Ads in audio drama: How to make spots so good listeners won’t want to skip

Ads in audio drama: How to make spots so good listeners won’t want to skip


An interview with Jon Grilz, host of Creepy

This piece was made as part of Acast’s Audio Fiction Week. You can find out more about Audio Fiction Week at acast.com/audiofictionweek, or via #AcastAudioFictionWeek on social.

Jon Grilz has been making his podcast, Creepy, since 2017. Started as a way to fill a gap in high quality recordings of “creepypastas” — or internet horror-fiction writing — the show has spawned a hugely dedicated following. The podcast itself brings a story to life each episode, making it easy for listeners to hop in and out of — and, during October, publishes a new episode every single day.

There’s so much that is special about the podcast itself, but Grilz has also managed to carve a niche for the show with brands due to his out-of-the-box ad reads. Today, we chat with Jon about his approach to writing and scripting these spots, which his long-time producer ​​Steve Blizin brings to life.

Becky Celestina, US Content Partner Manager at Acast: Can you start by introducing yourself?

Jon Grilz: I’m John Grilz, I am the creator and lead narrator of Creepy, a horror fiction podcast. I have a few podcasts at this point, including my original Small Town Horror, which is a horror-fiction podcast. I also help host SCP Archives and The Bloody Disgusting Podcast, so podcasting takes up a lot of my time. And I enjoy doing it very much, otherwise I wouldn’t put the amount of time into it that I do.

BC: For readers who may not be familiar with the show, can you tell us a little bit about Creepy?

JG: Creepy is a horror-fiction podcast that focuses largely on “creepypastas” — basically, the short version being, they’re digital scary stories. My goal with the show was to take the classic creepypastas that I wasn’t able to find on any other podcasts and create a podcast for them.

It kind of grew from those classic creepypastas and got enough momentum that we’ve decided to carry on in, checking out the forums, like r/NoSleep and creepypasta.com to find authors who are interested — and there are plenty of authors who are interested in writing, selling their stories, and giving us permission to use them.

We’ve been doing it ever since, over about 500 stories on a live feed, more than 500 on our Patreon feed — so we’ve been going strong. Haven’t missed the Sunday in the last four years.

BC: A truly an insane amount of content produced for the feed, but it has clearly found an audience. Shifting more to the ad side of things, you have some of the most creative ad reads out there, in my opinion — for those who aren’t aware, can you describe your approach to host reads? What do your ads sound like?

JG: I guess I would look at them as horror satire. I’m a really big horror movie fan — not the biggest, by any means, but I’m a very, very big fan of horror movies and I watch them year-round — and at the same time I know our audience is here for horror, to listen to our stories, and not the ads.

I know a lot of people don’t like ads, that’s why we give him options on Patreon for ad-free. I was totally in that camp for a really long time listening to my favorite podcasts, especially hearing audio-fiction being interrupted by commercials and thinking, “oh, you’re destroying it, what are you doing?”

But that was me early on, not having opportunities to make money off of a podcast and not understanding that it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to pay creators, it’s an opportunity to make some sort of a career out of podcasting, and sometimes that window is really small.

So I kind of took that combination of being a horror movie fan and being a podcast fan, and thought, “if I’m gonna do ads, can I make them entertaining?” Can people think, “yeah, that’s an ad, but I got a chuckle out of it”? Or, “that was more entertaining than I thought it would be”?

I think the first one I did, I actually integrated into my original podcast, Small Town Horror. I integrated an Audible or Casper ad — I can’t remember which — and one of the characters from over my shoulder is yelling at me like, “what are you doing?” And I say, “just give me a second”, and the character asks, “are you recording an ad when we’re about to go to this thing?” It was actually in the context of the story because it was an evergreen ad and it worked in that context because I was trying to present this fiction podcast as real, and it would be pretty silly if all the sudden I broke from character to do that.

It kind of made me smile — it entertained me to find a way to make a creative ad instead of just reading ad copy that listeners very commonly hear over and over again on different podcasts. And it’s not a bad thing, it’s ad copy, it’s a commercial — but, at the same time, I just thought to myself, “is there a way I can make this a little bit more fun to listen to?” and I kind of went from there.

