Cartoon Gravity 7 - Audio Fiction

Some semi-random musings on audio fiction...

Cartoon Gravity 7 - Audio Fiction
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash

As you may have noted from social media, this last month has brought two green lights from the world of BBC audio. Radio 4 has asked for another Aldrich Kemp series, this one titled "Who Killed Aldrich Kemp?" (a question for which I don't yet have an answer). I need to get that written in the next couple of months and we plan to record it before Christmas for broadcast in Spring 2023.

The broadcast schedule on Who Killed Aldrich Kemp? has pushed back the other greenlit project slightly; Lovecraft Investigations Season 4 is now officially happening, and that should be in your ears later in 2023, but there may be bits and pieces of Pleasant Green-related activity before that.

I'm obviously hugely excited to get back into both of these shows and am ramping up the note-taking and research accordingly. As usual, there will not be too many clues forthcoming about what either of these stories will contain, but I have some big ideas for both.

Our company, Storypunk, is also in the process of negotiating a deal for "Temporal", the sci-fi podcast we made last year. I can't talk about that deal before it is done, but for those who have been asking what's happening with the show, I'm hoping we can make an announcement soon.

All of which has me thinking more and more about the world of audio fiction...

It's a strange thing, making podcasts with the commercial market in mind. Most of the audio I have been involved with up until now has been made for the BBC. That arrangement comes with its own set of restrictions and compromises, but I really like the speed and immediacy of the process - the shows are released almost as soon as we've finished making them.

Working commercially is inevitably a different process. What we gain in terms of bigger budgets and therefore more resources, we lose in immediacy. People need to negotiate, to consult, to give notes, to plan, to schedule, to come up with publicity strategies and marketing campaigns. All of that, understandably, takes time. But it also drains energy from the process, not for the audience, hopefully, but in terms of feeling like we're moving fast as storytellers and creating new stuff quickly.

No one is yet getting rich making audio fiction, so the reward comes in the form of momentum and creative freedom. The BBC provides both. Whatever your views on the BBC, they deserve a lot of credit for letting these shows grow organically into what they needed to be - neither Lovecraft nor Aldrich Kemp was commissioned on any more than a two or three line pitch and both only really came to life during the process of writing them.

But the BBC have systematically cut their fiction budgets over the past decade or more, to the point that getting to make two shows in a year is almost unheard of. There certainly isn't enough in the BBC coffers to fund the medium to the level that it needs, or to compete with the commercial interests that have entered the market.

The commercial world, by its nature, is the antithesis of the BBC. Commercial companies require pitches and outlines and detailed treatments, and those folk feel obliged to give notes and make changes at every stage, because they have bosses to report to, who report to boards, who report to shareholders, and so on. Everyone along the chain lives in perpetual fear of the people above them. It's a navigable process, as I know from my TV and film experience, and it can and does produce good results sometimes. But it's a process that is inherently, if unconsciously, biased against the original and the strange. I don't believe that either the Lovecraft Investigations or Aldrich Kemp could have been born in that environment.

I remain optimistic about fiction podcasts, even though the road is bumpy. Movies are in flux at the moment; for a hot minute, theatrical was dead and everything was headed for the streamers, and now Warners seem intent on reversing that trend. But wherever movies are delivered to you, the more urgent problem is that budgets are getting bigger and stories are getting dumber. The smart stories have, mostly, moved over to television. But making a TV show is a huge commitment in terms of time and money and it is still always difficult to guide a strange or original idea through that development maze.

Audio is in no danger of overtaking either movies or TV, but it is still a place where scrappy, interesting ideas can flourish. And the relationship with the audience is more personal and intimate; we're literally whispering in your ear. As with books, the listener has to bring some imagination to the experience; you have to meet us halfway and conjure the images in your head. It's often a less passive medium than watching a show or a movie. That means the audience is smaller, but it also means it's more loyal and more committed to the medium.

As podcast fiction grows, though, there is a danger that it becomes infected by the groupthink of other media. More and more, TV and film companies are turning their attention to the possibilities of fiction audio. They look at it like they look at books and magazine articles; is there a story here that we can turn into a movie or a TV show?

That scrutiny can be mutually advantageous, because selling a piece of fiction audio to a movie studio generates enough revenue to make more. But increasingly these companies want to get in on the ground floor and fund the podcast in the first place, so that they can own the thing. While that has an obvious upside (they're paying to make your show) the reality is that the minute they write that cheque, they also want to start shaping the story, to make it into something that can be more easily adapted into another medium. And so here comes the committee and the notes and the "can we see a detailed outline?", and thus creativity starts to shrivel up and die.

TV and film companies can't help themselves; they have developed stories the same way for decades and the notion of just leaving creatives alone to do their thing, even though the financial risk is negligible with audio budgets, is just unthinkable.

Even where TV and film companies are not directly involved at the outset, their attitude is nonetheless infectious. There are already audio companies out there that have their sights so firmly fixed on selling their podcasts into those media that they are compromising their stories from the outset; stripping away that which is unique to audio in favour of something that will more obviously work when adapted for the screen.

All of which is to say that this is at once a promising and a dangerous time for fiction audio. The medium is starting to grow, which is great, but we have to be careful about the direction in which it grows. There will always be big studios wading into a space where they think they can make money, and they will alway throttle originality because that is their nature. Likewise, there will always be a few brave souls making their podcasts for no money at home, and some of those will be original and astounding and will break through.

What I'm interested in now is the middle ground. How do we make the next Lovecraft Investigations/Aldrich Kemp/Temporal on budgets sufficient to fully realise the vision (and, crucially, to pay everyone properly) whilst at the same time retaining creative independence?

Audio fiction is a great playground for creative talent. We need to find a way to expand it whilst simultaneously protecting it from the more destructive elements of corporate interest.