Kaitlin Fontana: This is the OnWriting Guide to Crafting Scripted Podcasts, a two-part special series from the Writers Guild of America, East about the world of fictional or scripted podcasts. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. Thanks for listening.
Kaitlin Fontana: When you hear the word podcast, what comes to mind? Chances are you’re picturing a comedy show, news analysis, or maybe an interview series like what you normally hear on this show. What you probably aren’t picturing is something that sounds like this.
Limetown 1: Good afternoon, Charlie. Tell me about your dreams. Tell me everything you remember. No. Do you not want to talk today? I can come back.
Limetown 2: I don’t dream.
Kaitlin Fontana: In the past five years, podcasts have exploded in popularity. You listen to them, and with over 700,000 active podcasts out there, chances are you or someone you know has a show of their own. A 2019 report by Edison Research found that 70% of the U.S. population has heard of podcasts and over 50% have listened to one.
Kaitlin Fontana: Fictional or scripted podcasts represent a small but steadily growing subset of the podcast industry. They’re not as common as the nonfiction shows we’re used to. Only around 5% of the top 100 podcasts on iTunes are scripted fiction, but those that do exist can be wildly popular with the same cult followings you see in the nonfiction realm. A few of these fictional shows, like Limetown, which you just heard a clip from, and the Gimlet production Homecoming, have even taken on lives beyond the original podcast format, becoming books and TV shows.
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s a growing industry, and a fascinating one to be sure. The Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers predict that revenue from podcasts could reach $1 billion by 2021, and scripted fiction’s share in that revenue, while still relatively small, has more than tripled in the past year.
Kaitlin Fontana: Many writers are understandably gravitating towards scripted podcasting as an alternative or in addition to working in traditional television. Some writers are even creating podcasts to use as proofs of concept in the hopes of eventually landing a TV deal out of it, but what do we really know about this burgeoning industry? What does the scripted podcast market look like? What standards are there, if there are any at all? How does it compare to what we’re used to in more traditional models like TV? How are projects written? What are the creative and practical limitations, and importantly, how are writers protected?
Kaitlin Fontana: To answer these questions, we spoke to writers and producers who have made a name for themselves in the scripted podcast industry, some who are just starting out and some whose podcasts have gone on to become TV shows. In episode one, we’ll discuss the industry’s business side, what the market looks like, how to break in, and how to protect yourself once you’re there. In part two, we’ll take a deep dive into the creative side of the industry, from recruiting talent to necessary skillsets to creative satisfactions and beyond.
Kaitlin Fontana: When we talk about podcasts, we’re also talking about the entire history of the audio entertainment industry, which has its roots in the late 19th century, but for the purposes of this show, we can jump in a bit more recently. 2014 was a strange year for entertainment. The number of broadband-only households, meaning those households that don’t subscribe to cable or pick up a broadcast signal, more than doubled from the previous year, but it wasn’t just that more people had cut the cord. People were spending less time watching TV. Meanwhile, the number of households in the U.S. subscribed to a subscription video-on-demand service like Netflix or Amazon Prime jumped from 35 to 40%. Streaming was already well on its way to becoming the massive, somewhat unwieldy thing that it is today. Some writers who were looking for different entry points into the entertainment industry thought they’d try their hand at something new by essentially recreating something very old.
Zack Akers: Of course, audio drama has been around. It’s one of the oldest forms of mass entertainment that we have.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s Zack Akers. He, along with his friend and collaborator, Skip Bronkie, are the co-creators of the hit podcast Limetown. Limetown follows American public radio reporter Lia Haddock as she investigates the disappearance of the entire 300-person population of a Tennessee research facility.
Zack Akers: We recorded the pilot in May of 2014, and we didn’t have a completed edit until January of 2015.
Kaitlin Fontana: In the seven months between the start of Zack and Skip’s production and the end, something happened that would change the course of podcasting as we know it. In October 2014, long-running public radio show This American Life released the first episode of a spin off podcast series called Serial.
