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When you put your headphones on to listen to your favorite podcast, it might be the voices of the hosts you hear, but there’s usually a whole team of audio extraordinaires working behind the scenes to bring that show to life.
Our Behind the Podcast series pulls back the curtain on podcast production from around the Acast Creator Network, sharing stories from the diverse mix of people and roles working within podcasting. We’ll hear from the sound designers creating immersive sonic experiences, script writers who’ve mastered words to build intricate worlds, and the producers who pull all the strings to bring you brilliant episodes week after week.
For most, fascination with horror films, scary stories, and other forms of macabre media is relegated to a few weeks out of the year. For Jon Grilz, creator of the premiere creepypasta podcast Creepy, it’s a year-round, lifelong commitment.
After a stretch of time struggling to break through as a writer, Grilz began to shift his focus to the world of audio. He remembers a particular moment in which he saw an audio drama he enjoyed boasting upwards of 20,000 plays on Soundcloud. In that moment, it was clear to him that a podcast could reach more people than his books ever could. So began his journey into the world of podcasting and audio fiction with his show Small Town Horror, which would ultimately lead to Creepy.
Now, with 700 episodes, thousands of loyal fans, and a firm place on major horror podcast network Bloody Disgusting, Jon Grilz stands at the forefront of the horror audio fiction genre. We caught up with him during one of his favorite times of year (October) to hear a bit more about his journey to his point, his creative process, and his plans for the future.
With nearly 400 episodes per year, it’s easy to wonder how Grilz goes about sourcing content for the show. “I would say at this point, 95% of the stories we read are sent to us for submission,” he said when asked about finding stories from the show. This is in stark contrast to the earlier days of Creepy when Grilz would search Reddit creepypasta boards and other far reaches of the internet to collect stories. Now that this passive system has been developed for sourcing material, his focus has now turned to how to compensate the creators for using their story. He explains that creators are paid based on a word counter and are paid additionally if their show is a featured Sunday production or will be repurposed for Creepy Spanish.
While paying creators is central to his model, proper attribution is often a more essential part of the process. “I still see a lot of podcasts that come out where people want to get into horror narration and they just start pulling stories off of the internet,” he says. “They think ‘I read it for free, why can’t I narrate it for free?’ Well…it’s not yours. You’re taking ownership of it once you do that.” He notes that there is a large online community of writers and creators who just want to hear their stories read, and are less concerned about money. “Just don't steal content. There's too many creators on YouTube doing that already and it's a real quick way to get blacklisted.”
Since none of the material being shared on Creepy is original, the magic comes in the way it is delivered. “Even though it’s not your story, you make it your story. You pretend like you’re sitting in your chair in your living room, across a campfire, at a bar, and think about how you tell a story.” He explains how this realistic approach creates an immersive experience for the listener to get lost in. “There’s pauses, you speed up and slow down, you put emphasis on certain words. I want a performance.” He believes that this approach leads to more convincing results than your standard audiobook approach to reading a story because instead of just regurgitating a story, there is an added desire to make the audience believe something that absolutely did not happen.
Additionally, Grilz notes that delivering an authentic read often comes down to the story itself. “The hardest time we have sourcing stories is people who try to send us prose, like their writing a novel,” he explains. “I read it and think ‘this is a great story, but I can’t narrate this” and that’s because of the way it’s worded. There’s too much back and forth dialogue and that isn’t the way people speak. It’s too difficult to translate to narration, certain words happen over and over again and for some reason in horror the word ‘cacophony’ happens in like 50% of the stories I see [laughs].”
Apart from the read and the story itself, sound effects and post-production play a role in creating an atmosphere for a scary story. “I think music and sound effects should amplify and accentuate a story, but never take center stage,” he notes. “People are there to listen to a story, not a bunch of sound effects. But that’s not to say that sound effects in the right place can’t really drive the nail.” In particular, he recalls a Creepy episode titled “Burnin’ Down the Ozarks” in which a perfectly placed scream creates a bone-chilling effect in the context of the story. “In the story, a cable repairman in the woods gets caught up in some cult business,” he explains. “He’s on the phone with a service operator and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you hear a woman scream. There was a line later in the script that mentioned a woman screaming, but our producer at the time, Steve, dropped the scream mid-conversation. There’s nothing up to that point which would cause you to expect that scream, and that’s what really pulls you in.”
One thing Grilz notes about being a part of the online horror and creepypasta landscape is how community oriented the whole operation is. “My biggest recommendation to anyone out there who wants to do narration is to contact the writers,” he says. “It’s a massive online community of writers that would love to have their work narrated.” He explains that getting stuck into this online community has allowed him to tap into networks that supply a steady stream of content for his reads as well as a loyal group of dedicated listeners and writers.
Grilz’s dedication to audio quality has also become an interest of his over the course of producing Creepy, and he recommends other narrators do the same. “Getting a good quality mic, a good setup recording space, and some decent editing software makes a huge difference,” he notes. “Mike DelGaudio is a fantastic voice actor and narrator. He’s got a YouTube channel called Booth Junkie where he has so many tips for tech, spaces, and presentation. It’s worth it to spend a little bit of time trying to get a really good sound.” He explains that nailing down your kit with a few high quality and intuitive pieces of equipment and software makes all the difference. “One of the best purchases I ever made for this podcast is when I got Izotope. I ran some basic podcast filters and it saved me so much time.”
Ultimately, Grilz is a firm believer in podcasting and its function in society. “It’s just given so many opportunities to people who felt like they never had a voice, and all of a sudden, their voice can change someone’s life,” he says. “I have to avoid forums on podcasts and audio drama because I can’t stand the negativity. Celebrate shows you love.”
Creepy is available on the Bloody Disgusting network and is part of the Acast Creator Network. It can be found wherever you get your podcasts.
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