Kc Wayland is the writer and director of the zombie horror podcast We’re Alive, a full-cast audio drama that has racked up over 32,000,000 downloads.
David Cummings is the host and producer of The NoSleep Podcast, an award-winning anthology series of original horror stories. He has also appeared on the Pseudopod horror podcast and The Drabblecast.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and guests discuss various geeky topics.
My first question to you guys is: just how did you first become horror fans? Did you watch movies? Or books — what did you read growing up? Kc, why don’t we start with you, and just tell us a little bit about your road to becoming a horror fan?
Kc Wayland: Personally, I am a big Stephen King fan. I don’t know what it is about his horror stories, but they always have some sort of really cool angle of story-telling and characters, and at the same time are still pretty horrifying.
How old were you when you started getting into Stephen King?
Kc: I’d say I was probably around thirteen or fourteen. Even his stuff that is non-horror like Shawshank Redemption, he’s always able to just have a solid, good story.
And were there any other particular horror authors or horror movies that really made a big impression on you?
Kc: Well, with horror movies, there’s so many . . . out there that are just horrifying. I think — the name eluded me for a minute — it’s the horror film where they’re trapped inside of the cave, and they’re trying to get out —
Kc: The Descent, that’s it. Those types of movies where it’s very claustrophobic, and you’re discovering something evil inside — I think it’s the perfect setting for a horror film.
I love that movie, too. How about David, though? Stephen King fan? What was your voyage into horror?
David Cummings: For me, it wasn’t so much Stephen King in my early days — I discovered him as I got a little older. I remember when I was fairly young, probably under ten, and I got a book, I think probably through school, and it was basically a series of ghost stories that were supposedly based around my local area (basically Ontario, Canada). Reading that book, I remember being very, very scared by it. That’s really where I fell in love with the idea of the short-form ghost story, or, as we like to call it, the campfire story, where you just sit around a campfire and say: “Let me tell you what happened to me two weeks ago,” or “What happened to a friend of mine three weeks ago.” And so those kinds of stories really resonated with me. And then I got a little older, and I heard about the Amityville Horror book, and I read that, probably a little too young to read it, and that just terrified me. So when the movie came out, I was right there; I was probably eleven years old when it came out. So it’s this progression of simple campfire ghost stories that have led into novels and into movies; that’s something that really resonates with me.
And Kc, I also wanted to ask you, given that you developed We’re Alive into this audio drama, were you a fan of any particular radio dramas or things like that?
Kc: To be honest, not really. One of the reasons why is because they weren’t particularly well-done. There are some really good ones out there, but a lot of them played off of really weird gimmicks, and they tend to over-narrate things, and especially when you’re doing an audio drama horror and you’re trying suspend the disbelief of somebody, if you keep butting in with a narrator or something like that, or you don’t set the mood properly, it can be very easily lost. So one of the reasons why I started We’re Alive is because I thought we could do something different, and in a more compelling way than what already preexisted.
How did you first discover the horror podcasting scene, and how did you first get into it as a listener?
Kc: At the time, I’d listened to a lot of different books on tape, and I was actually doing a lot of comedy podcasts at the time, and I took a look at some of the horror podcasts that were out there — some of them are not horror, some of them are. The audio drama community for podcasts has a very wide range of things. And actually, there were some preexisting zombie-related and horror podcasts that I listened to, and some of them were pretty good. It was just one of those things where it felt like sometimes they were really lacking in characters, or you’d have duplicated voices over and over. With horror, if you’re having somebody try and play multiple characters in the same scene, it’s very confusing, and if you kill off a character that was a multiple of a voice, there’s no loss, because you don’t really lose a person in there. It felt very dry and stale, and was a field that was really easy to build off of and make bigger. So hopefully that answers that a little bit.
How about David? How did you get into the horror podcasting scene?
