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The Undersung, Underfunded World of Fiction Podcasting

Emily VanDerWerff, right, in a promotional video with “Arden” co-creators Christopher Dole, left, and Sara Ghaleb, center. Finding success in fiction podcasting, she says, means “figuring out a way to meet people where they are.”

After eleven episodes, Brenda Bentley and Bea Casely finally got their woman.

Brenda, a boisterous private investigator, and Bea, a neurotic radio reporter, spent the previous weeks uncovering what really happened to actress Julie Capsom, missing and presumed dead for 10 years. As they sit in a café in Verona, Italy, the pair reflect on their journey, meet the very-much-alive Julie and learn the whole truth. Then, as it must, everything falls apart, and Brenda vanishes from the world.

So ends the first season of “Arden,” a comedy/true crime-fiction podcast.

“Arden” is part of the nascent audio drama market—a poorly defined chunk of the hyper-popular podcasting world. Interchangeably referred to as fiction podcasting or audio fiction, it’s a space that includes everything from eldritch radio call-in shows to slickly produced Marvel Comics tie-ins, where creators often face uphill battles to grow their audiences and produce their shows, challenges that many other podcasters manage to sidestep.

In the 80-plus years since Orson Welles terrified listeners with his rendition of “War of the Worlds,” radio dramas declined and disappeared, replaced by podcasts in the early aughts. 

Podcasting has exploded in the last decade, however. An estimated 116 million Americans listened to a podcast over the last month, compared to around 30 million 10 years ago, an Edison Research report notes. The survey, which measures digital media consumer behavior, also signals that few of the shows featured fiction. 

Most of the podcasting landscape is dominated by NPR programs, comedy talk shows and true crime deep dives, along with heavyweights like “Serial,” “The Joe Rogan Experience” and “The Daily.”

Scripted drama had the lowest percentage of “very interested” listeners, an October 2020 Morning Consult/Hollywood Reporter poll showed, and creators in the audio drama space said it’s inconsistent and difficult to find funding.

“You kind of have to trick people into listening to it, because they’re so used to podcasting being a nonfiction medium, of people talking to each other,” said Emily VanDerWerff, who created and produces “Arden” with Christopher Dole and Sara Ghaleb. “So much of this is just about figuring out a way to meet people where they are.” 

The first episode of “Arden” was released in 2018. Since then, the show has received close to half a million downloads and almost as many streams on platforms like Spotify and Stitcher. But even after a successful crowdfunding campaign, the launch of a modest Patreon account for paying subscribers and a new advertising deal, the show’s creators are still far in the red. 

Arden’s first season cost $5,000, with most of the costs going to recording and post-production services, VanDerWerff said. The second season cost around $25,000, most of which was covered by the crowdfunding campaign. And while the second season allowed for nominal payments to the cast, writers and musicians, VanDerWerff and her partners have not compensated themselves.

Other successful shows like “Homecoming” and “Limetown” — a psychological thriller and science-fiction drama, respectively — were later adapted into hit TV series but failed to fully move the needle in fiction’s favor. And while a show like “Welcome to Night Vale,” a paranormal take on a small-town call-in show, can thrive by mimicking the syndicated format of traditional talk radio shows, many fiction podcasts are not able to write and deliver that much content on a week-to-week basis.

“We wrote ‘Arden’ as if it was a TV show, which is why the episodes are the length of a television show,” said Ghaleb. “And then I saw all these very successful shows that had 10, 15, 20 minute episodes, and I was like, ‘Oh, we easily could have done that . . . That would have saved us thousands of dollars and so much time.’”

Production costs for narrative fiction shows can quickly eclipse those of more popular, talk-radio influenced podcasting. Live365, an internet radio broadcaster, estimates that the cost of launching a high-end podcast comes in at just over $5,000. Startup costs for fiction podcasts may be similar but such shows are significantly more complex, with narrative design, writing, casting, taping, editing, sound design and composing all happening up front. Every minute is an added expense. 

So, while interview programs like “WTF With Marc Maron” require only a pair of mics, a guest and enough time to record and edit one episode a week—all with limited recurring costs—a fiction podcast may undergo months or years of production before being released. There are also added elements and increased spending, according to Gabriel Urbina, a podcast writer and director.

“You’re looking and you’re going like, ‘If we’re really lucky, we’re going to get 10 episodes out a year,’” said Urbina. “And at that point, you’re not going to have the real estate to sell as many ads, and you’re not going to be able to make as much money.”

The industry needs to do a better job of working with advertisers, said Rob Greenlee, vice president of content and partnerships at Libsyn, a podcast hosting and advertising provider. Many of the automation tools used by podcast creators, he said, are built for radio advertisers, whose interests—namely, maximum commercialization at a lower cost—rarely align with those of podcasters, who typically value more personalized monetization methods. 

There are up to 400,000 active podcasts producing new content each week, Greenlee said, and the audience is diversifying. The Edison report shows new podcast listeners are increasingly younger and less white than in previous years. Audio drama creators are, therefore, finding success in increasingly limited, diverse niches, where a small group of invested fans can support a project.

“A lot of the best things are made by a few committed people, and received by a relatively small group of dedicated readers or listeners or viewers,” said Eli Horowitz, the co-creator of “Homecoming” and former publisher of McSweeney’s. 

According to the “Arden” creatives, though, it has grown increasingly difficult to find that smaller committed audience, as Hollywood studios tap podcasts for intellectual property, treating the medium as a kind of pre-production stage of story development, before underpaying the podcaster for their rights to their work and adapting their story for the screen.

Some major tech companies have begun acquiring podcasting platforms and folding them into their media production pipeline—Amazon, for example, has snatched up Wondery, a high-profile podcast production company, while Spotify has gone on a buying frenzy, purchasing production companies and user-generated platforms alike.

“This is a hard space to find an audience in if you don’t have corporate backing,” said VanDerWerff. “We have broken out, we have found an audience.”

Dole said it’s one of the best things he’s done. “I’m so thrilled that it’s found the audience it has. We get messages not infrequently about just how much the show means to its listeners.”

On Twitter, for instance, a fan praised the second season of “Arden” saying “there are moments [when] your heart just drops, and you [are] left speechless at what just happened.” The podcast, added author Amethyst Marie, “has done what the Bard couldn’t: made me care about Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship.” 

“It’s a hard road to walk. But at the end of the day, you get to make something that you can be really proud of,” Dole said.

Written by

Luis A. Gómez (M.S. '23) is an editorial producer at The New Yorker.