Alasdair Stuart on the Growth of SFF Podcasting

By Carl Slaughter: Alasdair Stuart is the CEO of Escape Artists, the parent company of the Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, and Cast of Wonders podcasts, and most recently the Mothership Zeta magazine.  He shares at length about the people, history, vision, and operations of EA.  He also expounds on the place podcasting has in the speculative fiction market.

CARL SLAUGHTER: Give us a brief history of how 4 podcasts and a magazine came under the Escape Artists umbrella.   

ALASDAIR STUART: Sure!

Escape Pod was started a decade ago when podcasting was basically the Wild West. Steve Eley set it up, was amazed by how quickly it took off and added in Pseudopod which, when it started was edited and hosted by Ben Philips and Mur Lafferty.

Just under a year passed. Mur left, I saw she was leaving and did one of the least British things I’ve ever done; stuck my hand up and said ‘Hire me! I’ll do that” and to my rank amazement; they did.

My first episode as host is episode 49. It is fair to say I have come a long way since then. I certainly sound much less frightened.

A while after that Podcastle was set up and not long after that, Steve stepped away from hosting. On we merrily trundled until, one day in 2012, I had this conversation with our accountant:

‘Hey Paul? Is this quick math I’ve done that suggests we run out of money in six weeks right?’

‘Yep.’

‘…OH.’

Emails were sent, meetings had and a plea for assistance sent out. It was overlong and a touch panicky but it did the job and our listeners massively rallied around us. We lived.

A year or so later I was working on a project with Dan Sawyer. I was frustrated with some EA stuff at that point and, after the third meeting with Dan opened with me complaining about this, he asked why we shouldn’t just buy the company.

I had no answer other than ‘yes’. There may have been a ‘gosh.’

So off we went! Steve was amazing about it and actually said he’d only want it to go to a group including me which was incredibly sweet of him. So we bought the company and started in on renovating it. And, as often happens, we soon realized we wanted very different things for it. We parted on amicable terms and I took on the company as sole owner.

What followed was about two years of putting out fires and getting stuff in a row. That stopped a little while ago, and we started doing the stuff that we’ve wanted to do for ages – expanding. So that’s when Cast of Wonders was brought in and Mothership Zeta was launched and now here we are.

CS: Any more podcasts or magazines joining the family any time soon?   

AS: We’re always looking to expand, but we want to do it in ways that make sense. As an example; during Eley’s tenure I know an erotica podcast was looked at. That’s not something we’ll be doing now (erotica and YA in the same house feel a bit off) but there are other genres we continue to review. Crime is logical.

Plus we’re starting to look at story lengths which aren’t well served by the existing audio community. Podcastle has run ‘Giants’ for several years, stories approaching the novella length. And Cast of Wonders has run an entire serialized short novel, called Camp Myth. In fact, serials like that or longer works are almost certainly what’s next for us.

CS: How much of the speculative podcast market does Escape Artists occupy?   

AS: At Sasquan I sat in the audience of a podcasting panel and listened to a panel member jokingly admit they stole their entire format from EscapePod. Another panel member then looked at them and said ‘But we stole our format from you!’

That was both really sweet and hard to sit through. EA was the first through the door and we’re still here. We’ve committed the absolutely necessary sin of consistency, which means people sometimes see through you. Everything we’re doing this year, from the launch of MZ and bringing aboard Cast of Wonders, to a long overdue web redesign and the Pseudopod 10th anniversary Kickstarter, is about changing that.

(Although that does position us as the Faith No More of genre podcasting and they’re one of my favorite bands so there’s that)

CS: Same question for the Parsec.

AS: I’m not quite sure what you mean? The Parsec awards are a very broad church. This last year there were 14 categories, of which stories produced by EA occupied only two.

CS: Who’s the competition?   

AS: We don’t view ourselves as having competition. The field, even though it’s expanding at a rate unlike anything we’ve seen so far, is still really small. We share staff with other shows, have definitely shared authors as well as narrators, and work hard on making sure we boost good work when we see it, not just when we produce it.

The trick, if there is one, is to be absolutely, almost ruthlessly, true to your own identity. There are dozens of podcasts in dozens of formats. Some concentrate on literary and critical analysis, like Faculty of Horror or Writer’s Roundtable. There are countless ‘three people and a mic’ commentary podcasts like School of Movies. There’s a string of amazing genre fiction audio drama podcasts.

And there’s us. Our guiding principle is One Story Told Well. The true art, we feel, of audio fiction is the paring of a great story with a great voice. Each of the shows specializes in a genre and to some extent, a specific type of story within that genre. EscapePod has always concentrated on the uplifting and hopeful sides of science fiction. Mothership Zeta emphasizes fun genre. Cast of Wonders has a very broad definition of YA but a narrower view on what their sense of wonder entails. And Pseudopod takes in every form of horror we can, from the classics (I’m about to write an outro for our subscriber exclusive reading of The Monkey’s Paw) to debut authors.

Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, BCS, Uncanny, Fireside and the others all do really great work and have their own approach. New magazines and shows like Glittership, Fiyah, Liminal and Holdfast are launching all the time and we enthusiastically support them. Likewise audio dramas like Archive 81, The Deep Vault, The Bridge, The Magnus Archives, Ars Paradoxica, Tanis, The Black Tapes and The Tunnels all make the entire audio field better. We’d much rather work with everyone than compete.

CS: Why branch into magazines?   

AS: Because we want, and need to expand. And because the magazine format is a medium everyone understands.

There’s a running gag rough the Tanis and Black Tapes podcasts where the lead will interview someone and the conversation will go like this:

‘Is this for the radio?’

‘It’s for a podcast.’

‘…’

‘It’s like radio on the Internet.’

That ‘…’ Is where we sometimes feel trapped. There’s a real sense, although it is fading, of podcasting not being ‘real’ publishing. The establishment (and recent renewal) of the Fancast Hugo award really seemed to drive that home, despite audio publication finally being recognized as on-par with print publication for SFWA membership purposes.

But static isn’t something we can afford to be even though it’s all too easy to feel frustrated and overlooked because we publish in a format some people don’t connect with. We have a decade’s worth of content in our back catalog and it’d be very easy to assume people will find it. It’s harder, but far more necessary, to go tell them about it and a great way to start doing that is by branching out into a format that’s more universally recognized.

Plus, we feel there’s room for the EA mindset of enthusiastic, articulate and supportive positivity to be carried over to the magazine market. The immensely positive response we had from MZ authors at WorldCon this year leads me to believe we were right.

CS: Your podcasts pay pro rates.  How do you afford this while offering stories free?   

AS: We’re entirely listener funded. We can afford pro rates because of the generosity of our listeners, it’s that simple. Even with the expansion this year it’s been a source of stress seeing if donations can support that. Right now things are sustainable, but like any donation funded organization it’s tighter than we’d like.

One of the things we realized when we bought the company and started looking in closets is that EA has never, ever had a consistent or proactive approach to marketing. That has to change, and that’s on us. The fact that we’re not on Patreon yet is a constant frustration to both staff and some of our listeners. But we feel it would be a real slap in the face to our 10 year veteran PayPal donors to not align first on what Patreon rewards would be offered, and how our PayPal donors would translate to that. We’d rather take a bit longer and do it right.

Fun fact: we have over 400,000 unique downloads every month across the four shows. Less than 1% of our listeners donate. If just 3% donated we could do so much more.

CS: Do you podcast original material, reprints, or both?  Do you buy stories by submission, invitation, or both?   

AS: All of the above. While we (and audio fiction as a whole, really) were initially formed as reprint markets, when we stepped up to SFWA qualifying rates that very definitely changed. Cast of Wonders is a recent example – their submissions quadrupled when they announced their rate increase.

It’s worth talking a little about reprints here because they’re the foundation of the shows. When Eley set up EscapePod, we initially couldn’t pay full rates so targeting reprints was a way to make sure we could source stories and still pay for them. That also opened up potentially entire back catalogs for authors to send back out into the world and get paid for again. So it became a virtuous circle; when we started out Escape Artists could afford to pay for reprints. Authors had a home for reprints. We got some really great stories. The audience grew and we began to expand.

But there’s also a point to make here about why we work as a format; we aim to sit perfectly inside the average commute. So, if you’re on a train or in the car for 45 minutes you’re going to be able to hear a full story that will entertain you, keep you engaged and distract you from how little coffee you have left. We’re designed, very deliberately, to fit into that hole in people’s days and help them claw a bit of time back for them. We get dozens of emails about listeners telling us we’ve improved their commutes, their workouts, their school runs and more.

Most stories come in via submission. We have a small amount of solicits every year, usually for traditions. Podcastle loves a Tim Pratt Christmas story, for example.

And we do some special events too. Alex Hofelich, the co-editor of Pseudopod, has commissioned some incredible pieces for the anthology which will be part of the Kickstarter. Cast of Wonders had a special call for Banned Books Week which runs the end of September.  Artemis Rising, our showcase for female and non-binary authors, hits its third year next March. Both of those had specific calls for submissions attached to them and we’ve had some amazing stories through.

CS: What’s your role in the daily/weekly operations of the podcasts?   

AS: Most of the time it’s listening to our people, helping them solve problems and, largely, making sure I’m not in their way. On a week to week basis I’m one of three hosts on EscapePod, occasionally narrate for the shows and host Pseudopod weekly.

CS: What’s your role behind the scenes as CEO of Escape Artists?   

AS: Marguerite and I split the duties. We organize bimonthly meetings for editorial, administrative or technical staff to discuss any issues raised, see where people are in the year and find out what we can do to help. Sometimes there’ll be offshoots of those with smaller follow up meetings but mostly it’s those two.

Editorial meetings run 2-3 hours, and are where everyone can share what they’re working on or get ideas about concerns. We always start with sharing positive news, and end with where we’re going to focus until the next meeting.

