Edward Champion is a Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits. In this episode, we speak with Edward about the ways he is exploring audio storytelling as an artform.
State of Digital Publishing is creating a new publication and community for digital publishing and media professionals in new media and technology. In this episode, we speak with Edward Champion, managing editor of Reluctant Habits and how he’s exploring audio storytelling as an art form. Let’s begin.
Vahe Arabian: Hi, Ed. How are you?
Edward Champion: Hey. How you doing, Vahe? Thanks for having me.
Vahe Arabian: Thank you for joining us. I think we’re gonna be speaking about a pretty interesting topic and unique, because you’ve done a lot of things, but now you’re focusing a lot on audio drama, but before we delve into that, just if you can give people background about who you are and how you came to this point, that’d be great.
Edward Champion: Well, yeah I mean, that’s kind of the funny thing about life, sometimes you pursue a journey and you end up in a number of different places, and I certainly have. I started off wanting to be a filmmaker. I went to film school. But I was always reading and I was always writing, and what ended up happening was that I started blogging at a time when blogs were not around. They were very, very new. I was actually hooked in with a lot of people who are now billionaires in San Francisco, ’cause I was living in San Francisco at the time.
Edward Champion: And I then found that people really liked my writing voice and I had editors come to me, and I then began this really strange career, so to speak, as a writer. I contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines and websites, and from there, I actually got in very early on the podcasting scene, and I ran a podcast called The Bat Segundo Show, which ran for about 10 years, in which I interviewed 550 writers, ranging from … and also not writers, I mean I got to hang out with David Lynch. I was just at the Osak’s house. Nora Ephron, I was amazed I got to talk to her. Octavia Butler … I talked to Thomas Disch. I mean, Samuel Delany, the list goes on. You can check it out on the archives.
Edward Champion: But I think that what I really wanted to do, during this time, because I’d also had some side quests, so to speak, or rather an acknowledgement of what I really wanted to do that I didn’t actually pursue, doing little theater things here and there, I wrote and directed fringe plays. I always wanted to tell stories. I wrote several novels. I came very close to getting an agent multiple times, but just couldn’t. And I was in this sort of frustrating place, and also I found that my writing style was being misinterpreted or rather, not misinterpreted, interpreted in a way that was considered pugnacious and not really who I was. And so, I had to go through a period where I needed to figure out what it was that I really wanted to do and for many years I had always wanted to do an audio drama, going back as far back as 2007. I listened to old time radio growing up. I loved all the stories, but I actually took the form seriously, and I felt that I was sort of in this bubble.
Edward Champion: So, about three to four years ago I was having a soul-searching period and I started listening to this podcast called the Audio Drama Product podcast which was, at the time, run out of Scotland by these two Scotsman and that was what basically opened up my world and changed my life and pretty much caused me to be what I am now, which is a writer, a showrunner, a producer, someone who is managing more than four dozen actors…
Vahe Arabian: Wow.
Edward Champion: … and who also does engineering, editing, foley work, which is really fun. You can imagine yours truly basically dragging out every article of clothing that he owns and slapping them in front of mic until I get an actual wing sound, a convincing wing sound for a giant talking bird in a fantasy story. This is a much better place for me. I am supremely happy. The listenership has really connected to these stories. The other thing I think that happened here was that I was really afraid of being emotionally real and really sort of putting my heart completely out there and for many years I basically retreated by this sort of clever and pugnacious writing voice that really was not who I was and that actually probably prevented me from connecting with people and also probably caused and definitely caused numerous people to misinterpret me.
Edward Champion: And hey, if you met me, you would know the kind of person I am, but the thing that is amazing about audio drama is … first off, you know I’ve always been into books and really, as you probably know, running your podcast, radio and the act of reading share this common emotional intimacy that is unlike any other medium, say for, perhaps, theater when you go and see, especially, a small theatrical show, maybe like an off-off-Broadway kind of thing where you really are sharing this emotional presence in the air. The only real art that gets to that is the act of reading and the act of listening and I have heard from so many people who really relate to these stories, especially women, who I’ve been really surprised by. They have written me and said like, “How did you know about what we’re dealing with, this struggle between the personal and the professional?”
Edward Champion: It’s basically nobody else was really doing it and nobody else was doing it in this form, so audio drama which I’m obviously really crazy about and I can talk about it at length. I mean it’s this incredible realm where you can bring together disparate and marginalized voices from all across the world and you can bring them together and suddenly you realize that we’re actually out there. I think culturally we are going through a moment right now where there are a lot of questions that we haven’t asked and a lot of answers we’re seeking that we’re afraid to seek and my feeling is that any form of artistic expression, or even non-fiction narrative expression, really should be in pursuit of that.
Edward Champion: I mean, you know, we’re talking right now, shortly after Donald Glover released this amazing video, This is America, under the Childish Gambino label, and people are dissecting this rightly because there’re all sorts of fascinating imagery that you can put in this but it also has this incredible visceral front and it’s the most popular video right now and I think that speaks to where culture needs to go, where culture is obligated to go and where we, as culture makers and culture tastemakers or culture consumers, really need to embrace because the difference and the intimate is really what makes everything we do so special and beautiful.
Vahe Arabian: So with, I guess, you said about the struggle within the person and the creative. In the digital media space, do you think that’s mostly for creative writers or do you think journalists have that trouble as well?