David: Well, it’s funny: I can sort of echo Kc’s statements that I was, and still am, a big fan of audiobooks, and so the idea of story-telling through the recorded medium was a big part of my life. A comedy podcast, again, was a big part of getting into the world of podcasting. And then in terms of The NoSleep Podcast, or horror podcasting in general, it actually was a bit of a fluke. I wasn’t really aware of the horror genre as it is now, what we consider horror podcasting, but I was fooling around on Reddit. I created an account in which, basically, instead of typing out a response, I would record it, a little 30-second blurb. And I did one where I put on this silly voice, so I sounded like a serial killer. And somebody heard that and said, “You know, you should connect with the guys who are trying to put together this podcast of NoSleep stories over on Reddit.” I was at the point in my life where I wanted to get back into doing a bit of voice stuff, and so I was sort of steered in that direction, and I threw my hat in the ring, and — long story short, I ended up producing the show and making it my own. But essentially, it was just that kind of serendipitous connection that got me into it, because before that, I wasn’t really aware of or following a lot of the horror audio drama that was available.
You say it got you back into doing voice stuff. What sort of voice stuff had you done prior to that?
David: Oh, it was very minor stuff. I spent the bulk of the nineties as a full-time professional musician, and so I was around studios, and I was on the stage. And it was just one of those things . . . when you’re bored and you’ve got a microphone in front of you, you fool around and you talk with a “professional” voice. And people say, “Hey, man, you’ve got a voice for radio, and a face for radio, so you should think about that.” So I did some demo stuff where I would announce or do some sort of voice-over for friends who were putting together their music demos, and that type of thing. So it really wasn’t a professional gig, but it was just one of those things: through the encouragement of others, I did a bit of voice-work, and later in life, I thought, maybe this is something I could get back into, if not professionally, at least as a hobby.
Could we hear your serial killer voice?
David: My serial killer voice from that one? It was funny, the post was: somebody had put this old crate out by the road, and some other Redditer saw it, and thought this would be funny to do up and make it look like a serial [killer’s]. And so he put all this red paint on it and everything, and made it look like a serial killer had killed someone in this crate at the side of the road. So I think I just said something about: “Oh, what a delightful murder you’ve created,” and all this in kind of deep voice that makes it sound like he, too, is a serial killer. So just really broad and really silly.
But well-done! And how about Kc: before you started the podcast, did you have any kind of performance background, or audio-production background, or anything like that?
Kc: Actually, the weird thing is, way back when I was sixteen, I had a job at an audio-book rental store — which, by the way, don’t exist anymore. There was a customer that I had who was producing one, and he’s like, “Hey, I need a kid’s voice who’s sixteen, are you interested in doing it?” He said, “You have a pretty good voice,” and I was like, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And that was my first experience; it was a real simple drama about a kid who witnesses [this] basketball star that he just is in such awe of, and apparently he saw him do something bad, and he has to testify against him. And it was actually kind of a cool little start to getting to know that world, and it took another fifteen years, roughly, for me to actually start doing something again for audio drama. But it’s funny how, if you’re exposed once, it might show its head again.
Doing this full-cast audio drama that you do seems like a really ambitious project. How confident were you, going into it, that you could pull this off?
Kc: The funny thing is, actually, I had a demo run in my senior thesis. I was working on an animation project. And the animation project was so thick with voice-talented actors and recordings of their voices and stuff. And then when we actually went through the process of animating everything, it was so long and arduous, I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to actually do the animation?” Because weirdly enough, the performances felt better than the animation ever was afterward, so it’s like, “Huh — this might be an idea.” And then podcasts were a way to go directly to the consumer with these stories, and I was like, “Perfect! We have a delivery medium, we have the content, now let’s do a full sound design . . .” We had already previously done film projects, and all the pieces fit together and made a new exploration of a medium.
And so what year was it that you started We’re Alive?
Kc: I started We’re Alive in 2009, so it wasn’t quite fifteen years after, if I do the math now in my head — but close enough, close enough.
But there was a gigantic zombie wave of popularity around that time. Where in that chronology of big zombie hit things did your podcast start?