And because our people are all in scattered timezones we make sure the antisocial start time always lands on us. The bad news is that means a late night every month. The good news? Excellent debriefing over breakfast the following morning

Dave Robison, Alasdair Stuart, and Marguerite Kenner

Dave Robison, Alasdair Stuart, and Marguerite Kenner

CS: What have been the pivotal moments in speculative podcast history?  What percentage of the speculative market does podcasting occupy?  What part will podcasting play in the future of speculative fiction?   

AS: In no particular order:

Mur Lafferty launching I Should Be Writing, Scott Sigler podcasting Earthcore, the glorious life of Variant Frequencies which is still one of the greatest fiction podcasts ever, the launch of the Parsec Awards, the launch of EscapePod and the creation of the audio reprint market, the adoption of the podcasting method by major genre magazines like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed, and the launch of Serial.

Why Serial?

Because without Serial you don’t get the new age of fiction podcasts, the bluntly astounding audio dramas like Limetown, The Magnus Archives. The Black Tapes, The Tunnels, Archive 81 and all the rest. Those shows are the ‘80s horror classics of the 21st century; incredible creators doing amazing work with almost no budget.

And that brings us to the present day, and to your second question. I think podcasting has done a really good job of sneaking into everybody’s world view. A podcast has become a default delivery method now and, with shows like us and others paying pro rates there’s no longer any reason for it to feel like a second hand market. Not that there ever was but it’s nice to see the industry realize that too.

And as for the future? All those shows I mentioned have helped sculpt it in a dozen ways. Serial made the ‘intrepid reporter looks at stuff’ a viable template for fictional subversion. I Should Be Writing continues to map the territory we all write on as does DitchDiggers.

And as for fiction shows? They’ll continue being petri dishes for some of the best new writers on the planet. Podcasts are places where new stories can be tested on an audience orders of magnitude larger than anyone dreamt of at the birth of this medium.

Did I mention I love my job? I REALLY love my job.

CS: What writing do you do on the side and where do you find the time with all the responsibilities of Escape Artists?   

AS: I write regularly for tor.com, MCM Buzz, Ghostwoods Books and a couple of other places. I also work as an RPG designer. I was actually ENnie (The RPG industry Oscar) nominated for an adventure last year which was really cool. It was even cooler given it was for the Doctor Who RPG.

Most of the work I do in that field is modules or scenarios but I’ve done longer form projects too. I wrote The Sixth Doctor sourcebook for the Doctor Who RPG and was lead writer on the Tenth Doctor book. I’ve also got a setting coming out for All Flesh Must Be Eaten, an adventure for The Laundry RPG and my own game, After The War, due for release next year with Genesis of Legend.

As for finding the time it’s really two things. My partner, Marguerite Kenner and I split the running of EA between us. That makes it an incredible amount of work instead of simply an impossible one but there isn’t a day that goes by when the work isn’t massive fun. We’re unsure which one of us is Leo and which one of us is President Bartlet so far but we’re enjoying finding out.

Secondly, I work very fast and I work a LOT. One of the reasons I took over the company was the realization that this is the job I’ve held the longest. I celebrate my tenth year with the company in 2017 and I’ve never had more fun, or felt more at home, than I do here. I love what we do and when that’s the basis of a working day it’s really easy to get stuff done.

CS: What’s on the horizon for Escape Artists?   

AS: A new back catalogue system. We have 1700+ episodes which will always be available, for free, on the websites. We’re completely committed to the Creative Commons model. But even with our new wikia they can be a challenge to navigate. We have plans to fix that with some great added value, and to give our listeners a new method to donate in a way that hasn’t been done before.

A magnificently overdue art and website refresh. Ten year old websites. Ouch.

Artemis Rising 3, our showcase for female and non-binary authors returns for its third year next year.

Our first ever Kickstarter! To celebrate Pseudopod’s 10 anniversary, we’ve worked with Horror in Clay’s Jonathan Chaffin to design an incredible tiki mug! Jonathan designed Pseudopod’s original art. Plus editor Alex Hofelich is hard at work on our first anthology of original stories from fan favorite Pseudopod authors. The Kickstarter will go live in October and I can’t wait. Also I can’t wait to own one of the tiki mugs.

CS: What’s on horizon for Alasdair Stuart?

AS: I have my first ever project I’m not allowed to mention beyond the fact it exists. I may take the Warren Ellis route and give it a codename. Yes, why not! Project HARDISON it is. So, I have Project HARDISON to do this month, as well as work on After The War. There’s still a few more WorldCon follow-ups on my chase list, plus I’ll be at FantasyCon in Scarborough September 23rd through 25th.

I also need to finish off Pseudopod Tapes Volumes 2 through Fox Spirit Books. The first volume is a collection of extended essays from a year’s worth of Pseudopod episodes. I’m now woefully behind and Adele is clamoring for it.

And more Pseudopod itself of course. Best job I’ve ever had.

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Alasdair Stuart Website — https://alasdairstuart.com/

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