Edward Champion: I think, no, I mean I have worked as a journalist and I do think that whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, we’re all confronting that question of, okay, here’s this line that I really need to walk across in order to evolve as a person who makes something. How do I do that? And it’s so easy, given the marketplace and given the need to survive and given the need to pay your rent to basically say, “Well, well wait a minute, I can get so … I can do what I usually do and this is a very safe space for me and this will allow me to gain some kind of reputation.”
Edward Champion: But it really is, I think the trap of stability and it really is, essentially, a regressive trajectory, and not, especially, healthy before yourself and also for culture at large. And also, in connecting to what your audience is. I think that it’s a very common problem that is really not talked about, but that everyone faces and your best way to go about that is to adopt some risk, to be more vulnerable, to be more emotional and intimate, whether it’s really taking the time as a journalist to get a source to open up and to get a source to trust you or whether it’s telling a story that deals with a difficult deeply nested problem that is inside the heart, if that makes any sense.
Vahe Arabian: I think, I understand the point. No, I understand. It’s just, it’s very deep and everyone has their own interpretation, so I don’t want to make any conclusions from what you said.
Edward Champion: Oh, sure, sure, sure, sure. I hear, yeah. and everyone goes about things a different way and some people have different goals. Speaking to my goals, I mean, I am more interested in sort of evolving a voice and evolving a culture to the best of my ability and that is obviously a particular pursuit that is sometimes opposed to capitalistic forces, or the need to survive and I completely understand that and I’m not necessarily going to impugn anyone who has that particular trajectory. But I can certainly speak to my own journey, so.
Vahe Arabian: And let’s talk about the specific steps on how you brought the audio drama very shortly, but let’s take a step back.
Edward Champion: Sure.
Vahe Arabian: Podcast has been around for quite some time and, I think to my knowledge and please correct me if I’m wrong, I think it started with audiobooks first off and it was just very much interpretation … just the audio version of a novel or a book and then after people started doing their podcast, it still wasn’t mainstream, but with the adaptation of technology and just becoming more mainstream, podcasts had become more mainstream, like I mentioned, so how have you seen podcasting come to the point where it is and how did you define … or how did you either defy that audio drama, now is the time to start this. ‘Cause I’ve seen how long your audio podcasts are and it’s a couple of hours, so it’s not something I think you can listen at once.
Edward Champion: Yes. Well, and it definitely takes a long time to make, but I think you’re actually very cogent to identify something quite interesting in podcasting. I mean podcasting itself has been around largely in random people talking for a long time, but I think your right to point to audio dramas’ relatively later resurgence because I think what happened was that non-fiction radio began to publish greater intimacy. You have, for example, Death, Sex and Money, which is an incredible interview show or in which the interviewer, Anna Sale, really has this incredible ability to get people to talk about the most vulnerable thing. You have a podcast like Criminal, where the narrator’s speaking in this strangely soothing voice about the darkest crimes imaginable and the darkest stories imaginable but yet it’s a weird kind of comfort.
Edward Champion: You have people sort of … you have a podcast like Strangers, where it’s this incredible meditation on what it is to be lonely and to have relationships, and I think what ended up happening is that podcasting in its non-fiction form had to develop a kind of … a mature intimacy, a way of expanding upon the present vernacular and making it more artistic and honed, much like a well-crafted feature piece in journalism. And as we saw more of this, we also saw audio drama, pure fiction, pure stories, also start to emerge and they likewise were sort of listening to each other and feeding off of each other and gradually sort of saying, “Oh, we can do this! Well, what if I put this on top of it?”
Edward Champion: But it is interesting how storytelling, in terms of inventive storytelling was later and how we were very much acclimatized to audiobooks, as you also say, but I think that audiobooks, quite frankly to be perfectly blunt, there are a lot of really interesting audiobooks. For example, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, had this very large cast, which I thought was, you know, was a very interesting improvement upon what is essentially one person reading prose.
Edward Champion: But it’s not writing specifically for the ear. It’s not actually honing something that you could achieve this kind of intimacy that you get in droves, and quite beautifully in non-fiction, and I think that I was driven into audio drama because I really wanted to capture the intimacy that I was hearing from a lot of these great non-fiction podcasts. I wanted to see if I could tell stories in a way where you would completely believe them, even with wild genre elements like giant rats and talking birds and exuberant receptionist character who shows up very frequently and portals opening up into other universes.
Edward Champion: The question I had was, okay, what if John Cassavetes or Mike Leigh or Jane Campion, or some really heavy hitting realistic filmmaker approached genre, and that is sort of how I went into it, and I found that once I started embracing that, it became very relaxed and fluid for me to really write from the heart, and I’m not poohing genre. The genre has done this for many years in literature and has … I mean, and there was a time, not so long ago before everyone loved fiction and comic books and all that. In which if you did embrace the genre, you were considered something of a leper. You were considered, I mean it was … you were a freak and even if you wrote that stuff as going as far back as the 60s and the 70s, you were completely ostracized from serious consideration.
Edward Champion: Now as culture has crossed the number of bridges and has created more connections, and has created more opportunities for people to talk to each other, we’re now able to see that there are more of us who are open-minded and who are willing to mesh and who are willing to experiment and tinker and more importantly, really feel with our hearts, so that we can take some of these interesting, often accidental subconscious connections and meshing and blending and largely not really knowing what it is until it’s actually made. Suddenly, we are now able to coordinate in a way that we have not necessarily been able to do before. At least, it’s a little easier and what this means is a really exciting time for culture.
