Ashley Smith-Hammond

With the rise of podcasts and live streams, audio is experiencing a renaissance as a form of storytelling.

Barriers to entry are being smashed open and there’s some very real disruption taking place as new distribution channels are becoming viable. If you’re a playwright or part of a theatre company, the new audio platforms could be a great way to reach a wider audience.

A rapidly growing audience

Research by RAJAR in the final quarter of 2016 found that 4.7 million adults listen to podcasts.

This figure is driven by widespread use of smartphones, with 66% of surveyed podcast fans using these devices to listen. Podcasts reach their highest audience numbers in the early morning, between 8:15 am and 8:30 am. Perhaps this new medium is becoming a serious challenge to rush hour radio and our favourite music.

The growth in listenership has been fuelled by hit shows like Serial, which narrates the real life story of Adnan Syed, convicted for the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999. Serial exploded in popularity in 2014, with 40 million downloads by the end of the year. By 2015, we all either knew Serial ourselves or knew someone who was constantly asking us “have you listened to Serial yet?”, and so began the mainstream embrace of podcasts.

It’s clear from the data that there’s a huge demand for audio storytelling. With some affordable recording equipment and free editing software, smaller organisations or individuals can get involved in this rapidly expanding market.

Signs of a growing trend

There’s evidence that the biggest players in on-demand audio are already making a move. In May 2017, Audible announced a new $5 million (£3.8 million) fund looking for playwrights for audio-only productions. The audio book giant will rely on luminaries including Annette Benning and Oskar Eustis for advice on who to back. Make no mistake: they and many others see audio theatre taking off.

Long running audio dramas like Welcome to Nightvale and short series, like The Message, have proved the business case for strong audio-only content.

In England, the Wireless Theatre Company has a decade of productions under its belt and draws a direct line between the radio dramas of the past and today’s on demand audio dramas.

Many Scottish writers are already on top of the trend, serving up serialised audio dramas. Podcasts like A Scottish Podcast have growing followings at home and internationally, not least because they include good production values and recognised actors.

Live streaming

This distribution revolution isn’t just about podcasts. Theatre and performing arts distribution has moved into live streaming too. South of the border, National Theatre boasts impressive audience figures for its live-streamed plays to cinemas around the world. In 2015-16, the theatre had a total paying audience of 4 million around the world. A massive 1.5 million of these people were attendees of NT Live events.

While NT has the clout to setup a live streaming programme on a global scale, the takeaway for organisations of all sizes is that there is a big audience for streamed theatre.

In 2011 National Theatre Scotland pulled off an impressive project called Five Minute Theatre that delivered 200 pieces of theatre, live-streamed over 24 hours. This celebration of NTS’ five-year anniversary was well received and shows just how participatory and versatile digital channels can be.

A foray into online productions doesn’t have to be a big investment either. Wireless Theatre Company founder Mariele Runacre Temple also makes the point, in an interview with Female Arts, that ease of involvement can bring in quality acting talent and some big names.

Finally, as we explored last year, bear in mind how liberating digital could be for those that find it difficult to access theatres.

The boom in interest in audio and digital channels is a chance to get creative with your own output. The audiences are there and the potential is growing. What could online distribution do for you?

Main image credit: Free Flow Radio on Youth Radio Raw by Tizzy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)