Watching the tweets from the National Arts Marketing Project Conference—#NAMPC—this past weekend, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Talk of storytellers lulling audiences into a comfortable dream state, of the surprisingly intimate relationship between podcasters and listeners…it was all in the keynote by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad. It’s also part of a session I gave at #TCG14 with Jason Snell of the Incomparable Radio Network.
(Full disclosure: I’m also part of several shows on the Incomparable Radio Network.)
If you’re curious, we recorded that session and put it online as a podcast episode.
One of the things I’ve come to love about podcasting is precisely that: the relationship between makers and listeners. I’ve found a similar connection with theatre audiences in my own community, but that’s entirely local–we’ll meet one another in the grocery store, at restaurants, what have you, so that isn’t surprising. But with podcasting, it’s not simply people choosing to come see your event at a venue, it’s people downloading your work to listen when and wherever, most likely as a one-on-one interaction in the car, on their phones, in their ears. Your event isn’t tied to a single location, and neither is your audience. Our show has fans around the world, which is still a little amazing to me even now.
I know what you’re thinking. How large of an audience is this? Well, the main series I’ve been working on this year has been the Incomparable Radio Theater. It’s a series of fake 1940s era radio shows, complete with ads both fake and real–the real ones are done in-house, in-period. In the first week of release, the download totals for each episode have been comparable to a sold out, month-long run of a show in the largest space at Actors Theatre of Louisville. (That’s my local major regional theatre, so that’s been my benchmark.) That’s just in the first week–the download totals continue to grow because the shows never expire. It also doesn’t count streaming listeners going through our website or other links, or people subscribed to the network’s master feed–a podcast feed that includes every episode of every show we produce.
(One caveat: this series spun off from a pair of episodes on the flagship show of the network, which already had a large listenership. And it spun off by popular demand–it was originally planned as a single episode, nothing more. Between that and being part of a podcast network, it had a good foundation when it launched as a series. These are not typical for a brand new podcast series.)
Look around, podcasts are everywhere. Think about how many of them are about telling stories, whether fiction or non-fiction.
There are several podcast networks, from Radiotopia (99% Invisible, the Memory Palace, the Truth, Song Exploder, the Allusionist) to Earwolf (How Did This Get Made?), from Maximum Fun (Bullseye, the Flop House, Judge John Hodgman) to Relay.fm (Upgrade, Clockwise, Isometric). Even Slate has built a network called Panoply, which includes a new series, The Message, a science fiction serial written by playwright Mac Rogers under the GE Mystery Theatre brand for sponsorship. There’s Our Fair City rising from the theatre community in Chicago. Just this week, Howlround featured a post on Playwrights on Podcasts as well. And, of course, there’s Welcome to Night Vale, which has spawned a mini-industry and a New York Times bestseller.
Should your theatre company or arts organization start a podcast? Maybe. If you have the time and resources, come on in, the water’s fine. Be prepared to play the long game–at first, your current audience will be the ones who’ll know about it; it may take some time to build an online audience beyond that. But look at it as a marketing tool as well, even if you’re doing original scripts and radio drama–because these episodes won’t expire the way a newspaper ad will. Take some of your print ad budget and put it toward something creative, then aim for sponsorship as you continue. Maybe do like Radiotopia and crowdfund a series–their fundraising campaigns have been wildly successful.
Of course, I’ve got a few ideas for how theatre companies and arts organizations can use podcasts, but that’s for another post.