Zack Akers: What’s interesting about that time is, in the summer of 2014 I believe was the release of Serial, which sort of blew up podcasting in a … You know, of course, a big hit like that raises all ships, so suddenly the medium is sort of legitimized.
Kaitlin Fontana: Serial was a surprise hit. It was ranked number one on iTunes before the first episode had even premiered, and it has been consistently setting and breaking records as the most downloaded podcast of all time ever since. But even with the success of Serial, writers still had to prove that backing a podcast project like Limetown wasn’t an absurd idea. Zack says he still had trouble finding anyone to fund the project.
Zack Akers: When we had the pilot in January of 2015, we went out to every podcasting entity that we could think of that existed at that time. So you know, NPR, Gimlet, Radiotopia, and others. Also, we even approached networks like … Of course, approach is just send an email to FX and HBO, like, “Have you as networks ever considered telling stories in this space? It’s an interesting space to play in.” And for the most part, people either got back to us and said, “This is not what we do,” or they ignored us, which is fair because we’re just sending them this strange pilot of something that they have no context for.
Kaitlin Fontana: But they didn’t want to wait forever for a backer that might never come, so they decided, “If we don’t find a backer in eight months, we’ll post this ourselves.”
Zack Akers: So in August of that year, we just decided to put it out into the world. We had sort of a hard deadline for ourselves, and at that point, we had the first episode and I had written a draft for the second episode and we’d outlined the season, but the only thing that we had produced was the pilot because we didn’t know if anyone would care or listen. So we put it out just to see what would happen. Within the first two or three days of putting it out, Apple featured it on New and Noteworthy on the homepage of iTunes on the Podcast page, and that’s when our lives changed.
Kaitlin Fontana: Zack and Skip weren’t the only podcast creators whose shows were impacted by the success of Serial, or by the still relatively unfamiliar nature of podcasts.
Alicia Van C.: I had to talk about Serial as a way to convince them that podcasts was a thing that existed that people listened to.
Kaitlin Fontana: This is Alicia Van Couvering. She’s a film, television, and podcast producer who’s produced projects like Lena Dunham’s feature, Tiny Furniture, and the podcast Homecoming, which was later adapted into a television series starring Julia Roberts. Through a mix of audio from telephone calls, therapy sessions, and overheard conversations, Homecoming tells the story of a case worker at an experimental treatment facility, her ambitious supervisor, and a soldier eager to rejoin civilian life.
Alicia Van C.: That was actually the main hurdle is that most people were like, “I’ve heard of podcasts. What are they? What do you mean? Do you want to interview David Schwimmer?” And I would have to say, “No, we’re going to do like … It’s like a radio drama but different, but it’s for this thing called Gimlet. It’s a really, really cool company.” So there was a lot of explaining at that point.
Kaitlin Fontana: So that’s where we came from, and a lot has changed in the five intervening years. Today, there are more than 700,000 podcasts to download and choose from. Most people know what a podcast is, even if they don’t listen to them. But how has that impacted the market itself? Have production companies caught onto the fact that this is a popular medium, and has that made it any easier to find companies willing to fund or produce your project? Does the pitch model for those companies bear any resemblance to the pitching system for the TV industry? As it turns out, there are still a lot of unknowns.
Alicia Van C.: By and large, nobody really knows how these things are getting made or what the standard is.
Kaitlin Fontana: After season one of Limetown, which Zack and Skip fully self-funded, they shifted to an advertising sponsored model, which they’ve continued to do on the two additional podcast projects they’ve made since Limetown.
