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In this episode, we’re going to take a deep dive into what it takes to plan, write, and produce podcasts like Archive 81 and The Deep Vault.
This is part one of a two part series; next week I’ll be interviewing Dan Powell, who handles the editing, sound design, and music.
Highlights, Takeaways & Quick Wins:
- The most important part of the writing process is collaboration.
- Audio storytelling is a powerful medium.
- Work with people you trust and ask them for their feedback.
- The hardest part of creating a modern radio drama is making time for all the work required.
- If you’re into podcasting, create stories that can only be told through sound.
- 01:32 Aaron: Marc Sollinger; you’re more of the writer and creative person for Dead Signals, is that correct?
- 01:56 Marc: Both Dan and I write and contribute to the creative process equally, so both of our roles are really creative. We’re both the “idea person.” Dan, please don’t hate me when you listen to this.
- 02:15 Aaron: You do a lot of the writing and he does a lot of the editing, but you both contribute equally to the writing process, yeah?
- Innovation Hub”>02:07 Marc: Yeah, and we’re both audio professionals. He’s an engineer and works at a sound effects library, I work in public radio for Innovation Hub. We both work with sound for our day jobs. It’s really fun.
The Most Important Part of the Writing Process: Collaboration
- The Deep Vault.”>03:08 Aaron: I brought you on because you and Dan recently launched a modern radio drama podcast called The Deep Vault. I like the description you guys wrote; “The Deep Vault is a serialized, seven-episode audio drama set in in the almost-post-apocalyptic United States.
- 03:26 “The story follows a group of longtime friends as they journey from the uninhabitable surface world into a mysterious underground bunker in search of safety, shelter, and answers to their past. Robotic servants, tooth-filled monsters, and terrible computers collide within the claustrophobic, steel-reinforced walls of The Deep Vault, a modern day homage to the golden age of sci-fi radio drama.”
- 04:02 I want to hear about your background and how you got into audio and radio. Before we get into that, I have to say that the Audible ad read at the end of the first episode of The Deep Vault is one of the most genius things I’ve ever heard. Good job on that, whoever had that idea.
- 04:38 Marc: Listen to the second episode, because it gets crazier. With podcasts that are more host-driven and not fiction, it’s usually the hosts talking about how much they love Blue Apron or Squarespace. For us, it felt a little weird to break the world and say, “Hey, it’s Marc Sollinger and Daniel Powell, and we’d love you to try out Audible or Blue Apron,” so we came up with the idea of a robot that’s not a character in the show. It’s just a random robot that’s gradually gaining sentience and is really pissed off at his masters. It’s fun and hopefully people will enjoy listening to it. The main thing is we wanted it to be fun.
- 05:56 Aaron: Mission accomplished. So when did you get started with audio?
- 06:04 Marc: I fell in love with audio in high school when I was driving around in my car and I heard a This American Life episode. It was one of those proverbial driveway moments, where I stayed in my car for 30 minutes because the story was so good.
Audio storytelling is a powerful medium.
- Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air.”>06:37 I feel in love with it and I adore the power of audio documentary and public radio. That’s my day job now, but I started listening to older radio dramas like Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air. That’s really good; start with War of the Worlds.
- AV Club has a good list of creepy radio dramas from the 40s, 50s, and 60s”>The Message? I’m 90% sure that the pitch for that was, “Let’s do War of the Worlds updated and as a podcast.” If you’re looking for other great audio drama podcasts, AV Club has a good list of creepy radio dramas from the 40s, 50s, and 60s you can check out.
- 07:52 Aaron: So you were listening to those and you thought, “I have to figure out how to do this for myself?”
- 07:58 Marc: Yeah, I noticed when podcasts were getting big in 2007 that there weren’t a lot of audio dramas. There were a couple and there were a lot of audio books released as podcasts, but I didn’t feel like there were a lot of podcast audio dramas that were at the same level as stuff from the 40s and 50s.
- 09:02 For my college thesis, I made a 10-episode audio drama that I released as a podcast. This was before Dan and I started collaborating, but he was featured as the main actor, playing a nebbish anthropologist who crash lands on an alien world and has to discover a bunch of secret stuff.
- 09:31 It’s called Transmission and it’s still something I’m proud of, but I didn’t do any promotion. I fell into the trap of thinking, “This is really good, obviously it’ll get big,” which is not a good mindset to be in. It’s a Patreon reward for our Patreon page now.
- 10:21 Aaron: So you dove in and made a 10-episode podcast series. What kind of experience did you have with audio at that point?
