Let us set the scene: It’s spring of 2006 — Facebook is barely two years old and its users are exclusively college and high school students, Twitter is a text message experiment, and the first widely adopted smartphone (the iPhone) won’t exist for another year. While avoiding grading papers, I stumble across a Craigslist ad seeking writers to help reinvent a classic form of entertainment for this brave new digital age: the idea is to tell a story as captivating as anything on television today (like Lost or The Office) using only dialogue, sound effects, and music, like in old time radio. This show (and future ones like it) will be distributed via “podcast.”
It sounded amazing. Sign me the hell up! PS: ...What’s a podcast?
This show became Second Shift, and when I began listening to podcasts around this time to figure out what they were and how to create them, I did so via a very intuitive and easy-to-use process that involved finding a show’s RSS feed, submitting that RSS feed through iTunes, downloading the latest episodes to my computer, and then using Apple’s proprietary USB cord to sync them to this device:
You were often not going to find audio drama podcasts on the iTunes Music Store unless you already knew the title of the show, so discoverability was a slow and imperfect process; we did eventually learn about and befriend other early pioneers of modern audio drama — The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, Decoder Ring Theatre, and The Post-Meridian Radio Players, among others — but there was nothing like the explosion of audio drama shows and the warm, gigantic community of podcasters like there is today. (And again, see above re: Twitter — back in my day if we wanted to talk to each other we had to write an email! And we called them pound signs, not “hashtags”! Get off my lawn!) We mostly had to figure out how to do this thing on our own.
(Here I need to include a disclaimer about how other parts of the world never quite let radio drama die in the way we had in the U.S. — BBC Radio, for example, was still actively producing scripted audio stories of exactly the kind we were naively trying to “reinvent.” But did we know that? We did not know that.)
We originally had the main character Shauna breaking into narration whenever there was a scene transition or an action sequence, which we assumed was the only way to describe to the listener things they couldn’t see, until I borrowed from the library an ancient cassette tape collection of The Adventures of Superman. Listening to an episode at random (forgive me — there are many hundreds of them, and I cannot now locate this exact one), a character encounters Superman in costume for the first time, and he very smoothly describes Superman’s costume, cape, and stylized “S” insignia in a way that made sense in that moment and for that character, as a natural part of his conversation with Superman. No narration needed! This was a big breakthrough for me personally as a nascent audio dramatist: I started to get really excited about all the stories you could tell, and the ways you could tell them, in this medium.
Once we launched the show in June of 2006, our puzzle then became teaching people how to listen to it. This, of course, is a labor not unfamiliar to audio dramatists of today, but imagine telling people that they should listen to your podcast eight full years before Serial thrust podcasts into the mainstream. You not only had to describe the premise of your show in an enticing manner, but also explain
what is an audio drama,
what is a podcast,
where they can listen to podcasts,
that they don’t need an iPod (but can use one if they’d like),
that it’s free,
that they can give us money if they’d like through our PayPal button? (Patreon wouldn’t exist for another seven years),
but they did not have to give us money,
again, it is free, and
no, we also do not know how we’re going to make money doing this.
Today, I have an audio drama podcast of my very own that launched earlier this year called The Ordinary Epic, which has been a wholly different challenge for me — instead of being one of the first on the scene, I’m returning to a now-mature and prolific medium that has an agreed-upon language, best practices, and a very engaged community of creators and fans. (And also, sometimes, book and TV deals.) But the work is exactly the same as it was in the spring of 2006: to tell a captivating story using only dialogue, sound effects, and music.
I’m still learning. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.