Zack Akers: We did eat a lot of money on the first season for a period of time, but then because of the TV show and then we had a book deal, we more than made our money back on that front, but the advertising in the first season, we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to handle that. But on 36 Questions, for instance, we had the season paid for through advertising before we even started, and that was a lesson learned that we took with us to creating the next show, and that that was by product of convincing people that it was a good idea. I think our agency helped with that some, but also reaching out directly to advertisers who are interested in advertising in podcasting and saying, “This is why we think you should listen to this. We think people will listen to this, and you should be a part of this.” We were lucky enough to get advertisers that way, and we have for all of our projects since the first season of Limetown.
Zack Akers: They buy ads in the show, and you can … the front-end ads and the mid-roll ads and some back-end, but it’s mostly the front-end ads and the mid-roll ads that monetize the show. And you can get sponsors for a whole season, or you could do individual advertisers per episode if you’re lucky enough. So that was how that worked.
Kaitlin Fontana: So, is Zack’s experience common? What’s the funding model more broadly? The big question for a lot of companies is: how do I make money on this? In general, we know a decent amount about advertising revenue. We know, for example, that shows receive ad funding primarily using a cost per thousand pricing model, where the price of an ad is determined based on verifiable podcast downloads, which makes sense. But beyond broader statistics, the answer to the revenue question, like many variables in the industry, still has a lot of unknowns. Here’s Alicia again.
Alicia Van Couvering: I think people are still figuring out all the different ways to monetize it, anything from like an exclusive buyout to actual ad revenue, which is based on downloads, to people literally financing it as a way to reverse engineer a television and film project. There’s places that are focusing on subscription models, just like Netflix, like that’s Luminary’s model, and I think there’s a number of other places like that. Spotify probably is trying to do the same thing with their subscription model, but that’s again sort of similar to like where TV was, where there’s some people that are focused on ads and then people that are starting to get into subscriber bases.
Lowell Peterson: Podcasting is sort of like subscription audio-on-demand or streaming audio-on-demand.
Kaitlin Fontana: This is Lowell Peterson, the executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East. He says that this sort of subscription model may be the future of podcasting, and if that’s the case, it at least creates a few known variables.
Lowell Peterson: I mean, that’s the beauty of it. The model is there. Audiences know that they can go to their favorite podcast network or website or what have you, and click and download however many episodes they want. So audiences are already accustomed to an on-demand approach in podcasting, as they are increasingly becoming accustomed to it in the video realm. So I think that there are real potential gains for people to make. I want to go to Netflix and watch this series. I want to go to Amazon or Hulu Plus, or I want to go to Spotify, or I want to go to any of these services and say, “Well, part of my entertainment experience will be to download six episodes of a post-apocalyptic drama or a comedy variety show,” and it’s all in the mix. If that takes place, I think podcasts will continue to thrive.
Kaitlin Fontana: All of the unknowns may have a silver lining. The creative work being produced and the promise of owning some share of intellectual property for the projects, not to mention the ability to help pioneer a still relatively new format, may be an enticing opportunity for a lot of production entities that aren’t podcast first companies.
Lowell Peterson: The lack of upfront funding is a challenge. It’s not clear how long that’s going to last. I think there are production entities that are willing to spend some reasonably expansive amounts of money to get podcasts that work. There are definitely TV production type entities that are willing to invest in podcast series, dramatic podcast series, on the theory that at least some of those are going to make it into television or SVOD.
Lowell Peterson: So assuming that that model works, and that’s a big assumption, production budgets will go up in podcasting. The amount of money that these production companies are willing to spend on talented experienced writers will go up, because if you want to have a scripted podcast series attract ears and attract potential television deals, you need to have the best possible characters and dramas, and that means the best possible writing of course. So if that’s the model, I think that the money will go up pretty quickly, and our main function is to make sure that not only do the upfront compensation checks look good, but that writers participate both in the back-end on podcasts and also stay with the series or stay with it either creatively or financially as it expands onto different platforms.
Kaitlin Fontana: So it seems that there are only two things about the industry that anyone knows for certain. First, that so far there isn’t a standard way that people are funding their projects, and second, as a result, finding money to make your project is difficult. In other words, the only thing we know for certain about podcast funding is how little we know about podcast funding. Practically speaking then, how do writers get into the industry in the first place? If there’s no standard, how do they figure out where to pitch and to whom?