Kc: We actually were at the cusp. I started We’re Alive before The Walking Dead was even announced. Because that’s what I wanted to do, actually: I saw a giant lack of a TV show that could have been a survival horror show before that existed, and I was like, “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to go directly and make this for TV, ’cause there’s no money to do something like that. So maybe we’ll start as a podcast, and then when people catch on, we will be able to jump into the TV medium, and that would be a great way for people to pay attention to us.” And then a year in, The Walking Dead premiered, and it was just like, “Huuuhhh.” Yeah. And now there’s so many zombies that I’m actually dead with them in a way. It’s almost too many things, there’s too many TV shows, and it’s actually an inhibitor to get our show more known now than it was five years ago.
David, tell us a bit more about The NoSleep Podcast for people who aren’t familiar with it. You mentioned that it came out of this Reddit message board, and there are these different stories; talk about that whole process.
David: The NoSleep Podcast was an idea that came about back in the spring of 2011, and a gentleman who was a part of the NoSleep community on Reddit just made a post one day and said, “Would anyone be interested if we created a podcast where some of the top stories would be narrated?” And for those who don’t know, the NoSleep sub-Reddit is basically a place where people post stories that are meant to be plausible, and so in other words, if you suspend your disbelief, they’re meant to be authentic, real-sounding stories, and mostly written in the first-person. So you’re getting that campfire effect as well; it’s the “This is what happened to me, and let me share it with you.” And so the idea was: we’ll take some of these top-rated stories and we’ll record them; we’ll just narrate them and make it into a podcast.
As I mentioned earlier, I was pointed in that direction, and I said, “You know, if you need me, I’ll do some narration,” and that’s where I thought it would end. But as so often happens, some good ideas come forward and people step up and say, “I’ll volunteer to do this, this, and this.” But when it came to actually getting it done, there was a lot of foot-dragging. And so I said, “Look, I’ll record a story.” A couple of other people had recorded a story, so I said, “Give the files to me, and I’ll slap together an intro and outro, I’ll put a little bit of music underneath the stories, and let’s get that first episode out there, get some momentum, and then let the other people who said in the past that they would produce it and narrate it step up and take over.” So the first episode turned into the second episode, and the third episode, and I just kept producing it and putting it out there. And that was it; I was locked in and took it from there, and then it gradually, very slowly, built up, and it’s something that I was able to make my own, almost by default.
But you did try to walk away at one point, right?
David: Yes, that’s right. We had done about eighteen regular episodes and we did a few bonus episodes in there as well, some longer episodes . . . what ended up being what I called “the first season” of the show. Because I came in through the back door, as it were — it wasn’t my project and my vision from the very start — what ended up happening was that, instead of feeling like I had some ownership of the show, I felt like I was more of a caretaker. And I felt like I was working for these unseen masses out there who were the listeners. And so people would contact me, or leave comments or reviews, and they would say, “Well, I don’t like this aspect of the show,” and my first reaction was, “I’d better change that, I’d better keep those people happy.” And then someone else would say, “Well, I don’t like that aspect of the show,” so I’ve got to change that, I’ve got to make sure every single person is happy with everything we do. Needless to say, that sort of approach will burn you out in an instant.
So after eighteen episodes, I said, “I have to step away from this because it’s just a little too much.” And I went on hiatus, and at the time, it was very open-ended; I really didn’t know if I would be coming back. But it ended up being only three months. And when I did come back, I felt that it was now my show, it was something that I could put my vision into and make it the show I wanted it to be, and I didn’t have as much of that stress and anxiety of having to please everybody. I said, “This is my show, if you like it, that’s great; if you don’t, there’s other options out there for you, so you can go and enjoy those.” That was a real turning-point for me and the podcast: being able to say, “I’m not just a caretaker of the show, I now own the show, not just in a business sense, but in the whole approach; the whole mission of the show is now mine.” And that was very, very freeing.
