Podern Newsletter #16


Why Should You Go to PodTales?

“Our heart will always be like that little mouse logo; small and cute, but happy and powerful.”

by Alex C. Telander

Something special is coming to Cambridge, Massachusetts: on Sunday, October 20th at the Lunder Arts Center at Lesley University the first ever PodTales Festival will take place. What makes PodTales special is that it’s the first of its kind: a festival dedicated solely to audio drama and fiction podcasting, and before you ask, yes, this does include RPG podcasts too. 

PodTales is an arts festival, not a professional conference; it’s about the work itself and learning how people do it, whether you’re a fan or a creator (or both, as many of us are). PodTales’ goal is for you to walk out with a whole list of new shows to check out. 

Now, why should someone attend the PodTales Festival, other than its free admission and it being the first convention tailored exclusively to audio drama? Well, I had a chance to ask a couple of the organizers behind PodTales all about the festival and what their hopes, fears, and dreams for it are: Alexander Danner is the festival director and Jeff Van Dreason handles exhibitor relations and the IndieGoGo campaign, which runs through July 14th. And yes, these are the guys behind the terrific audio drama, Greater Boston

Where did PodTales come from and when was it conceived?

ALEXANDER: The Boston area is rich in active fiction podcasters, making it one of the geographic hubs of the form, so I've long thought it would make sense to have a major community event here. There was also a particular model of show I've been hoping to attend, but which doesn't really exist—one more similar to an indie comics festival, where new and established artists intermingle, where the act of creating within the form is celebrated no matter the artists level of experience.

My biggest inspiration is MICE, The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, which was founded by my friends Shelli Paroline and Dan Mazur. There's a palpable joy in celebrating the craft in how MICE is run, and no con anywhere that ever made me feel as valued as an exhibitor as MICE does. That's what I want for exhibitors at PodTales.

And we wouldn't be here without MICE for more practical reasons as well. I had mentioned to Shelli just in passing how I wished there was a local show for fiction podcasting like MICE. And she came right back with, “Actually, we've got a second space available every year that we don't use. And we're already looking for a partner show to put there. You want it?”

That was too clear an opportunity for me to resist! And with MICE and Lesley University providing the festival space, creating PodTales became much more financially viable. At the same time as PodTales is holding its first ever show, MICE will be holding their tenth anniversary show in the building immediately next door. It's going to be an amazing weekend for celebrating storytelling!

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Alexander Danner

Did you come up with the name early on?

ALEXANDER: No! I spent months trying to come up with a name I liked. I tried to create an acronym based name, something rodent themed that would parallel MICE, but I couldn't find anything that worked well. And finding a “storytelling” title that wouldn't work equally well for a festival of non-fiction podcasts was equally difficult. When I hit on using “Tales,” that actually captured a bit of both those goals in a way that sounds fun. I know a lot of people are kind of hoping the prefix “pod” will die, but for the time being, it still communicates what we're about with clarity, which is more important to me.

What are you hoping to achieve with PodTales?

ALEXANDER: I'm hoping PodTales will become a community event for fiction podcasters, as well as a contact point with their audiences. My experiences at PodCon suggested to me that our community really wants something like that, an event that brings us all together to share our admiration for each others' work, to make new connections and form new collaborations, and to just get to know each other in real life. I think the strong sense of community our form has historically shown has been vital to the growth of our art form, but with the rapid growth we've seen recently, it's getting harder to maintain a connection with the fullness of that community. I think having a physical world community event will help with that.

JEFF: We want to celebrate the incredible talent of audio fiction creators, in addition to highlighting the awesome possibilities that come with independent audio fiction as a genre. It's a growing genre that deserves more exposure. It doesn't necessarily frustrate me that many people automatically associate podcasting with nonfiction shows, but it is unfortunate. PodTales is our small attempt at trying to change that, in addition to making audio fiction podcasts on our own, of course.

What were your first steps in putting it together?

JEFF: A lot of this came from conversations Alexander had with the directors of MICE, whom he's been involved with for years. Alexander has connections with the independent comics world (especially web comics) and his comics friends involved with MICE have seen how much audio fiction podcasting has taken off lately. They all see a lot of similarity between genres and audiences, and we feel it just makes sense to build off an already existing showcase of independent artists. We're hoping the audience for MICE might also be interested in learning about PodTales, and vice versa. 

So after those initial conversations, our first steps were figuring out how to do it. We had some meetings via Skype to plan who was going to be responsible for what. The thing with this kind of event is even the strictest, carefullest planning gives way to unseen problems popping up, and there's more work that goes into this type of thing than I think anyone can realize ahead of time. Hopefully it doesn't seem like a lot of work to anyone who isn't actually working on it, though.

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Jeff Van Dreason

How did you go about putting a team together, who does your team consist of, and what are their respective roles?