Alicia Van Couvering: I think the way to figure that out is to go look at all your favorite scripted podcasts and look at what the names are on them. You know? It’s easy to find that out if you just do a little bit. Like if you’re not already involved in that side of the business, you may not ever have access to people that have not yet done it but are now spending money, so you can go to the known quantities just by doing some reverse engineering research and seeing who’s financing this stuff. And then the other opportunity in podcast right now is like, everybody’s interested in podcasts. So if you have a great idea and you think it would be right for somebody and they’ve never done it, it has probably not escaped them that this is a great business.
Alicia Van Couvering: So I think writers and creators can be really brave right now in showing up at the front door … I mean, not literally, but like knocking on doors of people that have never done podcasts and saying, “I think creatively you’re super right for this, and you’ve worked with director that I’d love to bring on to do this with, and we could make it as a TV show together. Do you want to partner?” Any financier of any medium is probably interested in podcasts right now, so you can be their test case. There’s tons of people that are podcast curious that have never found the right project.
Kaitlin Fontana: Finding the money for your project may be difficult for many writers, sure. But realistically, it’s probably cheaper than making an independent film. So for writers serious about making as good a project as possible, what’s the average budget?
Alicia Van Couvering: I would say a writer, a casting director, a producer, LLC and legal setup, because if you do want to sell this to someone, it is wise to produce this under your own LLC. So writing, casting director, a little bit of casting expense for like a read through or audition space, producer, LLC set up and some legal to create a company and help do all your deals. A director fee. If you’re going to offer … One way to get cast on board is if you’re going to offer them a producing role or an EP credit or something. Is that going to come attached with back-end or money up front? If you have it, that’s something to consider.
Alicia Van Couvering: It’s a bunch of days kind of estimated, probably overestimated for all the different actors, and then additionally an ADR allowance assuming that we’re going to have them come back during post, and then you’re going to have to pay them each for a day. A coordinator or a PA or somebody there to help me. Obviously a sound recordist and mixer, and any of the attending costs for that stuff. A little bit of money for cast transportation, an editor, some money for musicians, sound effects licensing and archival, which is not necessary but really useful so you don’t have to go out and record all your [crosstalk 00:17:35] yourself. So I’ve seen budgets that like have 10 times more things than I’m talking about for a podcast, but most people are not going to do that.
Kaitlin Fontana: Needless to say, just because it’s a different animal than film or TV, it doesn’t mean that the budget considerations are any fewer. But in the end, how much roughly can a well-produced podcast project run you?
Alicia Van Couvering: I think the range for scripted podcasts that I’ve heard about is like, I think the cheapest I’ve heard of is like about a hundred grand. I think everybody does it differently. And I’ve heard of scripted podcast budgets that are a million dollars.
Zack Akers: It was a lot of money that we had saved together, and it was sort of, what do we want to put our money into? And again, because this was something that neither one of us had done, the way we treated it was like a film. So we knew how to do that. We knew how to hire people for … We wanted to get people who are good at their jobs to specialize in the job that we were hiring them for as opposed to getting a person to do eight jobs. We wanted to fill it out like a real team and make it a bigger production, so we invested in that.
Zack Akers: That was all the sort of startup fund that we had as a company when we … because we formed our company too the month before we launched Limetown, and again, it was all personal funds, but it was sort of like we could invest in an independent film or we could invest in producing the rest of this season, and we did that for some reason, and it worked for us, but all of that was sort of our own money.
Kaitlin Fontana: Zack and Skip invested in the show like it was a feature film. Is that necessary? Alicia thinks it is. She says that the quality of the project is key, and quality tends to come at a cost.
