What’s behind the meteoric rise of science fiction podcasts?

Art for Welcome to Night Vale

Zach Valenti just couldn’t seem to get any work in the voiceover industry. After graduating with a degree in film studies from Wesleyan University in 2012, he began trying to secure voiceover gigs, but though he made some initial progress by signing an agent, he wasn’t booking anything. “I was totally feeling uncreative and kind of stuck,” he told me.

Then one day Valenti was tagged in the comments of a Facebook post written by Gabriel Urbina. A fellow Wesleyan University grad, Urbina had been trying to gain a foothold in the entertainment industry but was, at the time, mostly paying the bills by writing ad copy. But he was struck one night with an idea for a one-man radio play and took to Facebook to ask if anyone knew any good voice actors. “A friend tagged me and a minute later I was in his inbox shaking him down for a pilot,” Valenti said. “He then sent me the show bible he’d written.”

A show bible is a television industry document that’s typically created for the process of pitching studios. It contains detailed sketches of all the main characters and a broad overview of the show’s plot, themes, and other distinguishing characteristics. Urbina’s bible outlined Wolf 359, a science fiction show that’s set on board the U.S.S. Hephaestus space station and follows the hijinks of  communications officer Doug Eiffel as he investigates a mysterious signal from deep space.

“I loved [the show bible], so I asked for a pilot,” recalled Valenti. “He writes a pilot. But it’s just OK. It’s good, but he originally envisioned the series as a one man show.” Welcome to Night Vale, another speculative fiction podcast, had achieved massive popularity while featuring a single narrator named Cecil, but Valenti felt the plot for Urbina’s show warranted a more ambitious undertaking. “It felt like we were depriving the audience of all these characters. My biggest piece of feedback was could we do this as an ensemble show? He wasn’t thrilled about that at first.” A larger cast meant all sorts of headaches, from the process of casting to coordinating rehearsals and recordings. But Valenti was persistent, and eventually Urbina caved. “He grumbled a bit, went back, rewrote it, and it’s freaking amazing.”

With Valenti signed on, the two immediately set about finding the rest of the cast. They soon convinced Emma Sherr-Ziarko to play the role of Commander Minkowski, Michaela Swee to play Hera, and Alan Rodi to compose the show’s music. All three were also Wesleyan grads (are you sensing a pattern here?). Within a few months the cast came together, first for table reads and then to record the show. And then in August 2014 they debuted Wolf 359, launching the first three episodes simultaneously.

At first, the Wolf 359 podcast struggled to attract an audience. “In the early days we were getting 100 downloads a day maximum,” said Valenti. “It was from our moms and lord knows who else.” They tried promoting the show through Reddit and other social networks but didn’t get much traction. But as they continued to pump out new episodes, the show’s download numbers slowly began to rise. One day, several months in, an episode was downloaded 300 times in the span of 24 hours. “That’s when we first realized this was going to be a thing.” Sarah Shachat, who later joined the team as a writer, told me that nobody could quite figure out what served as the catalyst that allowed Wolf 359 to find a wider audience. “I think we had some unknown influencer on Tumblr or Reddit that included us in a list of really great podcasts, and then everyone who looked at that tried it out and included us on their lists of really great podcasts. It snowballed from there.”

The cast was soon astonished when they stumbled across fan art for the show on Tumblr, and social media users began to tag the show in posts in which they tried to make guesses about future plot points. “I think the biggest thing we did to promote the show is that as people outside our network found it and started reaching out to us, we engaged with them, and we didn’t let them go,” said Valenti. “The second we started getting fan art on Tumblr, it was the only thing we talked about that week. The second people started to guess at the mystery, we started being coy and playfully trolling them, trying to have as much fun with the community online as we could. And that has been the biggest source of growth, our just fanning the flames of what we couldn’t have really started on our own.”

Midway through the seconds season, the show started to see hockey stick growth. “I was working at a startup at the time,” said Valenti. “And just looking at graphs for what successful startups should look like and seeing that kind of growth in this podcast, I was like all right, that’s kind of interesting.” New fans weren’t jumping in mid-season, but instead were going back to the first episode and listening to it from the beginning. To date, the pilot episode has over 80,000 downloads, and at the premiere of each season Wolf 359 breaks a new record. “I think we just had a 35,000 download day for our return for season four, which is over 10,000 more than our last best single day ever for a single episode,” he said.  

