Dan Powell vanished in January 2016. Before he did, though, the audio archivist sent his friend Mark a set of tapes, chronicling his attempts to organize a series of audio interviews that had been recorded at a creepy apartment building 20 years earlier. The podcast chronicles each approaching footstep, each rat scurrying by–and each realization that dawns as Dan learns more about the sinister song that affected the lives of the building’s eccentric residents back in the 1990s. If you want to see what he saw, though, you’ll have to imagine it yourself: Dan is the fictional protagonist of Archive 81, a found-footage horror podcast.
The real Dan Powell is also an audio archivist, although he denies any haunted recordings or horror experiences. Instead, he spends his days reviewing different sound effects for Soundsnap, an online commercial sound library. “I listen to thousands of different door slams,” Powell says. “I thought, is there a way to take a work environment of listening to weird sounds, and put a horrific twist on that?”
So along with his co-producer Marc Sollinger, who plays Dan’s concerned friend in the podcast, Powell launched Archive 81; the 10-episode tale reached #25 on the iTunes chart and is still highlighted in the “New & Noteworthy” arts section, four months after its April debut. Today, Sollinger and Powell launch their second show, The Deep Vault, a sci-fi story of four people who escape an apocalypse by retreating into an underground bunker, only to find a different kind of monster crawling through the wall. The podcast takes cues from an earlier era of sci-fi: Sollinger and Powell point to Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and H.P. Lovecraft as stylistic influences–as well as the serialized radio dramas of the 1940s and 1950s.
Just like their panicked fictional alter-egos, Sollinger and Powell aren’t alone. The past year has seen the rise of fiction podcasts, many of which follow a found-footage horror or sci-fi format: The Black Tapes, a docudrama about a paranormal investigator; The Bright Sessions, about a therapist for patients with paranormal abilities; Within the Wires, which directs the listener through guided meditation and escape from a mental institution. Years after Welcome to Night Vale first defined the genre, fictional podcasts have finally arrived.
A Lack of Fiction
Although radio dramas once populated the airwaves, fiction has never dominated the podcast charts. The producers behind the first big hits in the medium came from public radio, and they largely stuck to those narrative structures of the world they knew. As podcasts grew in popularity, that format became the de facto standard: 20-minute nonfiction pieces, or several of them collected around a central theme.
Sollinger and Powell wanted to strike out from that format. But they don’t see it as a departure from podcasts so much as a continuation of an older audio tradition that hearkens back to Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds. “Sci-fi audio drama has a 70-year history,” says Sollinger. “We’re interested in sound as a medium itself, in the stories that are at their best in a pure audio form.”
The simplicity of fiction podcasts helps facilitate that exploration. Powell and Sollinger wrote, performed, and edited the first season of Archive 81 themselves, recording it in a friend’s bedroom. Sollinger, who works as an associate producer for nonfiction podcast Innovation Hub, sees fiction as uniquely possible with such scant resources. “Two of us couldn’t produce something like Innovation Hub by ourselves,” he says. “WGBH [a Boston radio station] and PRI [Public Radio International] provide so much support for a show like that. With Archive 81, we could do it with just two people and a very small amount of money, and keep it entirely in-house.” To date, that simplicity is a must; fictional podcasts still haven’t gotten investment from the bigger players in the podcast space. Fiction shows affiliated with podcast collectives either demonstrate their audience before joining, like The Truth at Radiotopia, or are sponsored from the outset, like GE and Panoply’s The Message.
And while advertisers like Mailchimp and Squarespace have flocked to sponsor nonfiction podcasts, fiction requires a different model. “Advertisers are still feeling it out,” says Jeffrey Cranor, the co-creator of Welcome to Night Vale, the fiction podcast that launched in June 2012 and spent its first three months lodged in the top spot on the iTunes Podcast chart. “We still receive six-figure downloads every month–for the pilot episode. That’s different from the first episode of Culture Gabfest.” Downloads for topical shows spike quickly, before the episodes become irrelevant; advertisers can track a correlation between episode sponsorship and an uptick in sales. Fiction podcast episodes, though are evergreen; most listeners presumably commit to a full serialized season. For sponsors, investing in a fiction show means a low, steady number of downloads over an extended period of time, which poses challenges for measuring an ad campaign’s success.That means that many producers follow a trajectory from found footage to less familiar formats. Cranor attributes some of Night Vale’s crossover success to its familiar structure: by recording a radio broadcast of the daily happenings in a small town, Cranor and co-creator Joseph Fink fictionalized a format listeners already knew. (It also helped that people could listen to scattered episodes, rather than committing to a sequential series.) After Night Vale‘s success, Cranor and Fink experimented with more serialized audio, launching both Alice Isn’t Dead, a missing person mystery, and Within the Wires, a foreboding story told through archival relaxation tapes, in the past six months. “When a fiction podcast uses a nonfiction form, there’s a set of contexts that makes sense to you, as a listener,” says Powell. “It’s easier for a listener to lock in if it’s a docudrama or found tapes or a radio station.” Once they’ve proven an audience, they can experiment–and get advertisers, as with The Deep Vault and season two of Archive 81.
As people become more comfortable with audio dramas, Sollinger and Powell hope producers will try more unusual structures, supported by a community of fellow enthusiasts (including on the active #audiodramasunday Twitter conversation for fans of fictional podcasts, which Sollinger started in May). “There’s a new generation of producers of fiction podcasts trying to market themselves more as part of the podcast ecosystem, rather than a fringe art form,” says Powell. The conversation allows producers to cross-promote between podcasts, and beyond. You might like The Deep Vault if you like Welcome to Night Vale–or if you like Stranger Things.
After all, the element of suspense is particularly well-suited to audio formats. “Horror is less about the monster you see, and more about the monster you think might be there,” Cranor says. “Audio forces you to build the world.” There’s no longer any uncertainty of whether fiction podcasts can work: in the past year, producers have built the outlines of that supernatural world, populated by frustrated time-travelers, demonic invaders, and conniving robots. Fiction podcasts are here to stay–but the suspense is just beginning.