Alicia Van Couvering: I think making sure it’s well produced is important. I think making sure … If it sounds really cruddy, and the biggest problem to me in most scripted podcasts is that the performances are bad, and I’m certainly not going to name names, but like you can a little bit tell when they’ve hired nonprofessional actors and don’t have the wherewithal to record properly, and they’re just hard to listen to. So I think the appeal, if scripted podcasts are ever going to really take off as a medium, I think they have to be transportative. Right? It’s hard to do that if you’re kind of bumping constantly on something that sort of never quite comes across as credible.
Alicia Van Couvering: As with film, the really expensive thing is kind of always days. So to do a half hour of properly sound designed narrative recording I think will come out to somewhere in the realm of like $250,000, but it’s kind of the Wild West. I’m sure people can have done this for less, but that often just comes down to not paying yourself and doing your own music and having actors that are your friends and totally nonunion.
Kaitlin Fontana: But obviously not everyone has a way to come up with a couple hundred thousand dollars to produce a podcast, so what’s a writer in that situation to do?
Zack Akers: I would … A script, because in your scenario, I don’t have the money to do this, right? But I still would suggest having a written script and having a clear vision for what the show is in that way.
Kaitlin Fontana: One reason that podcasts are appealing to many writers looking for an inroad into the entertainment industry is because the barrier to entry is ultimately much lower than it is in film and television. A lot of writers think, “Hey, a TV pilot is expensive and I want to show executives that my story is a worthwhile investment, so I’ll create a podcast version of my idea for a TV series, then use it as a proof of concept when I’m pitching the project to TV executives.”
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s an appealing idea: make the podcast version of your TV show and try to get a TV show optioned out of it. But Zack and Alicia both agree that anyone thinking about going down this avenue should proceed with caution.
Alicia Van Couvering: The things that I think are getting traction were made to be podcasts, and people recognize that there would likely be film and television development executives sniffing around it and were smart about it and smart about retaining their rights.
Kaitlin Fontana: Alicia says that writing something as a proof of concept for your TV show, or even writing a podcast when your TV pilot doesn’t pan out, rather than creating the best version of your project for the medium, can wind up being a bit self-defeating.
Alicia Van Couvering: Short films are the same, right? Like you can smell a calling card, proof of concept short from a mile away. I’ve watched hundreds of shorts that literally feel like a teaser opening to a feature, and they’re just so boring because there’s no passion in it. There’s no love in it. It just feels like … and it’s always going to be. Like a proof of concept thing is almost, that’s just made to be a proof of concept, is almost always going to be like a cheaper, lamer version than the actual thing, which just makes them feel artless, so it can work against you.
Alicia Van Couvering: So I would say, to me, the exciting part of this is to focus on like, how do I reinvent this … How do I really think about this audio format? Think about something that hasn’t been done in it. Think about how I could reinvent it. Think about what I would actually want to listen to as a podcast only. I don’t think that … What happened after Homecoming was a ton of people that had pilots that had never sold then approached all the podcast places and were like, “What about this? I have this pilot that nobody ever made. Let’s make this as a podcast.” Like, I haven’t heard of a story where that actually panned out. I could totally be wrong. It seemed like a great idea, but I’m not sure it ever actually works.
Kaitlin Fontana: To be clear, Alicia isn’t saying you should never make a podcast project out of what was supposed to be a TV show because it’ll be bad. In the end, she’s saying the most important thing is just that you’re making something, whatever it is that’s possible for you, and you shouldn’t focus on whether or not it will be a success, either as a podcast or as a future TV show.
Alicia Van Couvering: Making something is better than not making it, so if making a podcast version of it is available to you, that is so much more valuable than just feeling like … which is how this business makes you feel, is like, often, and I feel like this constantly and everybody I know feels like this constantly, no matter how successful they are, is like, “It is totally not worth doing unless it’s going to be a hit. It is absolutely pointless unless I’m going to make serious, serious money. I better just sit in my house and do nothing because what’s the point unless it’s gigantic?” Right? And I think my feeling is if you have a great idea, get it out the door so that you can have more ideas.
