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Hello, fellow listeners!

Well, if there was ever a week for me to send a follow-up to email to... You're probably exhausted of the hot takes, some of which I wrote, but for those of you who need some background and details on the Spotify/Gimlet/Anchor deal or some good words in the face of Capitalism, there's a special section in this newsletter with some links. Feel free to skip, just remember to send your wish into the universe for the podcasting world to take a nap for a minute.
CASTING IT BACK - MINI-REVIEWS

Marsfall, Jackie (episode 12): Marsfall does not pull away from digging into everything that would happen if stranded on an alien planet; part of the core of Marsfall is its willingness to not back away from the intricacies and complications of the human condition. This episode’s music, in particular, with repetitive, tense riffs and excellent use of silence, is some of the best work I’ve seen in Marsfall's second season so far.  [37:45]

Accession, Nightlife: Okay, Accession isn’t a fiction podcast--it’s an experimental art experience and history podcast and one of my absolute favorites; I never wait to listen to an episode. “Nightlife” is a scripted historical fiction episode formed out of the painting by Archibald Motley, of a night in a cabaret in Bronzeville during the Harlem Rennaissance. Host and creator T.H. Ponders brings on the voices of Morgan Givens, Keisha TK Dutes, Conscious, and Ronald Young Jr. as famous voices like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Books, and Alain Locke, and as sensitivity readers. Between beautiful sound design and experienced performances, this is a gorgeous, exemplary episode. [36:39]

Make-Believe, Bruh Rabbit (episode 2): After talking about their first episode, “Brava”, on Twitter, I listened to “Bruh Rabbit”, a set of reimagined tales about Brer Rabbit, a trickster found in African-American folklore. Since everything is recorded as a live performance, there is a little disconnect in the audio occasionally at the start--the audience is laughing to something happening in the physicality of the performance that is not then made clear in the sound--but as they get more comfortable, and as the stories blossom, this hitch is overtaken by the wondrous, focused narration and dynamic, vibrant performances that deliver their jokes and their commentary with the necessary punch. Do not miss out on the breakdown creator-audience conversation at the end! [54:45]

Dreamboy, Heart of the Rock (episode 5): Dreamboy’s story has been getting darker and weirder, still gleaming with the brilliant shine of their musical design. This episode arrested my attention from the very beginning with a novel shift in perspective and throughout, with answers building up to more questions and a persistent thread of nostalgia and odd sadness. Dane’s narration continues to be skin-chilling in its soft, breathy style, perfectly matched with piano’s melodious self.  [46:01]

Dark Dice, Captive (episode 3): The work of Fool and Scholar has always entranced me, and Dark Dice’s latest episode is no slouch. This episode showcases some of the subtleties in Vengroff’s sound design that may not come through in large, loud action scenes as easily, and the flow from a heavily-designed and edited first episode to something a little lighter, fore-fronting a little more of the relationship between players at the table, has been a seamless transition. [38:36]

Directive (whole series): In 6 episodes, Directive excels at creating a deeply embedded and all-encompassing sense of isolation, with long stretches of quiet sound design like footsteps and keyboard strokes of one single person and no echo. It’s this that drives home the heart-breaking manner this plot develops, of a man working totally isolated in a room with an AI that structures his entire day, a room he never leaves, and creates a stark contrast to his flashbacks. [~15:00]

Timestorm, Torn (episode 5): Timestorm’s newest episode is the conclusion of the twins’ adventures in 1838, and the first argument of why, exactly, they can’t meddle in the affairs of history more than they already are. These episodes highlight how Timestorm is planning on handling those historical figures -- Celestina Cordero founded the first school for girls in Puerto Rico, but is often overshadowed on the island by her brother, Rafael, who is called "The Father of Public Education". I’m delighted by their focus on Celestina’s work, and how the bit of fiction they’ve inserted does not fundamentally change the message here about her work. [13:25]

Caravan, Ain’t No Grave (episode 3): Caravan ‘s third episode brings home the episodic supernatural vibe, with three people getting to know each other and demonstrating true respect for each other, even if they are strangers. These characters and their performances are central to my love of this Weird West adventure--when Samir ends up in Wound Canyon, he isn’t expecting demons and vampires, but he rolls with them kind of like how any nerd would. Relatable and humorous, this episode gave me another good taste out of what to expect from the Whisperforge in terms of their supernatural creature design as well.  [23:42]