Edward Champion: I mean, you know, I don’t think it’s an accident that we are living in a time where … well, television is incredible. I mean, I’m a big reader, but I have to commend TV for putting out things like Atlanta and Dear White People and Insecure and Transparent. I mean, I could go on. It’s for … you know, there’s a wonderful Fleabag for example. I mean it’s now to the point where, like, the other side of the coin is that now there’s too much, there’s almost too much culture to consume, because people are really seizing the reins of what is possible and how we can express what I think has been almost a starvation of emotional intimacy.
Edward Champion: I think what … the weird flip side … another flip side of the digital coin is that people feel connected but lonely, but they’re able to somehow find ways of connecting through the emotional intimate connections that culture can offer and maybe it might actually encourage them to be more emotionally intimate in their real lives and maybe talk with people. I think there’s a fascinating starvation going on that I think culture can offer some guides to and maybe you know, begin a dialectic about it. I think only begin, it’s … it’s in that dialectic, my friends, so this … I hope I didn’t ramble too much, but I … that somewhat addresses your question?
Vahe Arabian: I took from that you found that ’cause of the flip side of digital there was a lack of connections and I guess that’s how you … It’s hard having your needle building something like The Gray Area pod that people also had that and I guess you found that audience and you were able to tap into that. Is that correct?
Edward Champion: Yes, I mean, you know, the situation was really, with The Gray Area, I actually was not actively seeking an audience. If anything I would say that The Gray Area is the most creatively free I have ever felt in my life. I listened and responded and included and that’s all I really did and I also, ultimately, tried to tell the truest possible stories that I could, even when there were wild genre elements, but ultimately it really had to be rooted in reality. I think also the other thing that was probably a contributing factor to The Gray Area was, I was also taking a number of improv classes, and that actually also allowed me to get closer to the essence of a story and the essence of a scene and to also be a keen and heightened listening mode. Which I had always listened, I mean, you know, you don’t do ten years of a podcast without picking up some listening skills.
Edward Champion: But, you know, I was able to take a lot of those listening skills and the ability to pay attention to some of the most arcane and highly specific details and apply them in a more fruitful sense which was largely the organic nature of existence. More of an existential listening rather than a sort of vaguely academic structural listening which I know some people liked, but I think the reason why people tired of The Bat Segundo Show and why I am tired of it is that you know you can only go so far, just dissecting books and unpacking them in relation to lives. I know that as I went on with The Bat Segundo Show, I took on more non-fiction books, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love novels or short stories or poetry.
Edward Champion: It was largely because I think I was subconsciously moving towards these bigger existential questions and wanted to find a way to pursue them through my voice and through a voice and the thing I also, the deal I have working with an actor, I tell every actor who works with me, I said, “Look, you are an equal collaborator. I am only the person who will shape your performance. I write the scripts, but if you have a way of expressing yourself or interpreting this or you have an idea, I mean, I am very open.” And the other thing I do when I record with actors … it’s a very intimate process and it’s beautiful sometimes. I mean, the rule we have is that we can talk about any part of our lives. Like I will talk about any aspect of my life in this realm because it’s protected realm and it’s very comfortable, it’s very relaxed and the idea here is for us to be as close and as vulnerable as we can to our hearts in order to get the most real performances. And that’s the rule I have. And what that does is that establishes an incredibly beautiful trust in which you and the actor are working together, and you’re knowing each other, and you’re listening to each other, and you’re reading each other, and you’re so open to just all this stuff inside your heart that you really don’t reveal in regular life because we’re caught in, as I said, the trap of stability, trap of looking our best online so that we get more likes and favorites. And that’s just not real. I mean, I’m sorry. It’s just isn’t. I mean, it’s good sometimes in terms of translating into, you know, getting people who are interested in your show.
Edward Champion: I digressed heavily, I know, from your question. I was basically like, “Did I do this with any intent of pursuing an audience?” And no. But what I did do is I just kept my heart as open as I could and the audience came. Because, by doing that, I’m making something different. And by letting some people in the audio drama community know about it, inevitably people latched onto it because there is, apparently, nothing else like The Gray Area out there in the audio drama realm and in the podcasting realm.
Vahe Arabian: How do you define your audience? Who is your audience? Who would you define them as?
Edward Champion: Well, my audience is people, I think, who … Yeah, it’s a good question. I guess, I really don’t think in terms of demographics. I think that the types of people who do listen to my shows, I’ve had conversations with quite a few of them, are people who are seeking something bigger in their lives. People who maybe they feel alone or are looking and trying to summon the courage to make some big, bold moves and people who are actually, really have a rich inner life that nobody knows about. I’ve heard a lot from those people. I mean, and I tell you, these are sometimes incredibly heartbreaking stories. All you can do is be as generous and as kind as you can and as encouraging as you can to make sure that these people find the courage to really make that inner life happen.
Edward Champion: So, I guess, my audience is a particular type like that. I mean, you know, I have also the audience who just like really fun, goofball, fantasy, because I do try to make these things entertaining as well. And certainly, I have a good time and my actors have a good time recording these and we have a lot of fun. But, I guess … For one thing, I’m not very good at these marketing questions because I don’t … I feel that if something is well-made, it will find its audience eventually. And it’s not your job as an artist to … I mean, obviously, I have beta readers and I have beta listeners and I have people who I trust since the early versions and who give me feedback and are not going to bullshit me because I think that’s really important. But, I mean, everybody needs to have that.
