Writing Frontiers: Podcast Writing

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

As writing moves into the 21st Century, new media are being explored by intrepid authors looking to showcase their voices. I’ve recently discovered a few of these and wanted to take a closer look at how the writing behind them works.

This month, I will be taking a look at podcasting. Podcasting takes its name from iPod and broadcasting. The name sums it up well—it’s like a radio show for your mp3 player, your computer or your cell phone.

Podcasts can be about anything the broadcaster would like to showcase. There are many different podcasts and settling on just one or two from a specific topic can be daunting. They typically fall into one of three categories: news and information, entertainment, and education. No matter which category you choose, there are going to be hundreds of different topics and hundreds of different podcasts for each topic. If you love something, there’s probably a podcast about it. Finding a podcast you want can be daunting, but there are many search engines to help you, including a large list on iTunes that is fairly easy to use. Other good references are PodCast Alley or PodFeed.

Some podcasts are “pay to play,” but many are free. I listen faithfully to only one of the million podcasts out there—The Signal. This podcast is about news and entertainment that in some way relates back to the television show Firefly and the movie Serenity. Everything about The Signal—the news, the music, the drama, the comedy, the articles, and the host comments—all relate back to the show and movie in some fashion.

Last winter, The Signal put out a call for new blood to add to their staff—specifically for writers and editors. Their quest got me thinking—what were they looking for? Luckily for me, they put together a segment that reviewed what kind of audio editors and writers they were looking for.

Still, I wanted to know more about the writing and the writers. How did they get into podcasting? What do they like about it? What makes it different from scripts or novels?

I asked if anyone minded if I interviewed them and Nick Edwards and Helen Eaton of The Signal volunteered. You can find biographies for both here.

I was then approached by Peter Wilson, a writer for Buffy: Between the Lines, which is a dramatic podcast based on the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer TV show. This podcast is vastly different from The Signal in format; it’s a drama that’s acted out every week instead of a news and information program. Nick Edwards had also been involved with Buffy: Between The Lines as a writer and actor there.

Below are the interview questions and answers from all three writers.

Background Image: Alan Levine (Public Domain)

Toasted Cheese: How did you get into podcasting?

Nick Edwards: Firefly. Pure and simple. My interest in the show was such after being pointed to it by fans on the Larry Niven mailing list, I went looking online for more information and one of the first things I found was The Signal and other Firefly-related podcasts. I’d never listened to a podcast before, didn’t even have an mp3 player, so I listened to a few on my computer and got hooked. I had no idea there was so much going on in the fandom and The Signal quickly became my “Firefly Fix” (I guess I started listening mid-Season 1 before Serenity came out).

Then, at the start of Season 3 in 2007, I went to a Shindig (gathering of Firefly Fans) in London. I already had met Wendy, Toni and Andrew of the UK-based Sending A Wave podcast (which I enjoyed enough to write and record an article for them reviewing Songs From The Black, the downloadable CD of Firefly fan music that The Signal had made at the end of 2006) and knew that Jill Arroway and Kari Hayley of The Signal would be at the Shindig. I had also been emailing Jill about her Dark Places project and had wanted to talk with her about that (I’d already said I wanted to be involved in this original Firefly audio drama project). The Shindig was great, and in talking to Kari and Jill, who essentially ran The Signal, I was offered the chance to join the crew. The conversation went something like:

“Can you write?”

“Yes, I guess.”

“Can you act?”

“Yes, did some drama years back.”

“Can you record yourself?”


“OK, you’re in.”

My response was along the lines of “You have got to be shitting me!”

And that was that. I couldn’t believe it. I was a fan being asked to join what was (and still is for my money) the best (and most original) Firefly-based podcast out there. Doing a few Sending A Wave shows since has also been a hoot and I am still involved with Dark Places. The Signal stuff also led to me being asked to audition for and getting the role of Spike in Buffy: Between the Lines (a whole different scale of podcasting!) and doing a few other podcast-related bits here and there. And I love it.

Helen Eaton: I found The Signal in 2006 when looking for information on Firefly on the internet. I don’t think I knew what a podcast was before then. I thought it would be fun to be part of the team creating The Signal, but I only applied to join at the end of last year because before then I’d not had a good enough internet connection. (I’m British, but I live in Tanzania, East Africa. Internet connections here are not the greatest!)

Peter Wilson: By listening to the podcast and hearing that they needed beta readers for scripts. After doing that they asked if any beta readers wanted to write anything, so I volunteered.