How can I make a horror-themed? You know, HelloFresh all of a sudden has Hannibal Lecter in it, and Casper is the Russian sleep experiment, or I’m locked in a haunted house and all the rooms are filled with TVs showing Shudder movies.

I’ve taken the knowledge I have from horror movies and made the ads a little nod to the listeners. Plus, I love comedy in the first place. I don’t think I’m a very funny person, at least not in being able to write funny things, but I think in 300 words, I can at least get a chuckle out of ads and make them a little bit more creative and entertaining for listeners.

BC: I’m curious, do you have certain movies you always use for certain brands? How do you pick the movie that works with the brand?

JG: Honestly, I try to mix it up. I went a long time trying not to have the same movie, because I didn’t want to go back to the well too much. I think I’ve used Hannibal Lecter a couple of times for different brands, I don’t think it was just food delivery. And I think I’ve used Hell Raiser a couple of times, but generally I try to mix it up a little bit so it’s a little bit more variety. Maybe I find someone else’s favorite horror movie that I haven’t done yet, and figure out a way to get that in there. Usually it’s just in the moment, you know?

Also a campaign booking comes through and it might literally just be what I’m watching at that moment. I might be watching Hell House LLC or Grave Encounters or The Howling, or whatever else, and it’s like, “OK, we’re going to werewolves, what can I do with werewolves?” I’ll write it down, take the copy points, and then try and make it just a little bit funny at some point.

Usually it’s self deprecating, usually I’m a moron — which isn’t that far from the truth — so it’s pretty easy for me to make fun of myself in a lot of these ads. Sometimes they’re fourth wall-breaking. There’s a lot of: if I were listening to a podcast and I heard a commercial, what would I want to hear, if they were actually trying to get me to listen to the commercial instead of skipping 30 seconds or a minute ahead?

BC: What’s the response been from listeners? Do you hear listeners commenting or messaging you about these ads? What do they say and do you get good feedback?

JG: I do. I don’t know how much feedback other podcasters get, but yes I definitely do get feedback. One of the best pieces of feedback I get is from Patrons, who don’t have to listen to our ads because they have a commercial-free access to the feed, and they still listen to the live feed because they like hearing the commercials. There’s no bigger win than if you find someone who’s willing to find the commercials in a podcast — that’s definitely when I feel like I’ve done something right.

BC: That’s testament to the ads that you make. If you had to pick, what would be your favorite spot that you’ve made? The brand, the movie, and describe the spot.

JG: Well, I think it’s probably recency bias, but I really enjoyed doing AMC+. Part of it is because my daughter is in it, and my daughter believes that she’s famous anytime I put her in the ads. We try and tell her not to tell her friends she’s famous because I don’t share her name, I don’t show any information, all anybody knows is it’s just a little person’s voice being used. But I really enjoyed that aspect of her being super proud to share.

And the context of it was, my daughter comes in, says hi, and I’m bothered by being interrupted. And suddenly go into a rant about how great AMC+ is. And what she should be watching and she tells me, “My bed time’s at eight. You told me that you and mom go to bed after I go to bed.” I’m like, “yeah, well, we lied, sorry about that”. And then at the very end, I’m like, “oh that’s right, I interrupted you”.

And that’s usually how my ads go — me going off on a strange tangent and then getting back to the subject at hand. And my daughter is asking if I can watch something, and she hands me a VHS tape, because it’s The Ring. And I’m like, sure, and I put it in and I’m weirded out and she leaves the room and comes back. And I ask her, “why’d you want me to watch that?” And she goes, “well, I watched this tape six days ago”, so I say, “did you just pass a curse on to me?” She just goes, “don’t hate the player, hate the game”. She has said that line so many times since I used it. And I was like, can’t blame you for that, you win. Because if she did that to me in real life, I’d be like, “yeah, you got me”.

BC: I think my favorite, for the record, is the one where it’s your daughter who was in the background of a Sixth Sense ad saying, “I see dead people”.

JG: Yeah, I think the line was, “Daddy there’s a clown upstairs”, and I say, “don’t talk about your brother that way!” And she says, “no, another clown!” And I say, “oh, yeah, he’s here for Daddy on a completely unrelated matter, don’t worry about him. Just go on ignoring my screams at night like you always do”. She does ask to be put in ads a lot more. I think she’s destined for the theater, she loves being a little performer.

