McCartney says they’d kicked around the concept as a TV show for years, but practical limitations forced a pivot. “We once had it costed for an online streaming platform budget and it came out as, like…”
“45 million pounds!” McLennan interjects. “Antarctica is not a cheap location. But the sound of wind doesn’t cost much.”
For TV showrunners accustomed to writing in a visual way, “finding a new language to do it through sound has been a challenge,” says McLennan.
“If you write, say, ‘The sun glistened on the ice’, that doesn’t sound like anything so you have to get rid of it,” says McCartney.
They’ve found the form, however, has its benefits.
“We don’t have to compromise,” says McLennan. “We’ve written in a whole colony of penguins… like, thousands. If we had to do that live action, that would’ve been whittled down to 20 penguins.”
In a sign pointing to the genre’s supersizing, Spotify recently announced a multi-year partnership with Warner Bros and DC Comics to produce an original slate of “scripted, narrative” podcasts around characters like Batman, the Joker and Wonder Woman. The deal will also result in Warner Bros developing scripted podcasts based on its other properties, including Looney Tunes and TV shows such as Supernatural.
Spotify’s head of creative development Liz Gateley says the deal reiterates an intent first signalled when Spotify bought Gimlet Media – the so-called “HBO of audio”, responsible for hit fiction podcast Homecoming – in February 2019.
“The rise of fiction podcasts is important to us, and it’s a really exciting area to innovate in. The beauty of audio is that it can transport you to other worlds, much in the same way that fiction can,” she says.
“We also want to do things that are going to drive new audiences to the platform and big IP, in a world with so many voices, is a great investment.”
Gateley – a former programming executive at MTV, who created iconic shows such as Laguna Beach and The Hills – says Hollywood’s COVID-19 shutdown is also proving favourable to the rise of fiction podcasts, with the genre attracting temporarily sidelined stars such as Kevin Bacon who played himself in the recent Spotify Original The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon.
“That’s the really interesting thing we’re seeing, just how much the [Hollywood] studio system is interested in this space,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for actors and writers to flex different muscles, and for us to tell diverse stories in a different way.”
In Australia, Audible has already released five fiction podcasts since launching its Originals program last year, with another three – including Slushy – in the works this year.
Karen Wiggins, Audible’s VP of original content Asia-Pacific, says the continued growth of podcasts has sparked “a resurgence in scripted audio, artfully brought to life through cutting-edge sound design and performed by esteemed Australian actors and narrators”.
“Creators are crafting audio dramas specifically for the listening experience: easy to follow and told through dialogue, and written to the form so that listeners can easily keep track, while leaning into premium sound design that transports the listener to another world,” she says.
In April, Audible debuted a scripted podcast of SBS’s cult comedy Danger 5. The show’s creators Dario Russo and David Ashby say the streamer’s interest initiated the idea.
“We hadn’t at all thought about rebooting the show for the audio sphere. We decided to do it because, basically, the phone rang and Audible was at the end of it,” laughs Russo.
Novices to fiction podcasts, the pair looked to old examples – “the Doctor Who audio library; Monty Python records; The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which started off as a radio play,” says Ashby – for direction. They recruited Shaun Micallef as a narrator, and delivered the finished product almost 18 months after their first discussions with Audible.
The experience was “a hell of a lot less stressful than making a TV show,” says Ashby. “Making stuff for television is becoming harder and harder because the price just stays the same. Audio is a great platform for [scripted] entertainment; it’s a totally viable format and it is relatively cheap to make and low-risk.”
Russo remains amused by the digital ascension of a format that spooked and delighted war-time listeners.
“It’s ironic that something that went extinct in the ’50s with the advent of television is now, with the internet having created these strange marketplaces, essentially coming full circle,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see how the audience grows with it in Australia, because it still feels like new terrain.”
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age