- 10:29 Marc: I interned for a summer at Chicago Public Radio’s Youth Vocalo, and I studied radio, television, and film in college. I did some work for Nick van der Kolk of Love + Radio. I interned for my local NPR station and I learned a lot about sound from the incomparable Douglass Quinn of Syracuse University. I fell in love with audio by listening to This American Life and old radio serials, but I became someone who could do audio through learning from Douglass Quinn. That shows the importance of having a really good mentor.
- 11:26 Aaron: When does Dan come into the picture?
- 11:29 Marc: We met in college (Douglas Quinn was his mentor too). Quinn kind of forced our heads together and it turns out we really liked each other. After college, we went our separate ways; I worked for the PBS News Hour and then I moved to Boston to work for Innovation Hub and Dan went to Brooklyn to work for a sound effects library.
- 12:35 He came to Boston to visit and we talked about projects we had been thinking about. Then I went to New York to visit him and he was talking about wanting to do an audio drama, something where he would be listening alone to a bunch of weird, freaky tapes. It was a really good idea so I said we should do it together. We brainstormed and came up with an outline. I wrote it, he edited it, but it was a very collaborative process. There’s a bunch of really dumb ideas that would have gone into it if he hadn’t told me to take them out.
Work with people you trust and ask them for their feedback.
- 13:37 Aaron: You’ve got to have someone you can trust to curate and edit what you come up with.
- 13:55 Marc: It’s a matter of trust. If I really like something and Dan isn’t sure about it, even if I don’t understand why he doesn’t like it, I trust him enough to know that there’s something wrong, something that needs to be fixed.
Archive 81: Writing, Editing, & Casting
- Archive 81.”>14:30 Aaron: This podcast you’re talking about–where Dan listens to freaky tapes–is called Archive 81. The description for this show is, “Three months ago Daniel Powell vanished. These are the tapes he sent me.” How long did it take you to get all these episodes written, recorded, and edited? What was the preparation process like for Archive 81?
- 16:55 Marc: For the writing process, I can write about two episodes a week.
- 17:03 Aaron: Part-time on nights and weekends?
- 17:08 Marc: Yeah, I’ve been a hermit. It’s a lot of work. After the episodes are written, we have a two or three week period where we heavily revise it. We script everything out and we usually do a table read over Google voice and we pause and re-write when anything sounds weird.
- 18:05 Aaron: Once you’ve got the script for the episode in a good place and you feel good about it, what happens after that? Studio time?
- 18:15 Marc: We recorded all 10 episodes at the same time. I’m glad we did that instead of writing an episode and then recording it, writing an episode, and then recording it. That saved us a lot of time and money. For Archive 81, we got our cast together and then one of our friends let us record in her bedroom. For The Deep Vault, we went to an actual studio. With Archive 81, since it’s tape-based, it’s a lot of two people talking to each other, so the bedroom worked fine for that. With The Deep Vault, it’s more action, adventure-y and there were going to be five people in a room at the same time. You need an actual studio if you have five people in there at the same time.
- 19:33 Aaron: So you recorded all 10 episodes of Archive 81 in a bedroom. Were all the voice actors friends of yours?
- 20:01 Marc: A mix—some friends, some Craigslist, some family. We pay all our actors, which is something we think is really important. We didn’t pay them as much as we would have liked to but we did pay them.
- 20:22 Aaron: I noticed that the guy that plays Dan’s boss has the same last name as Dan. Is that his father or one of his brothers?
- 20:35 Marc: His father. It has a bunch of creepier overtones when you realize it’s Dan’s actual dad, who turns out to be a really really good actor.
The Hardest Part of Creating a Modern Radio Drama: Making Time
- 27:19 Aaron: Were there any struggles or hurdles you overcame that stick out to you during producing or recording either one of those shows?
- 27:35 Marc: The biggest one is how busy Dan and I are. We’re both working full-time jobs or more than full-time jobs. We started Archive 81—writing it, promotion for it, and releasing it—and then as soon as we began to release the episodes, we started to develop The Deep Vault, so there would be no pause between shows.
- 28:15 Episode 10 of Archive 81 was released at the same time as the teaser for Deep Vault, then episode one of Deep Vault went out the next week. It’s just a lot of work, managing time and pulling through it. We’re working on Archive 81 season two now while Dan is still finishing edits for the Deep Vault. We’re doing promotion, starting an LLC, working with advertisers, and responding to fans on Twitter. It’s just a lot for two people to do.
