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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.
In 2021, a new production studio called Reverb burst onto the scene with a gripping, action-filled audio fiction show called Black Box. With all-star talent like Joel McHale (Community, The Soup) and Kelsey Grammar (Frasier, Cheers), the thrilling new adventure podcast drew inspiration from the retro and time-travel aesthetics of Back to the Future and Stranger Things.
The show’s immersive sound design, absorbing voice acting and flawless writing earned it recognition as an honoree for Best Podcast (Scripted-Fiction) at the 2022 Webby Awards. The person at the center of the show’s chart-topping success is its writer, director, and co-producer, Brian Siegele.
After graduating from USC film school for writing for film and television, Siegele had aspirations of launching a career in writing big summer blockbusters. After a series of health problems laid him up in bed and out of commision, he began to listen—turning his focus to the world of audio.
“I fell in love with audio storytelling,” he remembers. “When I finally got back on my feet, I'm like, I could go back to writing these big movies that might never get made, or I could pivot a little bit and start generating my own IP that we can then translate into film or television. But I really wanted it to honor audio because we built Reverb as an audio-first company to make sure that everything really sings.”
Now, with Black Box in line to be adapted for the small screen, it appears Siegele’s plan is working. So we caught up with him to talk about the methods behind his immense success.
“It’s not that you have to write the script differently. I think you have to reconceive how you think about it,” he explains, as he reflects on the differences between writing for TV and audio. “When you’re writing for audio, you have to focus on clarity — you can’t lean into just seeing the actor’s face and knowing who’s talking to you.”
To achieve this, Siegele ensures scenes only involve a few characters with distinctive voices. Additionally, finding creative ways for the characters to repeat each other’s names reinforces the distinction between each voice.
With TV, the old adage goes “show, don’t tell” — but audio fiction assumes the opposite. Creating an audio narrative for a highly visual scene can present its own challenges.
“There’s an entire fist fight scene in the final episode,” Siegele explains. “We had to think about how to take a scene like that, which is a very physical and action-driven scene, and translate it to audio.” To achieve this, two of the show’s main characters hide in a closet where one is watching the fight and delivering a blow-by-blow explanation to the other.
“With Black Box, we really push the limits of what audio can do,” Siegele notes. “A lot of audio dramas tend to be themed around a podcaster, phone calls, or are super heavy on narration because they make it a lot easier to tell the story. We didn’t use a narrator or any of those framing devices.”
He explains that distillation is what allowed him to achieve this rich storytelling without having to rely on exhausted tropes. “Determining the themes, characters and action that I need to tell the story, and keeping it at that, is what allowed me to avoid ambling storytelling. It’s really just about distillation and economy.”
In addition to creating the world of Black Box on paper, through dialogue, plot and character development, Siegele also considered how the podcast would ultimately sound during his scriptwriting process.
He doesn’t include specific instructions for sound designers in the script (*insert horn honking here* when a car drives by). Instead, he describes the general setting and flow of the scene and allows the sound designers to work from their own imagination and expertise.
“In episode four, there is a chase scene which lasts for two or three minutes,” he explains. “My notes say things like ‘pedestrians mutter as we push past them’, ‘a dumpster rattles as we scream down an alley’, and so on.
“I’m using those less as telling us what the sounds are but more as guideposts as to where the chase is going. Our sound team will read that and think ‘OK we need horns honking and cars squeaking.’
“A sound only goes in the script if it helps propel the story forward.”
“None of them had really done voiceover work extensively before,” said Siegele of the actors he worked with on Black Box. “They were all big film and TV actors though.” He explains that this distinction was ultimately inconsequential to their ability to perform and capture the characters in a purely audio form.
“I think if you write the character arc over the course of a season or in the course of an episode, you don’t need to go the extra mile to write in the scripts how they need to behave.” He goes on to add that film and TV actors are able to deliver their lines in a naturalistic way that doesn’t oversell the scene: “We didn’t want people to take on voices and perform, which is what a lot of voice actors do because most of it is things like animations and commercial work.”
However, Seigele did cast one veteran voice actor, Brian Delaney, in the role of town sheriff Hofstrater. He explains how Delaney’s experience led to some fun opportunities to play with sound in the show: “We had some really cool sequences with him. I wrote his character as kind of a grumpy cop kind of guy, but then he sent his audition tape to us where he played the scene with his character eating chips the entire time. I’m like, ‘this is amazing, we have to use it.’”
While film and TV actors propelled the story with natural and straightforward delivery, voice actors provided color and character to the script.
“If you want to stand out in audio fiction, find an idea that stands out in audio fiction. There’s audience fatigue happening out there on certain things.” Siegele goes on to say that understanding what’s already out there can help guide you in finding out where you fit in.
“Listen to everything out there before diving in, even if it’s not remotely similar to what you’re doing. You need to learn from the mistakes and the strengths of others. It’s a unique medium and you really need to train yourself before going in.”
He also notes that understanding your audience from the inception of a project can help you determine the size and scope of the story you’re telling. “If you really want to break through in the space of audio fiction, tell a big, broad, and exciting story that will reach as many people as possible. Whatever it is, just make sure it’s fun and something you’re passionate about.”
“I think the reason Black Box stood out was because we didn’t treat it as an audio project,” he said when asked about the show’s success. “We’re trying to figure out how to bring popcorn to podcasting.
“Audio drama has changed a lot since the 40s and 50s. Back then it was so dramatic and heightened — the goal was to bring people out of their world and into another one in a Vaudevillian way. Now, we expect to be immersed in a naturalistic kind of way because we’re used to watching HBO.”
While Siegele aims to push the genre forward into this premium blockbuster territory, he can still find inspiration in the most unlikely places. “Personally, I haven’t listened to any of those old audio drama cassette tapes since I was a kid,” he said. “I should probably go back and revisit them because I’m sure I could find some really interesting ways of doing things.”
Black Box is part of the Acast Creator Network, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.
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