Kaitlin Fontana: From Alicia and Zack’s experience, they’ve seen that having a solid idea and trying to make the best product with that idea is what leads to that project having a future life in another medium. In fact, Zack says that when making Limetown, they never considered that it might ultimately become a TV show. Here’s Zack again.
Zack Akers: It was created purely as a podcast. It’s important to Skip an I, when we start something, what is the best story to tell in this medium and why are we doing it in this medium? And so when it was podcasting, it’s like, what’s the best story to tell and why is it a podcast? What about it is unique to this platform? So it was purely designed from that level to be an audio experience, an intimate audio experience.
Kaitlin Fontana: The idea for turning Limetown into a TV show didn’t even come to mind until after the podcast had seen a lot of success as a podcast.
Zack Akers: Through the success, we were able to get agents and lawyers and all of that along the way, and WME, our agency at that time, asked us, “What would you like to do next?” And it was just sort of like, “Why not a TV show?” Just sort of like, you know, “Why not be an astronaut?” You know? Like, yeah, whatever. And they were like, “Okay,” and it was a moment of like, “Wait, that’s okay? Like we could just do that?” It’s like, “Yeah, we can pursue that.”
Zack Akers: So from that point, it was like, okay, well how do we develop this as a television show? And then that was when that process started, but it never was at any point in the … because we didn’t think anyone would listen to it. You know? Like we didn’t have any idea that it would be a hit on any level. It was just sort of like we wanted our parents to listen to it. We wanted more people than our parents to listen to it, and sort of our secret stretch goal was 10,000 listens. That was our, “What if we got 10,000?”
Kaitlin Fontana: In the end, Limetown wound up getting close to 15 million listens, and Zack’s experience gave him a lot of insight into the process of turning an idea into a television show. One of his major takeaways is a pretty simple one, though it may not seem that way for a lot of writers out there: be confident.
Zack Akers: I would say that everyone should sort of argue from a position of power and not a position of begging for someone to make their show. Of course, you are, but at the same time, they can’t do anything without your say so, and I think that that is important to remember. If you believe enough in the idea, you are the fire-starters, and you have to remember that. There is no fire without the writer, and everything comes from that fire. So that’s a really important thing to remember, that people should be confident in. And I know that writers are not always confident people, but you should be confident in your ideas, if nothing else.
Kaitlin Fontana: Confidence in your ideas is important for breaking in and getting people to listen, but it’s also vital that you’re confident not only in your ideas themselves, but in the knowledge that your ideas are safe. So in an industry with so many unknowns, how can writers make sure their ideas and their work are protected? How can they ensure that they get money and have a share in whatever future revenue the podcast may generate? And in the best case scenario where everything goes right for you, you get the funding, you sell it, or a TV executive wants to option it, how do you protect your rights throughout the future life of your project?
Zack Akers: I think that as all of these entities are, they’re going to make you feel like you don’t have leverage, but you do. You have the idea. Do everything you can to retain as much ownership of your idea as you can. That’s sort of the most important thing in my mind.
Kaitlin Fontana: In other words, if you remember only one thing, it’s to protect your IP. Zack’s speaking with the benefit of hindsight, the knowledge that, in another world, his podcast could’ve taken off and left him and Skip behind.
Zack Akers: I think early on, as we were approaching these other networks and seeking a distribution partner, I think at any point they could have taken ownership and we would have accepted it for the most part. I mean, we would have wanted to retain as much as we could, but I think our idea was we just wanted to get it out there, but because that didn’t work and because we ended up doing everything ourselves, there was no issue around ownership or creation, credit or anything like that. So it was, again, just sort of like we sort of stumbled into the best possible scenario as far as that goes. But with our other projects going forward now that were sort of established, that’s a really important thing to us that we own the IP, because we understand the value now and we understand that that’s a source for the industry to look for ideas and stories.