And also, it mentions in your bio, David, that you worked on the Pseudopod and Drabblecast podcasts, or you worked with them. You want to talk a little bit about what that was?
David: There is this fairly tight-knit audio horror fiction community out there, in terms of podcasting. And so as I was growing the show, I thought, I can do a bit of advertising, so to speak. But I can connect with the people who are producing these other podcasts, and just share the wealth, as it were. I can do some narrations. I’ve got stories, I’ve got narrators, and so we can have that interaction, we can trade things back and forth. And so, as I say, it was motivated by a bit of sense of self-promotion, but at the same time, I wanted to share my voice — I know that sounds pretentious, but to get the voice out there, and contribute to these other shows and support them, and try to help out and build that community of horror podcasting.
Kc, what do you think about horror podcasting as a community? What sort of experiences have you had with people?
Kc: I’ve had a lot of interactions with other podcasts. We were on The Round Table Podcast very recently talking about the upcoming project that’s going on with We’re Alive, and there’s a very large audio drama community for other podcasts like The Leviathan Chronicles; and anybody who’s making narrative stuff, everybody seems to help each other out. And there are a lot more podcast award shows nowadays with things like the Geeky Awards, and they have the Podcast Awards. So a lot of the community is getting to know each other and listen to each others’ work, and I’d say in the last three years, a lot more people are talking to each other and giving each other hints and tips, and it seems like everybody just wants to help elevate each others’ work to a new level.
I did hear you say, though, in one interview, that you did have some, so to put it, “horror stories” with some other podcasters. They were writing bad reviews for you or something, because they were jealous . . .
Kc: There are those. I’d say ninety percent of everybody who makes content out there is really very gung-ho and supportive for what you do. There are hobbyists who take this very loosely, and there are people who take it very professionally. There’s a pretty big divide between the two, and there is some animosity for some people who take a very professional approach to it, and there are other people who are doing it as a hobby, and they get mad. I’ve actually been able to look at some reviews of people who are producers of other shows, and they’ll bash you on your reviews, and they’ll use their real name in their user name, and it’s like, “What are you doing?” So there are people out there who will troll you, and try and actually diminish your reviews, and mark you down on stuff just for the sake of trying to put themselves ahead of you. There’s that aspect in pretty much any business, so you have to be on the lookout. For the most part, though, the community’s pretty good.
Let’s talk about the community and just what some of the other horror podcasts are that people should know about. I posed this to some of our listeners. Jonathan Dance said that “Pseudopod and Tales to Terrify are my go-to podcasts.” And Kevin W. Young says “Pseudopod, Tales to Terrify, The Lovecraft Literary Podcast, Drabblecast, and also the Nightmare podcast and NoSleep,” he says, “obviously.” David, what do you think about any of those podcasts, or are there other horror podcasts you think we should mention here?
David: That’s certainly the all-star team of horror podcasting: definitely Pseudopod, kind of the gold standard out there. Tales to Terrify is definitely in there. What’s interesting with horror podcasting, or maybe I should say, at least, audio adaptation of horror fiction, is YouTube is a real burgeoning player in this kind of market, and on YouTube, obviously, it’s free hosting. And so what ends up happening is, there’s been this sort of community of narrators who will read the short horror fiction stories — a lot of times, it’s Creepypasta, as it’s known — where people are posting stories, relatively anonymously. And so people take these anonymous, more underground stories, and they just narrate it, and maybe put a bit of music to it, or a bit of sound design, but then they just make them as videos on YouTube with essentially just audio content. And so there’s that whole realm of things, not specifically podcasts, but horror that’s being adapted for audio, and along those lines, I’m good friends with the team over at Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and they do stuff that’s very similar to The NoSleep Podcast in terms of the quality of the stories, the production, the music and the sound design. The ones that you mentioned, as I say — Pseudopod, Tales to Terrify, Knifepoint Horror — those are great to throw on your phone, on your podcaster or podcatcher app.