Edward Champion: But it’s more in the interest of making the best art as opposed to winning the biggest audience. The one example I use is that, okay, so, 20 years ago, it was video store culture. I’m sure where you were and definitely where I was, and I was really into horror movies back then. Still am. Still, love them. Horror movies are great. And now they’re getting mainstream with this new movie Unquiet Place … A Quiet Place, rather. A Quiet Place. I’m confusing it with Kay Redfield Jamison. Anyway.
Edward Champion: So, anyway, if you ask people 20 years ago, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson- Sam Raimi, the man behind the Evil Dead Trilogy, and Peter Jackson the man behind Dead Alive, these guys are going to make the biggest movies. Sam Raimi’s going to make the Spider-Man movies, and Peter Jackson’s going to make Lord of the Rings, and these are going to be the most successful box office movies. If you said that to people, they would not have believed you. I think the reason why those became successful is because Raimi and Jackson — you know, like any decent artists — always kept to their instincts, and I think that if you are spending more of your time … And it’s a longer … Yeah, so it’s a longer time to do it, but I think it’s ultimately more rewarding.
Edward Champion: If you spend your time honing your instincts, whatever you do, whether it be a writer, a poet, musician, a journalist, a podcaster, a tax attorney, whatever, you know? If you spend your time on that, that is better for the long haul because you will establish a way of making and creating and working and living that is eventually going to be understood, because you will master certain cadences that actually are parallel to the more crass, “Let’s build the biggest audience we can.”
Edward Champion: The other thing you have to realize is that you cannot please everyone all the time. So, I no longer … I used to spend a lot of time, actually probably like 10 years ago, especially, when I was getting attention for my writing and I was getting gigs from various newspapers and all that, I spent too much time angling to build an audience … Well, maybe not angling, but I cared too much about the audience. And by care, it’s not to mean that I … I respect an audience’s intelligence, I believe in an audience’s intelligence. I believe very strongly in that. I believe that they have the … They’re looking and they’re hungry for this kind of thing, and certainly, my theory has certainly borne out with the first season of Gray Area. I couldn’t be more happy with the reception. But by worrying about the audience, I worried more about whether … In terms of numbers, and that is really not the way to go about this. I mean, you sort of have to adopt this mentality of making and evolving and getting better, and I think your audience will go along with the journey.
Edward Champion: I wish I would have learned that lesson earlier because I probably would have made either this or something else earlier in my life. I probably would not have gone on to the internet with such an often cluelessly iconoclastic voice. I mean, I also would have cultivated the courage to be more positive, or to rather to embrace the positivism that I always had and be more upfront about it than I had been in the past, because I didn’t allow people to see it, and that was a big mistake I made, and I paid for it in droves. But, the happy aftermath of this is that now I can make something that is entirely centered around my connection with other people and just be as … And now, I mean, I’m just constantly surprised and humbled every day by this, and I see every new development in the Gray Area, just really surprises me. And now that I’m in pre-production on the second season, I’m really just gobsmacked, so to speak, about what keeps happening, and this is going to be great.
Edward Champion: And, it’s largely because, I guess, I learned that it was more important to be aware of the instinct of an audience, and to match the great instincts, but, you know, go for the long game. It’s so much better. You’ll be much happier. You’ll be more at peace and you’ll connect more with yourself and the material, and you will connect more strongly with your audience. The long-ass answer, I know.
Vahe Arabian: No, that’s fine. I just want to move towards the business side a bit, just so that we can balance out the conversation. So, how do you make sure that you balance the creativity that you have and focus on the long game, but still be able to run this operation? And how do you make sure that you’re not … Because it seems like you’re not as involved in the business side of your set-up. How do you make sure that everything’s running smoothly so that you do have that creative freedom to do whatever you like, and not be restricted by certain things?
Edward Champion: Yeah, a lot of this is … I just actually took on the brunt of the first season myself, and that was fun, but it was also extremely exhausting. And now that I’ve geared up on the second season, I have actually listed an associate producer, because we’re now dealing with twice as much material, twice as many actors, and the other thing that we’re actually working on is being better about getting the word out and doing more promotion and doing more publicity, and actually building more relationships with various people so that we can continue to do this for the long haul. I mean, a lot of this is just really the best way to go about making anything, and learning is to make something. I mean, because, you will learn all sorts of things just by the act of making something.
Edward Champion: I learned a lot about what I was good at and what I was not good at in the first season, and what I need to do to improve it, what I need to do, also, to maybe make this thing more suited to a larger audience, and also to try to turn this around so that we’re actually generating some money. Because, like any business, you have to put in a few years of losing money before you actually get a turnaround. Having said that, however, a lot of this is just being very pragmatic in terms of what your time commitment is, allowing enough room to delegate, allowing enough room to trust, and allowing enough room in your life to have some time for yourself, because nobody, no matter how prodigious and prolific that they are, no one’s a machine. No one is … And people who go about this like that are really going to shoot themselves in the foot, and no business strategy or side hustle that they have is really going to atone for that.
