The entertainment industry is at a crossroads. With the merger of Discovery+ and HBO Max, the revelations out of the Simon & Schuster/Random House antitrust case, and the purging of stories, especially digital-only materials like streaming services, eBooks, and video games, the old institutions of entertainment appear to be closing ranks. Crypto is crashing the hot commodity of NFTs. Venture capitalists are less likely to spend money on ‘risky projects’ across industries. The downturn of the U.S. and global economies in a ‘recession-ish’, post-pandemic era has also fostered this moment where gatekeepers–all gatekeepers–are beginning to shut more and more of their gates.
What does this mean for artists? For those of us in the storytelling industry? What does this mean for audio drama and fiction podcasts? Obviously, a whole lot.
Let’s consider the role of these gatekeepers. These are meant to, in the words of one executive producer at a HollyShorts Film Festival panel, keep the quality high in a world where everyone is a content creator. I would argue the hypocrisy here regarding the promotion of ‘diverse voices’ while using the same white supremacist, patriarchal, classist, and ableist tactics that keep the gates closed against those most marginalized. Gatekeeping is not inherently negative–quality checks challenge creatives to learn and grow. Gatekeepers can also filter out ideas that are inherently toxic, like fascism. But, let’s be honest: exactly what quality are our current gatekeepers actually preserving? The publishing world, podcasts, video games, venture capitalists, all of the key gatekeepers look very much the same, even after years of protests and financial evidence that the ‘quality’ of white, cis, straight, rich, abled patriarchy is not right–or even profitable.
That being said, this problem reflects an unending conundrum and entrenched history. This conversation brings up specters about the starving artist, about egos, about Hollywood, and about technology. It’s also about stories. It’s about the fact that even with so many content producers, the interesting point here is that no matter who I asked, people are still asking for more stories. People are still finding new ways to reach stories. People want stories. Experiencing stories is a fundamental part of being human. The problem is that the way people find them and create them has been restrained, censored, and gatekept in every way.
When I went to HollyShorts Film Festival in August 2022, my goal was two-fold: expand my professional network and advocate for fiction podcasts. First of all, podcasts were not well marketed at this festival. I was the only podcaster who showed up, and while I technically had the same level of access, the selected podcasts did not have nearly the amount of marketing support. The other films, and even web series, were broadcast physically at the TCL Chinese Theater. Podcasts were only being streamed via their digital platform and turns out my episode was the only one streamed because mine was the only one uploaded. Full disclosure: Mine wasn’t even the one that won best podcast, that was the wonderfully produced Earth Eclipsed. All of the other festival selections were printed on the festival brochure and were broadcast on the festival’s social media page. None of the podcasts were printed or promoted, not even the winner. Most of what I did to advocate for my show, and everyone else’s podcast to be honest, was through my word of mouth, my social media, and getting my questions answered at panels.
I am not here to bash HollyShorts (it was incredible as a networking and creative inspiration platform), but rather point out how far podcasts really have to go to be taken seriously as a medium. The cognitive dissonance enters when you consider another answer to a question I posed in the HollyShorts Film Producer and Finance panel. When I asked about the impact of podcasts both from the interest of producers to finance podcast projects and the interest of producers in podcast IP, I was told by a film company’s head of development that “producers right now are looking at two sources of IP: short stories and podcasts.” This statement resulted in a number of filmmakers coming up to me after the panel to discuss my experience in the industry. With this one question and one answer, the legitimacy of audio drama rose exponentially–not unlike the explosion of podcasts within popular culture. Other major film and media festivals such as Tribeca, Austin Film Festival, etc. have also taken steps to incorporate podcasts into their lineup and panels, but the focus appears to still be testing IP rather than value of the audio medium itself. Another question remains: is the entrance of ‘test podcasts’ by major players like Disney, Audible, and Spotify really effective at curating IP, or do indie productions have the upper hand in grabbing producer (and listener) attention?
The disbelief about impact is also rooted in a lack of cross-medium education. I learned a lot at HollyShorts, because most of the creatives there were based in Los Angeles–the global center of the entertainment industry. I came in from Washington, DC. Before HollyShorts, the extent of my industry experience was a brief encounter with an entertainment lawyer when Disney came knocking on my door and then passed on a Kalila adaptation. HollyShorts was an opportunity to both orient myself to the “LA scene” and see what all the fuss was about.
Experiencing stories is a fundamental part of being human. The problem is that the way people find them and create them has been restrained, censored, and gatekept in every way.
Turns out there’s a whole lot of fuss. Almost everyone I talked with lives and works in LA. I had a number of people surprised that I even made the trip from DC. In a hearthside chat with another executive producer, people pitched their stories to someone who admitted that he sees scripts only one of two ways: it’s gone through a gauntlet of gatekeeping and winning–not just being selected for–awards…or one of his A-list celebrity clients has told him to read something pitched to them. He emphasized that working in LA and getting those connections was crucial to getting your stuff seen by people like him.