Kc: To piggyback that — you pretty much named all the big ones, so I can’t really add more to that list. But actually, I had the opposite warning of that: anthologies are really good to take a look at, but also keep in mind that there are a lot of podcasts — take a look at the reviews and take a look at the dates — that start and then never finish. So if you really find a good one out there, that might be great. Be forewarned that there are some that get you in, and then never give you the answers to the questions they pose. You have to be a little vigilant with some of the ones that are out there.
I’ll mention, too: there’s one called Horror Etc. that I’ve listened to, and there’s one called Last Podcast on the Left which seems to be pretty popular. I haven’t actually listened to that one, so maybe people can look into those. I guess I’ll also mention that I’ve done some stuff with Pseudopod; two of my stories appeared on Pseudopod in episodes 48 and 94, so people should go check those out. But Kc, I saw that there was actually a We’re Alive fancast. So that must be pretty cool, having a podcast devoted to your podcast.
Kc: The podcast about a podcast! It’s actually really fun, and there’s actually been two, and there’s a third one that someone’s making now, ’cause they love to discuss. Just like they have The Walking Dead ’Cast, and all these other shows about shows where they discuss it. They really can get deep behind the scenes of stuff and get to interview people, so it’s really awesome, and it’s also a way where we can communicate with our fans a little better, because one of the things we don’t really do on our show is have talking segments where we can explain upcoming events, or any sort of upcoming projects and things like that. So it’s nice to be able to go on there and talk with the people and have another way of reaching the fans that’s just not on your thing. And also it’s more community involvement; that particular fancast actually arranged a convoy to go across the US to see our finale. It’s really cool to see these people come together and make something that’s really fun, and actually they ended up producing their own side story of We’re Alive, as the fans and as fun. So it’s kind of neat to see a community come to life like that, especially with podcasts — anybody can do it.
Say a bit more about that convoy. Where were people coming from and going to?
Kc: We had our series finale last July in L.A., and the convoy started in Ohio and went all the way across the United States. They had their stops planned, they were camping out under the stars, and all they had was this group of people that had a love for the show, and they became life friends then. And they visited the Grand Canyon; they have all these stories where they’re a little bit adventurous and they went into rest stops that were abandoned and took pictures and stuff, and they had so much fun. And they went back, and they podcasted a little bit as they went, and you got to hear a little bit of their adventures and updates. And it was pretty cool, it was a lot of fun, and for me, creating We’re Alive, it was so awesome to see the dedication of listeners in that way.
That’s really amazing! What other sort of fan feedback have you gotten that’s really made a big impression on you, or that sticks in your mind?
Kc: I’m blown away by the amount of visually-impaired listeners that we have: people who are recovering from surgery, or are permanently visually impaired, and this is the biggest thing that they’ve ever listened to. Any time they can communicate with me on Twitter and things like that, they’re constantly letting me know, and this is their favorite show, and I didn’t really expect that aspect when I first went into it. More and more, I want to do more tours, and reach out to more schools for visually-impaired students, and develop a better connection of developing stories for people who are visually impaired. So there’s an avenue that I discovered from creating this content that I’d never thought of before.
And so how about David — fan feedback, what sort of responses have you been getting?
David: It’s so interesting to hear Kc talk about that aspect: the fact that you’ve got fans that are visually impaired and seeing this as a real godsend, knowing that they can just listen, and just use their imaginations, and what I’ve found is something similar, obviously not on the same scale. I think our fan base is quite a bit smaller than We’re Alive!
What I’m finding is that I’ll get contacted by people individually. They’ll contact me, send me an email. And I’ve had a number of people who have said — whether it’s a psychological issue, that the podcast kind of helps them to calm down and sleep at night; or there was one listener who contacted me and said, “I have some medical issues, and I’m actually losing my sight. I have a condition where my sight is slowly getting worse and worse, and in the future, I will be completely blind.” And so when I have people contact me and say, “You’re really impacting my life, you’re providing an entertainment that I can’t find anywhere else,” it’s just remarkable, and it’s something that puts everything else into perspective. All the minutiae of the day-to-day can get wiped away when you realize you’re impacting people on a very profound level. It’s those kinds of interactions with fans that really stick out with me. It’s great to have people contact you and have that “You guys rock!” attitude. But when it’s someone saying, “Yeah, you’re really impacting my life,” that’s amazing.