Great & Terrible, Dirt & Blood (episode 2): A.R. Olivieri is back with his lyrical writing and terrifying, repetitive nature of audio. It’s only a couple of minutes long, and yet, Oliveri and lead voice actor Leslie Gideon manage to deliver the exact mood, atmosphere, and hook necessary in such a short span of time. [3:30]

Fairy Tales for Unwanted Children, Home (episode 77): Scott Thrower’s fairy tale storytelling podcast has been a staple for my queue for a while. This little story of a stranded sailor meeting a mermaid has that curiously ominous feeling of “what’s the catch”, and then the shock. This is a stellar example of what Thrower can accomplish in less than 10 minutes, with a classic storyteller air. [7:33]

CASTING LIGHT: NARRATION

The conversation surrounding the place of narration in audio fiction is one that has often plagued both my listening and my commentary, due to the huge divide on whether or not narration is a tool creators should still be using or relying on in audio. Before you begin this, know that I come down on the side that narration is a tool and that, as one, it can be deployed usefully, effectively, or incorrectly.

I’ve been thinking about narration in three primarily top-level ways: single-voice narration, action narration, and internal narration. Single-voice narration would be a fictional story told only through one voice, either through reading a story aloud or taking the part of a first-person recording or log. I’d include in this group things like the podcasts at Escape Artists, LeVar Burton Reads, On a Dark Cold Night, and Gone. Action narration is the use of a usually omniscient, external narrator who describes what’s happening visually, occasionally backed up by sound design, while dialogue and interactions are executed by a cast of performers or alternate voices. I’d include works like Starcalled, Flyest Fables, and Dream State in this category. Internal narration allows the audience into the heads of, usually, one central protagonist while also depicting action and dialogue externally with sound design or other voices, like seen in Station Blue, Athena, and Caravan. Note that there are a bunch of other forms to build narration into audio, but these are the most common I’ve seen.

Narration is a tricky tool: you have to be able to enhance the audio experience without overshadowing the sound design or character performances, if there are any of those, or you have to have an engaging narrative voice for the topic at hand. Eric Silver went into Maximum Fun’s Bubble in this article, and why the narrative style--action narration, but with a narrator had a distinct character personality--broke the immersive quality and held the podcast back from what it could accomplish. In short, the narrator gives exposition and cracks jokes about what’s already happened in dialogue or on top of sound design that’s then rendered unclear, and leaves the audience adrift when it comes to world-building.

Narration that is not just single-voice narration should, in theory, give the listeners something that could not be achieved through the characters speaking or the sound design. It should provide more in-depth information, world-building, a look inside someone’s head, or clarification without sacrificing the design. This is possible to find expertly executed; for instance, in some of the examples I mentioned, Flyest Fables narrator is necessary for the atmosphere and tone of the show. While creator Morgan Givens does do all the voices, the narrator voice gives Flyest Fables the storytelling-at-bedtime quality and feel that would not be achieved as well in any other way. Starcalled, an action science-fiction podcast, uses a narrator to describe action scenes, but does so at the correct beats so that listeners can get the effect of sound design as well. It doesn’t feel like a case of not trusting the audience to understand what’s happening, but instead lends a grand feeling, a sensation of looking at things on an epic scale.

But narration can also be innovative, or even necessary to the flow and construction of the show itself, and not just the atmosphere. Vega, a single-voice podcast, is absolutely one of the most engaging narrators, chock full of swagger, I have ever heard. Ikuomo Okoro has no fear of directly addressing the audience throughout the story, dragging them into her tale of a massively successful bounty hunter in a far distant future. Okoro’s style is innovative within the form, giving herself the role of both narrator and main character without putting barriers on the style of her language, using slang and fluid, casual speaking styles that give Vega that jaw-dropping quality.

Mentioned earlier, both Caravan and Station Blue would be poorer without the narration from inside Samir and Matthew’s heads. In Caravan, Samir says a lot of things that are the opposite or obscured explanations of what he's thinking; including his narration means listeners have a more honest view of Samir and his adventures. Not only that, but getting to see the world through Samir’s eyes is the way to help the audience find a footing in this weird world. Station Blue's horror would have fallen flat on its face without the internal and semi-omniscient narrator, as he provides the clues listeners need to understand what’s about to happen, or lend tension to the scene while reinforcing the isolation Matthew is experiencing. There’s only two main voices--Matthew, in the present, and the strange, internal Matthew, who knows more than the other does.