ALEXANDER: My team is pretty much self-selected. Anyone who offered to help out, I wasn't going to turn down the help! But those people have been fantastic. Jeff Van Dreason, of course, I have plenty of history working with, and always like to have him involved in anything I'm working on. He's taken charge of the IndieGoGo, and is doing a fantastic job. Amanda McColgan is our social media manager, and is just blowing me away with her ability to keep people excited about the show, keeping so many people engaged with us months before the show even happens. And more behind the scenes, my key advisors have been Jordan Stillman and Alex Yun. Jordan has been working with MICE for years, and is organizing their tenth anniversary festival, but she's also been a huge supporter of PodTales from day one, and has made herself constantly available to share resources and her experience in running a similar festival. And Alex is just brilliant. At one point, Jeff scolded me for waffling on one of Alex's recommendations, saying, “Look, if Alex gives you advice, just take the advice.” And I've learned that lesson, because it's true: Alex is always right.

Where did the logo come from?

JEFF: The voice of Leon Stamatis himself! Braden Lamb designed that cute little mouse. In addition to being an excellent voice actor, Braden is an incredibly talented artist, and he's been a comics artist for years now. In fact, his partner Shelli Paroline, is the co-director of MICE, so there's already a solid foundation of crossover talent extending from MICE to PodTales, and given that we're spinning off from MICE, it makes sense to have our mascot be a fiction podcast rocking rodent, right?

How is PodTales different from Podcon or PodX?

ALEXANDER: I haven't been to PodX, so I can't compare as accurately. But PodTales is going to be a much smaller show than PodCon. Our entire physical area could probably fit inside PodCon's exhibit hall three times over. So I think it's important that people with experience at other shows know going in that we're working at a much smaller scale. It'll be a much more intimate sort of show.

But also, we're really inverting the balance between programming and exhibition. The big draw at PodCon was clearly the programming, which was plentiful, and full of well-known podcasters. And that's great—the programming at PodCon was wonderful, and it was terrific to have so many options to choose between!

By contrast, the exhibition hall will be the heart of PodTales. By numbers, PodCon 1 had 15 exhibitor booths total, five of which were podcasts. PodTales currently has more than 50 exhibits lined up, every one of them representing a podcast or podcast network. The trade off, of course, is that we won't have nearly as much programming, probably only two or three tracks. Though, with fewer programming events, we are going to work hard to make sure those events are entertaining and substantive! Our programming will also be built around our exhibitors, primarily highlighting the same people who are giving the exhibit hall life.

What do you hope attendees get from attending PodTales?

ALEXANDER: First and foremost, I want attendees to leave PodTales with a long list of new podcasts they plan to check out! Discovery is at the heart of our mission—we want to facilitate creators and audiences finding each other. But also, I want attendees with ideas of their own to leave PodTales feeling empowered to pursue their creative ambitions, and supported by a creative community that will help them find their way there.

JEFF: Discovery. Especially independent artists. New and exciting ideas and stories. We want people who've never heard of audio fiction podcasting to fall in love with the genre. We want people who do love audio fiction podcasts to find their new favorite shows, meet and learn from creators they know and love, and new, up and coming people as well.

What has been the hardest part of putting PodTales together?

ALEXANDER: Fundraising is always a challenge. Jeff has handled the IndieGoGo beautifully, while I've been working on cultivating partnerships with sponsor organizations. It's a lot of searching for hard-to-find contact information, trying to pitch PodTales as an event various companies would benefit from advertising at, and negotiating mutually beneficial contracts. It can take a couple dozen attempts to cultivate one promising lead, and then weeks or months of discussions before an agreement is signed. Lesley University was with us from the start, which is great, and RadioPublic is a perfect partner for us. We're close to signing a couple more sponsors, but this is an ongoing effort. But it's also very important to meeting our aims for the show—we want to keep admission free and exhibitor fees low, but that means finding our funds from other sources. The more successful we are at working with sponsors, the more accessible we can keep the show for attendees and exhibitors.

JEFF: For me, the hardest part has been balancing how much to be involved. I love helping out, especially with something as exciting as this, and I've already committed to more than I thought I would originally, but I also need to step back from it soon. My personality sometimes pushes me to try to do too much, which I've been actively trying to change because it's gotten me into a bit of trouble. I don't have the time to co-run PodTales, unfortunately. But I set up and I'm running the IndieGoGo campaign, and I'm helping with our exhibitor list and exhibitor relations, which I'm really excited about. 

There's also been a hard time just planning everything and getting the word out. Everything has to happen at once and it takes a lot of organization and coordination. There are only so many of us trying to do a huge thing, so things take longer than we'd like, but there's not much we can do about that, unfortunately.

What has been the easiest?