That reminds me of this listener comment that we got here from Angie Summerville. She says: “I absolutely love The NoSleep Podcast, particularly because hearing an audio tale versus watching something forces you to bring your imagination into the story. It can leave you with that uneasy, creepy feeling that we as horror fans love.” And she wants to know: “Are there any stories featured on the podcast that have stuck with you for that reason? For me, the ‛Penpal’ series and ‛Budget Cinema’ come to mind.”
David: Those are two very impactful stories for sure. The “Penpal” series was a series of six stories that were written by an author, Dathan Auerbach. Masterful stories, each one of them could stand alone as a unique horror story, but there was a thread throughout them, using the same characters in the story, and the six of them became this epic “Penpal” series. He published it as a novel, and then a Hollywood producer came along and optioned it from him. So that kind of growth, from the kind of writers that we’re posting on NoSleep, is amazing.
The idea of horror podcasting, horror audio fiction, is effective because it allows people to use their imagination. And that’s such a big part of it, because when you think about the genres out there that are in movies or literature, you think about things like comedy and action-adventure and romance — these are all genres that are trying to elicit very positive emotions. People want to laugh and be happy, people want to cheer on the hero, and people want to swoon when the two lovers kiss. But when you’re talking about horror, you want to elicit something that most people try to avoid, and that’s the sense of fear and dread and anxiety that it can evoke. And so to give the people the chance to use their imaginations and “meet us halfway” — it’s a phrase I like to use a lot — our listeners need to meet us halfway, they need to believe in these stories, and they need to use their imaginations, and when they do that, that’s going to enhance the experience so much.
So to get back to the question at hand: what other stories? There was one that we did in the very first season — the name is kind of strange, it’s called “ETAOIN SHRDLU,” and what that refers to is a series of letters on a specific keyboard. It was sort of based on a true story of murders down in Gainesville, Florida, and it had to do with this person who would call this suicide prevention hotline and speak in this strange voice. It was one of the first stories where I was able to adapt it, and create a little bit more in terms of the sound design. And from there — again, that sense of “Yeah, let’s use your imagination and put yourself in that scene,” and it just sends shivers down your spine. I really believe strongly in that sense of giving the audience room for their own imagination to fill in the gaps, and that’s what’s going to make it more powerful for them.
Kc, could you jump in on this? In the time you’ve spent doing this podcast, what lessons have you learned about how to make a story scary in the audio format?
Kc: There are a lot of ways you can make it scary from the sound alone, like David was saying. If you watch a horror film and you turn the sound down, it loses ninety percent of its power. Because it’s not about what you see, it’s what you don’t see that’s scary. It’s the theater-of-the-mind, imagination thing that David was talking about, where if you can hear a little bit of a threat out there, then that is what’s going to make it much more scary. The other thing is, it’s all about, in the storytelling aspect, what’s at stake. If you’re listening to a story where you don’t care who the characters are, and they just die in the beginning . . . you’re like, “Oh, okay.” But if you’re listening to a moment where your favorite character is in a scene where you don’t know if he’s going to make it out — that will add suspense, and in a way that can’t be experienced otherwise, because you’re rooting for the character, you want them to make it through there, and so you’re living the scene with the character.
Also, you can bring the experience more to the listener through that person, whether it is the fear, the voice, even the breathing of the character and the footsteps, will tell you exactly how they are experiencing the environment around them. If you can feel their breath short and tight, you’re going to start mimicking what they’re doing; there’s this weird, breath-mimicking psychology thing that actually can happen. So you can tap into that when somebody’s able to close their eyes and just put themselves in these very high-tension situations.