At the same time, one producer and creator, who had what was (in my opinion) the best short film at the festival, described their film as a ‘fuck you’ to LA. In a panel on disability and diversity access, one person listed damning statistics regarding the lack of accommodations on set and lack of awareness in a city and industry that supposedly already went through its diversity reckoning. Over and over again, the sentiment that people need to go to LA to break into the industry seemed to ring hollow. The people actually making the films in LA were the harshest critics of the LA scene, and are now questioning that conventional wisdom. In the midst of unionization, mergers, big-industry meddling, rent skyrocketing, and cruel policies towards houselessness, the city of dreamers seems to be devolving more and more into a city of cynics. If the world is seeing the breaking up of the legitimacy of traditional gatekeepers, the traditional ‘gatekeeper city’ is just another example. (You could probably say the same of most large urban centers, but that’s expanding the scope of this essay too far for now.)
It’s also a pretty clear catalyst of the world-wide explosion of social media influencers, self-publishing, and podcasts.
I am a part of a research project called ICAP with the Commonwealth of Virginia, where I am focused on studying innovation in the podcast and general entertainment industry. In my 20+ interviews with people who consider themselves storytellers across mediums–D&D GMs, podcasters, museum curators, authors, marketers, audio engineers, and more–I have found a few interesting points of why, how, and when they seek out stories. I specifically asked questions about how they consume stories during recent years, considering the world and stress most of us are under.
- Most interviewees confirmed a love and consumption of sci-fi and fantasy genres across mediums, but most are seeking out lighter, less explicitly emotional activities and stories because of events in their life and communities.
- Addressing acute emotion (usually by talking with other people) is their primary focus after an event, but many still feel frustrated or uncertain afterwards even if they do take action. They are also trying to find people who can help guide them to get new perspectives.
- Many only start to reconcile their thoughts and feelings AFTER they take some kind of immediate action. They tend to turn towards new podcasts, television, and games to explore their unanswered questions and to reconcile the feeling that ‘they don’t know what they don’t know’.
To me, this particular orientation to consumption of stories is interesting. All of the people I interviewed were politically liberal or leftist and impacted emotionally by global and personal events. What I found most interesting, however, is that those who create stories were more likely to write about allegories of those events, but as listeners/readers/watchers, people are turning towards ‘comfort/escapist’ stories to ease their stress. They are also more concerned with trusting the source of their recommendations rather than just choosing what an algorithm spits out. These two trends highlight an interesting dynamic–and conflict–between creator, audience, and platform. If people who are creating are not creating stories they themselves feel a need for, and if platforms are unreliable drivers of consumption, it seems that this whole system of gatekeeping has obscured the true desires for different kinds of stories.
Through these interviews, I also picked up a few more trends specific to podcasting:
- Indie podcast shows are often the only ones nominated for awards despite a corporate entrance into the market.
- Most creators AND listeners are still encountering a severe challenge regarding marketing, saturation, and discoverability (don’t like gatekeeping, but it’s hard to choose a gate).
- Desire for innovative stories, and a desire for stories exploring ‘new mythologies’ from non-Western cultures.
- LGBTQIA/BIPOC young adults who are seeking podcasts and their fandoms to trust, participate and see themselves in. Many have also pointed out that there is still not enough representation of race and ethnicity in fiction podcasts or within its production.
(Full disclosure: I am withholding a few findings that are specific to business decisions I hope to make soon. These decisions are honestly more tailored to my proprietary production model and more experimental than helpful to everyone for now. I hope to share more findings as I test them out.)
I think that audio drama and fiction podcasts are in a unique position. Like many mediums, we have to reckon with traditional gatekeepers closing ranks, and what that impact is going to be down the road. Podcasts have, quite famously, been touted as a medium without gatekeepers. That is not quite true, and the lack of racial diversity and struggles of both producers and listeners with the ‘discoverability’ question is evidence of that. Whether it is the Spotify algorithm, corporate sponsors, industry podcasts, or simply lack of marketing education and financial literacy for podcasters, we absolutely have gatekeeping factors to making it in the medium and making the medium itself something to take seriously.
However, scripted podcasters–indie and otherwise–have the potential to counter this and accommodate those creatives who have been marginalized by traditional mediums, especially those that are continuing to close ranks. The nature of open source technology like RSS also offers an opportunity to retain and download (e.g. Preserve This Podcast) to fight against the threat of disappearance of stories. Therefore, it is my view that scripted podcasters should be embedded in events around traditional media and advocate for the legitimacy of audio as a way for stories to be heard. Podcasts won’t necessarily be a replacement for film, television, books, or video games, but we should consider ourselves a part of the growing shift towards mind-bogglingly curated, deeply flawed gatekeeping and the rise of independent production that counters it. There is an interesting question to be had about how self-publishers, indie game developers, short film producers, and other indie creatives are handling this seismic entertainment industry shift in the midst of economic insecurity–and how podcasters can be a part of that conversation.
Lisette Alvarez (they/them) is the founder and executive producer of Stormfire Productions. They are the creator of award-winning fantasy podcast KALILA STORMFIRE'S ECONOMICAL MAGIC SERVICES, and co-producer of BLACK FRIDAYand the upcoming THE ORTIZ TWINS ARE COMING HOME. Aside from evangelizing the magic of audio drama, Alvarez is an aspiring novelist, seasoned digital strategist, and enthusiastic globetrotter. Alvarez currently lives in the Washington, DC metro area with their husband and two cats. Follow their travels near and far on Twitter @lisetttewalking. Lisette Alvarez is also available to consult on your next fiction podcast project! Let's make more stories together.