Zack Akers: So that is sort of the most important thing in our business, is owning the products that we create. If the script is good and the story is good, for the most part, you’re going to be protected in that way. The other thing again is fighting for ownership, fighting for a say in how things are developed, and because you are the person who has created this idea, you have leverage.
Kaitlin Fontana: Alicia agrees that your leverage is important, and while she believes it doesn’t necessarily make sense to create a podcast with the express purpose of it becoming a TV show, she does think that you should make sure you’ve considered that possibility from a legal perspective.
Alicia Van Couvering: Protect yourself and be smart about the possibility of adapting it. All this stuff is contractual. It will ultimately, to some degree, come down to your own leverage. If you have an original idea and you created the podcast, the way to protect yourself is to register it. I mean, one way to protect yourself. First of all, hire a lawyer, and just make sure that you have something in writing that speaks to all this. Once it’s completed, you then register it with the copyright office and create a form PA so it exists. And then I think in practical terms, the actual place to protect yourself is in a negotiation for adaptation.
Kaitlin Fontana: So regardless of whether you’re negotiating a production or distribution deal with a podcast company, or you’re locking down a TV adaptation of your project, making sure you’ve negotiated the strongest terms possible is key. But are you on your own to come up with provisions that seem fair enough and hope that you don’t overlook anything important? Lowell Peterson wants writers to know that there are resources available to help them navigate the legal waters. Here he is again.
Lowell Peterson: Well, so the Writers Guild represents people who craft stories for television, for the internet, for feature films, for radio. We have members who do news, broadcast and digital news. We have members who do series on video-on-demand, like Netflix. We have members who do feature films. We have members that do comedy variety, and of course, a lot of TV. We have members who have been exploring the world of scripted podcasts. We represent members who do nonfiction, if you will, podcasts.
Kaitlin Fontana: Ultimately, the goal is to create a scripted podcast industry where there are clear universal standards and protections for writers, but that’s a ways away. The industry is still too nebulous, too new. In the meantime, Lowell says the Guild can protect writers getting involved in scripted podcasting on a contract by contract basis.
Lowell Peterson: We can cover podcasts. We are eager to do that, and we can also help members talk about things like, how do you protect yourself if the podcast becomes a TV show? Or how do you share in whatever back-end money might develop?
Kaitlin Fontana: So when it comes to negotiating terms, what elements beyond IP should you consider? If the Guild covers podcasts, do they have a standard contract that member’s breaking into this industry should use?
Lowell Peterson: At this point, there isn’t anything like a set of standard terms. I think that’s true in the market as well. I think that there isn’t a standard rate for a half an hour episode. It varies all over the place.
Lowell Peterson: In this phase, each podcast that we sign will be unique. The economics of each podcast series will be different. The budgets, the amount of work involved in crafting the scripts will be different. The kinds of potential reuse provisions will be different. I think we will be crafting this agreement over the course of many months, if not years.
Kaitlin Fontana: But the fact that the Guild doesn’t have a standard podcast contract yet doesn’t mean that they don’t have standard terms that they include in all of their entertainment industry contracts, and Lowell encourages members to reach out to the Guild to make sure they’re getting the credit and the compensation that they deserve.
Lowell Peterson: There are definitely standard contract terms, most importantly contributions to the health and pension funds, that we can put into place right now. Our main function is to make sure that not only do the upfront compensation checks look good, but that writers participate both in the back-end on podcasts and also stay with the series or stay with it either creatively or financially as it expands onto different platforms.
Kaitlin Fontana: So while the industry hasn’t developed enough for there to be any standard one-size-fits-most contracts, Lowell’s optimistic that this won’t be the case forever, and he has history on his side.