Do you ever worry about making it too scary, or going too far with the disturbing, horror, repulsive aspects of the story?
Kc: I don’t do gory. I try not to do gory. There are some gory things in the show, but I think gore is not suspense. Gore is unnecessary in many ways, and it actually takes away from good storytelling. You can really have something great, and not have it disgusting. It all depends, there are boundaries you can push, but if you go too far, you’re going to throw off, and you’re going to lose people in the dust. There’s a happy medium of suspense. There’s this movie I always reference called Curse of the Cat People — I think that’s the name, I could be wrong — where you never actually saw the thing that was coming after them. It was always the shadows, and there was always something you didn’t see. They can really do scary-as-hell without having someone with their guts ripped open. Gore takes away from that, and I think you can go too far, and so . . . you stay in this happy center, where people are on the edge of their seat, but they’re not necessarily back in revulsion.
And David, do you want to touch on that subject?
David: With our approach, we try very hard to stay away, like Kc said, from the stories that are really just going to try to appeal to that lizard part of your brain, where it’s just the gore and the visceral, disemboweling and all that. Anything to do with torture-porn, that kind of thing, anything that’s really explicitly involved with sexual violence, we try to steer clear of. We have a number of stories that imply a person being abused as a child or whatever, and I think that you can find that medium there. But the one thing that I’ve always tried to stay away from, as well as all the gore and the really hard-core stuff, is the concept of the jump-scare.
That’s something that I think is plaguing horror movies these days. To me, it’s just such lazy writing to have a person walking through the quiet house at night, and all of a sudden, the cat jumps in the window and screeches — you know, like cats do all the time. Startling people is not scaring people, and it doesn’t create a sense of dread, which is what we’re really going for. So in terms of that audio aspect, we’ll include some nice, juicy sound effects if the scene calls for it; so if there’s a person who gets disemboweled or something — again, not in a really graphic sense, but it’s nice to get those sound effects of the guts spilling out. But it’s almost done to just enhance the listener’s imagination — as opposed to literally shoving those guts down their throat. It’s more of an implied thing. I feel that there’s a real responsibility in terms of audio: that you want to build a certain amount of trust in your listeners, and not betray that trust by out of the blue throwing a blindingly loud scream, or something like that that’s just going to startle.
I totally agree with that. I’m curious, David, do you have any horror stories of working on the podcast, in terms of things that have gone wrong, or big challenges, or things that didn’t go over well with the audience, or anything where you’re just like, “Oh, man, this is such a headache, ugh,” — are these challenges you’ve faced?
David: There’s a couple of stories that we’ve done. And it’s interesting: you mentioned earlier that listener who had written in a comment about one of the stories, which was called “Budget Cinema.” And that story, which was an award winner of the monthly writing contests that they do on the NoSleep forum — it was probably the darkest story we’ve done, and I don’t really want to spoil anything, even though it’s been out for a few years, but basically, there’s an element in that where a person is coerced into a strange late-night screening of a film, and the film that he sees onscreen is essentially a snuff film. And it’s pretty graphic, and it’s pretty edgy, but the story around it, I felt that was so terrifying that it was worth including. When I did that story, I did this sort of big disclaimer at the front, and I warned people that you’ve got to watch out for this story, it’s pretty dark. The reaction wasn’t too bad; I didn’t get a lot of blow-back from that.
But — I don’t know if it was a few years later, or maybe even later that season — we did a story that was called “Auto Pilot,” a very popular story on the NoSleep forum. Essentially, it tells a story that you see on the news every summer, involving a child who ends up dying because of being left in a car in the hot sun. When I read the story, it was so brilliantly crafted — I loved doing it, it was very emotional. But it never occurred to me that this was going to really resonate with people, because, as I said, you see that on the news every summer: tragically, a number of children die every year because, intentionally or just through neglect, they just are put in that situation, or they get trapped in a trunk or something. And so when that story came out, I was really caught off-guard that all these people were saying, “Hey, I really liked that episode, except for that one story.” A lot of them were parents, of course, and they could really relate to it. That was a good bit of experience for me, sort of eye-opening to realize that there are those buttons that you have to watch, and one of them that’s been reinforced time and time again is the idea you’ve got to watch it when children are involved. If a child dies, if a child’s kidnapped, anything with children being put in danger — I really have to make sure that that’s well-laid-out ahead of time.