Edward Champion: So, you have to just be … You have to give yourself enough time and be realistic about the logistics, and you also have to also be, you know, relatively humble and realistic about the reception. I mean, the way that I’ve approached everything in my weird, checkered career, is to assume that nothing will work out. Which is, probably, a really silly way to approach things, but what ends up happening is that, you know, this is what keeps me constantly busy. Because if I ask for something, then, much to my surprise, a lot of people say, “Yes,” to me. A lot of people enjoy working with me. A lot of people enjoy setting up relationships with me. But I still carry on with this kind of, “Oh, well, you know, what’s the harm? May as well ask for it.” And then what ends up happening is that, you know, it works out.
Edward Champion: This happened the other day. I got a very prominent person involved with The Gray Area just yesterday, and I assumed that it would never work out, but I did send a very careful and well-crafted and earnest and attentive email, respectful of this person, and to my surprise, it worked out. I’ve largely felt that I’ve been getting away with living this life, sometimes, because it’s loads of fun, and I, like any of us, you know, all of us have some doubts and fears and anxieties, and I certainly do, but I guess my confidence in terms of as an expressive person largely comes from the fun of something working out.
Edward Champion: I mean, my attitude is, “I’m going to have a fun time no matter what,” and there is very little that people can do to stop me from living that really fun, expressive life. But then, you know, you then want to get other people on board your project and all that, and then you just put something out there and then it just kind of happens. And maybe that might run counter to … I realize your program is more related towards industry-based concerns and business, but I actually think this is a very pragmatic way of approaching any strategy, because then, any natural expansion of what you do that occurs, it emboldens you to say, “Oh, well, if they’re going to involve me with this, then they’re certainly not going to involve me with this,” and then they do.
Edward Champion: You keep your standards kind of low. Let me scratch that. Your standards are not low. Your standards are high. But you keep your expectations low, so that you don’t expect something to work out. And then something works out, and then you work on something for two years, next thing you know, all of a sudden, you built relationships, you’re getting offers for voiceover work, I’ve been writing scripts, I’ve been … I mean, there’s some weird little off-shoots…
Vahe Arabian: Gray Area isn’t your full-time gig at the moment?
Edward Champion: No, it is not.
Vahe Arabian: Okay. So, that’s pretty much … You’re doing other projects to fund your passion with Gray Area. Is that correct?
Edward Champion: Yes. Gray Area. Yes. Yeah.
Vahe Arabian: Okay. And just want to ask you, how have you been able to set up Gray Area pod and all your drama? If someone does want to do something similar, what would be the steps for them? Given that you’ve gone through this process, and you said that you’ve learned a lot of the strengths and limitations, and you mentioned some of the lessons about getting … What’re the practical steps you would take to start up an audio drama?
Edward Champion: Well, the first thing you need to do … I mean, first of all, making an audio drama takes a great deal of time, and a lot of this is the editing.
Vahe Arabian: Further, how many, would it take, hours per day? Or, how long would that take?
Edward Champion: Oh, well, to produce the first season, that took me a year and a half, and that was working every single day on it. Ranging from, depending upon what time I had, ranging from two hours to as long as 18. It is a huge undertaking. But on the other hand, I am also doing pretty much everything, so that is also, probably, one of the reasons why … You know, I’m wearing multiple hats. But I did … You know, I have learned from that, which is also one of the reasons why I’ve got an associate producer, is because I wanted to make sure that I could make this a little bit more manageable. And so, I’m not … You know, I mean …
Edward Champion: So, the thing I would say is that, first, it’s a very time-consuming process, but what you should probably do is listen to a bunch of audio dramas that are out there. The leading ones. The Bright Sessions is probably the flagship audio drama right now. It’s an incredible podcast and it has managed to actually get a TV development deal. So, we’re now starting to see the floodgates open on that realm. Producers who are starved for material or are seeking out or rebooting and remaking 1980s franchises are now starting to say, “Hey, look at these folks. They’re actually producing stuff.”
Edward Champion: Wolf 359 is a very good one. I love that one. Wynabego Warrior. You know? The Amelia Project is a really fun one that is out of the UK. I’m crazy about that one. Of the recent ones, that’s probably my favorite. I mean, you know, there are also audio dramas on the fringe ends, like Smash/Cut does a lot of experimental stuff and really gets inside the queer culture, and it is amazing. You know, Issa Rae was even, before she did Insecure, she was doing a wonderful audio drama that’s available through Audible called, what is it? Fruit? That one’s very good.
Edward Champion: I think you need to figure out, first of all, if … You have to be very passionate about the actual form. If you’re not crazy about it, then why would we think that you would be capable of creating an audio drama that is on that level, or even a third of that level? So, then what you need to do is you need to write the stories. I mean, the two most important things, I would say, are stories and performance. And editing as well. You gotta have pacings. The three … Spanish Inquisition here. Three. You know, if you don’t have the best story that you can make, if you don’t have the best talent that you can have recording with you, and if you don’t have the best editings to make sure that you can hold on to your listeners … I am very careful. If you listen to the first minute of The Gray Area, you will be in the story. That is entirely by design because I do not … I mean, I listen to so many podcasts, and they go on and on and ramble, and people don’t have time. You have to get someone within a minute, or else you’ve lost an audience member. There’s your audience question for you, sir.