Lowell Peterson: We encountered something like this when webisodes were a bigger thing 10 years ago, where there were no standard terms, there were no basic compensation terms, and we created some pretty decent contracts. As budgets grew, writer income grew, both on the front end and the back end, and we anticipate something like that happening with podcasting. We’ve been fascinated to see the growth of the scripted podcast world, and I would say that our organizing approach to it is very, very new. We’re still trying to learn what the scope and the nature of scripted podcasting is now and what we anticipate it will be like in the next six months to two years or so.
Kaitlin Fontana: The current climate doesn’t leave a lot of room for concrete proposals, but generally speaking, Lowell says that there are some things that the Guild hopes it can address and create standards for in podcast contracts.
Lowell Peterson: We definitely are exploring ways to make sure there is language in contracts to ensure that the writer does go with a series or does share in the profits of the series if it becomes either a highly profitable podcast, which is a little bit rare right now, or a TV or a VOD series.
Lowell Peterson: I think creative control is always important. My sense is that, at this phase, writers have a lot of creative control, but of course, that isn’t necessarily going to be the case. I think making sure that some version of show writing, or at least writer creative control, remains the case. That’s going to be really important. That’s a challenge. I think there is a simple, “Make a living, get your show made,” challenge to podcasting that … The barriers to getting hired on a show or the gold standard, having a network buy the show that you created on television or SVOD, those are real big barriers.
Kaitlin Fontana: Ultimately, Lowell hopes that the Guild can have the same sort of influence on scripted podcasts that it’s had in nearly every other creative industry.
Lowell Peterson: Hopefully we will have an impact on it going up. That’s certainly our goal, but it’s going to take us a while to figure out what terms, A, make it a sustainable way of writing, and B, are realistic in the market. It’s not as if there’s five or six employers that do all the scripted podcasts and if we organize these five or six, then we’ll have density. That doesn’t appear to be the way things are right now. It’s much more wide open, much more do it yourself, a much bigger variation in how projects get green-lit and distributed. So it’s going to take some time to build standards. That’s our main contribution right now: get some basic protections in our contracts and work very hard to increase standards.
Kaitlin Fontana: So if you’re a writer, a Guild member, and you’re getting involved in the scripted podcast industry, you’re ready to negotiate a contract, and you want to make sure you’re getting the best terms possible, what do you do?
Lowell Peterson: The best place to go is the Writers Guild of America, East. Contact Geoff Betts or Ann Burdick of our office. We will eagerly discuss your terms with you and get you the best protections and sign your project.
Kaitlin Fontana: There are also ways for you to help the Guild gain a better understanding of the current state of fictional podcasts, and for you to get involved in creating stronger standards in the podcast industry.
Lowell Peterson: Stay tuned in terms of events and panels and conversations that the Writers Guild will be putting on in the next six to 12 months, and let us know what you’re experiencing. If you’re a Writers Guild member and you’ve done a project or you’ve been approached by a producer to do a project or a management company, let us know. We want to learn from you, as well as help you protect yourself. We’re building a database, and we’re in the very early stages of that, so if you are approached to do a project, let us know. If you have an idea for a project and you’ve sold it to somebody, let us know. That’s the kind of information we need to build standards in this area.
Kaitlin Fontana: So one of the things we’ve learned so far is that there’s a lot more to learn about the business of scripted podcasting, and we’ll keep exploring the industry in part two, when we’ll take a deep dive into the creative aspects involved in crafting a fictional podcast. We hope you’ll join us. Until then, thanks for listening.
Kaitlin Fontana: The OnWriting Guide to Crafting Scripted Podcasts is a project of the Writers Guild of America, East. Episode one was written and produced by Molly beer, tech production by Stockboy Creative. Special thanks to Zack Akers, Skip Bronkie, Alicia Van Couvering, Lowell Peterson, Jason Gordon, and Marsha Seeman. To learn more about what the Guild is doing to support podcast creators, visit wgaeast.org/podcasting. You can follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast, and you can follow me on Twitter @KaitlinFontana. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.