It is also key to remember that narration should not be shunned outright because it’s a reliable tool for people to create their stories when they may not have other options. First-time audio creators, or people with any number of financial difficulties, may rely on narration since they may not be able to afford to pay actors, or even know people who they would feel comfortable asking to act for them for no or minimal fees. It’s also necessary for those first-time creators if they don’t know a lot of sound design yet, or don’t have the money to pay for one, and need the narration in order to tell the best version of the story without having the wait ten years or more.

People should not have to wait to tell their stories, stories they deserve to be able to tell, especially if they have historically already been silenced. We should all remember to be kind; everyone must start somewhere and we should not force them to hide their stories and art from sight until they have “mastered” it. And this is not to say that narration is a last-ditch resort if a creator can't manage complicated sound design. Narration is tricky, and it does have to be deployed well, but that’s just like any other tool in the audio creation kit; people can also use sound effects poorly or ineffectively. To that end, I’d love to hear about your favorite podcast that relies on, or incorporates, narration of any kind! Why do you love it, and what about the narrative style is keeping you engaged?

Image credit: Steve Czajka

ARTICLE HIGHLIGHTS
Fun and Frustration Abound at PodCon 2
Janus Descending is beautiful tragic horror
If you want to see more reviews, interviews, and other articles from me, you can support me over at my ko-fi account! 
Ko-Fi Support
SPECIAL BREAKDOWN: SPOTIFY
So, we all spent a solid week being baffled by Spotify slurping up Gimlet and Anchor. To some extent, people deep in the industry expected something similar to this, and it isn't surprising, Some are uncomfortable with that many millions of dollars being moved around and look, so am I, especially when I don't see a direction for that money that's positive for indie folk. And some podcasters and podcast fans are just plain confused. What does this even mean?

If you need a primer on the Spotify acquisitions, myself and Eric Silver co-wrote this article at Bello Collective. If you don't need a primer, but you do need a good laugh, I also recommend you read it.

Amanda McLoughlin wrote what I think is one of the most important articles in the wake of the acquisitions--3 Lessons for Podcasters from Someone Who Lived Through YouTube's Buyout. If you're a podcaster, or you want to be one, you need to read this, because Amanda will guide you through the future that's coming, no matter what it looks like.

Here's the interview Recode had with Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber on the Gimlet sale. It's useful to read, especially to understand the other analyses flying around.

For the ones who need a deep dive, this in-depth breakdown going from early statistics up to the acquisition is a great thing to read if you have a little bit more time. Ben Thompson ends on a positive note and is one of the most thorough in his analysis that I've seen thus far.

Finally, here is a gif of an adorable kitten. We deserve it.

NEWS CLIPPINGS
 
Flyest Fables' creator Morgan Givens has started a Patreon. Go support wonderful audio art and storytelling by marginalized voices!
Hit the Bricks, a beautiful podcast set in the world of Oz, has a Kickstarter, and they're only $400 short of their goal right now!
The Austin Film Festival's Podcast Script competition is open for submissions! The early deadline is April 15.
Podcast Movement has an open call for speaker submissions until February 28.
Garbage Town, a musical podcast, is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter.
RECOMMENDED READING
I spend a lot of time shouting about how to best promote your podcast, and especially how not to. This article on a cross-promotion episode swap between Darknet Diaries with Malicious Life and Hackable? is necessary reading. I encourage podcasters to learn from it and put the episode-swap tactic into their toolkit.

Wil Williams' article on parasocial relationships needs to become a mainstay in our research and our minds. I had reason to go back to it recently, and it was important that I reiterate how useful, well-researched, nuanced, and respectful it is.
BY THE WAY,

It's been lovely to get back into the swing of regular newsletters, even amidst all the irregular reporting. Thank you for sticking with me, spreading the word about Audio Dramatic, and sending me cool news to keep my eye on.

If you'd like to ask me questions or comments, you can reply to this newsletter (it goes directly to my email!) or reach out to me on Twitter.

Happy listening,
Ely
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