Edward Champion: So, then you have to learn all the technical stuff. The thing that’s actually really fun and thrilling about making audio drama is that there is no real manual on how to do it, and I’ve worked with other audio dramatists, and I’ve talked with many audio drama producers and there is no … There’s more than one way to skin a cat. I mean, there are so many different ways of making this. And some people have full-fledged studios, some people, like me, have baffling and record it out of their apartment, some people record with all the cast, some people do it one-on-one, some people do it in person, some people do it remotely. You know? There are a number of invaluable resources out there through Facebook. The Audio Drama Production Podcast group, for example, in which people talk to each other about how to make things, and you can then have these conversations, so you learn things.
Edward Champion: I had to learn a lot of technical stuff. I learned about REAPER, NRX, I learned about mic placement, I learned about how to engineer a show so that it actually sounded as good as radio and matched decibel levels so it could hypothetically be on the radio.
Vahe Arabian: How long did it take you to learn all this?
Edward Champion: I was learning as I was making it. I kind of stumbled into this rather cluelessly. I mean, I’ve written scripts before, I’ve done, under pseudonyms, little work here and there, which I’m not going to tell you about, but I have written in all forms, but, you know, I didn’t know what the audio drama script format was. So, I went to the BBC site and I grabbed their template, studied it, and then created a template in Word so that I could match that, and then just wrote my first audio drama that way. Which actually came about because I pitched an idea to two guys who were writing a fantasy series, and they loved my ideas, and they especially loved this one. So, I spent two weeks writing my first audio drama script and had a blast. It was just completely liberating. And because I had actually written and produced for the air in non-fiction, and because, also, I was a very heavy reader and heavy writer, I was able to really move to the form quite effortlessly.
Edward Champion: I mean, not effortlessly. I mean, there obviously was a lot of work. But it was a very easy transition for me because I had been doing this in a slightly different way for 10 years, just not telling stories. And something really funny happened. So, this fantasy series, unfortunately, ended up collapsing, but I did have one script, and I said to myself … And that script, by the way, became the episode known as Loopholes, which I had a blast with, and I had 110 tracks. It was just completely crazy. But I then said to myself, “Okay, well, I did one, how many of these can I write? You know, let’s just go ahead and go with this.” And I spent the next three to four months, I wrote 20 scripts. 20 scripts. This is basically, these initial 20 scripts are the template for basically four seasons of Gray Area. The first five were taken and expanded for season one. I was basically just starving to tell these stories. I had all these stories inside me that I just had not realized were there. And then I started creating an uber-story to match everything because I noticed the demons kept cropping up. And then I created notes on what the portals were all about. There’s a huge, 20-page, single-spaced dossier that I created that will … In which information is gradually being doled out over the course of four years in which this is going to be revealed. I also was setting up connections like if you listen to the Gray Area now it’s an anthology show. But if you listen closely you hear, “Oh, well that character on that voicemail becomes a character in another story.”
Edward Champion: Or, “Why is this weird man who has a funny voice called Receptionist? Why is he showing up? Why is he so cheery?” That question is answered. The idea here is you hook in your audience early with mysteries and questions. But you don’t want to be an asshole and you don’t want to pull a Damon Lindelof and not have a plan for the show and pull a Lost. You want to actually have a situation in which there are enough questions answered over the course. You kind of gauge it and you gauge it through both reading, you gauge it by creating little charts of when you’re revealing certain things and also when you’re introducing new questions. You have to also create a lot of room for ambiguity because in my experience, anyway I really don’t think that there’s a lot of great art out there that doesn’t have a single question of ambiguity.
Edward Champion: I mean the whole point of art is for us to want to talk about it and to speculate about what might have happened, to answer enough questions to satisfy the audience while simultaneously creating enough ambiguity so that you actually also get the audience in your corner and you entreat them. Because you don’t want to stagnate and you also don’t want to just burden them with too many questions. And you also don’t want to make those questions too obvious. I’ve done my best with this to really not be that type of person. As I said earlier, I don’t want to be the clever type. I want to actually be more of the emotional type. Anything clever that I’m doing with this show is really very … There are basically about four or five levels on which this show works. If you want you can go down deep and find that stuff.
Edward Champion: I mean it certainly keeps me cheery and productive. But you can still listen to each story on its own and understand what’s going on. I guess that’s how I respect the audience. I understand that there is an audience that wishes to deep-dive and that’s a smaller audience than the audience that just wants to listen to a really good, gripping yarn. And so that’s how I respect the audience. And I wish I would have actually done that before, before I even did any of this. Because I was too interested in this idea of, “Haha, well the audience will never get this reference, or never see this thing.” That’s really you being an asshole. It’s not actually like, invite people into the world that you’re doing and you can do that by if you have that thing and I certainly do, bury that as much as you can so that you’re happy and you get that.
Edward Champion: But at the same time it doesn’t get in the way of telling a story. I’ve strayed a lot, yet again as I tend to do.
Vahe Arabian: No, that’s fine. You’re covering a lot of aspects in terms of the storytelling process which I appreciate and I’m sure the audience would appreciate. Let’s look at the setups. You said you’re now managing over 40, sorry, over 4,000 actors, editors and everything else as well?
Edward Champion: Yes.
Vahe Arabian: How are we able to find them? The second part to that question is, how do you come up with the stories to match with the relevant characters that you have?
Edward Champion: That’s an interesting question.
Vahe Arabian: I meant actors, not characters, sorry. Actors.
