How accessibility begets representation: Queerness in Audio drama
The following is an essay I wrote for my sound arts course, we were given the theme of 'Global Sonic Culture' and so I decided to write about something I had been thinking about for a while now
Thanks to the accessibility, low cost, and ease with which audio drama can be produced, the wider online audio drama community is very open to creators and listeners who exist within marginalised communities. Since 2012, with the release of Welcome to Night Vale, there began an explosion of indie audio dramas being created, by nature of its accessibility it began to foster a wide range of queer stories usually not told. Using a study conducted for this essay and sources from members of the audio drama community, this essay will explore the community that has formed around modern audio drama within the context of podcasting as the medium of release and evaluate the assumption that the community is rich in queerness, as well as why this might be. It will attempt to link the nature of podcasting in audio drama with the community that appears to be very queer.
Glossary of Terms:
Queer: a person whose sexual orientation or gender identity falls outside the heterosexual mainstream or the gender binary.
Audio drama: A style of storytelling in which dialogue and/or narration are performed to convey the story, and in this case, released in a podcast format.
Audio drama creators: Showrunners, Writers, Directors and any other roles that decide the content of an audio drama
Audio drama community: The wider network of audio drama creators that interact over various social media platforms
Accessibility: the quality of being able to be accessed with little to no hindrances
The main intent for this essay is twofold, to confirm the presumption that the community that has formed around audio drama and also to explore why exactly this might be. Having spent a good deal of time in the Podcast audio drama community, over Twitter and Discord, I had found that many of the creators I had seen around were queer, or made shows that featured queer characters. One of the most popular audio dramas, Welcome to Night Vale, featured a main character in a homosexual relationship portrayed in a way free from the usual issues found when gay relationships are portrayed in traditional media (Framke, 2016). I had come to believe that the ease of which an audio drama podcast could be produced and published led directly to a large number of queer people entering the community and subsequently creating their own audio drama, but with no real data to back it up. In order to try and get the relevant data there was an attempt to create a survey for creators of audio drama. I also decided to get some first hand testimonies, recorded over the internet, from various audio drama creators that were themselves queer, this was to get some more in depth thoughts than could be found through an online form.
Is audio drama a Queer Space?:
This impetus for this essay began with the major assumption that the audio drama community is filled with those who are queer. To test that assumption, before making any effort to try and explain why, a simple survey was created and distributed online.
Due to constraints on time and resources, the survey asked for U.S creators specifically, so there was an easy way to see if the demographics of the audio drama Community were more or less than those of the United States as a whole, thus proving the main assumption of this essay correct or incorrect. After putting out a form in which questions were asked about U.S. audio drama creators' sexuality and gender identity, their place in the shows they work on, and their entry into listening to audio drama. There were 32 responses in total. Out of these 93.75% self identified as queer, In comparing this to statistics about queerness in the U.S. from Gallup who “[conducted] more than 15,000 interviews... throughout 2020 with Americans aged 18 and older” (Jones, 2021) which found that, across the U.S, only 5.6% of adults identified as queer in one way or another. Immediately then we see a huge difference, by any conceivable measure, this data would confirm the assumption that the audio drama community is rich in those who would identify as queer.
Of course there are limitations to this study: the sample size is small, with 2885 listed under the tag “podcast” on audio-drama.com (Audio-drama.com, 2021) the full extent of the community has barely been touched. There's also the issue of the distribution of this survey: the assumption that the community is largely queer is based on my own position within said community, and I distributed the survey via Twitter, Discord, and Reddit. The two former are the community that the assumption was largely based on and they are the majority of who filled out the form.
Of course, on the internet, this is close to unavoidable. “The internet in addition to being about subcommunities is also all about bubbles,” says Ando Valentine (2021) , creator of Shadows of a Dark Past, they say that these closed loops can be avoided “If you’re willing to open yourself to going and looking for differing viewpoints, if you don’t actively try it is easy to get stuck in bubbles,”. This is not to say that this viewpoint in totally invalid, the community that Ando and others like her was pre-existing, and so then there was evidently enough of a Queer presence that the community that was joined can draw people in so they can promote and spread the word of their audio drama.
Accessibility leading to visibility:
I interviewed several audio drama creators, both in order to get some differing perspectives but also to try and get at the reasons behind the great deal of queer creators. During which, the most common theme that came forward was how audio drama as a medium for conveying stories was one of the most accessible out there, theoretically one could publish a podcast with the tools available to a significant amount of people in the world, with nearly 3.6 billion people having access to a smartphone (presumably with a microphone) (Statista, 2020) and 65.5% having access to the internet (Statista, 2021) many people have the basic tools to produce an audio drama. “The fact you only need a microphone, ...audacity and a connection to the internet... Makes it really accessible for everyone,” (Orion 2021). When it comes to publishing also there are a few free hosting options that, while limited, mean the cost can rarely be an obstacle (PodBean Development, 2021) (Buzzsprout.com, 2021). So then the ‘pull factor’ is the low cost and high accessibility into creating audio drama. There's also the factor of what pushes queer audio drama creators away from other mediums, many of the creators interviewed for this essay had some attempt in trying other mediums, David Orion puts it simply “If you want to do a short film, you still need a crew, if you want to do a movie, whole other level,” (Orion 2021). An example of this hostility toward queerness in other mediums would be Rebecca Sugar's difficulties in trying to get queer representation in Steven Universe.
In an interview with PAPER they talk about how much of a struggle it was to actually be allowed to get a Lesbian relationship on screen, they essentially had to make it so there was no other way for it to work and to have done so much work on it already it would have taken more time to undo it all (Moen, 2020). This was a convoluted and specific set of circumstances and factors that had to come together to get this basic level of representation. It seems then that more mainstream mediums have various hoops to jump through and run the risk of censorship or outright cancellation whereas there's a direct journey from idea to actualisation within audio drama, allowing for complete and untampered queer stories.
Based on the interviews and survey responses the main takeaway from this essay would be that, unlike other mediums of storytelling, audio drama allows for there to be total creative freedom and with relatively low cost. This means that there's a very open space for queer creators to come and tell their stories with little interference and often to an encouraging space. There are though, a myriad of alternate possibilities, from the interviews alone it was made clear that there are a few factors contributing to the wealth of queer identifying people within audio drama, more than could be described and explored in an essay of this length. From this essay that main takeaway is that there's still much to learn and figure out about the world of audio drama, there are groups that are underrepresented in the community and if the main conclusion is that the ease of which one can make and publish audio drama leads to a wealth of queer creators and stories, why does the same thing not apply to, say, people of colour?
There are next steps for this essay, there will be a far more extensive questionnaire that will include the global audio drama community as well as take into account factors of inclusivity and diversity beyond just queerness and attempting to reach out to as many audio drama creators as possible. This essay acts as a starting point addressing the qualities and factors of audio drama that allow for anyone to create a story, but it remains to be seen the exact demographics of audio drama creators in the entire community and there's still a much needed exploration into why this might be.
The Audio Verse Awards. (2020). The Audio Verse Awards - The Audio Verse Awards. [online] Available at: https://audioverseawards.net/about/#Our_Current_Glossary_of_Terms [Accessed 10 May 2021].
Audio-drama.com. (2021). Search Category Tags [Audio-Drama.com]. [online] Available at: http://audio-drama.com/doku.php/wiki/searchtags [Accessed 10 May 2021].