ALEXANDER: Filling our exhibit hall! Starting a show like this, we're taking a big gamble on whether there are enough people who see exhibiting at a festival as worth their time, especially since it's not really an established facet of our process. But there was an abundance of interest, and we filled every seat we had available, then went back to our floor plan and rearranged to squeeze in a few more! And I've still got a few people on our wait list. This has really been one of the most encouraging outcomes we've had; it's incredibly gratifying to know so many people are excited to show their work at PodTales!

JEFF: Working with exhibitors and our incredible featured guests. I'm really excited about everyone who is coming, and every single person has been a pleasure to work with.

Do you hope to make PodTales an annual podcasting event?

ALEXANDER: Yes! We've still got a long way to go before we'll know if that's feasible, but I'm definitely trying to build the show in a way that will make the process of doing the next one easier. If possible, I'd like to expand the show to two days as well. We're keeping the scale small this year because this is our learning experience. But our hope is to grow from here.

What do you want to get out of PodTales?

ALEXANDER: I'm really hoping that this festival will contribute to spreading enthusiasm for fiction podcasting in general. Given our central location, free admission, and partnership with MICE, I'm hopeful that we will have a significant audience of people who are discovering fiction podcasts for the first time at PodTales. It's really all about celebrating the art itself, and showing just how much we have to offer!

JEFF: I want it to be fun, diverse, informative, and safe. I want people to come and feel safe and celebrate our fabulous genre and have a great time. That's it. I'd like it to grow and be sustainable too, but I would also like it to be sustainable in a way where I'm not as involved as much as I am now. I do a lot of the type of work that it takes to put on PodTales with my real job, and between my real job and this work, there's not a lot of time left over for the type of creative work I cherish. So I'm really missing that right now, and we have two more seasons of Greater Boston to do, not to mention whatever comes after that. So I want PodTales to last forever, and I'll always want to be a part of it. Maybe just not as much of an integral part as I am right now.

Five years from now, after this festival has exceeded goals every year, what does PodTales 5 look like for attendees?

ALEXANDER: Well, I'd certainly like PodTales to be a two-day show, and I'd hope to be able to move into a larger event space that can accommodate more exhibitors and larger audiences at our panels. (Probably the same space that MICE uses, once we're ready to go out on our own.) But there's a limit to how big I want it to get—I want to stay true to the missions of focusing on indie creators and keeping the show financially accessible to as many people as possible. This is an arts festival, not a large convention, and that's how I want it to stay.

JEFF: I've gone to MICE for years and it's absolutely grown, to an extent, and only gotten better every year. But it's also been surprisingly consistent in its nice, niche, small, independent qualities too. I'm interested in seeing PodTales grow in terms of sustainability, kind of what I was speaking about before. And I always want more and more people to discover audio fiction podcasting, But I'd be lying if I said I wanted record breaking attendee numbers out of this thing year after year. I want people to come and be excited about this genre, and I'm involved because I love audio fiction podcasts and I want more people to discover them. But I also love how MICE is a small little show celebrating a unique type of independent art, and I'd never want PodTales to become this huge thing that feels like it exists solely for networking and business. That's not to say that industry conversations aren't important, they are, but I also don't want to lose that independent spirit. So no matter what happens in five years, ten years, or fifty, I hope we just remain consistent. And I believe we will. 

Our heart will always be like that little mouse logo; small and cute, but happy and powerful.

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Podern Newsletter #15

Old Horizons

Vast Horizon Review

By Lex Scott

Space. The final frontier for humanity (other than the depths of our own oceans anyway, but that’s a whole other article), but one of the very first frontiers for podcast writers. I mean honestly, you can’t throw a blue yeti without hitting an entertaining, original, scrappy young podcast set in space. Some of them are truly excellent (lookin’ at you Girl in Space), and some are tragically lacking in one or two key areas while still being excellently mixed and produced. Most though, unfortunately, simply fall into the broad category of “pretty good”.

Don’t get me wrong, pretty good is a damn hard target to hit. I would sacrifice a lot to elevate some of my previous work to the level of pretty good (Quest Academy, oh what you could have been if I’d been competent or had experience...), and because my subscription list isn’t very large by most standards pretty good will often keep me thoroughly entertained in lieu of the same 100 songs I’ve got loaded onto my phone.

But pretty good won’t make you stand out. People tend to remember three kinds of things: their favourites, (coloured by personal experience so it’s a different beast), the greats, and the worst. No one ever remembers those movies that were just okay, the ones you went to because it was hot and you needed to kill a few hours. It is to this category unfortunately we have to relegate Vast Horizon, the newest entry from Travis Vengroff and K.A. Statz’ Fool & Scholar Productions.

Vast follows the now standard “Girl in Space + AI” set-up, though of course with it’s own twists: Dr Nolira Eck (an agronomist, not an MD) suddenly and painfully wakes up on The Bifrost, a massive colony ship that is mysteriously deserted but for her, a mysterious and as yet un-”seen” bipedal presence, and a dry AI that has lots of trouble with context clues.