TC: What kind of writing do you do for the podcast?

NE: Well, I do a bit of everything now. Initially I began with feature articles focusing on a particular aspect of Firefly, which I still do as these are a staple of The Signal. This fairly quickly widened to include SciFi Review segments, where we took other shows and reviewed them, usually comparing them to Firefly in the early days. This segment gradually widened its focus and has included comedy and straight drama shows, such that we now call the segment “Broadwaves.” The other thing I took on quite early was the audio drama segment “Badger’s World” which ran for two seasons and twenty-seven episodes. I also do editorials, as well as sometimes doing the scripts for the host banter, Feedback sections and News segments (not all at the same time though!).

HE: I’ve written some articles that discuss different themes in Firefly and Serenity. I’ve also done a review of a different television show and compared it to Firefly. And I’ve written some episodes of a humorous audio drama about two inept terraformers!

PW: Script writing.

TC: How much do you write for the podcast?

NE: A fair bit. I often write an article per episode (every two weeks). When “Badger’s World” ran early on, it was an episode of audio drama every two weeks. I’ll always have some writing input as a rule (we have seven or eight regular writers).

HE: On average, one piece per podcast (which comes out every two weeks). Each piece—an article, a review or a skit—is usually about 800 words.

PW: I’ve written two scripts in the past year. That being said, there are some people that write way more.

TC: Do you write alone or in conjunction with others?

NE: Alone, but the effort is collaborative in that all articles are put up for crew review and any crew member can make edits to the article. In terms of crew editing of articles, simple stuff like typos and minor grammatical corrections are just made without needing to consult the author. We use a wiki so all changes are traceable and recoverable if something is done that fundamentally alters a meaning, say. Crits are made and generally the author goes back to make the changes if they agree with them. Authorship credit stays with the original author. We have not really had any joint pieces due to the rapid turnaround we need to maintain (two weekly schedule), but the input of the other writers and rest of the crew is very important in keeping the quality high.

HE: I write alone, but sometimes an idea for a skit comes from someone else. There is also the editing process later, when others can help by suggesting changes.

PW: I’ve only written alone, which is unusual. As a rule of thumb every script gets two writers.

TC: Do you focus on certain topics? If so, what’s your focus?

NE: Do you focus on topics? If the article calls for it, yes. I started out being given topics and going really in-depth into them, which made for good articles, but is a lot of work for a newbie. Over time though, as you learn the show, what’s been done, what works, the research doesn’t always have to be as onerous. You relax a little and learn you can rely on other people’s experiences and opinions. There’s a huge fund of knowledge within the crew that you can tap into as a primary source, which is great.

What’s your focus? Phew. Difficult question. What I’d like to hear on the show I guess. Having stared out as a listener, I know what I enjoyed on the show and so try to remember that when writing or when assigning someone else to write something. With the audio drama stuff, keeping to a format becomes important to an extent, but having fun with it and making it amusing is the primary goal.

HE: My favorite kind of writing involves looking at the themes of different episodes, comparing storylines or characters, and examining the structure of episodes.

PW: Well the topic my writing focuses on changes every time. But the focus that all my writing has in common is trying not to suck. Because if it sucks I feel like I’m letting down a whole team of people with sub-par garbage if it sucks. I write about what interests me and hope therefore it will interest others.

TC: What do you look for in a podcast topic?

NE: Well, it has to be interesting enough to want to write about it, so no articles on cutlery in the ‘verse are pending. I guess it has to be in line with the sort of things we generally do on the show. So we have various threads like “Serenity Speculation,” “Broadwaves,” “They’ve All Got Stories,” that sort of thing. But we also go out in unusual directions sometimes with the special features and editorials. Quality is the key though. We try to be as interesting, accurate, and entertaining as we can and all the writing goes through a crew review process before being recorded and edited and we are all expected to bring articles up to scratch and are free to edit each other’s work in the crew wiki we use for the purpose. So there’s no room to be precious about what you have written. (Most editing is minor stuff like grammar and readability, but sometimes major changes are needed to improve articles, so it has to be a collaborative process where the show comes first.)

PW: To be honest, glory. It makes me feel bad, but yeah. I think most people are looking for it even if they don’t admit it. I also look for constructive criticism. After the glory fades the criticisms are really the only things that help you.

TC: What kind of freedom do you have when writing for a podcast?

