By the 1960s, television was the hot young thing and radio was declassé – like an uncle who'd stayed too long at the party. The golden age of radio dramas – which peaked between the 1930s and 50s in Britain and North America – lost its shine in the shadow of the new medium. But with the latest crop of audio narratives ready for download – diverse works, such as Homecoming, Pen Pals and The Truth – a promising new era of radio fiction has arrived.
But while we could be basking in radio's silver age of storytelling, how do we measure it? What does prestige radio sound like? How will we know when we've hit its peak? And, most important, how many ads for Casper mattresses will we need to listen to first?
A show such as this year's Homecoming – a scripted mystery drama voiced by actors Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer and produced by podcasting giant Gimlet Media – harks to the radio plays of the 1940s with its rich soundscape and movie-quality dialogue. It makes you think of Orson Welles's infamous The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 or The Archers, a BBC radio soap opera that debuted in 1950 and is still going strong, spanning more than 18,000 episodes.
The Truth, a podcast that launched in 2009 and describes itself as "movies for your ears," is another fictional show that just couldn't exist in another format. Its stories are made for radio and nowhere else. Without spoiling the twist, let's just say the episode Can You Help Me Find My Mom proves this in its eight short minutes.
"There's a lot of different voices in the game," said Mira Burt-Wintonick, a radio producer in Montreal who worked on CBC's Wiretap for a decade and is now producing the new CBC hit Love Me, a hybrid of fiction and documentary that centres on missed and messy human connections. "That means that, on some level, there is mediocre content being made, but also that there's a lot of opportunity to stretch the medium and to redefine the limits of it."
Julie Shapiro, the executive producer of the popular podcast network Radiotopia, explained that "compared to other formats, like TV, film and video, podcast production is much less expensive, even for higher-end projects." According to Shapiro, the industry is also attracting "young and motivated producers" from other mediums because the barriers for entry are relatively low and the creative limits are few. Distribution is available for all, and "there are more jobs in podcasting than ever before."
More important, she added, "audiences are growing steadily as listeners come to realize what all of us working in the narrative audio landscape have known all along: Audio is a deeply personal and intimate medium that creates a powerful bond between listener and content, no matter if a show is offering information, entertainment, self-reflection, companionship or a new perspective in the world."
Last year, Burt-Wintonick and co-producer Cristal Duhaime decided they wanted to spread their wings beyond the nest of our national broadcaster with a comedy fiction called Pen Pals, hosted on the U.S. subscription platform Stitcher Premium. (A casualty of federal budget cuts, CBC closed its radio drama department in 2012.)
Pen Pals comprises five episodes that imagine unlikely pairs in conversation. Episode 1 has Romeo (voiced by Paul Rust of Netflix's Love) and Juliet texting from the afterlife. Episode 2 has Nancy Drew and Wonder Woman trying to solve a case over Twitter. Although true crime is all the rage on the airwaves – from Serial to Someone Knows Something – it is fictional radio dramas such as Pen Pals, Homecoming and The Truth that are pushing the boundaries of the medium, conveying the art of storytelling through sound.
With its incredible voice actors and complicated script, Homecoming pulls the listener into a world of PTSD and conspiracy that's as gripping as any movie. Pen Pals brings into relief the comedy and absurdity of texting, social media and good old-fashioned hubris through fantastical storytelling, and The Truth has part of every episode hinge exclusively on sound.
The only trick is getting them made.
Measuring the success of a podcast is part of this trick. Chris Berube, a former CBC radio producer who currently works at Slate, which produces more than a dozen podcasts, says that, contrary to popular belief, those star ratings on iTunes aren't the be-all and end-all when it comes to gauging a show's popularity. Downloads, however, are hard to argue with. "I think download numbers really do matter now, because they are used to show advertisers," he said. "I don't know that there's a magic number, but we have seen in the last year that podcasts tend to be cancelled, like Gimlet's Undone, and I think that's an indication that people are getting more serious about those numbers."
Gimlet opened shop in 2014 and today boasts more than seven million downloads a month of its 15 programs. While it has cancelled certain podcasts, such as Undone and Twice Removed, it is selling the film and television rights. For instance, Homecoming, which won a 2017 Sarah Award – the radio equivalent of the Oscars – is being made into a television series starring Julia Roberts. And a sitcom based on Gimlet's first season of StartUp will air next year on ABC.
But while film and TV rights may make podcasts more profitable, "people forget to think about what is lost when you add a visual layer," Burt-Wintonick warned. "There's an intimacy that can be lost, a connection with the story."
To pay or not to pay for radio is "an open debate" in the industry, Berube said. Audible, a podcast and audiobook platform owned by Amazon, is aggressively staking its claim in the "audio entertainment" market by making all its content available to stream and download for $14.95 a month.
"They ended up hiring all of these very talented producers, like Ellen Horne from Radiolab, and making a bunch of new shows with the idea that they were going to be the big new player in radio; but all these shows are behind a paywall," Berube said. "To hear them, you have to get the Audible app, but people are trained to download everything through Apple. Since downloading an app to find podcasts is so foreign, people are having a hard time finding these shows. This is the problem."
Burt-Wintonick and Duhaime took the paywall gamble with Pen Pals. The Stitcher Premium platform, which is owned by podcast advertising network Midroll and was formerly known as Howl, has billed itself as "like Netflix for radio" and costs $4.99 a month.
The trouble is that people aren't used to paying for radio, and Burt-Wintonick suggests that maybe audiences are spoiled by the high quality of public radio available (a good problem to have, of course). However, it can be hard to build buzz around a new show when it remains obscured by a paywall, which proves demoralizing for its creators and potentially keeps download numbers low.
When Stitcher Premium launched the extremely popular Missing Richard Simmons this year, it made it available early exclusively to its subscribers. This model, Berube suggested, may be a happy medium between the paywall and the ad-laden podcast, allowing for hype to build before and during a show's release.
Whether it's mattress ads or film rights, producers of audio fiction need to be as innovative with their monetization as their creators are with the fictions they produce. A silver age of radio can arrive only if we can hear it coming.