Are We Witnessing The Death of the Episodic Narrative?

Single-season episodic narratives are hard to make, and even harder to make successful. What can we learn?

Welcome to Dispatch #11 of The Audio Insurgent

My friend and collaborator Will Page is having a busy few weeks. First, we have a new podcast coming out this month, called Bubble Trouble. It’s an independent and unfiltered perspective on...financial markets. Not a topic many would expect from me, but it is kinda badass and kinda awesome. We’re super excited about it.

Will’s first book is also coming out...today. It is called Tarzan Economics: Eight Principles For Pivoting Through Disruption. It is a fantastic book. I can only read about 10-15 pages at a time because I have to stop and let what I just read work through my mind. Given his history as Chief Economist for Spotify and PRS for Music, there are lots of ideas in the book that are of use to podcasting. Will was recently a guest on Podland and said this:

"[Podcasting is] a transfer of ideas in an intimate setting. Now what makes podcasts really beautiful for me is they crack intimacy. The internet can scale just about everything, but it can't scale intimacy. And if podcasting, as an industry, plays its cards right, it might even correct for that. We could have a huge business, which preserves intimacy. That's the balancing act."

I love that notion.

So, let’s crack some intimacy.

Today I have one small thing, about my new/old favorite mic, and one big thing, the next installment in looking at “Why Things Don’t Work.”


[BIG THING: THE DEATH OF THE EPISODIC NARRATIVE?]

There are a few things that I regularly hear from those interested in podcasting. The most common is when I hear from someone, often a friend of a friend, sometimes they are well-known storytellers, others aspire to become one. They say they have a multiple episode narrative story. Inspired by Serial, or Bag Man, or Dirty John, they want to make a podcast about this story.

Before we go further, when I talk about “episodic narratives,” I’m really talking about a nonfiction narrative story told over 6, 8, 10, or whatever number of episodes. Often it is a single-season story with a terminal end.

I’m generally an optimistic guy. But when I get one of these calls, I tend to get...real.

My response generally is “Don’t bother. These types of shows are increasingly hard to place...and even if you did find someone interested in greenlighting it, the terms will be so weighed against you that you won’t want to do it anymore.”

When podcasting began, I don’t think anyone thought it would be a space for episodic narratives. For many years, podcasting was mostly chat shows and ported broadcast content. I’m struggling to think of what could be considered the first native multi-episode episodic narrative podcast. It happened sometime between the first podcast feed 20 years ago and the debut of Serial in 2014. In fact, it could actually be Serial, but I doubt that.

Regardless, despite the fame and fortune of the major episodic narratives that we all can name, let’s be honest: almost all of them fail to make back the money invested in them and/or attract a significant audience. This fact escapes most wanna-be creators. And I’m not talking about a 1-in-100 chance of success, but more like a 1-in-100,000 chance. 

Yet, despite the huge level of risk, and precious few examples of success, either out of ignorance, hubris, or a “damn the torpedoes” attitude--almost every journalist, journalism organization, or narrative storyteller enters podcasting trying to make one. 

Worth noting that I love this kind of storytelling. This dispatch isn’t meant to imply that they aren’t great podcasts, but making them successful was always hard--and is getting worse. Many have written about the woes and trials of greenlighting narrative projects. Today, I want to see what lessons we can take from them:

  • Why do some succeed?

  • Why do all the others fail?

  • What does this tell us about the future?

Why do some succeed?

When I look at what has worked in single-season episodic narratives, I’ve noticed some common characteristics. This isn’t true for every success, but is present in a lot of them.

They came from a producer that also makes a regular show with an established large audience. S-Town and Serial came from the makers of This American Life. Caliphate and Rabbit Hole came from the makers of The Daily. Dolly Parton’s America came from the makers of Radiolab. Atlanta Monster had How Stuff Works behind it. There are shockingly few exceptions to this rule. Missing Richard Simmons comes to mind as one exception (even though there were significant companies behind it, they lacked a major vehicle to launch it) and...not many others, though I’m sure there are a couple more. But by and large, the big successful hit narrative series you can think of...almost all came from producers of established, large shows who used those established, large shows to quickly gain momentum and attract audience. Something that might seem like an exception, but really isn’t, is Wondery. They’ve had lots of success in this type of storytelling. But instead of having a single large audience show to launch from--they have really mastered the ability to move audience from one show to another by delivering a consecutive string of programs that more-or-less share similar appeal.