Wolf 359 had joined a growing list of science fiction podcasts that have experienced explosive popularity in recent years. One of the earliest and most popular entrants to this genre is Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast created in 2012 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor that follows the minutia and ongoing happenings in Night Vale, a fictional desert town “where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” Narrated by a radio host named Cecil, Welcome to Night Vale documents the macabre and surreal lives of the town’s inhabitants. The show’s audience is enormous, something that quickly becomes evident if you watch any YouTube footage from its sold-out live shows hosted all around the world.

Welcome to Night Vale wasn’t an anomaly. The Message, a podcast created through a collaboration between GE and the Panoply podcast network, featured a narrator host who follows around a team of cryptographers as they try to decrypt a 70-year old message captured from outer space. The show received 8 million downloads and made it easy for GE to justify funding a follow-up podcast titled LifeAfter. Many of these shows adopt either a found-footage or docudrama format, mimicking the public radio approach that millions of podcast listeners have grown used to and recognize.

But why are we seeing so many entrants to the science fiction podcast realm, and how did this genre of shows attract such a large audience given that narrative fiction audio hasn’t been popular in the U.S. for several decades?

According to Valenti, a serialized fiction podcast is an inexpensive way for aspiring filmmakers to gain recognition in the industry. “The reason you’re seeing all these shows crop up is because it’s so much less expensive to experiment and prove yourself as a storyteller in this medium, more than any other,” he said. It used to be that Hollywood directors got their foot in the door with short, independent films, but even those kinds of projects require significant resources. “With podcasts, you don’t have to spend any money on locations,” he explained. “You don’t have to spend any money on cameras, hardware, or hiring a cinematographer. And even if you have the footage, and you had a decent camera, which you probably had to rent because they cost thousands of dollars a day, you’re getting someone to color grade everything after it’s over.” Podcasts rarely require anything more than decent mics, actors, and audio mixing technology. And speaking of actors, your average voiceover performer costs much less to hire than a SAG member.

[LIKE THIS ARTICLE SO FAR? THEN YOU’LL REALLY WANT TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER. IT’S DELIVERED ONCE A WEEK AND PACKED WITH MY TECH AND MEDIA ANALYSIS, STUFF YOU WON’T FIND ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE WEB. SUBSCRIBE OVER HERE]

As for the audience, Sarah Shachat argued that it’s a relatively small but especially fervent base of fans that listen to all these podcasts. “There is a sort of audio drama community of folks who just really like this particular wading pond,” she said. “I would say it tends to be a very geeky audience skewed toward 18 to 34-year-old females for the majority of our demographic.”

Marco Palmieri and Jennifer Gunnels, two editors at TOR, the book imprint from Tom Doherty Associates that’s primarily known for publishing genre fiction, said that science fiction podcasts are simply carrying on a radio play tradition that stretches back decades. They listed several shows — Dr. Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, War of the Worlds, Buck Rogers — that attracted millions of listeners, and in some cases still produce new episodes to this day. “America sort of lost its love for audio drama,” said Palmieri. “The British never did. They have been doing audio dramas since before the advent of television. With the existence of podcast technology, it’s sort of become a game changer in terms of portability and accessibility. It’s allowed American audiences to rediscover the joy of the audio drama.”

But while the audience for serialized genre podcasts has grown, the business side, especially advertising, has lagged behind.  “Advertisers are still feeling it out,” Jeffrey Cranor, the co-creator of Welcome to Night Vale, told Wired last year. Some attribute this to the different listening habits that go along with serialized fiction podcasts. If you become a fan of Slate’s Political Gabfest, you’re unlikely to go back and listen to an episode that’s more than a few weeks old. But with fiction podcasts, it’s not uncommon for a new listener to scroll back through years of episodes to start at the beginning. With the audience more spread out, it can be difficult for brands to time their ads so they reach the maximum number of listeners. “The most valuable placement for an ad in a podcast is the mid-roll,” said Valenti, referencing ads that interrupt an episode midway, “which we’re allergic to. We’d be down for pre-roll ads” — those that broadcast before the episode starts — “but we haven’t had any compelling offers.”