In terms of set-up it’s rather economical. Once the story gets going we establish very quickly Nolira’s position, location, and lack of memory (another well worn but useful trope for easing an audience in: making the main character need just as much hand holding as the audience), while also doing a good job of presenting and explaining what will be one of the shows primary sources of tension: Nolira’s bionic limbs. 

We also establish that the AI is unable to provide Nolira with any concrete answers as to why she was unconscious, where everyone is or even what happened to the ship, due to lost or corrupted data. The pair need each other, Nolira to physically go places and manually do things, the AI to provide her with in-the-moment info and a general plan on how to proceed if they’re going to take control of their situation.

Like I said, it’s a pretty solid premise that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately it consistently fails to hit the mark in most areas of production.

The show’s strongest area is definitely the sound design, which for the most part does an excellent job of setting up and presenting an audibly tangible world for us to immerse our ears in. But, it’s lacking in certain cues that would help convey physical action (a character apparently falling, which I didn’t realise until she was struggling to escape a hole), or time passing while an action is taken. Little things that would complete the picture for us and really sell the story and presentation. It’s the kind of thing that would be so easy to miss for anyone not a professional but as a listener is so jarring, and always takes me out of the moment.

The show’s weakest area I hate to say is probably writing, though the issues with the writing are also tightly bound up with similar issues in directing and editing.

Somehow, and I cannot figure out why, the overall pace feels simultaneously both too fast and too slow. Now, this is obviously a problem with the writing, as overall pace is something that’s present in the script from the very first draft: the speed at which plot moments happen one after another will always be right there on the page first (and it’s the hardest thing to manage I think, especially for a new writer), and that’s where you always have the most control to change it.

But, editing together a finished product is essentially doing a final draft of the script, so it’s a problem with editing too. And while directing you need to be aware of what the scene needs and coach that performance out, so it’s also a problem with the directing.

From line to line the dialogue itself is quite flat, though this has to do with delivery as well as actual writing. There are some lines that are just too wordy and clumsy, as though when they were written no one ever said them out loud to test them, and there are several instances where the clearly British-accented actor is pronouncing words with a distinctly american intonation (mom being the most egregious, please let your actors just say words in their native manner).

There are also several instances where Nolira’s actor just doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights required for a scene, though I would be hesitant to put the blame for that on her. It’s the directors job to coax the necessary emotion into a performance, and a good casting director will always be looking for the range an actor is capable of. Then once an actor is cast, a good writer will tailor lines and emotional beats to a performer, leaning into their strengths and being aware of their abilities. When everyone is working in harmony, every moving part compliments the others, and actors will never fail to amaze you with what they’re capable of. But if you don’t take your choices into consideration, if you just plow ahead without fine tuning your team and the new circumstances, it will always ring hollow. 

The actual plotting of the narrative, and the “this therefore that” manner in which it proceeds is actually quite well done. The episodes so far have been 38, 38, and 28 minutes respectively, with not too much time taken up by pre and post show housekeeping, and each one makes good use of that time to progress events and throw obstacles in our protagonists path. Which is why it’s so odd that in the moment each episode still manages to feel both too slow and too fast.

Overall, I think this is a lackluster show from a team that should know better. The main actor, Siobhan Lumsden, is clearly skilled but just as obviously miscast in the role, while the writing and directing are well short of what I would expect from a team with at least six other shows under their belts. The story is well-trod territory, the tropes are well established in audiences minds at this point; fertile ground for a more creative team to subvert expectations, here a bland and muddy path for people who just want to rehash what’s gone before, minus the character or charm. 

And again, although the sound design is overall pretty good, given the breadth of their experience I would expect them to be able to avoid the pitfalls they’ve fallen prey to here.

So, I would say feel free to skip this one unless your queue is empty and you’re in desperate need of a new show.

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Podern Newsletter #14

Main Street Mythology

Main Street Mythology Review

by Matthew William

There is a certain elegance in knowing what you’re good at and then delivering just that; not trying to do too much or stretching yourself too thin. Like a singer that knows their range and nails a simple song within that range.

The 5 episode mini-series, Main Street Mythology presented by Newton’s Dark Room, is fine a lesson in doing just that. A few narrators, reading short stories in a shared world that are spiced up with a bit of background music.

That’s the whole show. And I’ll tell you what, everything comes together nicely.

The premise for the story is quite simple: “What if our world was built by a pantheon of gods instead of people?” So the cities, the clocks, even the satellites in this setting were created by deities. There are immortals that overlook the trash, the streetlights, the internet; keeping watch over their domains and making sure everything runs smoothly.

