Podcasting is a soaring market that is no longer limited to radio. Both adaptable and responsive, it now rubs up against transmedia storytelling and some even go so far as to predict a surprising honeymoon with virtual reality.
Released around the same time as the first mobile devices, the audio podcast represents an extraordinary vector for linear and serialized storytelling. This format can easily be incorporated into multiplatform dissemination strategies. However, to shed light on what it shares with transmedia, we need to go back in time to the beginning of the present millennium… It all began with Donjon de Naheulbeuk.
Once upon a time, there was Donjon de Naheulbeuk
Launched in 2001 as a “MP3 saga” (the term podcast had not yet been invented), this story subverted Heroic Fantasy codes and allowed us to follow the daily lives of several roleplay typical characters on a quest to find a prophetic statuette in a just as archetypal dungeon. The infamous Donjon de Naheulbeuk.
“Naheulbeuk is a historical format that was launched even before the arrival of iTunes!,” recalls Joel Ronez, former director of new media for Radio France and founder of Binge Radio, a professional network of French-language podcasts designed for the 20 to 35 age group. “These are truly pioneering communities, niche communities, that were never really equalled afterward.”
Whereas the first three seasons had been developed in audio format, seasons 4, 5 and 6 took on the form of a comic strip, thereby becoming a true “bookshop phenomenon”. Beyond its originality and caustic humour, this podcast’s success can be attributed to the close ties maintained by the creator with his community of fans. Each week, through his blog, he informed his fans of the project evolution and consulted them on certain subjects. This helped the universe to develop over the years and take on the form of a novel, an animated series, a roleplay, a board game, a video game and even the “Naheulband” band!
Welcome to Night Vale: a UFO in the podcasting galaxy
In both form and substance, the narrative podcast can push the boundaries of originality even further. Indeed, in the past few years, we have witnessed the creation of very imaginative shows, the likes of the excellent Welcome to Night Vale (WTNV). This American bimonthly podcast is presented as the community radio station of a small imaginary town that is far off in the middle of the desert and where all conspiracy theories are not only real but also part of citizens’ daily lives.
The podcast features Cecil Baldwin, the sole host of an imaginary radio station, who relates absurd and disturbing stories with every episode: a dragon has landed in town, angels are coming to help you change the light bulbs or a house has disappeared from the heart of a peaceful neighbourhood. (But rest assured, an investigation is underway…)
The “science-fiction-comical-surreal” universe extends to a Twitter account fed by the authors. They post short and absurd maxims online and interact with their community of more than 320,000 followers to date. WTNV was so successful that its authors decided to write exclusive episodes that can be seen on stage along with the musical interludes of artists who musically dressed up the audio podcast. Fans throughout the world adore and rush to the merchandising stand to purchase limited quantities of products that are not available online.
The founding example of Serial
More recently, the celebrated Serial podcast—which has us follow an investigative journalist who is pursuing the case of a murder that took place 15 years ago—was initially launched with a website that enabled us to retrace, one episode at a time, digitized versions of hand-written letters, excerpts of minutes as well as layout plans of the parking area where the murder is alleged to have taken place.
These elements made it possible to further explore the storyline that was being told in each weekly episode and reinforce the immersive nature of the journalistic investigation. After the end of the first season, additional episodes were disseminated to keep followers up to date with the latest legal developments in the case. Note that the case was reopened by the courts one year after the podcast aired.
A honeymoon with virtual reality?
But podcasting has not yet reached its limits. Indeed, it could soon go the way of virtual reality (VR). That is the view backed among others by Chris Giliberti in an article published by Forbes in March 2016.
For this start-up specializing in audio podcasts, oral storytelling indeed represents the only way to recreate a linear story in a 360-degree universe. Seeing as it is no longer possible to play with the montage or framing effects to mould the story, everything shall rest on the storyteller’s voice and audio’s ability to immerse us in the story.
The article’s author thereby imagines the result of such an VR immersion in the garage of famous podcaster Marc Maron during an interview with Barack Obama. We’d be witnessing an intimate moment by watching in turn the person who is speaking, the person who is listening and the person who is looking through the window. It’s as if we would be witnessing a bar conversation.
“Some people contend that virtual reality opens doors for audio storytelling. They believe that once you’re lost in an image, the sound represents a storytelling component that enables you to hook on and follow a linear story,” claims Joel Ronez. “A story that is as linear as a book, for example. Not everyone sees the same thing, but everyone will hear the same thing.”
Thus, although the audio podcast is a natural fit for transmedia, it is perhaps its ability to “re-linearize” VR experiences that could guarantee it a successful future. This could also apply to augmented reality experiences (where the eyes already have difficulty keeping up). Finally, given increased investments, new dissemination networks and a new generation of emerging authors, there is a strong likelihood that audio podcasts will soon pass through the sound barrier. Stay tuned…