Some shows have seen success with expanding or selling their IP to other mediums. Homecoming, the Gimlet Media podcast that featured the voice acting of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer, was picked up for a television adaptation by Amazon Studios and is set to star Julia Roberts. Alice Isn’t Dead, a serialized podcast produced by the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, announced recently it’s getting adapted into both a TV show and novel.  

Steal the Stars, a new podcast produced by Tor Books, was launched with this multi-media approach in mind. Spearheaded by Marco Palmieri and Jennifer Gunnels, the aforementioned Tor editors, the idea for the show came out of a conversation Gunnels, a former drama critic, had with some theater friends of hers. She had gone out for drinks with folks from Gideon Productions, a theater company that specializes in producing genre plays. “They said wouldn’t it be cool if we could somehow marry some of the stuff we’re doing on the stage with book publishing?” she recalled. “And we all laughed and thought that would be really, really cool. And then we didn’t really think about it until a couple days later when Marco and I were sitting in the office and saying, gosh it really would be a cool idea, how could we even do this?”

Luckily, Tor’s parent company already had experience with podcasting. Last year I wrote about how Macmillan had launched Quick and Dirty Tips, a podcast network that leveraged and elevated the authors of its nonfiction book titles. So when Palmieri and Gunnels brought their ideas to other executives within the company, they found a very receptive audience. “They got really excited with what we were presenting to them and hugely helpful about getting us started,” said Palmieri. “We were consistently greeted time after time with, ‘This is great, what do you need from me?’”

Pursuing this project would mean they would have to build a business model around it. The idea they ultimately settled on is that the Steal the Stars podcast would act as a sort of free loss leader, and Tor could use the buzz and audience grown around it to sell audio and print book versions of the story.

Here’s how it worked: Tor partnered with Gideon Productions and commissioned an audio play script from Mac Rogers, a Gideon member, award-winning playwright, and the writer behind GE’s The Message. With her theater background, Gunnels took on the responsibility of editing the script while Palmieri went about recruiting someone to write a novelization of the story. Gideon was responsible for the actual production, casting, and recording of the podcast itself.

This resulted in the August 2 debut of Steal the Stars, which the press release described as “the story of Dakota Prentiss and Matt Salem, two government employees guarding the biggest secret in the world: a crashed UFO.” Part science fiction thriller, part romance, the show consists of 14 episodes that will air weekly until early November. Once the serialization is completed, Tor will simultaneously publish and sell a packaged audiobook version of the podcast and a print novelization of its story. “The book gives us the chance to expand on stuff that there wasn’t room to explore in the podcast,” said Palmieri. “The novel is going to be a  somewhat different but similar way of experiencing the podcast.” Though the audiobook will just be an ad-free bundle of the podcast, they said, it will still remain available in podcast form.

With Wolf 359, the crew saw the most monetization success with Patreon, the membership platform that allows fans to become monthly subscribers. With Patreon, the podcast pulls in nearly $3,500 a month — enough to cover expenses but nothing close to Hollywood money. With the final episode of the final season airing this December, I asked Valenti if his success on the show has opened any doors, especially when it comes to his voiceover aspirations. He said that it had. “I’ve gotten some of my best paid voiceover gigs because someone knew my name.”

Despite proving that they can build a large and loyal audience, the Wolf 359 creators haven’t been approached with any Netflix-level deals, the kind where an executive rolls up with a wheelbarrow full of money and tells them to have at it. “If we got a Netflix deal, we’d be thrilled to do that, because we’re the film students who got into podcasting because we wanted to stretch our legs a little bit,” said Valenti. “We’d love to make a movie. We’d love to make a web series.”

But until they get that sought-after phone call from a studio head, said Valenti, they’re going to stick to the medium they know best. “ I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a new podcast in 2018. Whether it’s an audio drama or not is yet to be decided.”

***

FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com