The City Council announces the opening of a new Dog Park at the corner of Earl and Somerset, near the Ralph’s. They would like to remind everyone that dogs are not allowed in the Dog Park. People are not allowed in the Dog Park.
It is possible you will see Hooded Figures in the Dog Park. Do not approach them. Do not approach the Dog Park.
The fence is electrified and highly dangerous. Try not to look at the Dog Park, and especially do not look for any period of time at the Hooded Figures. The Dog Park will not harm you.
And now, the news.
– excerpt from Welcome to Night Vale pilot episode
We won’t be the first to tell you that there are too many podcasts out there. As of January, Podcast Insights estimates that there are more than 1.75 million different titles amounting to over 43 million episodes. There’s even a podcast on podcasts, and multiple podcasts on how to podcast.
Ask anyone for their perception of what the medium is and the answer will likely be something along the lines of a recorded radio show. The general attribution has also been why it’s often regarded as progeny to the live format, just one more on-demand option we’ve welcomed with wide open arms. Currently, chat shows and news channels make up the most popular ones across streaming platforms.
So where does fiction come in?
Cult classic Welcome to Night Vale is a shining example. Ongoing with close to 200 episodes and its own fandom, the show created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor back in 2012 now has its own spin-off novels, live shows (the irony) and recap audio companion. I would like to say that the premise is simple, but it isn’t exactly. And that’s what makes it brilliant.
The genre bending and blending podcast disguises itself as a community broadcast for the fictional town of Night Vale, where every conspiracy theory is true. Via its matter- of-fact presentation, the disturbing paranormal events come across as comedy, which strangely gets funnier when you read the transcripts after. The best part about this surreal universe built upon Cecil Baldwin’s sole articulation and served in standalone pieces is that you can jump in anywhere.
You are sorely mistaken if you’re under the impression that there aren’t as many types of narrative podcasts as their non-fiction counterparts. There’s possibly literally one of every kind. A fan of Batman? This year, Spotify will be releasing DC Comics exclusive Batman Unburied on “the darker aspects of Bruce Wayne’s psychology”, executive produced by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins screenwriter David S Goyer. Which we should mention comes on top of at least 20 other unofficial podcasts on Batman.
That’s actually late on the uptake, considering that Marvel had already released the first season of its titular character three years ago. You may be surprised to know the podcast was well received despite the fact that you don’t hear much from the man himself. Instead, in Wolverine: The Long Night, you follow special agents Pierce and Marshall on their investigation of the elusive Logan.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t get to catch a ‘snikt’ every now and then. The ambisonic microphone used, which captures sounds all around it and translates that sense of distance for listeners, calls for actors to record simultaneously. Above that, physically acting out scenes. You’ll see Richard Armitage, who plays the infamous mutant, sprawled on the floor grabbing someone’s ankle and pretending to sink his teeth into it.
“Luckily, we had the mic facing away from the booth so that he wouldn’t have to watch us watching him perform and spitting and frothing, but he did such an amazing job and that’s what we needed from him. That’s how his character feels so visceral,” directors Chloe Prasinos and Brendan Baker (the latter who also produces the acclaimed Love + Radio), tell Marvel Entertainment. Still, Armitage’s tone as a character we’ve previously ascribed another voice to does take some getting used to.
Now where does Hollywood come in?
If the supposed sweeping statement on the difference between fiction podcasts and audiobooks lies in production value, the way the comparison between the scale of theatre and film would be made, some are setting up to become blockbusters of their own. It’s one thing to have special sound effects, but the crux is crafting dialogue to immerse the listener into its world without any visual cues.
Fun, satirical sci-fi Bubble very quickly familiarises you with its style within the first 10 minutes. Its creator, comedian and TV writer Jordan Morris, had initially intended it for the screen, but because the stage reading was too weird for TV and too good to waste, Morris then worked with Maximum Fun to bring it to the podcast sphere.
It’s easy to see (or rather, hear) the corporate utopian society of Fairhaven, where hipsters and monsters abound in equal measure. Sure, there’s narration droned by Tavi Gevinson (that, we did not see/hear coming), but Alison Becker of Parks and Recreation opining reluctant heroine Morgan and 30 Rock’s Keith Powell as the unapologetic dudebro Van effortlessly set the stage.
The distinctively cartoon vibe it gives is not ungrounded. The writers room also includes BoJack Horseman’s producer Nick Adams, and is now slated to develop into an animated picture with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. But it’s definitely not the only podcast packing star power.
The Left-Right Game is co-produced by and stars Tessa Thompson as investigative journalist Alice Sharman, who mysteriously disappears from the lives and memories of all but one of many people who know her. While many elements draw similarities to Alice Isn’t Dead (also by Night Vale Presents, small world), the plot is actually derived from a Reddit thread.
There’s a lot that works and a lot that doesn’t. Having a partnership with Sonos and several notable names helming sound engineering certainly doesn’t hurt. How your body automatically braces when you hear an oncoming vehicle or cringes when you know the next scene involves gore. It’s like wanting to shut your eyes during a horror movie while remaining vaguely aware of what happens because there’s audio, except now covering your ears only well, cuts the show.
The game’s sheer number of characters introduced all at once throws you off when you try to keep track with the lack of faces to identify with. And though accents are great and storytelling dramatic, it oddly appears too dramatic as if the cast is hyperaware of the listener. Tom’s role as narrator and connection to the ‘real’ world also gradually seems dispensable as the story progresses (sorry, Aml Ameen).
Though far be it for us to dictate standards as the content is clearly engaging enough for Amazon Prime to adapt it for its audiences. We can’t begin to breach the surface of the many gems that have been and will be developed for adaptations, with current estimates ballparking the figure in the hundreds.
The most prominent being Serial, Lime Town, Lore and the gold standard Homecoming. It may be the A-list cast of Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer and Amy Sedaris lending their flair, but you do feel like you’re listening to the live audio of a movie. To sum it up in one word: convincing.
Finally, where do you come in?
It’s no longer the punchline to that semi-racist joke, ‘What do you call a group of white men?’. It’s no longer a round-table chat on which fandom to get into, or talk show hosts looking for yet another arena to conquer (though I gladly consecrate my ears to Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend).
Like every other medium, it has evolved and continues to evolve. Its flexibility has allowed it to cross domains in entertainment not just forwards to big screens, but also backwards to audiobooks. All five seasons of the highly accoladed slow-burn horror The Magnus Archive, told in tape-recording texture and peppered with ominous music, can be downloaded in collections. The fiction genre alone also toes the line between factual and otherwise, with the inspired-by-true-events The Memory Palace and The Truth.
Easily consumed in as little as one-and-a-half minutes to the longest at under half an hour, the configuration is no longer susceptible to our excuse of short commute. Because we would not recommend any other activities apart from shuttling between locations while listening. With overarching meta scenarios and verbal accounts intentionally not entirely honest, you do have to pay attention to get a good grasp of the actual plot.
You may wonder if it’s worth bothering with the format when all seems to eventually get turned into prime-time slots. You’re forgetting that it offers you the upper hand on Hollywood. Just as reading allows you to create your own permutations in your mind’s eye, you get to actively participate while listening.
We won’t admit it, but on-demand has turned us into even lazier physical and mental couch potatoes, brainlessly feeding on what network budgets can provide. So take what the big studios cannot poach; the freedom to dictate how a place or face looks like, to be involved as you keep pace—even the opportunity to have Matthew McConaughey talk to your kids (as Hank the Cowdog, weird, we know)—and the chance for your imagination to run unbridled.