Edward Champion: No, I totally heard you on that. That’s a really fun question to answer. Basically, the bare bones of the Gray Area cast came from my improv classes. When you improvise with people you really get to know them and especially … You get to know them as a person and you get to know them as a performer really quick. I was in various practice groups and so as such at this time I really … Season one I had no idea who the voices would be. But what I would do is I would play with someone and we’d have a lot of fun and then I’d say, “Hmm, you know maybe that person might work for this.” This strategy actually worked very well. I got a few people from listening to other shows that had a voice that I really loved. Then I checked them out and I tried to identify the very qualities that other producers were not finding and that I could see. So that by the time that I approached them I could offer them a really interesting opportunity. I could offer them a scenario in which, “Hey, you know I really loved your work. I heard you in this, I saw you in this. And I have a role here that I think you’ll be good at and that actually will tap into this particular quality.” The other thing I do is, so the way I approach auditions is that I have people either send me in a reel but honestly for very important characters I just meet with people. I just talk with people. I find the idea of auditioning so appalling. I mean it needs to be done because you need to get a thumb test. But it’s much better for you to just have a conversation with someone and get to know who they are and see if you guys are connecting. That way you’ll know if they’re really good for your production.
Edward Champion: One of my heroes, David Lynch, I know that he does this. He doesn’t actually really audition. He just talks with people. I feel that just by talking and listening to people and shooting the shit with people you’re going to get a better sense of who you want to work with. The original staple came from like the improv classes but I still had more roles to fill. I just used Backstage and Backstage is a very well-known acting website. Honestly, I’m in New York too so it helps that we’re just completely over-populated with actors. But I have found that that is really enough. But I’ve also found that if I heard a voice who I liked who I couldn’t cast, I’m someone who likes to work with people, I’m someone who likes to find, “I really love this guy but not quite. But you know what? Maybe there’s this character.”
Edward Champion: And so what I tend to do is I like to create opportunities and I like to create opportunities especially when I really get along with someone and they seem to me someone who not only is an incredible talent but is also a fun person to hang with. I approach it that way and so thus far I … I mean I just did the casting for the second season, I did 20 roles at one time. It was crazy. I have filled all but two of those roles.
Vahe Arabian: It’s a very big task.
Edward Champion: Yeah. I filled the whole, plus my pre-existing cast. So, I filled all but two of those roles and I’m very close on the last two. And I did that within like a three week period. That’s how good it is. But also, the other thing I do is if there’s someone who’s really cool, I’m going to call them on the phone. I’m going to talk to them and listen to them like a regular person. You’ll know who is right for your project, whether it be audio drama or even anything else just by talking with people. We don’t do enough of that in this day and age. I know there’s a greater version but it’s no accident that our texting culture has led to ghosting. I mean it’s so easy to just casually remove yourself from someone when it’s just words. But when you’re talking with someone and when you’re meeting with someone, it’s a whole different ball game and you’re really more willing to know a person and accept a person’s totality.
Edward Champion: Which I really feel is what life should be all about so … Does that answer your question? I hope.
Vahe Arabian: No, it does, yeah. I guess just being mindful of time I wanted to speak a bit more about your direction moving forward if that’s okay.
Edward Champion: Sure.
Vahe Arabian: You said that you’re focusing a lot more around considering where it’s going to be … How the show’s going to be seen online, the marketing initiatives and stuff like that. Are you able to just provide a bit of your vision and direction ahead for that?
Edward Champion: Well, at the present time my vision is to make four seasons of The Gray Area. I have a story that is designed to end after four years, which is not to say that the show itself won’t end. It’s just that that is the time I need to tell this story. I’ve even talked to people who will be revealed in season four and getting them on board for two years from now. Which is crazy, but nevertheless I am very pragmatic and I’m a boy scout when it comes to organizing and being practical about these kinds of things. It’s kind of a combination of seeing what the reception is. Just to give you a sense of why being oblivious is actually a strength, I wrote one story and produced it called Brand Awareness and I specifically designed this so that it would never play on the radio. I just wanted to have a complete freedom, it deals with radio, it deals with the control between patriarchy and branding and it’s a really fun Twilight Zone, Black Bearish kind of story. But I deliberately designed a show that I said, “There’s no way that anyone will play this on the radio.” So you could imagine my surprise when Midnight Audio Feeder contacted me out of the blue and said, “Not only do I love The Gray Area but I want to air this specific story.” I was like, “Are you sure? You listened to it right? There’s this thing called the FCC.” This producer, who was incredible, Kathleen. She actually took it upon herself to edit the master file and make it so that you could actually … So she just bleeped out some of the fucks. I don’t know if I can say that here. She bleeped that out. I don’t know what your standards are here, I have sworn already but hey, it comes with the early edition. Anyway, she took it upon herself to bleep all the stuff out and it played on the radio. That was a huge surprise and a tremendous honor because Midnight Audio Feeder has been around for many years and I’ve listened to that show. You have to accept some of the little expected curve balls that come and adapt your strategy, which is largely making stuff and getting better at doing that and expanding and evolving and just factoring those things in and allowing it to both inform and divagate your particular direction, your trajectory. I mean I have an idea for another series that I really want to make but that’s contingent upon time. I mean right now it’s all gray area all the time. I do want to actually create a situation where I can be helping other people to produce audio drama.
