Lately, we’ve decided we watch movies way too frequently. So we’ve decided to try some audio theater for a while. Evenings with the whole family on the couch in front of the fireplace – yet not all staring into the tv.
My previous wife and I did a lot of modern (70s and later) audio theater. Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater, NPR, BBC, etc.. Titles like Some People Are Missing on Canal Street, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Mist in 3D Sound, NPR Star Wars all came to mind with fond memories.
But as I searched around for these programs and trying to find what had been made in the ten years since we listened back then, I found there has been a radical change in this age of podcasts. I guess it all started with “podiobooks” – an independent author releases a novel in serialized form, online, using the podcast medium. And, somewhere along the line they started doing them in a dramatized form. With original sound effects, original music, and full casts.
See, I consider audio theater a format that must be presented with an apology. “Good audio theater” is not the same as “good movie” or “good novel”. It is a form that usually just abides by the standards set long ago by the pioneers in the 40s and 50s, and tweaked in the 80s and 90s. When I hear mediocre acting, bare-minimum production values, library sound effects, I know that this is all the small audience requires. It’s not meant to be competition for any other form and therefore they make their own rules. And, even the best stuff out there only rises to a certain standard. I could spend pages writing about what I mean specifically (if you know audio theater, you already know, if you don’t, it would probably bore you) but take my word for it – it is an taste acquired as you learn what to expect and most people will find their expectations (created by their enjoyment of other entertainment media) are not met. In that way, audio theater is like comic books, short fiction, or even romance novels. It’s just not universally approachable.
Well, I’m now finding that’s not necessarily true anymore.
While I’m not predicting the entrance to mainstream entertainment of audio theater, I can say that there is stuff out there that has risen WAY above what had come for some 70 years previous. The stories are more mature (still not to levels of novels or film but this reinvention is young yet) and the acting and production quality are exponentially better than most of what I’ve ever heard before. And what is so stunning is that the standard seems to have changed. When I try a new podio theater, I find that there is not a lot of fluctuation. The quality is usually there. Until recently, when I tried a new audio theater production, it was a crap shoot. Sometimes it was sloppily made, sometimes it was great by what I’m referring to as the previous standard, sometimes it transcended the medium norms and was true quality by any standard. The creators of podio theater are clearly aware that their mainstream success depends on their adherence to mainstream entertainment standards. They must compete with the immersive qualities of films, games, and novels or end up as ignored and forgotten (to the general populace) as all that has come before.
I would say podio theater is approaching the quality of good tv. Some stuff I’ve been listening to is on par with Lost, The Walking Dead, Twin Peaks, Freaks & Geeks. I’d compare other shows but I don’t watch tv. But the best tv I have seen (thanks, Netflix Streaming) is really good. Another medium that realizes it needs change. But I’ve yet to see tv shows that achieve what novels and films achieve. To prolong a story indefinitely you must have different rules. Rules that would be absurd in a finite-length story medium.
Since most podio theater is serialized, it is more like really good tv as far as storytelling goes. But, like a novel, many productions seem to assume you are in or out. It takes its time to get to the story. It doesn’t feel the need to hook you in in the first few minutes or even the first episode(s?). It assumes you read the description, maybe read the reviews or heard word of mouth and are willing to commit. So, in the interest of the best storytelling, it sets the scene, introduces the characters, etc. with often no real rush to “make something happen”.
Btw, I notice this term I keep using, “Podio Theater” is not being used much. The sites all still call what they do “Audio Theater”. That’s a shame. What they’re doing is new and they need to let people know. And every new thing has a new name. I hope they all adopt it. To set themselves apart.
I think I’ve made clear that I am very critical. So, dear random visitor, if you’ve read this far, know that I have no desire to waste your time on mediocrity or my tastes. What I will list here should be enjoyable to the uninitiated – it’s good no matter who you are or what you like – and I’ve made clear that this is the first time in history that such universal appeal has been so common. But also know that I am barely beginning. I am two or three episodes into many shows. Some shows have 30 and more episodes. A lot can change. But I’m so excited, I’m sharing what I’ve found so far.
Note, I am including links, not descriptions, since what I’ve heard so far may not be a fair summary of the eventual story focus. I’m mainly commenting on the production as a whole. Also, since this post is about podio theater – serialized AND ongoing – I will not bother with those productions that put out a single story with a set length.
With those caveats, let me start with The Leviathan Chronicles. This one blows me away. Perfect balance of narration and fully produced action with excellent acting. Most audio theater seems afraid to use narration, instead putting artificial descriptive dialogue into the characters mouths to describe environments and action – which I consider probably the original sin of bad audio theater. I am three episodes into this one and the story is very intriguing. I think more subplots would be good but maybe that’s coming. These episodes seem to range between 40 and 60 minutes and that’s a very good, relaxed but not too relaxed running time.
Be sure to visit his ‘links to other podcasts’ page. If this guy thinks something is worthy, I want to hear it, too.
This show is a labor of love by its creator and the more you find out about him and the production of the show, the more interesting it gets.
Next would have to be We’re Alive. Yeah, it’s a zombie story but it has a couple twists which keep me wanting to know more. The production is very immersive, the acting and dialogue is really good. I’d like more character development. Again, maybe that’s coming – I’ve gotten through the three-part first chapter and can’t wait to hear more.
Now, for me to bring up Wormwood is to probably go against the assurance of universal appeal I promised above. I think this one has a few issues. A lot of dialogue sounds recorded in a bathroom (very confusing in outdoor scenes) and some scenes probably could have been written better. This one really needs a narrator. Hopefully, later episodes will rectify the issues I hear now. But pretty much everything else is excellent. I list it because I really think it exceeds the sum of its parts and comes together.
Those three are the ones I’ve heard so far that I feel the most hope for. They have proven to me what this new age of audio theater has to offer. I feel they have universal appeal. There are several others that I really really like but I think they require a bit of suspension of expectation. A lowering of standards, if even only slightly. Of course, I will love nothing more than to do a follow-up post with a list of the ones that proved themselves just as worthy of those three.
Maybe I’ll make a video entry and talk about those…
As you can see, I am extremely excited about what has happened to the world of audio theater. I am listening through headphones as I do housework, listening on a big sound system with my family, and my phone’s podcast app I now think of as my podio theater app. And, every day is recalling recently heard episodes and giddy anticipation of what I’ll listen to next. Or what new show I’ll discover next.
There’s so much more to say but I’ll leave it at that for now. Please email/text/whatever me if you want to know more or to share with me what you know about that I don’t :)