Taking the above in a different direction, they all had established revenue pipelines. Probably the single biggest buzz kill for the single season episodic narrative podcast is that they are almost impossible to monetize on their own. Let’s say your grand narrative adventure plays out over 10 episodes. Most major underwriting deals are laid into place a minimum of 90 days in advance. So even if your show is a hit on Day 1, by the time the ad buy is in place, your series is over. And there is a massive bias from mainstream ad buyers against purchasing long tail content. Which, to me, makes no sense. If you are inserting ads dynamically and someone is listening to an episode from February...who cares? Yet the value of older episodes is fractional compared to brand new episodes. Most ad purchases for these successful single-episode narratives came from existing relationships. There is only so much inventory on The Daily or This American Life, so ad buyers purchase on the spin-offs instead.

Subscriptions are an exciting and maturing avenue for revenue--but what are you asking someone to subscribe to when your story is terminal? That’s more like purchasing something (not a crazy idea--many companies, including my former employer, do quite well selling audio). But unless you have an articulated plan for revenue, up front, it is hard to generate the dollars that can justify the investment.

They took the time to make it right. It isn’t unheard of for a decent long-form magazine writer to crank out an award-winning enterprise piece in 10-12 weeks. Most fail to understand that the same story told in audio won’t take 10-12 weeks, rather, it would probably take nine months to a year to produce. Again, the exact same story. I honestly can’t even begin to count the number of media companies (who should know better) who have brought a story to me to produce on a too-short timeline. S-Town took two years to make. West Cork, which we made at Audible and recently had a hit run as a free podcast, took two and a half years to make. This also circles back to exacerbate the revenue problems with short-term narratives, as they are not only hard to monetize, but all that time makes them expensive to produce.

They had an audience plan. Think back to the launch of Serial. Podcasts were such an unknown entity at that time that Ira Glass filmed a companion video on how to listen to them, staring his neighbor, Mary. The kicker, their suggested way to “get a podcast” was to go to a web page and hit a play button. The important takeaway here is that when they made Serial, they thought “we have to help this show connect to its audience.” They identified friction points and addressed them. It never ceases to amaze me how talent and organizations can spend upwards of a year and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars producing a podcast, yet spend almost no time thinking through how it will find an audience. It isn’t magic. It isn’t luck. It is deliberate. Think of a successful narrative show...they had a plan and executed it. Which leads to...

Why do all the others fail?

No clear reason why it’s an audio story. This is much more about editorial choices about what to do and how to do it, rather than the economic factors that determine success. Whenever we talk about a narrative project at Magnificent Noise, someone in the room raises the question, “Why is this an audio story?” Sure, it is a great story, but why is audio the right platform? A friend of mine came to me about a year ago very excited because he had purchased an option on a non-fiction book he loved. His long-term plans were to make a movie from this idea, but he was curious if a podcast on the story might help generate interest in financing and distributing the film. The problem was only one person involved in the story was still alive (and quite elderly) and there wasn’t a tremendous amount of archival tape, either. So we’d be telling this story with little first-person tape...or much of any tape for that matter. I could write a book (and have) about the power of audio, but let’s just say here that you lose so much of the benefits of audio storytelling when you lack access to the central characters nor have many tape assets to work with. Not impossible, but it just makes the hill so steep and hard to climb.

We’re going to just throw it out there and see what happens. Man, if I had a nickel for everytime I hear this. We want to experiment (good!). We are going to take some risks (great!). Then, afterwards, we are just going to put it out as a podcast and see if it attracts an audience (very, very bad!). This approach implies a question: that there are numerous potential outcomes that may happen, and the future course for this project is a bit of a mystery. When I hear this, I tell them, “There is no mystery! There are not multiple possible outcomes! I can tell you now exactly what will happen...and that’s nothing will happen!”

(That paragraph had a lot of exclamation points. Often they are a sign of weak arguments...or complete and exhausting frustration.)

There may have been a time, early in podcasting, when you could count on word of mouth alone, or a few, small gestures, to effectively draw attention to your podcast. But with 20,000 new podcasts a week, and so many talented people and organizations entering the space...having a podcast, even about a really interesting story, isn’t enough. Without a clear audience plan, it is just about impossible to be successful. Sure, the busker on the street corner could theoretically be offered a recording contract and become a star--but how often does that actually happen?