Vahe Arabian: How about the Gimlet Media’s model and having several shows? Is that something that you’d aspire to have and running this whole time?
Edward Champion: Look, I would love to do that. I mean, I would like to create a situation in which I could hypothetically produce three to four groundbreaking audio dramas from completely new and marginalized voices who are extraordinarily talented and get them to do something that is pushing the boundaries of what audio drama and narrative can be doing. I would love to do that at some point. But right now I’m sort of doing that within the framework of The Gray Area in the sense that we have talent from all sorts of different backgrounds, all sorts of different ethnicities, and places of the world. I mean on the casting notice I specifically state, “If you have not been cast, send in an audition reel. If you have been misunderstood, please send in an audition reel.” I do not want to be making something that is the typical sort of vanilla, cookie-cutter kind of entertainment.
Edward Champion: I am not interested in doing that. I mean I like to entertain and I like to have the time like anyone else, and certainly, there are those commonalities. But it is our obligation to, as I said at the very beginning, to respond and to allow the culture to take us in in order for us to create new stuff that is going to push things along further. It is our duty and our obligation as artists, as everything. As I said before. Look, if Hulu or Amazon or HBO were to call me tomorrow and say, “Hey Ed, I would like to turn The Gray Area into a TV series,” I would be prepared. I’ll just say that. I would love to go into that. But at the same time, I am very realistic and I assume … In the meantime, I’m having a blast, I’m having a ball and my actors are having a blast and having a ball. I am going to focus on that.
Edward Champion: Needless to say I am prepared for a lot of potential development and a lot of potential opportunities. A lot of that is not only just considering these questions when you’re making something but also having the ability to be decisive, which I really am. I don’t like to dilly dally, I like to decide because when you decide you progress. If you spend all your time wondering whether something’s going to get done, it’s never going to get done. That, by the way, is also why I’m able to carry out these Sisyphean logistics. It’s all about deciding, all about deciding. Deciding and being oblivious. That’s probably not what you wanted to hear or expected to hear but yeah. It is a treasure trove for all of the amazing shows that are out there. I mean we’d actually made an attempt to chart how many audio dramas that are out there and there are roughly I think 200, 250 presently in production.
Edward Champion: I mean this is only going to get bigger and we’re definitely going to be I think … In the next couple of years audio drama is really going to be, I think, a very serious part of podcasting. I mean we’re starting to see things like Homecoming in Sandra and, of course, The Signal and The Message and Steal the Stars. So, we’re starting to see major players produce and to varying effect audio dramas that are part of their particular operation. The one stubborn resistance we’re facing right now is that a lot of media covers podcasting, and despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people listen to audio shows, we’ve got the numbers, we’ve got the listening stats, these shows are being listened to, and yet despite that, the media has not been as open or as receptive to audio drama as it can and should be because this is only growing.
Edward Champion: I have seen my audience grow even right now. I mean I’m not producing it, I mean I’m producing but I’m not planning anything because I have to produce it. I am still seeing thousands of people come to listen to the show and it’s incredible…
Vahe Arabian: Sorry to cut you off. Are you able to give more concrete numbers? You said thousands of people. Was that per day or how often is that?
Edward Champion: Dude, there’s like thousands of people sometimes every day, sometimes every week. I mean sometimes what happens is someone will discover you and then you’ll get this. The thing is also word of mouth. If word of mouth actually loves something they will send all their friends to it as I have learned. There are a lot … I think what we’re underestimating in terms of the internet is how people share content or share … I mean they like to pass along, “Hey, there’s this really cool little thing that only a few people know about.” It’s like a restaurant. It’s like, “Hey, so there’s this great rack of lamb with some nice Risotto sauce …” Actually, that’s probably a bad idea. But you know what I mean. And no-one knows about it. People actually really like to pass stuff like that.
Edward Champion: I think that that is underestimated. I think, there’s not really as much of a difference between say a good, solid, non-fiction podcast with a major audience and a fiction podcast. I know from, I’ve seen the numbers of other audio dramas and it definitely can match a Radiotopia show. The difference is that it’s just not being talked about and it probably should be because that’s only going to result in more awesome audio dramas and that resulted in this being a bigger part of our culture and it will be. I really have faith that it will be because it’s been doing nothing but growing in the last, especially, in the last year. It’s a very exciting time to be an audio dramatist.
Vahe Arabian: I’m sure there’ll be a Netflix for audio drama one day as well. I’m sure there’s going to be an audio podcast … Sorry, a Netflix for audio drama for sure.
Edward Champion: There will be people who are planning that, believe me. I am privy to a lot of developments in the field and there are things like that that I get invited to. There are networks being built and there are advertising networks that are being built. I mean there are advertising networks that exist now. These structures are being put in place, there are … Our efforts to provide side revenue for audio dramas right now by putting them and creating different versions and packaging them in different formats. This is all being considered. What is really quite heartening is that for the most part, other audio drama people tend to be really cool. There are a few competitive types that like to squeeze people out but you find your people and it’s like a really chill party. I just like to keep things chill, relaxed, and work with people in whatever capacity who match that. It works out really well.
Vahe Arabian: Cool. Watch this space, everyone. Thanks again for your time and I appreciate it.
Edward Champion: Thanks for allowing me to yap as long as I have.
Vahe Arabian: It’s all good. I think that field is very interesting to hear, so thank you.
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