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The Rise of the Narrative Podcast

Darra Stone is a Los Angeles based producer with experience creating audio and visual content
in over 50 countries on 6 six continents. She’s currently a Production Manager for CurtCo Media Labs’ first foray into the narrative podcast world as well as a producer for an upcoming travel
based podcast. Her previous work includes CBS Radio as well as producing and hosting her
own podcast, Creativity in Confines. Whether she’s flying in a plane or up in an aerial yoga hammock, she’s always happiest with both feet firmly off the ground.

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Now more than ever, audiences are consuming a massive amount of media in a record number
of formats. In this ever-evolving ocean of content, I recently had a conversation with my friend,
colleague, and fellow Coloradan Darra Stone to discuss the rapidly emerging field of narrative
podcasts.


When did narrative podcasts start to take off in popularity?

Darra Stone: “I think narrative podcasts really started about five years ago, and I credit that to
series like The Bright Sessions, one of my very favorites. It was really groundbreaking for what you could do with lower quality audio production. They really utilized the medium and worked within the story. A couple years ago, larger companies like Gimlet, Wondery and others realized that this is a great way to get into this particular market of audio dramas and use it as a lead in for proving
a story or concept and marketing it to larger video production companies. The Amazon series Homecoming started as an audio drama. In the last couple of years, it has gone from being an audio-centered audience to TV productions
testing their audience and building their fanbase. Now that it’s seen as something that can be cross-platform, it’s really been on the rise.”

Why do you think they caught on with audiences?

Darra Stone: “A lot of people have realized that this is a great way to reach their audiences, so
the higher quality product has been out there. For companies that have the tools to build out a full audio production, for narrative or nonfiction, the quality has improved because investors have realized people are hungry for content. Especially now in this pandemic world, people are chained to their devices all the time. Sometimes you want to immerse yourself in a story that doesn’t involve staring at a screen. Unlike a TV show or movie, I can get immersed in a story while I’m doing my laundry. You don’t have to have high production quality to do a great podcast, but now companies with the money to really develop the stories
are involved. As Robert McKee says, “story is everything.”

What’s it like trying to grab attention from audiences, considering there is so much
content out there?

Darra Stone: “It’s a struggle. Any time you’re trying to market to an audience, it’s just about
proving yourself and your content, and your ability to mix a quality product on a consistent basis. Consistency is key, and especially in the audio world, people are used to getting a new episode every week on a set timeline. Especially in today’s binge culture and being able to watch an entire series over a weekend, people want to be able to consume a lot of your product. A lot of successful
companies in this space are ones that have a lot of content to share. When they have a diverse database and a lot of products, those are capturing the market a lot right now. At CurtCo we’re striving for the highest quality level of production with a wide variety of topics in the nonfiction space, but we’re now venturing into
narrative stories. If you’re on your own and starting your own product, making sure you have the right tools and a good product at a certain professional level is important. This is such a saturated market, so a part of starting a podcast means having the right editing software, a consumer pro level mic to record on, making
sure you have guests who are interesting and knowledgeable or a solid story to build out in your first season. If you’re not meeting that minimal threshold, you’re going to get lost in the sea.

How does producing a narrative podcast compare to producing a nonfiction podcast?

Darra Stone: “It’s so different. In helping to build this production of Solar, it’s in so many ways
how you would build a TV show. You go through the story process, a million read throughs, making sure the script is in order, going through casting and studio time. It really parallels everything you would do making an animated series. You’re working with sound studios, actors and their agents, SAG, etc. It’s very comparable to what I would be doing in any other production space. At the end of the day, your main focus is always your story and the audio. You need a good sound engineer who’s good at building the world and building the space, because we want people immersed in this world. Compared to nonfiction, it
always comes down to audio quality. Instead of booking guests for a weekly show, you’re booking actors for a longer term. Working in the narrative field allows for a lot more creativity. I can give suggestions for topics and where the conversation might go in a nonfiction space but the interviewer really controls what the product looks like at the end of the day. In narrative you have a lot more
control over what you’re putting out.”

What are the main platforms for narrative podcasts? How does an audience find these
stories?

Darra Stone: “Two big ones are Apple podcasts and Spotify, who has now partnered with Gimlet. Amazon recently acquired Wondery and will be finding big, great ways to market those. The Bright Sessions, and their spinoff shows The AM Archives and The College Tapes are on Luminary, which is one of the few platforms you need
to pay for. They have a lot of exclusive partnerships, so you have access to a lot
of high quality dramas through Luminary. People are still learning that narrative podcasts exist. These old school, radio ways of consuming media are alive and well and the threshold to be successful is lower than a TV show or a movie.”

What is the key to attracting talent?

Darra Stone: “It depends on what tier you’re looking to attract. For an A-lister, you have to have high level monetary compensation. At a base level, higher tier talent won’t consider you for anything less than $7500 per session. Under SAG, they can only do a 4 hour session, as opposed to 12 hour set days. It also always comes back to story. Are they interested in the product? For a lot of people, there’s a big opportunity for podcasting, since film and TV productions have been shut down during the pandemic. This is an outlet where actors can continue working. You
have to ask who is right for the role, and who might not already have worked in this genre. David Schwimmer, for example, is so known for his work on Friends, but we all saw how good his dramatic acting can be in American Crime Story. He was one of the main actors in the podcast version of Homecoming. So it’s an outlet for actors to show their range in comedy versus drama, if they want to tap into another type of genre that they wouldn’t normally be cast in. That also includes not having restrictions based on body type. Actors can play more diverse roles whether they fit the typical Hollywood mold for what executives may think a certain character needs to look like.”

Which projects started as podcasts and became major productions?

Darra Stone: “Homecoming and Blackout are two notable ones. I’m sure we will have a lot
more in the works with Amazon and Wondery teaming up. I know there have been talks about bringing The Bright Sessions to life for years. [Bright Sessions Creator] Lauren Shippen is currently working on the Marvel podcasts, but I’d
love to see that one adapted to a series someday, personally.”

What are some of your personal favorites?

Darra Stone: “Caravan, I highly recommend that one. For a lot of people, their introduction to
this format was Limetown, which is great. I also love The Black Tapes, which is great for people into the true crime genre. It’s the story of a reporter’s investigation, and I think those are a great introduction for people who like that
type of storytelling format. A lot of people got into podcasts with another favorite of mine, My Favorite Murder, and the hosts do a lot of prep and research of course, but it’s much more free form than something like Serial. What I like about
podcasting in general is that there’s a lot of room for play and an audience for whatever type of production you want to put out there, be it a narrative drama, an investigation, or two friends making jokes and talking about murder.”

Do you see this kind of content expanding in the near future?

Darra Stone: “I really love what I do, and I think that in the state of the world now, this is a kind
of production that’s able to continue right now. I guarantee we’re not the only ones producing this kind of content. A lot of other studios have pivoted into this space with relative ease and low threshold financially, it’s something that can be
done in a smaller, safer environment. When things open up again, this market will already be built. It’s a product of the times we’re in, but I see this as a type of production that will really boom in the next 5-10 years.”

Jessica Hobbs spent the early part of her career working in technical theater, opera, and film festivals while earning her film degree at the University of Colorado. She spent a year touring with a Vaudeville show, which included a 3-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York. After five years working in Reality TV as a Writer’s Assistant and Associate Producer, she made the move to Los Angeles and took a job with the Sundance Institute while also working as a freelance writer, producer and script supervisor for film and TV. She is currently the Manager for the Sundance Co//ab Online Community and is a frequent contributor with online publications such as Ms. In The Biz, We Do It Together, The Drill, Women in Horror, and The Wrap.

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