The “this is a recording” trope in fiction podcasts

man working at computer

The recent growth of true crime podcasts and longform narrative journalism in the audio medium has paved the road for one of the most common fiction podcast tropes today: The “this is a podcast”-podcast (or audio drama).

You know the ones I’m talking about. Things like The Message or Rabbits that follow a person making an investigative journalism podcast, except the whole thing is fiction.

The equivalent literary term would be creating a frame around the story, or a play-within-a-play for those Shakespeare fans.

Those types of frames are actually pretty common in a lot of genres, whether it be found footage-style horror films or novels about a writer writing a novel.

It can get confusing quickly.

But, just because it’s a commonly used plot device doesn’t inherently make it bad. Found footage style horror films became their own subgenre, and a personal favorite of mine. And in the case of podcast-within-a-podcast, they may be helping bridge the gap as podcast listeners become audio drama fans.

Take, for instance, S Town, a popular show by the creators of Serial. For people who haven’t done the research, the show can seem like a fictional story – it’s elaborately told, has clips of the cast, and even some hard-to-believe events.

And then you have fictional podcasts like Rabbits, following reporter Carly Parker as she creates a podcast while looking for her missing friend. Obviously, the later episodes and the ending of the show diverge very far from reality, but the show initially begins grounded in a Serial-esque storytelling style.

And for the average podcast listener who doesn’t research the show before listening (weirdo…), it’s plausible to think that they might not even care if it’s true, as long as it’s a good story. And by presenting the story in a similar format to existing shows that listeners may already be experienced with, these fiction podcasts can ease that transition.

Using this story frame is akin to the public’s initial reaction to the original Blair Witch Project, with people speculating on the authenticity of it.

Okay… Maybe not to the same extent with fiction podcasts, since this kind of “it’s real, but not real” thing has been done many times before. But I can honestly say that as a fan of audio dramas, when starting the podcast Doctor Death, I wasn’t sure if it was a true story or a fictional frame. Either way, it didn’t hamper my enjoyment.

And as was shown through more recent fiction podcasts like Gimlet’s Homecoming, which uses recorded phone calls and interviews to tell a story, other techniques outside of just podcasting have been widely accepted. Homecoming is, after all, now a TV show.

As this technique grew in popularity, though, we’ve seen a surge in the number of shows using these frames, causing some fatigue on listeners. (Again, just like how every horror film in the 2010s was a found footage film.)

Personally, I enjoy the use of the frame as long as it adds something to the storytelling. In fact, our very first original audio drama, How i Died uses autopsy recordings to tell the story. This was a very conscious decision when planning out the plot, because I believe the use of the technique can create some major hurdles for any show.

Aside from fatigue on the genre, using a found footage or podcast style technique restricts the storytelling. And that’s something that needs to be kept in mind.

Usually, there needs to be some explanation of how the audio came to be. Most stories told this was way are told in past tense, although Limetown Season 1 did a great job of bringing the show into the present during the final episode.

And action elements often suffer as well. There is an inherent lack of tension for the main character’s wellbeing if we know that they’re alive reporting on the events. Rabbits, in particular, suffers from this greatly, where entire action scenes are “off camera” and reported on after the fact by the narrator.

The final, and most painfully obvious problem in a number of podcasts, is that the “found audio” style needs to be consistent throughout the show – the source of the recording always needs to be present in the scene, forcing the scene to make sense in that situation.

Take, for example, the audio drama The Bright Sessions. Initially, the show begins as recorded interviews with superpowered patients, and the tape recorder’s existence persists through most of the show.

Not only does the show have to explain why everyone is recording everything at some point, but it also places some limitation on the amount the audience can experience the superpowers. One such power, mind reading, is essentially impossible to convey without being in the character’s head – which wouldn’t be possible with the stipulation of the physical recorder as a medium for us hearing the show.

Unfortunately, as the show progresses, it abandons the idea of a physical tape recorder completely. The farce is dropped in favor of episodes that jump into the character’s minds, dreams, or even other dimensions.

And while not especially problematic, as the episodes are enjoyable, it is a very apparent switch.

Similarly, the audio drama Arden features an entire episode completely abandoning their framework – We go back in time, with no recorder, and listen to the events of a background story we shouldn’t know. The problem here? That episode is easily the best one of the show. So much so, in fact, that I’d wished it was the premise, instead of being a podcast within a podcast.

On the other hand, shows like Steal the Stars (written by the same person as The Message) forgo an explanation for the audio completely, and instead opt to allow the audience access to the main character’s thoughts and internal monologue, as well as the present moment physical actions. The listeners are just with Dakota, and in her head, during the events of the show without any need to explain how or why.

A podcast within a podcast or recorded telephone calls can make for a great premise, and have in many examples. But, while I think that both techniques have their merits, I am a firm believer that the audio fiction genre needs to be more okay with abandoning the explanation for the audio in favor of just telling a great story.

These restrictions don’t need to exist in audio fiction unless it directly complements the storytelling and is consistent throughout. And if used correctly, they can be of great benefit to the podcasting genre as a whole.

After all, you don’t see the Marvel movies explaining why we’re able to watch them save the universe.

Audiohm Media is a nimble crew of podcast-loving creative who decided to join in the creation of their favorite medium. With a background in narrative storytelling, we tell amazing stories in an audio format.

We create and host multiple original podcasts and audio dramas.

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