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Hello, fellow podcast lovers!

Occasionally, timing lines up just right for your projects. Last week, I was a featured guest on a panel called "The Return of Radio Fiction" along with Neil Verma, Kathy Fuller-Seeley, and moderator Henry Jenkins. It was part of a series at USC, The Power and Pleasure of Podcasting.

You can watch the panel on YouTube. We talk about the historical roots of radio and radio drama, modern audio fiction, and lots of theories and analyses on audience outreach, commercialism and capitalism, and public discursive power. I learned so much from my fellow guests, and I hope you do too!

Today, we have an interview with Alasdair Stuart, co-owner of Escape Artists, a long-running podcast company that started with Escape Pod, a fiction podcast founded in 2006 by Serah Eley. Stuart and Escape Artists have witnessed the growth and change that fiction audio in podcasting has gone through, and that makes him and the perspective from this company a great way to understand where we're coming from and what kind of roots new producers are walking onto.

You can support Escape Artists in a variety of ways, including on their Patreon.
The Escape Artists logo, with the four backgrounds of their four podcasts
What did setting up Escape Pod, and Escape Artists, look like in the early days?

Well, at this point I was downloading individual episodes of PseudoPod as QuickTime movies on a 56k modem that I had to unplug the telephone to use, so I've gotten this information once removed.

Basically, Serah [Eley] really hated her commute. And she decided the best way that she could have fun on her commute was to read herself some of her favorite science fiction stories, so that she'd have something to listen to. She decided to put them online and then it just kind of blew up from there. About a year in, they decided to expand a little bit and launched PsuedoPod, a horror show. Ben Phillips, who is a man with vocal cords made of gold poured over molten lava, and Mur Lafferty were chosen as Editors in Chief -- and this was the point where I started realizing that podcasts were a thing.

I distinctly remember listening to the episode of PseudoPod when Mur said she was stepping down. I did the thing which I still even now don't do enough, which is I wasn't remotely British. I emailed them and went, "Hi, I just listened to the episode where Mur said she's leaving in a few weeks. And I know this sounds a little weird, but I think I'd be really good at the job. And I'm a big fan. And I'd love to work with you." I sent this off fully expecting the usual kind of "That's nice, sonny, run along,"  kind of response. Instead I got, "Oh, hi, Alasdair! Yeah, we've been talking about you for a bit. Let's have a chat."

Eleven years later, I co-own the company, and I've been hosting PseudoPod for longer than I've held any in-person job.

So what was this early era like? How valid is is the Wild West analogy, if ever?

I'll put my hand up and say I've used the Wild West metaphor an awful lot, but there's actually another metaphor that I'm starting to think about more and more, which I used to describe the rise of newsletters across the last three or four years: newsletters are the 21st century's prairie radio stations. They have fairly limited reach, they'll reach like six hundred to a couple thousand people. But those people will read them devotedly. And they're all aware of one another, so there's this informal network of newsletters.

To some extent, the podcasting community and certainly the bits of it I'm very active in still feel an awful lot like that, in that you have these nodes of people who work incredibly hard and are very focused, but are also the ones who seem most successful are also the ones which make a point of being outward facing and trying to recruit new people and do new things.

At the time when you joined and started hosting PseudoPod, did you and your team have any particular visions for your future?

[After] Sarah stepped down, she handed the reins over to Paul Heron, who was publishing for the next three or four years. Paul did a great job because he did an excellent job of keeping the company in place and moving forwards. The issue, which we encountered not long after that, which ultimately became my terrifying superhero origin story, was the invisibility of ubiquity.

All three shows, including PodCastle, showed up four times a month, and you knew what you were getting. We paid decently and had a good reputation in the field. And then one day I had a conversation with Paul, which was pretty much word for word this:

"Paul, I've just done some back-of-a-napkin maths. And as near as I can tell, we run out of money in eight weeks, is that right?"

And there was a long pause. And he said, "I have it near as six."

We were very bad at publicity at that point, but we were also tremendously enthusiastic. So we put out this  45-minute-long metacast that was basically a telethon in podcast form. Here's the story, here's someone saying how great we are, and how we really, really need your help. Everyone got a moment, and everyone got a chance to communicate, and it was scrappy, and uneven and unbelievably sincere. And the injection of cash we got actually secured us for about three years after that.