But, yeah, a lot of it’s recency bias. I know I’ve tried some in the past where I really liked it, like I actually got a kick out of whatever I was doing at that moment. I really like the recent one we did for Ghost Brothers, which I don’t even think is out yet. It’s for Candyman and it’s me totally missing how Candyman works. And then one of my narrators ends up dying because I don’t get how it works. Which, again, is usually how the ads work — somebody ends up dying at the end.

BC: My next question is for, say, a smaller fiction podcast or someone who’s new to ads. Do you have any advice for either incorporating reads into shows or how they should approach making things feel natural?

JG: I guess I’d say, try to incorporate it within the context of your show — especially in fiction podcasts where there are a lot of opportunities depending on the setting. For example, all of a sudden it becomes a radio ad in the background, or a TV ad, you know, the characters leave the room with a TV on or something. If you can somehow incorporate it into the world you’ve created for your listeners, it’s gonna be that much easier to keep them paying attention to what’s going on.

It’s about 1) identifying your audience, 2) really understanding your own source material, and then 3) what would you want to hear? I think it’s also important for people to think about the listeners in that regard. We’ve had to deal with the same thing — ads interrupting the middle of the stories — so we added another story to each episode, because I get it. Interrupting the flow is really rough. At the same time, though, we have to pay our bills and pay the people involved. So it’s a combination of things, but what do you want to get out of it? What would you want to hear?

BC: What have you been really enjoying from ads on other podcasts? Or, what would you like to see other people doing?

JG: I have heard some more integration, people going a little bit more custom scripted with copy, versus the straight reads. The big thing is, understanding that, more often than not, if you’re getting an ad or ad copy, you’re not the only podcast getting it. You’re probably one of multiple or a lot of podcasts, depending on the size of the brand’s campaign, getting that copy. You might not have visibility into that, but I think it’s a lot safer to assume that it’s not just you, because now you make it entertaining.

If your listeners listen to 10 other podcasts that have the exact same 10 copy points, that’s going to get really old. Listeners are not going to want to listen to it, which means they’re probably not going to use your promo code, which means the likelihood of you getting another campaign is really small. So you also think downstream. “Yes I got one campaign!” Yes, and, if one performs well, you get two, and three, and four, and down river.

So really it’s, is there a way you can present it that will stand out from the other 10 times people hear a very similar ad? And make it memorable, especially if that promo code just stands out there. If somebody hears it down the line, if it’s an evergreen ad, and they need the code, they remember that promo code because the ad is memorable.

And it can be important to incorporate a personal feeling to ads, too. I know we’ve gotten good response from BetterHelp because, a lot of times when we talk about mental health things like that, I don’t really like doing scripts for those because it can feel disingenuous. I would rather talk from the heart and sometimes, that has an impact too. Having that balance of, “listen, I know what you’re expecting and this is important to me. This is why this is important to me. I do this this is for me, this isn’t just an ad read, I use this myself, et cetera”.

BC: That’s an important point — that may be the best, most unique thing you can do. Just be yourself, and that can resonate with listeners.

JG: The last thing I want to say and that I think is also an important thing for people to realize is that brands also really appreciate effort. Yes, they’re paying you to promote their brand, and they’re very used to people taking that copy and doing a read. And that’s totally fine. It’s the expectation, and if that wasn’t the expectation, the copy wouldn’t look like it does. It would be something else.

But, when you go above and beyond, it can also help to serve you as a creator. Either to flex a different muscle and be creative in a different way, which is another reason why I like it. Or, to show that you’re thinking about their product, you’re putting effort into that read. You’re not just grabbing a piece of paper or tablet, and going point by point. You’re putting effort into it. I’m going to try and give back to the brand, too.

I’m not very creative during my day job, and I don’t do that much writing for the show, so it’s that opportunity. I get copy and I think, “what can I do with this?” Fiction podcasters are creators in the first place. Creators and performers.

Acast would like to thank Jon Grilz for taking the time to chat. You can find out more about Creepy at www.creepypod.com, and don’t forget to shout out your favorite fiction podcasts on social using #AcastAudioFictionWeek.

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