NE: Complete freedom (to a degree). It’s a podcast, we don’t make any money from it, people don’t have to listen to it. We could say whatever the hell we wanted.

HE: There’s a freedom associated with your words being spoken rather than read. An informal style is more appropriate and the more unnatural-sounding grammar rules can be ignored!

TC: What kind of restrictions do you have?

NE: Several self-imposed ones. The podcast is about Firefly. We will not bring real-world politics or religion into it other than for comparison purposes. We try to keep it PG-13 level, though we make no claim to be a PG-13-rated podcast. This is for adults. We’ll use the word “shit,” but generally not “fuck” or stronger (though we may imply it). You wouldn’t believe the fuss a few folk made over a promo we ran with JC Hutchins and Scott Sigler which appeared to have them both swearing like troopers, but where every actual expletive was bleeped out (though you could figure out what word it would have been). It was hilarious, but some folk didn’t like it. Won’t stop us doing it again though; like I said, it’s a grown-up podcast. (In contrast, on “Sending a Wave,” which I have taken part in, there are no such self-imposed restrictions and folk swear as much as they do in everyday speech (it’s not scripted), which is good, ‘cos I swear like a total ****.

We try to keep things “international” in that any article that starts talking about “here in the States” or “of course here at home in the UK” gets changed. We have crew (including me) in the UK and Africa as well as the US and Jill in the UK started it all off. Our listeners are from all corners of the globe, so we are self-consciously an international podcast. Hmm, what else? We don’t accept submissions from listeners (not always true, but when we have, it’s always been by invitation). And we won’t plagiarize someone else’s work or use outside sources of material without credit. (Again, unless by invitation).

What we do try to do is maintain the character of The Signal. Stuff that gets too far away from the essential “feel” of the show is not pursued, or will be adapted to fit in more with the type of segments we do. Which is not to say we don’t experiment, but other ‘casts do things like forum reviews, read out fan fiction they like, or run convention recordings in full. Which is fine, they don’t need us treading on what they do. (The Firefly podcasts do actually talk to each other and are friendly 🙂 The Signal does have a particular, quite highly-produced flavor to it. This works, the listeners like it, it works for the crew, so why dick with it?

HE: None in particular, except that for the podcast I write for, it is important not to be too long and wordy as it doesn’t fit the tone of the podcast.

PW: Well, at the beginning of the podcast season when I’m being assigned the episode I’m going to write, I’m given an overview of what should be in the episode. Most of it is stuff that I pitched anyway, so it’s not a real problem at all.

The only other restriction I can think of is that I have to watch my language as I kind of have a filthy mouth. Whilst the podcast is technically flagged for language anyway, I really don’t want to drag it down to the vile depths that I could. Beta readers check everything over before the script goes into production and they usually point out what I’m doing wrong. They really are the unsung heroes of the podcast and everything I write would be tacky and offensive without their guidance. Thank you beta readers.

TC: How do you handle writers block—can you even have it?

NE: Yes, I can get it. “Badger’s World” stalled for a while because I couldn’t see how to continue it as it was. So I didn’t. I ended it with a six-episode arc that departed from the existing format in many ways, but which was some of the most enjoyable stuff to write. Generally though, if I stall on something, I’ll leave it for a day or two before going back to it. Or I’ll ask my wife, She’s great with ideas.

HE: If the deadline isn’t close, I just leave what I’m doing and come back to it another time. If the deadline is close, I usually don’t struggle with writer’s block!

PW: For me writer’s block is just another word for video games. I don’t handle it by playing tons of video games.

TC: What other kinds of writing do you do?

NE: Um… not a lot. The Signal takes up about all the free time I have outside of work and family and sleep.

HE: Academic writing for linguistics conferences, journals, books, etc. I also write teaching material and grammatical descriptions of languages as part of my job. I write a blog-style email to a group of friends every two weeks.

PW: Mostly comic book scripts.

TC: How is writing for a podcast different from other writing?

NE: I don’t know, how is it?

Apart from work-related stuff (science, technical, reports) and doing a few things for QMX and Jason Palmer Studios (not professionally), The Signal is pretty much all I have written for.

I guess one of the things though, is having to write for the spoken word. Some stuff just doesn’t work when read out, though it may look OK on the page, so you learn to slant towards ease of reading if it’s an article. I often have to edit myself on the fly when I realize I’ve written an overly long or complex sentence for myself and get tied in knots trying to read it! With the audio drama, especially a comedy-flavored segment like “Badger’s World,” it’s more theatrical as you have to write believable dialogue that sounds good or funny or both. So that’s a whole different approach in itself.