After, Marguerite [Kenner] and I took over as owners, we treated it like a five-year startup, which means we assume we've started today and here's where we want to be in five years. That worked out brilliantly because exactly on plan, 3.5 years in, we were like, "There's no money again and everyone's sad, what do we do?"

This time, we had much more tools and far more ability to work out how to do that. And that was two years ago now and everything's fine again.

When you were all bailing out Escape Artists the first time, did you all have any visions for the future for fiction podcasting as a whole? Did you have any predictions about where it was going?

For the industry, I really wanted to see the kind of enthusiasm and drive that I'd seen in the fan communities and I was really surprised to see it happen in such a specific way that spoke to my tastes so purely. Limetown, Black Tapes, and TANIS -- all three of those shows hitting so massively, so fast really seemed to put a brick on the accelerator for serial drama with podcasting. Suddenly you saw this stuff show up everywhere. And so much it was "Mysterious journalist investigates strange thing." I bloody love mysterious journalist investigates strange thing.

Big same!

Seeing the way the industry has diversified out from that, and then starting to try new things is, I almost want to say intimidating because serial drama is something I would really like to write. I struggle an awful lot with confidence in my skills, especially as a fiction writer. So looking at all this stuff going, "I want to do this, but I'd suck," is very difficult. At the same time, it's also incredibly inspiring, because so many of these shows are built either in a way which turns a potential fault into an asset or like a bug into a feature, or are built as means of learning how to do things.

There's a guy over here called David Devereaux who is one of the nicest human beings on earth. It's been so nice listening to all the Tin Can audio stuff, and listening to them audibly getting more confident and more ambitious with every show they push out, while they've all still got that very intimate, focused feeling to them.

I file David, and Alexander [Newall] and Jonathan Sims [from The Magnus Archives] in the same place. Those three guys inspire me every single day because the work they do is equal parts incredibly ambitious and far-reaching and deeply intimate and character-based. I'm so proud of us as a field that it's coming from podcasting, you know? 

Sounds Profitable with Bryan Barletta


I can help you figure out a lot of things: scripting, press outreach, social media. But I need help too, especially when it comes to advertising technology. 

Sounds Profitable is my go-to newsletter for learning all about adtech: What’s a lift report? Is post-roll any good to sell? How do dynamic ads work? Bryan Barletta produces this weekly newsletter every Monday, and doesn’t let you wallow in jargon and buzzwords. It’s the life raft you’ve been looking for. 
If you want to see more reviews, interviews, and other articles from me, you can support me at my Patreon, or at my ko-fi account for a one-time donation! You can also sign-up to talk about advertising in the newsletter.
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What are your thoughts on the constant comparisons to old time radio drama that fiction podcasting has dealt with over the years?

About six years ago I was in WorldCon in Kansas City, Julia Rios was running a panel about audio dramas. One of her panelists, the first thing he said was, all he listened to is old episodes of The Shadow and nothing else. And somehow, she got an hour's worth of something approximating adult behavior out of this guy. It was one of the most inspiring things I've ever seen.

The positive to be taken from this is that pop-serial [media] is fundamentally accessible. Here's something exciting and big, and some fun is gonna happen, there's gonna be a cliffhanger at the end, and you'll instantly want to watch or listen to the next one. Couched in those terms, I have no issue with [the comparison to radio drama], because it means that there's a real kind of pace and energy to the storytelling. I think couched in any other terms. It's either "Oh, good, this is the thing. I was listening to on the wireless in my younger days," or it's one step away from the headlines of "Biff is our pal: Comics aren't just for kids anymore", which get reprinted once every three or four weeks.

I think that's a really good distinction to make because it's the difference between talking about how people genuinely consume something and making something seem quaint and antiquated. Do you have any favorite radio drama episodes that you think people should still listen to in order to learn about achieving certain aspects of audio storytelling?

Earlier this week, I was actually finishing up an article which should be going live on Tor Nightfire quite soon about "Appointment with Fear", the BBC half hour long, horror strand that has been running since shortly after World War II in various forms. This kind of thing blew my mind, because the structure of it is exactly the same every time: it's this set of deep frightening footsteps emerges from the basement of the broadcasting house, and a guy with a voice that makes Christopher Lee sound like a soprano welcomes you to "An Appointment with Fear", later "Fear on Four".  And then they do this full cast audio drama where just horrible shit happens, and then he comes in and wraps up at the end.

