When we’re discussing the hurdles facing podcasting as a whole, the buzzword “discoverability” gets thrown around without a ton of specification. The truth is that podcasting has problems with discovery on multiple levels, starting with the macroview and issues like archiving and cataloging down to the microview of finding any one podcast when searching a directory or checking out a listicle. And these are just issues facing people who are already hooked on podcasts: think of the complications that arrive when we’re reaching out to the 40+% of people who haven’t ever experienced to a podcast, or the 30%+ of people who aren’t really aware of podcasting (depending on the area we’re talking about and have data for)*.
Fiction podcasts have a different, but related problem: breaking audiences away from the overwhelming understanding that “podcasts = nonfiction” (or even “podcasts = radio on demand”; I’ve spoken to some non-fiction indie producers who have very similar, legitimate gripes). Or the generally negative overall view that all fiction podcasts are poor quality, boring, or insert-your-negative-word-here.
So let’s get to breaking down those barriers and building bridges, because there’s something out there for everyone. It may not end up being the podcast you wanted it to be, but that’s okay, because this is about finding the story that people have been missing elsewhere.
1. Find good comparisons to their favorite fiction in other forms of media.
This is definitely a skill that needs to be honed, though if you consume a lot of different forms of media it’ll come to you a bit easier. At its core, this method can be used to narrow in on genre and voice in order to figure out a selection of podcasts that could fit in the same grouping. Try to stick to asking them about their favorites in forms of media that you know well. For instance, I have a friend who doesn’t like fiction at all in written form, but will happily consume superhero movies and real-world action flicks like they’re candy; they loved Marvel’s Avengers and marathon the Die Hard franchise (yes, all of it) about once a year. Which meant I felt pretty confident about recommending Marvel’s newest podcast MARVELS (with that handy trial code) and, with a little more caution, Joseph for that action-flick feeling in audio. (And yes, I nailed it.)
2. Give them a one-off or feature-length episode instead of a series.
This is one of the key pieces of advice that I try to follow when recommending podcasts to anyone, but especially people used to episodic non-fiction podcasts more than serialized works. Many people that I’ve spoken to are reticent to invest time in something they don’t trust, so instead I build trust by having them commit to a complete story that marks somewhere between 50 to 90 minutes, the length of a TV episode or movie. I’ve successfully used Cerberus Rex and The Hum (I know an oldie, but a goodie, okay, just know your audience); I highly recommend using appropriate episodes from anthology podcasts like Uncanny Country or The Hidden Frequencies.
3. Think about podcasts that are styled based on non-fiction podcasts.
There are several fiction podcasts that take their style cues from non-fiction podcasts to great success, and honestly this is such a good tactic to help people get comfortable with fiction. The combination of #2 and #3 on this list means that I end up using The Big Loop as a gateway podcast for fiction all the time, to resounding success (here’s that rec in action). One of Paul Bae’s biggest inspirations for The Big Loop is Love + Radio, and these interviews where the interviewer’s voice has been removed or minimized to create the sensation of a cohesive narrative. Find other podcasts that pay close attention to non-fiction styles, and use that to help primarily non-fiction podcast audiences get comfortable with fiction audio.
4. Ask them for a mood they would like to be in when experiencing fiction.
H/T to David Rheinstrom for this one, because this is a great way to get people engaged with fiction podcasts, especially if they normally only engage with non-fiction podcasts. Fiction and non-fiction are not so disparate as we think: people may want to feel wonder when they learn about the natural world, or feel empowered when learning about politics, and if someone wants to feel those same moods or emotions when experiencing fiction, there’s definitely something. In order to judge how someone might feel with one particular podcast, you’ll have to think about atmosphere, language and diction, music, attitude, and of course, content and story. Be critical about how someone else, living at a different intersection of life than you, might perceive differently what you’re experiencing.
5. Dispel the “old timey radio drama” comparison.
Both nonfiction and fiction podcasts have their roots in radio, but the styles and methods have blossomed and changed so much since then (never mind the fact that we live in the digital age now). When recommending fiction podcasts and faced with the need to explain what it’s like, I would suggest staying away from the classic comparison of “old-time radio drama” as it has immediate societal connotations of scratchy, echoing audio and cheesy or campy detective mysteries and kids’ adventure shows. Of course, old-school radio drama is not all about that! If you have not yet experienced The Thing on the Fourble Board, you’ve got homework for tonight when it’s dark and quiet out.
If you need to explain what a fiction podcast like via a comparison, I’d suggest using audiobooks and the breadth of their style (full-cast audiobooks, or sound effects and original score, for instance) or theater and play comparisons. Trust in people’s ability to understand intuitively what you mean, but also trust yourself to be able to describe it accurately. You don’t need a comparison to say “well, it’s a fiction story in audio, sometimes with people acting it out or sound effects and music scoring. It’s just another way to tell a story.” Even writing this explanation down exhausted me, so I fully understand when you end up at That One Party and you throw your hands up in frustration, though. Just remember that what’s most important if you bring up radio dramas is to provide the modern context in order to dispel the myths while building the foundation of understanding.
Bonus Round: Make a website, and make it useful.
Wil Williams and I have already written extensively on this, but it bears repeating. Remember that you should always be thinking about the audience that hasn’t ever really tried a podcast before. That’s a larger number of people than you think. They’re most likely to find your podcast with a website, via searching on a browser (or perhaps, some might argue now, with Spotify, though I contend there’s still a significant learning hurdle for them to get over to learn how to access and what’s going on, especially since on desktop, Spotify doesn’t show things like track time or authors for podcast episodes). So: make a real website, not an auto-generated one from your podcast host, and use it to help guide all kinds of audiences, even the people who may need some extra help figuring out where to start.
Bonus Bonus Round: Provide good descriptions in all cases, especially if the podcast doesn’t.
The quality and quantity of good descriptions attached to podcasts in the appropriate metadata box is still few and far in-between. This is its own problem, so let’s first say: if you’re a podcaster, take a critical look at the way your podcast description summary everywhere, including your website, your socials, and your metadata. It should be actively useful for people wanting to know about your podcast before jumping in; you shouldn’t be worrying about spoilers, you should be worried about prepping and hooking your audience! If you’re recommending a podcast to someone who has no or little experience in fiction, check the descriptions of the podcast before you do so, in order to know if you need to be their wingperson.
This essay was edited from the one originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #40, February 10, 2020. Thank you to Circle 270 Media and Sean Abraham Preston for helpful replies and thoughts that informed the edits made to item number five and the addition of the Bonus Bonus Round, in particular.