigating, although the context is quite different,” said David-Thalbourne. “Some boards — Screen Canberra being the one I know about— have been investigating using audio fiction podcasts as a way for indie filmmakers to create art with less risk with the idea that successful audio fiction may provide funding for film. Remember, the Australian film industry is heavily dependent on government grants, not corporate funding, even for those productions coming here from overseas.”

He continued: “In both US and AU contexts, though, I feel the main concern anyone should have is the question of whether gatekeepers from other industries can establish themselves in our industry.”

And herein lies another dimension to the tension: control.

The discussion of how podcasting has a comparative lower barrier of entry to film and TV has a different edge when it comes to fiction podcasts. It’s cheaper to make a chat podcast between friends than a talk show, say, but it’s astronomically cheaper to make a space opera as a podcast than a blockbuster film. This doesn’t just make podcasting attractive for large studios. It also makes podcasting attractive to queer creators, BIPOC creators, creators with disabilities, and especially creators who hit different intersections of those identities.

While fiction podcasts certainly aren’t perfect and have plenty of work to do, it’s a community that has largely carved out room for representation. Underrepresented voices create the stories that are important to them, which usually means they include underrepresented characters. This attracts underrepresented listeners, who often later become creators. At this point, if a fiction podcast’s cast and crew aren’t largely QPOC, eyebrows are raised by both fans and much of the audio drama community on social media — unless it’s a larger studio. As with any other medium, it’s expected that the places with the most money are the least likely to focus on underrepresented voices. Instead of pushing boundaries, there’s a closer adherence among these players to the status quo.

“We’ve seen how the rest of the artistic world treats stories, and there’s something incredibly special in the independent audio drama community that allows marginalized voices and new, non-traditional stories to have their breathing space,” said Cobb. “There’s a lot of gold in these hills, but if larger studios want to take advantage of that, I think they’ll need to be very careful not to crush those new, beautiful, and sometimes very fragile ideas and voices into the mold of what everybody else is already doing.”

Still, there are some bigger players that have appeared to take representation seriously. Kevin Christopher Snipes’s The Two Princes is a Gimlet fiction podcast that centers queer youth and was produced in partnership with The Trevor Project. Snipes says he was “very fortunate” in Gimlet — and Mimi O’Donnell specifically — being excited by the queer love story in the podcast. “In fact, the show’s queer-friendly plot was a definite selling point,” he said.

When asked about this specific tension between indie and non-indie fiction podcasting, Snipes responded: “Sadly, there’s no easy and instant solution to this problem, because it’s not just a problem in the entertainment industry. The lack of representation in media, as well as the lack of funding to support projects that champion diverse voices, are symptomatic of American society’s overall devaluation of black, brown, queer and trans people in general. As long as black, brown, queer, and trans lives are regarded as less valuable and more disposable than straight, white, cis lives by our government, corporate and religious institutions, the entertainment industry will follow suit.”

One last aspect worth exploring in the relationship between independents and better funded studios is the question of crossing over. That is, whether indie podcasters would ever with large studios. To that question, there is more or less a consensus: yes when it comes to starting new projects, no when it comes to an existing project.

Lilith, of Ghostpuncher Corps, said: “I have plenty of grand ideas that I could make with serious resources behind me. I’ve also got plenty of talents that I could flex in a big budget setting as a part of a team, someday I’d love to. If I were honestly approached by one of the big names I mentioned before, I would bring in ideas I’m not precious about, nothing close to the heart, nothing I’ve got feelings for… If any major studio wanted to touch my existing work, I’d tell them to come back with a warrant.”

The main concern? Ownership over the intellectual property, and how controlling a studio with substantial finances would exert control. Mbatha described his terms as “very strict.” “It would be more of a collaboration than a buyout,” he said. “I keep full creative control, I chose my team and all that good stuff. I would want access to their resources like studios, marketing, advertising — you know, ‘the machine.'”

Cobb, Lilith, and VanDreason also said that, even with their suspicion of large studios, it’s important that the suspicion shouldn’t be extended to the indie podcasters who do get the opportunity to work with large studios. Having suspicion, Lilith said, “doesn’t mean turning our noses up at success, but it absolutely does mean guarding off against forces that do not have our best interests in mind, even if it means losing a short-term payday.”

Examples given were Lauren Shippen, who created The AM Archives for Luminary and Marvel’s MARVELS, and Paul Bae, who worked with Shippen on MARVELS and has secured a multi-podcast deal with Spotify. Instead, it was emphasized that these creators are the success stories that large studios can bring into the industry — because it means independent creators are actually being paid.

“I’m going to tell these weird stories no matter what,” said VanDreason. “And it takes so much work and time. If someone is willing to compensate me for that work and time? I’m certainly not going to immediately say no.”

Wil Williams is a podcast journalist and creator. They are a co-founder of Hug House Productions.