I freely admit, this is a shtick I have borrowed for 11 years at PseudoPod. 

So where do you think we are now in the fiction podcasting industry and and as a whole, and specifically, where do you see Escape Artists fitting into the current state of the industry?

When it comes to the current state of things, a lot of folks seem to have done what we did last year, which is station keeping. Maintain. Make sure you can keep putting out material. We're very close to Alex and Hannah [Brankin] who run Rusty Quill, and I know the herculean efforts they went to last year to keep their productions on track. Alex, who is a jovial Yorkshire supervillain, freely admitted to us that he had basically bought out the country stock of a particular mic at one point, because they had enough resources to be able to go, "Obviously, we can't have people come into the studio, give us your addresses, here's the technology you need." They spent the first three or four months of the pandemic kitting folks out and making sure they could work safely from home.

[We're] seeing this combination of consolidation and decentralization, where suddenly you're empowering all your performers, which is going to be really interesting. I think this is going to mean a lot of little podcasts are going to start happening quite soon as well.

In terms of moving forwards from [the pandemic], I can tell you what I would like to believe will happen: that the audio fiction podcasting community is going to realize how mobile it is, and how versatile it is, and how hard it is to kill.

Because when you have a situation where you're still able to work with a central production hub and people bringing material in, then suddenly, the thing which is stopping a lot of other mediums from happening isn't really happening for you. Because this is an ongoing but evolving situation, you got to look at how you can get things done. And I think you're gonna see a lot of smaller projects start to happen now that people have shifted gear from, "How can we maintain our big stuff?" Great. Here's how we go from here. Because I mean, there were a couple of shows that were just starting to come into their own as as the pandemic hit. 

In terms of where we want to be as Escape Artists, when all this started, we had this four day summit planned in May where we were going to go away to this nice beach hotel and work out what we wanted to do with the next five years. 


We still had the summit, it just looked a lot like it was in our house. 

A really big thing that we identified was that we don't own anything we produce. We lease it, essentially, because all these stories are produced under contract. And inevitably, sometimes those contracts run out, and that's why there's one or two holes in the back catalogue.

It's time for us to produce something we own.

Which means it's time for us to produce serial audio drama.  That's on the slate for the next two to two-and-a-half years. We have three projects in various stages of planning, one of which would involve a writer's room, one of which would involve using an established property, which is extremely out of copyright. And one of which would be a direct connection with After the War, the tabletop RPG that I co-created with Jason Peter that was released last year. We've actually got a couple of really cool tools we're in the process of building which would enable the conclusion of [the After the War] show to be dictated by the audience to some extent.

What's the one piece of advice you would give to a new fiction podcaster?

Listen and read. Listen to and read everything, watch everything. Every creative on the planet is a magpie, we all see all the things look shiny and which appeal to us. The first couple of times you copy them, it will be very obvious you're copying them; the third or fourth time it will be in your own voice. If you're open to everything, then you're always open to diverse voices and viewpoints.

If there's one thing humanity desperately needs in the 21st century, it's the default being diverse and interesting viewpoints.

You can support Escape Artists in a variety of ways, including on their Patreon.

The Fan Service column at Teen Vogue by Stitch is a must-read for anyone working in fiction media of all kinds. especially online. This article on how we define fandom is a great primer.

This episode of Life Kit talks about how burnout isn't just exhaustion, and give practical, wide-ranging insight on how to deal with it.

Shonalike's critical analysis of WandaVision is insightful, and tackles a difficult issue of protagonist and villain power and the framing of trauma.

I conducted an interview with Mike Rugnetta and Taylor Moore about their cyberpunk actual play podcast Fun City. If you know my style, you'll know to expect this interview hybridized with a review of what I love about this show, especially its approach to power dynamics in a dystopia.

Tal Minear has an informative, detailed article on how to create a Discord server for your fiction podcast production.

Skye Pillsbury's article on the industry-wide undervaluing of audio producers is one of the most important articles of the year already.
  • Indrisano Audio, LLC: Get help launching or improving your podcast with our consulting, composition, and editing services! You bring the Drama - we've got the Audio. Learn more at our websit

  • Podcasts in Color Directory: Discover and engage with podcasts produced and created by people of color at the largest currently running directory dedicated to elevating their voices.
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May your podcasts bring you joy,
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