Dan Powell and Marc Sollinger are longtime radio producers and creators of the fantastic found-footage audio drama Archive 81. I recently asked them a few questions about the creation of their podcast, their experience building a community of listeners, and an exciting new show that they're launching soon — The Deep Vault. Read on for their great answers!
You've both been producing radio for a while, correct? What was it like diving into the production of a dramatic series? Did it differ pretty drastically from the other radio work you've done?
Marc: Dan and I both work in audio professionally (he’s an engineer at a radio studio/manages a sound effects library and I’m a public radio producer), but we’ve actually been making audio drama together for almost as long as we’ve known each other. He was the lead actor in a 10-episode sci-fi audio drama I produced in college, and we kind of became friends through creating that. So it was’t too much of a stretch to start making Archive 81. But it was still exciting/scary/nerve-racking. One of the main things that separates Dead Signals (our production company) from our day jobs is how much control we have over it. If the podcast is a success, it's our success. If it’s a failure, it’s our failure. That’s not to say that we don’t work with some extraordinarily talented people (our actors kick ass), but if the show isn’t good, that’s on us. As for what separates making fiction audio from making non-fiction audio, I think it’s a matter of responsibility. When I produce radio documentary, I feel like I have a responsibility to tell someone else’s story the best way I possibly can. When I’m making audio fiction, my responsibility is to the story itself, to make it fun, engaging, and meaningful. Based on that difference in responsibility, the questions I ask myself in production are completely different.
Dan: I pretty much second what Marc said, although Marc’s much more versed in documentary and nonfiction radio production than I am. Most of my day job-related work in nonfiction radio tends to be in a purely technical domain, with little to no influence over things like story or structure. Working on Dead Signals is different because I tend to think more directly about the technical side of the work as it affects the story in a holistic sense, rather than just trying to get good quality audio for a project that I’ll never edit myself. So I find that even when I’m doing things like choosing studio space or microphones or recording sound effects, I’m thinking about all of those things as they relate to the final product and how they’ll ultimately shape it even at an earlier stage. Things like the vibe of a recording space, the intimacy of a particular microphone and the type of shoe used in a footstep are all things that contribute to the greater emotional ecosystem of the story in some some small way.
So when were you first drawn to audio drama? Have you always been horror fans? And what do you think makes the podcast such a great vehicle for the horror genre in particular?
Marc: I’ve been in love with audio drama for a while now. I’ve been drawn to the potential of audio storytelling, both non-fictional and fictional, since high school, when I first heard The Mercury Theater On The Air and the My Brilliant Plan episode of This American Life. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to horror, but I adore the more atmospheric examples of the genre, stuff like It Follows and The Nightmare. I also enjoy cosmic horror, especially in literature. I’ll eat up anything that Laird Barron or Jeff Vandermeer does. Personally, I think that audio is the perfect medium for horror. The fact that the listener has to invent the images in their mind makes everything far more terrifying. I think radio and podcasts are modern updates of one of the definitive human experiences: sitting around a campfire, the darkness creeping in, listening to a story.
Dan: I started making little one-person radio plays on the family computer when I was about 8 or 9 years old (Windows 95 Sound Recorder, for anyone who remembers), and I credit my dad with getting me into both horror and audio drama: he let me watch stuff like Army of Darkness when I was a little kid and he played a lot of Firesign Theatre in the car. Going off of what Marc said, I think podcasts are a good medium for horror because of the unseen details that the listener has to fill in themselves. It’s kind of similar to the way horror movies tend to be scarier when the monster is elusive, hidden or not outwardly scary-looking. When the sense of dread gets inside of you via an idea that’s not physically present, that’s when things get really freaky.
I love that Archive 81 has no narrator. Was that a tough decision to make? How do you think it contributes to the telling of the story?
Dan: Not having a narrator was a pretty easy and obvious choice for us. I think we were both excited about the found-footage style’s potential to let us hint at details and plot points without rubbing it in the listeners’ faces (ears?). It definitely made some things more challenging in terms of both writing and sound design, but challenges can be fun! In terms of how it contributes to the story, I think the listeners ultimately get more immersed in the story if they have to listen closely and follow details themselves, rather than having everything explained to them verbatim.
Marc: I also feel that the lack of narration stops us from taking the easy way out. Instead of just having the narrator describe what’s happening, we have to show the audience what’s happening through sound effects and dialogue. And I think that makes for a better show.
The first season of Archive 81 has been such an incredible success, and you seem to have built a real community of listeners (and of audio drama creators) along the way. Was that always really important to you? And what do you think has been most helpful in building your audience?
Dan: Marc and I just really wanted to make a cool podcast that we were both proud of. We first started brainstorming about this idea in August of last year and the momentum just kind of picked up once we realized how excited we both were, and how we could efficiently divide up the work between the writing and audio side of things. We hoped lots of people would get engaged and listen to it, and we weren’t aware of so many other great audio drama podcasts out there apart from the biggest ones, but it’s been truly great to find so many other people who are both passionate fans and passionate audio craftspeople by their own right. I’d say the most helpful things we did for building an audience include: keeping a consistent schedule, planning and recording the whole season in advance so there were no delays, and finally, our social media presence, which Marc pretty much runs exclusively and does a fantastic job with. I have no idea how he finds so many creepy GIFs and keeps track of scheduling posts. He’s the best.
Marc: I really am the best. And I’d agree, it was cool to be made aware of so many other audio drama podcasts. And with building a community of other audio drama creators, I’m really glad I started the #audiodramasunday hashtag. It seems to have taken off.
Your production company Dead Signals has another audio drama in the works — The Deep Vault. What can listeners look forward to?
Marc: Oh gosh, I am so very, very excited for The Deep Vault. The show’s a bit of a departure from Archive 81. It’s more post-apocalyptic science-fiction than horror. The whole thing’s fast-paced and action-filled — we see it as being in the tradition of golden age radio serials. There are disobedient robots, monsters with too many teeth, lasers, and lots of chase scenes. The first episode will be released on Wednesday, August 24th, and you can subscribe to it right now.
And finally, which podcasts are you loving right now? Any recommendations?
Marc: Hmmm, I’ve been loving Mouth Time with Reductress. I don’t normally like loose comedy podcasts, but this one’s wonderful. I’ve also been into You Must Remember This. It’s perfect for history nerds, Hollywood nerds, or just nerds in general. Oh, and The Memory Palace is some of the best audio you’ll hear anywhere. The A White Horse episode had me crying in my local supermarket. As for audio drama, there’s too many to get to, so I’ll just mention one. I’m a huge fan of Lauren Shippen’s The Bright Sessions. I think she’s able to do a lot of kickass things, especially with the acting.
Dan: I second Mouth Time — the jokes are so on point and there’s a great element of surrealism to the humor that they pull off really well. I also keep Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything on heavy rotation, because in addition to being enlightening and insightful, the script often goes off into unexpected tangents that are both brilliant and unexpected. Gimlet’s Reply All always keeps me informed and amused. Also, am I allowed to name something that isn’t a podcast? The album The Powers that B by Death Grips is a huge audio inspiration for me at the moment. The attention to detail in terms of sound design, engineering, and production genuinely amazes me every time I listen to it.
Marc: If Dan gets to name something that isn’t a podcast, I’m going to recommend Steven Universe. It's a Cartoon Network show about queer, anthropomorphic space gems, and it is one of things that makes me unreservedly happy.
Thank you so much, Marc and Dan! If you haven't yet, be sure to check out the first season of Archive 81 and stay tuned for the first episode of The Deep Vault, which airs on Wednesday, August 24th.