- 29:09 For the most part, we’re been really lucky and #blessed to work with wonderful actors, and Dan is a wonderful partner. The studio we worked in for the Deep Vault was really great. It comes down to time management and knowing when to say yes to stuff and when to say no to stuff.
- 29:49 Aaron: Is one of your goals to take Dead Signals and make it a full-time job?
- 29:55 Marc: Maybe. I really enjoy my full-time job, but if the audience was there…The trouble is that it’s very difficult to do it unless you’re Welcome to Night Veil or you have the backing of Panoply or Giblet. It’s something we’ve discussed, but right now we’re not at a point where we could do that.
What Would You Do If You Had a Million Dollars in the Bank?
- Sean McCabe”>30:34 Aaron: My good friend and boss, Sean McCabe, started a business that makes a full-time living—there’s a team of seven of us now—and something we asked ourselves last week was, “If we had a million dollars in the bank, what would we do?” I wanted to pose that question to you; let’s say you and Dan had a million dollars in the bank. Would you want to spend most of your time on podcasting, or do you think you’d be happy keeping your day job and working on podcasts on nights and weekends?
- 31:16 Marc: If money was no object, I think most people would say, “Let’s go to Belize and surf!” For me, it’s all about weird creative projects. If we had a million dollars, we’d probably work on creating more interesting things. We’d be able to rent out more time at studios. We’d be able to do a weekly thing instead of a bi-weekly thing (I hate bi-weekly).
- 32:02 Aaron: Weekly is great, but with all the work you guys have to do for each episode, I understand why you do bi-weekly. I have a hard time keeping up with my podcast and it’s not anywhere close to the kind of work that your shows are.
- 32:13 Marc: Maybe if we were doing it full-time we could do it weekly. If I had a million dollars it would be nice to work with other writers and sound designers to do more weird stuff.
What’s Next for Dead Signals Productions?
- 32:41 Aaron: I had a related question, which was, “What are your plans for the future?” but it sounds like you’re just going to keep pushing forward. You’re working on season two of Archive 81. Are there plans for a season two of Deep Vault?
- 33:01 Marc: It depends on how it’s received. Deep Vault definitely has an ending. It leaves open the possibility for a season two, but we’re very happy with leaving it as a mini series. If everyone is crying out for a season two and gives us a million dollars, we’ll make season two. We also have other projects in the pipeline that we’re thinking about doing after season two of Archive 81.
- 33:56 We’re probably going to do something new before we do a season three of Archive 81, if we do a season three. We really like doing new things. One of the reasons why we didn’t just plan for four seasons of Archive 81, or even do things in the same universe, we want to broaden the possibilities of audio drama and do interesting new things.
We want to make stories that can only be told through sound.
- 38:48 Aaron: Michal Wdowiak asked: “When recording the actors separately (even remotely) for a dialogue scene, how do you manage to keep the flow of the scene so it sounds like a real conversation?” Do you ever record dialog scenes separately (remotely)?
- 39:16 Marc: No, we don’t. If it’s supposed to be a conversation, they’ve got to be in the same room. That’s one of our big priorities for our actors; they have to be in New York. You can splice stuff in, but I really don’t think you get the same performance when two people are not talking to each other. The actor’s performances feed off each other and having them in the same room is really important.
- 39:54 Virginia Houser asked: “How much effort and planning do you put into creating your own sound effects for your stories, if at all? Is it worth the time to create or add sound effects? If the go-to is using pre-recorded effects from online, what resources do you use to find those sound bites?”
- Soundsnap”>40:21 Marc: We do a mix between creating our own sound effects and using effects from sound libraries. Dan is a manager at an online sound effects library called Soundsnap, which is helpful. He can get whatever he needs there, but we do prefer making our own sound effects so we can get the exact sound we want.
- 41:19 Before we wrap up, I want to say that it’s a really interesting time for audio drama and podcasts. I think we’re on the cusp of something. Welcome to Night Veil, The Black Tapes, Lime town, The Message, and The Truth were all the first mainstream audio dramas to be released as podcasts, and it’s a really good time to start one yourself. If you want to start an audio drama, don’t just do it because you want to start a TV show and you don’t want to spend a lot of money. If you’re really passionate about it, get started now; companies are starting to invest money in these podcasts. It’s a lot of work, though, so be prepared to put some time into it if you want to succeed.
You can head over to their Patreon page to learn more about Marc and Dan and their podcasts. Stay tuned, next week I’ll be talking audio production and sound design with Marc’s podcasting partner, Dan Powell.