These fables are brought to life by one of three narrators, Eleiece Krawiec (who has narrated for Escape Pod), Robert Ready (who does work as an audiobook narrator) and Mike Emling, and all are excellent, grounding this fanciful world and giving the podcast a professional sound.

The stories are accompanied by an original score from La Troienne. The mystical soundtrack provides an otherworldly ambiance to the tales, and the music does a tremendous job of adding to the immersion without ever being distracting.

The whole show is brought together by Talon Stradley; a writer, musician, and audio producer based out of Long Beach, California.

There’s not really an overarching plot to the narrative and that’s okay, you’re here for the worldbuilding. Each vignette runs 5-10 minutes long and is a story about a certain god or a certain event and everything weaves together to form a really cool quilt of a shared world.

The production team, Newton’s Dark Room, is even sort of a character in itself. Their description is kept a little enigmatic, adding to the mystique.  

“An otherworldly artist collective based out of Calisland. Our collection of unique members scour countryside and cosmiverse to bring you the best in multi-media storytelling.”

All in all, this is a great podcast to listen to if your in the mood for a bit of escapism and enjoy worldbuilding. I listened to it while driving and it was a relaxing experience. I kept on coming back for more peaks into the world of this show.

Newton’s Dark Room has done a great job of creating a simple fiction podcast. And in a world where so many stories are packed to the gills with action and high stakes, it’s refreshing to have a show that simply brings you to another world and keeps you entertained.

That in itself is pretty ambitious.

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Podern Newsletter # 13

Edict Four

The Deep Dive Into…

Edict Zero - FIS

by Lex Scott

Welcome to part four of my deep dive into Edict Zero. If you’re new here make sure you check out my previous episode reviews (part 1) (part 2) and (part 3), before joining me for the rest of my journey.

And as always, spoilers ahead.

Episode 4, Beautiful Lies

A Man in the Alley, a Man in the Elevator, and a Man with(out) a pan. A tactical unit commander acting as technical support, and a military presence despite the assertion that humanity (and the planet they occupy) are no longer divided into competing countries.

This was another episode where I really felt the excessive length, another episode that seemed more interested in catching up it’s characters with the plot than progressing that plot for its audience. Kircher and Garrett learned of the briefcase bomb’s appearance and interesting properties (which we heard of in the last episode), while Briggs heard of the briefcase bomb’s interesting properties from Socrates.

We were however introduced to a new character, one Kora Reznik: former tactical unit commander, and current technical analyst for our team of protagonists. This entire situation, her transfer and the preceding discussion featuring Dockstader, are the only genuinely new developments in this episode, and they raise real questions about what exactly is going on at FIS.

An exciting prospect, but in all honesty when Dockstader was being confronted by Whiteman the conversation was a bit tough to follow. I actually scanned back a re-listened to see if I missed something, and I still feel like specifics of Reznik’s transfer is a reference to something I missed or simply can’t remember.

Now, something far more interesting is the introduction of (two?) new characters: The Man in your Elevator, and The Man in the Alley, who both share an identical voice. A voice specifically similar to one of the voices used by Captain Socrates. Now it’s possible that MIYE and MITA are actually the same character, but I’m inclined to believe they’re separate entities. Or at least separate bodies.

This confirms it, Socrates is (or at least was) an agent of Edict One, as well as doubly confirming that Edict One is conspiring (again, directly or indirectly) against the rest of humanity. I personally believe it reinforces my theory of Socrates being some kind of product of Edict One, along with his various rants to Briggs in the holding cell. “I am everyone and no one in equal measure”, and “playwrights fashion the who’s of Captains with no other who to be” certainly in my opinion suggest his fractured psyche is artificially made up of other people. Not to mention his constant talk of gods and creation.

Now, please correct me if I’m wrong, but it was stated either in the first episode or the prologue that humanity and the entire planet (barring Edict One of course) were in unity. No more competing countries, no external borders to protect, no “others” to guard against. Ever since they arrived on Edict Zero it’s just been “us”. So why do they need a military at all?

This is something I see all the time in science fiction, and honestly it bugs the hell out of me. A military’s purpose is to act on foreign soil. If you deploy your military on your own territory against your own something has gone drastically, devastatingly wrong in you governance. So why, in this world without borders or artificial division, is there even an established military at all? That is literally what your police are for.

I think this, like every other instance, is nothing but an oversight but like I said it bugs the hell out of me. If there’s any trope that desperately needs to die in sci-fi it’s this.

Side note: Actually if there’s any trope in any form of fiction it’s the phrase “I don’t have an accent” when talking to people with other accents. It’s such an ignorant thing to say and I’ve heard it so many times.

All in all, it was an okay episode, but once again it felt like it was just spinning its wheels. My main problem continues to be the slow pace and excessive episode length, but this time I noticed just how slowly each actor was speaking. It really felt with the way they carefully enunciated every word that they were mostly just struggling to put on an accent, and that was what is slowing them down. It’s clear when any actor is speaking naturally, and they inevitably speak much faster than the other characters.