HE: The only other kind of writing I know is academic writing—I’m a linguist by profession. The podcast writing I’ve done has been very different! The individual pieces of podcast writing tend to be much shorter than the average linguistic article. The deadlines come much faster too! It is also very different writing something that will be heard rather than read. For example, long sentences might work well for a reader, but often shorter ones work better for a listener. I can be more informal in style in podcast writing too, which I enjoy.

PW: For me podcast writing is different because there is so much work done on the episode after it has left my hands. It gets edited and then tons of people have to act out the dialogue, contributing a lot to it. It doesn’t just get posted on the internet somewhere. Instead, way more work goes into it than I could really fathom.

TC: How is it the same?

NE: Well, at a guess, you have to be able to express ideas clearly, be able to write coherently, spell reasonably well, and have a fair idea of grammar.

HE: I try to apply some of the same principles to both kinds of writing. For example, I try to be honest about the level of confidence I have about something I’m saying. Do I say “This shows that…” or “This appears to show that…”? I also try to back up any point I make, whether it is for a podcast audience or for a lecture hall full of linguists.

PW: I still manage to work jokes about Street Sharks into the script.

TC: Have you been published? Where?

NE: Only a few scientific papers and posters at academic meetings (which other folk actually wrote, just using my data: that’s actually normal practice—first author actually writes the paper, others are generally contributors and final author is usually the group leader/professor). I have written the descriptions for some of Jason Palmer’s Serenity art on his site, but that’s about it.

HE: I have had some linguistic papers published in books, conference proceedings, on the internet and so on.

PW: Yes, and I wish it was good enough for me to plug here. It’s isn’t. It’s the kind of thing where I’m embarrassed it ever saw print and I actively encourage you not to look for it.

TC: What do you like best about writing for the podcast?

NE: When it all comes together and you hear an article you wrote performed and edited well, or an audio drama piece come to life with all the other actors adding their talents. When you know that it’s good and someone else (outside the podcast) agrees with you. When folk like it (and believe me they’ll say when they don’t!).

HE: It is fun! I enjoy creating something just for pleasure and doing something very different from my day job.

PW: Well, I think my favorite thing is to just tell a story that is incredibly specific. Very few people will really care about it but the fact that I can tell it and have a genuinely interested audience is really terrific.

TC: What do you like least about writing for the podcast?

NE: The time pressure mostly. We have a regular two-weekly rolling production schedule that lasts all year (apart from short summer and Christmas breaks), so we typically produce 22–23 regular shows per year, plus several bonus shows, which may contain material that’s not up to the sound quality levels of the regular show say, or stuff that just doesn’t fit in a regular show (there are far fewer self-imposed rules).

HE: Nothing so far, but I’ve only been doing this a few months!

PW: On the flipside, that audience frightens me half to death. Nothing makes you try to write better than the fact that people will inevitably listen to your terrible, cliché dialogue. I suppose it’s really better for my writing in the long run, but it makes me incredibly nervous.

TC: What kind of advice do you have for writers interested in podcasting?

NE: Do it! It’s fun and folk will give you feedback if they like (or dislike) what you are doing. It can be very rewarding, especially if stuff you do has a resonance with listeners or they get attached to characters you have created. But do it for yourself. If you are passionate about something, you are probably not alone and there may already be a podcast you could join. If not, start your own! At the simplest level, it’s very easy, you just need to give it a go. If other folk are involved, it will improve your writing as well, as that tends to bring everyone’s game up, when other folk are looking over your work.

HE: Make sure that whatever you’re going to be writing about is something you are passionate about.

PW: If you know you might want to write for a podcast, get involved in that podcast any way you can. I started as a beta reader and advertiser of the podcast. Eventually you’ll have an opportunity to pitch an idea.

Also, there’s really nothing to stop you from starting your own podcast. You may not have a full voicecast or tons of listeners but if you like doing it, who cares? Some of my favorite podcasts have way less than 250 downloads per episode, but damn, are they good.

You can find as many podcast lists as there are podcasts. You can find them on iTunes very easily, which is a good place to start.

My thanks to the three podcast writers who volunteered to answer my questions. I appreciate their patience as my interview was originally scheduled for April and got pushed back to the end of the year.

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