I am here to give you news you might not want to hear: your audio drama (or fiction podcast) should be less ambitious. “But Tal,” you say, “I want this show to be the best thing ever.” I also want your show to be the best thing ever. The secret, which few people discuss, is that you should scale back the scope of your podcast across your production.
Scale Back Production
It’s tough to accept, but reducing the scope of your audio drama to match the budget and skills you have on hand will make for a better show. At minimum, you need to look at what is feasible to make without burning yourself out. Running a weekly production where you’re the writer, audio editor, and entire marketing team is not sustainable. If it’s not in your budget to hire crew, scale back production by building a backlog or changing to a bi-weekly or even monthly release schedule. This will give you time to make the episodes the best they can be. If you have some money to hire cast and crew, but not much money, a route to consider is having shorter episodes or fewer episodes in a season. Tighten your scripts, kill your darlings, and only keep the parts that serve a purpose in the story. Besides decreasing the budget, you’ll have better pacing and episodes that pack a stronger punch. Your audio drama does not need to have 30 minute episodes or 20 episodes in a season to be successful.
This advice is especially pertinent for first-time audio drama creators! Consider succeeding at a smaller scale before advancing to a larger one. Showrunning is a difficult business, and jumping in head first to manage a show with a double-digit cast and crew will come with double-digit surprises. The smaller your show is, the smaller the problems that arise, and the more manageable it will be.
Work with your constraints instead of against them.
Narrators and Framing Devices
If you’re not an experienced sound designer, write a narrator into your show to describe what’s happening. This can also be useful if you’re working with a sound designer, but have a limited budget and don’t want to pay for intense action-heavy scenes. These scenes, which can include fights, car chases, or cooking a meal, take a lot of time and therefore, a lot of money. If you’re working with a free DAW, such as Audacity or Garageband, you’re likely also going to be limited by what plugins you can use. Understand the audio production tool you have, and write for them (unless you’re looking for an excuse to upgrade and download a footstep generator, in which case live your dreams). A program like Audacity is prone to crash when you’ve got 40+ tracks or more than an hour of audio, so modifying the format of your show to avoid this will help you in the long run.
If you’re limited by sound quality, utilize a framing device to cover poor audio. If audio is supposed to sound compressed or distorted, it won’t break audience immersion to hear it like that. On the flip side, if two characters are talking in the same room and their voice actors sound like they are recording in two very different spaces, your scene will suffer. But if, for example, you have that conversation over the phone, the listener will not find anything amiss. You can also avoid limiting yourself by sound quality by watching for it in the casting phase. This could mean investing in an external microphone and recording in a closet if you’re working by yourself or with local friends, or requiring good sound quality from remote voice actors. The latter suggestion will limit who you can work with, which is another constraint you may need to scale back to meet.
Work With Your Constraints and Plan Ahead
The advice here of “work with constraints instead of against them” holds true across most jobs in audio drama. If you’re not an experienced writer, you don’t have to write intense episodes with shocking reveals at every turn. The strength of audio drama is that it works across genres, and if your strength is “mundane” slice of life, your writing can succeed here. If you’re not an experienced voice actor, but plan on being your own narrator, keep that in mind when you’re outlining your show. Don’t put in a big emotional scene you can’t portray – scale it back and drive that point home in another way. In a similar vein, if you’re not an experienced composer, utilize royalty-free music instead of making your own. You can even pick the music you want to use ahead of time and write for it.
You might notice a trend in what I’ve written so far – almost all my advice happens during the writing and planning stage. It’s very difficult to refine the scope of your audio drama after your script has been locked in. This is partially why I advocate for finishing your script and casting all voice actors before publishing your first episode. Before your show has gone out into the world, anything about it can change. Don’t give up that flexibility until you have to!
As I mentioned earlier, building a backlog in your production schedule is another way to refine the scope of your show. Especially if you’re running a volunteer or low-budget show, giving your cast and crew flexibility in their deadlines is crucial. It’s possible that what might make or break your episode is giving the sound designer an extra two weeks to work on it. It’s almost counterintuitive that a longer schedule means a reduced scope, but ultimately it decreases the intensity of work and minimizes long hours. If you do this before announcing a launch date, you’ll just have a better podcast (and a happier cast and crew) to show for it.
Ultimately, this article is all about playing to your strengths. Be aware of what you’re good at and be honest about what you lack, and shift your project where your skills can shine. At the end of the day, refining the scope of your audio drama is not about making it worse – execute it with confidence, and nobody will think you were even considering something else.
Tal is a nonbinary voice actor, sound designer, and fiction podcast producer. They're the creator of Sidequesting, What Will Be Here?, Someone Dies In This Elevator, and several other productions that can be found hiding under rugs and around corners. Follow them on twitter @starplanes and find more of their work at talminear.com.