I won’t bore you by continuing to harp on about pacing and trimming these episodes though, my thought’s on that remain the same.

Theories and Predictions

Well other than my most deliberately outlandish one, all my theories seem to have been confirmed, and honestly I don’t have much more to give you right now. With all the talk of Cooke wanting to “punch holes in the world” I’m still kind of hoping that my “matrix-ish” theory might hold some water but honestly it was never meant to be viable.

I guess the best I’ve got is that there is actually an army of The Man in the ___ out there, acting as combination butlers/ enforcers. I could definitely see that being true somewhere down the line, and from a practical standpoint it would really cut down on production logistics.

Or alternatively, there is an army of blank mindless bodies that one mind is just beamed into to act as an agent throughout the world.

Oh, I almost forgot! The military’s presence at the alley. Are they in league with Edict One or just unwitting pawns, all too willing to compete with and oppose FIS? I’m inclined to suspect the latter, but that’s mostly because that’s the likely choice most writers will make. Including several branches of government in a conspiracy like this would make it infinitely more complicated and far more likely our protagonists would already know things instead of just suspecting.

What do you think of my theories and criticisms? Am I being unfair, is Socrates actually the best fictional character ever and I’m just a bitter old man/ amateurish failure? Let me know in the comments below, let me know your own theories, or better yet let me know if you are listening along with me in this deep dive. Just please no spoilers for upcoming episodes, as I will absolutely be reading your comments.

And of course, go download episode 5 right here, and join me next time as I continue my deep dive into Edict Zero - FIS.

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Podern Newsletter #12

Back to The Past:

Future Alex Has a Few Things to Say to Past Alex

by Alex C. Telander

Let me take you back in time for a second. I know; you should be used to this now, since I write a show called Ostium all about time travel. But I’m going to take you back a couple of years, to the first month of 2017. The first two episodes of Ostium have been released and I’m feeling like I’ve got this podcasting thing just right and it’s all going to be smooth sailing from here on out ...

I decided to share some of my well-learned knowledge and experience about podcasting in an article obnoxiously entitled “Episodic Writing: The Golden Era of Podcasts,” published on January 17th, 2017. Flash forward two years and three full seasons of Ostium later, with a fourth season coming April 7th, as well as a spin-off show (Circe), as I look back on this audio drama freshman who was me and think:

You didn’t know a thing, man!

And to prove it, let’s deconstruct this high-brow, insightful article about podcasts he wrote a couple years ago and blatantly expose where you were way off!

Episodic Writing: The Golden Era of Podcasts

Writing a podcast is very different from writing a novel or short story, in fact I believe it’s more akin to writing for a TV series, but can’t confidently say since I have yet to be hired on to write the next episode of Game of Thrones. The big difference with this type of writing is that it’s episodic: you’re writing shorter pieces in each episode for a longer overarching story. You might think, well, this is pretty similar to writing a novel with individual chapters each telling a part of the longer story of the book. And yes, there are some similarities, but when you’re working on a novel you usually have a deadline in mind many months or sometimes even a year or more down the road. When it comes to a podcast, especially an ongoing one, the deadlines are a lot more ... oncoming and perhaps seemingly never ending.

Hey, Future Alex here. Yeah, you kind of got this right. But writing a podcast is also a lot like writing a novel: you do have lots of deadlines to achieve different goals otherwise that novel will never get finished. The crucial difference is the novel gets submitted as one whole piece to the editor, whereas podcasts are released to the listener in episodes or “chapters.”

Of course, there are alternative ways to offering podcasts to listeners, which you yourself will eventually participate in, such as releasing seasons in “supercuts” with multiple episodes grouped together to give the overall story a comprehensive feel.

Also future you will be releasing the Ostium book, which essentially contradicts exactly what you say in your opening paragraph.

And finally, hey, isn’t it crazy that Game of Thrones is now in its final season! Also, guess what – and you totally won’t be surprised by this – but George R. R. Martin STILL hasn’t finished the books. In fact, he wrote a whole separate book set centuries in the past. Yeah, crazy, I know, but it’s actually pretty good.

Some podcasts release a new episode every month, like ars Paradoxica, while most, as is the case with my podcast, Ostium, release a new episode every two weeks. This means within a two-week period, a podcast episode has to get written, recorded with a cast of one or more actors, and produced with the possible addition of music and sound effects. And the big difference here is that it’s an audio recording versus something you read on the printed page or digital screen. You’re usually working with actors (unless you’re doing it all yourself, which has its own extreme demands), and words sound very different when they’re read aloud compared to being read on the page. Everyone, when they’re reading, has their own voice inside their head giving life and depth to the characters and plot. When words are read aloud they are given a specific life, as read by that particular actor. Actually, some authors choose to have their drafts of works in progress read aloud to hear their words read back to them and edit and rewrite accordingly.