The gnome underpants strategy. Kinda related to the above, but here, instead of wondering what can happen, you just bypass the issue entirely.

Not every question has an answer, nor do you need an answer to start a project. But eventually, you need an answer. There are many times when I see people starting narrative podcasts, then whisper to one of my colleagues, “Gnome Underpants.” I’m referring to this clip from South Park where a group of gnomes decide they are going to become rich selling underpants.

Their plan:

  1. Collect underpants

  2. ?

  3. Profits!

That second stage is the kicker. 

The narrative podcast version is:

  1. Produce amazing narrative story

  2. ?

  3. Profits!

The story isn’t enough, even if it is well-resourced and brilliantly told. I used to think one of the greatest things about podcasting was that great work could always find an audience--that the “?” could be an unknown, because podcasting’s growth, momentum, and low barrier to entry would solve all that. 

But that isn’t the case anymore. One downside of podcasting growing up to be a mainstream media is that now a lot of the rules of how mainstream media work are encroaching on podcasting as well.

So if this work is getting harder and harder to make, and make successful, are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the single-season episodic non-fiction narrative? Yes and no.

No, because someone will find a way to figure this out, eventually. And those that can make it work today should be able to keep the seats warm until there is more room for others.

Yes, because there are so many episodic narratives that are already dead, and don’t know it. Arguably, they were dead the minute they started production, because those who created and distributed it did not set it up for success.

Even more disturbing is how many organizations are trying to do episodic narratives on the cheap. In fact, look through the podcast charts, almost every episodic narrative you see is produced on the cheap. They give a creator and, maybe, a producer a few months to crank out a minimum viable product, then complain that it isn’t the next Serial (often blaming the creator and producer).

The downward pressure on costs results in a downward pressure on innovation and risk-taking. Less risk-taking is dangerous. Podcasting will only continue to advance if the producers, networks, and distributors take risks. That doesn’t mean dumb risk, but smart, purposeful risk. And the risk-taking needs to be listener-centric, meaning that it is meant to take big swings at creating podcasts that will delight and excite listeners. Because when listeners benefit, the business benefits, and everything has a magical way of working out. The minute you remove listener-centric risk-taking from the equation, podcasting will start to look a lot like the state of broadcast radio.


[SMALL THING: ODE TO THE RE-20] I’ve recently fallen back in love with the Electro-Voice RE20. You’ve seen them everywhere for decades (they were first introduced in 1968). When I first started in radio, while I was still a teenager, they were the broadcast mic of choice. I haven’t used one in a long time, but since COVID forced people to turn closets, guest rooms, and sheds into recording studios, I’ve started to use these more and more.

Two reasons for this: First, it is rare to have a mic that sounds this good and be so rugged. So it is great for giving to those who aren’t used to handling expensive (and sensitive) audio equipment. If you are cutting some narration tracks, then notice a loose nail in your floor boards, you can just unplug your RE20 and whack the hell of the errant nail (I’m joking, but this thing could easily double as a weapon if need be)--try THAT with your precious Neumann. And if you put a foamie on it, you can stick the thing fully in your mouth and it will still sound clean. Again, most great sounding mics are far too fussy.

Second, the pick-up pattern of an RE20 goes really far to fight against room noise and tone, giving you a clean, rich sound without a lot of echo-y ambience.

To me, the biggest challenge of this past year hasn’t been to closets and room noise, it has been the lack of proximity to the talent. Even in Zoom or Squadcast, you can’t fully see how your talent is setting up and using their mic. Sometimes you can’t see if they are talking into the back of it, or have the gain set wrong, or all those plosives are just because they slowly inch themselves closer to the mic, which you can’t see via the video camera.

The RE20 isn’t cheap (yet it is still half the price of a decent Neumann), and of course you need an audio interface to record digitally on your computer, but it is a forgiving mic. And in these pandemic times, having things around us that are forgiving is sometimes all we need.


Okay, that’s it for this dispatch.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention…

Last time I asked for some help to push the newsletter to 1,000 subscribers. I came close, but not quite close enough. I went from 889 to 959. So close!

So, I’ll ask for help again if you weren’t able to do so last time: If you are a current subscriber, could you tell one person about The Audio Insurgent? If you are a reader, but not a subscriber, would you mind hitting the button below and subscribing?

And remember, you are also always welcome to buy me a beer

Make great things. I’ll be listening.

--Eric