The Dawn of the AudioGraphic Novel – It’s a New World for Podcasts

By Mark Ramsey, Creator of the new hit podcasts Inside the Exorcist and Inside Psycho

In a world without graphic novels, there would be no Walking Dead.

If there were no graphic novels, then someone would have to invent one. That’s because there’s something special about that art form.

And sure enough, we see graphic novels transformed into television and movie spectacles: It’s most of the lineup on the CW and topping the box office every weekend at the cineplex.

That’s fine for TV and film, but where does audio come in? Is there any comparable form in the audio space, and if not, should there be?

Americans spend a ton of time listening to audio. In radio’s case alone almost everyone listens during at least part of their day. And if we’re not listening to radio we’re listening to Pandora or Spotify or podcasts. Audio entertainment is everywhere.

And while lots of it is music, an increasingly important portion is not. And for that we can thank the phenomenon of podcasts. By the best recent estimates, we have, 24% have listened to podcasts in an average month and 15% in a typical week. And while some of that listening is coming from radio and other audio platforms, some of it is also new: New people listening to new forms on content on new platforms in new places because they can, and because the content makes it worthwhile.

Still, how diverse is the content we can find on podcasts today?

A ton of it is repurposed content from radio and television. Love This American Life? Listen to it on the radio – or catch the podcast on demand. Fan of Anderson Cooper 30 or Real Time with Bill Maher? Watch their TV shows – or catch the exact same content on podcasts.

Another big proportion is what I call “two guys talking” – but they’re not always guys and there are often more than two. Generally, they’re talking in an unscripted freewheeling conversation about a particular topic. This is like Talk Radio if only Talk Radio were not exclusively about politics. Sometimes the hosts are the draw, sometimes the topic, sometimes the brand umbrella hosting the show, or some combination of all three.

A third category is the interview show. One podcaster searching for a bigger audience recruits a guest – typically an authority with his or her own podcast and an even bigger audience – who participate in a Q&A in which each audience is leveraged to grow the other’s audience.

Then there is the straight journalism show, where one topic is explored in depth in a highly researched and authoritative manner. Serial and lots of true crime shows fall into this category. It’s essentially audio documentary.

There are also a variety of so-called “audio dramas” or what used to be called “radio theater.” These were all the rage 60 or 70 years ago when the bright light in the living room was coming from the console radio. Today in our video-obsessed culture they’re rather anachronistic, even when the producers attempt to update the form.

These are five types. Certainly, there are more. And I’m skipping audiobooks which, by definition, are simply reading books aloud.

All of them are leaving me cold lately. Not because they’re not fine – they are. But because they’re not enough. Where’s the leading edge? Where’s the experimentation? Where’s a way to make audio new and fresh and impactful and resonant? Where’s a way to leverage the inherent power of audio to thrill and frighten and move audiences who must visualize all the action in their fertile imaginations?

So, here’s what I thought: What if we produce a graphic novel in audio form? What would it look…er…sound like? What would make a graphic novel an “audiographic novel”?

These are the makings of an “audiographic novel”:
• It would be fast paced – each scene would be relatively short and there would be a lot of them.
• It would be told in serial fashion over several episodes with a dramatic arc like any great TV series.
• Each chapter would be short – less than 30 minutes or so.
• It would be non-linear, moving from location to location and forward and backward in time – whatever it took to tell the story.
• It would be docudrama, not documentary.
• It would mix narration and dialogue
• The environmental audio would be deep and immersive so as to create a clear mental picture
• The storytelling would be rich and varied
• The themes would be deep and moving.

It would be more like a great TV series than a podcast or a radio show.

That was exactly the form in my mind when I collaborated with the amazing sound designer Jeff Schmidt and the terrific folks at podcast publisher Wondery to create two standout series which have performed extraordinarily well on the Apple Podcast rankings (topping the movie/TV category) since their debut.

These shows were designed to tell the inside story of the making of a classic movie through dramatization and compelling narrative using immersive audio and rich, fast-paced storytelling.

But we went beyond the movies themselves to focus on the filmmakers – their backstories and their futures – and on the inspirations for the stories that became these movies.

The result has been two series: Inside Psycho about Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, and Inside the Exorcist about the 1973 horror legend. So far, these shows have more than 1 million listens combined and the tally is growing fast.

Audiences have been thrilled with the results and I have been excited that so many listeners have embraced this new storytelling format.

Look for more shows like this in the future. Listeners will come to expect them. And producers will be challenged to put in the hard work of creating them.

It turns out a great audio show is as tough to make as a great TV series – and every bit as exhilarating for audiences and showrunners, alike.