So yeah, all the things you say in this paragraph are pretty much true, but you also make it sound like a podcast creator is kind of screwed from the beginning with these seemingly insurmountable odds, and yet they all manage to get made.

In most cases, podcasters have a number of the episodes (if not the whole season) mostly done in advance, with maybe a few minor finishes to be made. This will in fact be an important organizational choice for future you: wanting to make sure the whole 10-episode season is set to go before the first episode drops. Another example is Paul Bae’s The Big Loop, with his six-episode season schedule, where he won’t release the first one until at least three are in the can. Because if there’s anything you’ve learned as both a podcast listener and creator, it’s being consistent and keeping to a release schedule.

Also once you start getting feedback on that Ostium book, you’ll literally be seeing what you described come true: readers of the book will have a different interpretation of Ostium with its story and characters versus those who listen to the show.

Also can you believe it, ars Paradoxica actually released its final episode and is all done now. Yes, it is sad.

When you hear your written words read back at you, any errors, inconsistencies, and glaring typos becoming very apparent and is not at all embarrassing, especially when these actors happen to be good friends of yours and you swear you proof read that episode like five times. But, ultimately, this all helps to make the story better, more compelling, and correctly read. It’s also a lot of fun and offers a dynamic very different from the lonely writer working away at the screen listening to the voices in his head.

Voice Actors are the unsung heroes. They are the podcast creator’s editors, copy editors, and beta readers: they catch typos, fix phrasing, and they’ll tell you when something just doesn’t sound right (that’s why I like to keep all the outtakes of my actors scolding me for my failings and release them to the world, so everyone can see how invaluable they are).

But they are also so much more, as they bring these characters and creations on the page to life, give them vitality and nuance and depth. They can take someone bland and boring, and make them the exact opposite. I know full well I am just a single cog is this magnificently complex podcasting machine.

Ostium is a podcast about a man who discovers a hidden town in Northern California while playing the game GeoGuessr. He eventually finds the town and within discovers many buildings with many doors, each with numbers on them. He starts with the first door and behind subsequent doors discovers other worlds. The idea for Ostium began to germinate in the fall of 2015 after I got hooked on a podcast I discovered called Welcome to Night Vale. This was at the beginning of my blossoming interest in podcasts, and I am now subscribed and regularly listen to anywhere from 12 to 15 podcasts. I started talking with my friend about the idea of doing a podcast, and wanted him to voice the main character, Jake Fisher. Now, over a year later, all 10 episodes of Season 1 of Ostium have been written and recorded. Ostium premiered with Episode 1: Population Zero on January 1, 2017, and Episode 2: CROATOAN was released on January 15. Team Ostium now consists of four people, including myself, with two actors (one of which is starting to do some writing for the podcast), and an artist doing artwork for transcripts of the episodes.

You’re subscribed to 12-15 podcasts! Hahahah! Oh, how simple ye of the past was when it came to listening to podcasts. Would it scare you to say that you’re now subscribed and regularly listen to over 100 podcasts! And you keep adding new ones weekly! Yeah. This “Golden Age” keeps getting better by the month!

Podcasts are free to listen to, so creators use sponsors to help fund and support their shows. They also use Patreon and offer “extras” and incentives to those who donate at various levels, such as mini episodes, transcripts, music, exclusive interviews. Ostium has a Patreon page and at the highest donation level offers the opportunity to be on a future episode of the show. Welcome to Night Vale has become a vast enterprise, with the cast performing live episodes to sold-out crowds around the world, as well as publishing an original novel and two collected volumes of transcripts.

“Podcasts are free.” Ahh, a phrase that in essence is true, but not really. With the advent of pay-walling for some shows, and the birth of paid podcast apps such as Stitcher Premium and the forthcoming auspicious Luminary app, there’s usually a free version and a premium version where access to certain “elite” podcasts is only available for a price. A forthcoming example of this is the spin off show of The Bright Sessions, the AM Archives, which will only be available at the premium level with Luminary.

There is also Spotify’s recent acquisition of Gimlet Media, which spells a potential new age in podcasting as shows begin to take center stage, or at least a more visible one, for regular music listeners who may not have actually known fiction podcasts existed until Spotify told them “Hey, take a look at this!” The question is how Spotify will look to monetize it.

Despite this encroachment by bigger “more traditional media” giants, for the moment podcasts remain a medium that anyone with a simple mic and some free software can make and release to the world. this has led to a number of shows written and performed by minority voices, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, making the audio drama world one of the more diverse arenas of entertainment. For those that still think a podcast is three smelly white guys badly recording their inane banter, there is a whole world they’re missing out on. (Sadly, those mundane white-dude shows featuring lengthy discussions of pizza toppings are still getting made.)  

