In each issue of the Pod Bible Magazine, our partners Acast – home of the UK’s best podcasters – sits down for a chat with one of its creators to hear what they love about making podcasts in our Let There Be Pod articles. In this addition, Acast speaks to Alexander J. Newall, one of the minds behind the cult-hit horror fiction podcast The Magnus Archives, examining what goes into making audio fiction, and his advice for budding podcasters.
Let’s kick things off – how did your podcast come about?
I started Rusty Quill, the production company that makes The Magnus Archives, in 2015 — but Magnus didn’t really begin until 2016, by which time I was already running our first podcast (Rusty Quill Gaming).
With one show up and running, I was looking to find some creative allies to work with on a new show, while simultaneously working on a number of freelance gigs in addition to full-time night work. So, as you can expect, it was tricky to find the time.
At the night job I met Jonathan Sims, the writer and lead performer of Magnus. We spent a few unprofessionally long coffee breaks discussing fiction, and he eventually invited me to attend a gig he was running that year at the Edinburgh Festival.
I was already going to work on other projects, so while I was there I decided to take him up on his invite. That’s how I found myself watching a bunch of elaborately clad space-pirates singing about drunken sailors and dying mega-cities. The group was called The Mechanisms and it was a Sci-Fi Musical Cabaret led by Jonny that was exactly as elaborate as you’re imagining.
I hadn’t seen anything like it, and the nuances of the storytelling really piqued my interest — so I made a point of contacting Jonny to discuss whether we could collaborate on something. We met in a quiet coffee shop basement off The Royal Mile, and that was when he first pitched me The Magnus Archives.
The original pitch was significantly different from the finished project we now know and fear. For one thing, it was first conceived as a pure anthology of original Creepypasta written and narrated by Jonny. I pushed for a broader overarching narrative with an ensemble cast that would run throughout the podcast, connecting all the stories, and that was when Jonny suggested The Fears as a concept (I can’t say any more on them without spoilers).
We talked for way longer than either of us had planned, and by the end of that first meeting we already had the shape of the show. Looking back, that’s pretty much the ideal pitch scenario, isn’t it?
What do you love about making a podcast?
The fact that the sky’s the limit. Anyone can make anything of any scale.
Right now, podcasting is at that interesting pivot point between the passion projects of pure innovation that characterises a new artistic medium, and accelerating external interest from major players — which means there are lots of resources flying around for weird and wonderful projects that could never be realised at any other time.
Speaking to audio fiction specifically, you can make an enormous epic from the ground up with a relatively modest budget compared to Film or TV, meaning there’s space for smaller independent organisations such as ours. That in turn means there’s more competition, so projects don’t end up as homogenised as in other media. Projects get to be weirder. In a good way.
Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s no price of entry. It still requires technical expertise, equipment and hard work, but the barrier on the first two is dropping ever lower, as new technology allows people to use their phones as a one-stop-shop for near-professional-grade audio recording, editing and distribution. So, if you’re an over ambitious creative like me, there isn’t really a better medium to get stuck into and let your imagination run wild.
What’s the process for creating an audio drama podcast? How do you write and plan an episode?
First we’ll have an initial story workshop where the showrunner, lead writer and the rest of the writing team will hash out the main story points for the season: what happens, when, and why. All these juicy story secrets are then added to a ‘series. Once this overarching structure is in place the writers go away and each write a few episodes with the lead writer overseeing things and ensuring everything holds together.
While all that is going on, the showrunner (the creative lead on the project) will be consulting with the writers and the producers to build the direction and style of the show. That again is added to the series bible, along with work from our sensitivity team and marketing, so everyone’s on the same page.
The showrunner will then work with the producer on a casting call, which is where we allocate performers for roles. As you’d expect, this has been particularly difficult during a pandemic because we don’t just need to make sure everyone’s a good actor and available for recordings — we also need to provide every single performer with their own remote recording kit and schedule video calls so they can perform scenes together. It’s been a huge logistical challenge which has taken massive amounts of coordination, and I’m immensely proud of our team for doing such a good job.
Once all that’s done, and everyone is equipped and scheduled, and you have your finished scripts and Series Bible, you can finally start recording.
Once it’s recorded, what’s the process for getting it out to your listeners?
First we back up all of our recordings to an encrypted, remote computer server, because there’s nothing as frustrating as losing original recordings.
Once that’s done, our vocal editor goes through the raw audio and cuts it into shape according to the notes provided by the showrunner, before the vocal cuts are passed to a soundscape editor who adds all of the background ambience and sound effects — passing traffic; opening drawers; massive, fire-breathing dragons. It then passes to the music editor who, depending on the project, will either compose original music to accompany the episode or insert pre-made tracks from an original collection we keep for each series.
The last stage of the editing process is through an audio master, who assembles the project and makes sure all the different elements are working together as intended, under the direction of the showrunner.
After that we do a final set of checks for sensitivity then pass it to distribution, who make sure it’s made available on everybody’s podcatcher of choice.
How do you connect with and engage with your listeners?
We use a broad range of ways to engage, and it’s always evolving. When we first set up Rusty Quill in 2015, I personally set up the most retro forum you could possibly imagine — but we moved on from that pretty quickly.
Now we maintain the standard social medias you’d expect, like Twitter (@TheRustyQuill) and Facebook, which people use to contact us. We also maintain an official Discord server with more than 11,000 members, which allows fans a space to discuss our content with the creators and each other in more depth. Beyond that, our fandom has been terrifyingly organised in setting up Reddit communities such as R/TheMagnusArchives and R/RustyQuill.
We also stream video content via Twitch (twitch.tv/rusty_quill), which often features performers and employees from the company, and that allows fans to directly engage via live chat.
Weirdly enough, I think one of the biggest forms of engagement we see from fans is thanks to our licensing. We use a type of Creative Commons licence that allows people to generate fan-made content and, although that stuff can’t be sold or anything, it’s allowed a massive community of fan artists to grow in spaces such as Tumblr — which happened entirely organically.
What’s one hot tip for the budding podcaster out there?
There’s no “secret sauce.” Sorry that’s a bit blunt — I should probably explain.
I often encounter people looking to start podcasting, who feel that they can’t succeed without some secret industry knowledge — some technical wizardry or business flair that will guarantee a hit — but truthfully there isn’t one. As I said before, podcasting is a younger creative medium that is still defining itself, and that means diligent work is still the magic ingredient. All the tips and tricks in the world won’t make up for focused creativity, professionalism and perseverance.
That said, I would say most people underestimate the conception part of the process. If you get that aspect right, instead of just diving in with no real plan, you’ll have a much easier project. You want to take some time before you start creating your masterpiece and really try to pick out the core reasons you want to make it. What is it you’re trying to achieve? Who does it serve? What does success look like? What does failure look like?
Ideally, you’ll want a clear answer to all these questions before you even start work. If you do, you can use that knowledge to guide you to a finished product you can be happy with. Trust me, it’s much easier to make a decision on some complicated production problem if you already have that roadmap to refer to, especially if you’re aiming high.
The Magnus Archives is a weekly horror fiction podcast examining what lurks in the archives of the Magnus Institute, an organisation dedicated to researching the esoteric and the weird. Join Jonathan Sims as he explores the archive, but be warned, as he looks into its depths something starts to look back… The final episode of the story was released on March 25th 2021, but you can tune in for behind-the-scenes chats. Listen now >>