We are now well into the age of the episodic podcast, with new shows revealing themselves to the world every week. There are not really any set rules on what a podcast has to be, or how long it has to be, meaning really there are no limits to what a podcast can be like. It can be fiction, or nonfiction, or perhaps somewhere in between. It can be ten minutes, twenty minutes, or an hour long. However, creators do have to consider when their listeners will be listening to their show: when commuting, while working, or in their spare time, for example. I personally am able to listen to podcasts at my work as a city mail carrier, and have no problems with the length of episodes. But if you have a twenty-minute commute, you may only be able to listen to only part of an episode, depending on its length. Some have profanity, some not.  Some have beautiful original music. Some feature atmospheric sound effects that all help to immerse the listener deeper into the story.

At times this article feels more like I wrote it fifteen or twenty years ago when there were only a handful of podcasts and that was it, and not two years ago when the podcast avalanche was already well on its way with so many great and new shows starting every month. But I attribute this more to my ignorance and relative newness to the medium.

Yes, podcasts continue to vary in length from a few minutes per episode to some that run over an hour, depending on the type of podcast. With the number of podcasts I listen to, they run the gamut in length, and yes with my work I do get to listen for about six hours a day, but that’s never continuous. I have to stop and start my listening multiple times an hour and yet somehow that’s still okay. Episodes are going to be as long as they need to be to fit the show, no matter what the listener is doing when listening to them.

This marks a clear difference with books and most notably with the advent of ebooks, where there has definitely been a shift with many genres and authors to shorter and more numerous chapters, so ereader users can get that chapter done by the time they reach the end of their commute.

Creators continue to do what they intended to, in telling the story they set out to tell, how they wanted tell it, and not kowtowing to any listener’s wants or whims, though along the way they also deal with some of the hurdles of podcasting, with how long episodes should be, and what level of sound design they want to use. It goes to show why so many of them are amazing, compelling stories that totally deserve to be adapted to novels and TV shows. Though there are also a number of shows, such as Girl in Space, that fully use the medium of podcasting and would only be a lesser creation in any other form.

There’s no limit to what a podcast can be, and there’s no limit on what the listener can do, picking and choosing accordingly like shopping at a bookstore or visiting a library. If you don’t like a podcast — I usually give them ten minutes to hook me — you can move onto the next one. If you love the show, you can rate and review, and support them through their Patreon page or buying from their sponsors. When you subscribe to a podcast through iTunes, as soon as a new episode is available, it automatically gets downloaded for you.

Ahh, back when I was pretty much getting all my podcasts via iTunes and then moving them over onto my phone . . . how naïve I truly was. And this is exactly how iTunes and Apple wants it to be: your one-stop “shop” for everything podcasting; you don’t need any other apps; you’ve got your reviews and all the podcasts perfectly curated with their totally un-gameable listings and tabulating algorithms, so just trust whatever they want to throw at you. Also hence their whole metadata grandstanding debacle in late February when they emailed every podcast creator telling them the metadata of their respective podcasts had to adhere to their new sorting algorithm and couldn’t contain any numbers in the title and threatened to pull down shows if this wasn’t done... and then a few days later were furiously backpedaling at their ballooning blunder.

There are now many apps to choose from, almost all of them free, and all of them work better than Apple Podcasts in ways of curating, listing, and subscribing. And then there’s RadioPublic, a relatively new app that is one of a kind in that is pays podcasts for each episode that is listened to, and while it isn’t much, cumulatively it adds up.  

Podcasts are really the perfect medium in today’s fast moving, easily-distracted world of entertainment where if it doesn’t grab your attention in a five-second window, you’ve lost interest. Podcasts come in all shapes and sizes, all the better for the listeners of all shapes and sizes.

This is all true, but the world of audio drama is still very much a work in progress. It is more inclusive and representational of diversity and the LGBTQ community than other genres of podcasting, or even TV, when it comes to listenership and casting, but it still has a long way to go. And there is also the ongoing mission to have the rest of the podcasting world not just discover but acknowledge that audio drama and the audio fiction world exists and is very much its own thing. There are still so many who think when they hear the term podcast; they imagine a couple of white guys talking about inane stuff with some crappy mics.  

Perhaps with the optioning and hopeful adaptations of shows like The Black Tapes, The Bright Sessions, Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, and Tanis (to name a few) to TV, when these shows might start reaching wider, more mainstream audiences, then maybe the audio drama world will start receiving the attention and respect it so truly deserves.

Also, I wouldn’t consider this being honest with myself if I didn’t finish it up with the acknowledgement that I fully expect to be critiquing my critique of this two year old article two years from now in 2021.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in podcasting it’s that I’m always learning and making myself better at this podcasting gig.

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