Kc, have you had similar experiences to that?
Kc: Different ones. To be honest, some of the things you’re mentioning, we’ve done and been able to get away with. We killed a kid. I laugh about it, but everyone didn’t have a problem with that one in ours. It’s weird, it all depends on what the subject matter is, but there’s one episode that unveiled that, I kid you not, my Twitter feed just exploded with: “How could you do that? I cannot believe — I’m in tears at work . . .” We have people who can become incredibly moved. There’s one chapter in particular where we do something that is just — gut-wrenching, but it’s not horror; it just pulls you down to a level that’s really, really low. So we have had that happen. And we did do one scene that was very uncomfortable for some of the listeners as well: it was an attempted rape scene that was pretty graphic, and the only reason we could get away with it was because it didn’t actually happen, it was an attempt. So it didn’t go very far, but it still left the listener very uncomfortable in an intentional way. Because it didn’t actually happen, we were able to get by, but if it did happen, I think that would have crossed a line with the listeners. There are those buttons you can push, like David was saying, that you just can’t go through. I don’t want to ever kill a dog. So things like that.
Doing this full-cast audio that you do, I would imagine you must run into logistical nightmares sometimes, trying to coordinate all these people. Has that ever been a real problem for the show?
Kc: In terms of just getting people together — that is a nightmare. We had a total of eighty-eight individual actors on the show through its span, and by the end, after five years of people moving to different locations, it got very problematic. We had one of our main characters move to Louisiana, and had to do remote recording-directing for him, and then do it again for all the other cast, and then put them together and hope that the direction was perfect for both so that they would merge together and work out. You can’t control the recording environments in Louisiana, you had to trust that the engineers there knew what they were doing, which sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. Whenever you’re dealing with that, it’s always really, really hard, especially with minimal budget. Say we had the budget of The Walking Dead, or even the BBC audio dramas that they do; I think their budgets are $30,000 an hour — if you had that budget, it would be so much easier. But for us, and I probably would speak for David as well on low budgets like this, it’s very difficult to manage people, and you have to use their spare time very particularly, because if they feel it’s a waste, they won’t be as energetic or in the role as much as you want them to be.
You mention that it’s a low budget. Could you give us some idea of what your budget is, and how much money does it take to get something like this started, if anyone else wants to try to attempt it?
Kc: I generally shy away from talking how much we spent, only because it’s an unrealistic number. I’m not paid by the show. I do receive royalties for the CD sales, but for the most part, I’m the primary sound editor-supervisor, my other producer was as well, and we volunteered our time. The recording studio that we used here in California was donated, the actors were not paid scale, and we had to do a special contract with the union to be able to do it. And so I don’t like to give the budget numbers out for those reasons, but if someone was to try and produce this at the level we were, and have to pay everyone in the positions, it would be about $30,000 an hour, which is incredibly horrible for being able to sustain something for a long period of time on that.
And how about David? I imagine your show doesn’t require all that much special equipment or anything, right? Do you just want to give us an idea of what sort of equipment and software and stuff you use to make your show?
David: What we do [is] certainly very different from what Kc is dealing with. The notion that you’re pulling actors together into a single studio and recording live off the floor — I can’t imagine the nightmares you go through for that. I work with some very talented people, but they all do their stuff remotely. So they’re going to record their narration and send it to me, and then I piece it together. I’m not worried about schedules that way, it’s just, “I need you to record this story, can you get it to me in this period of time?” My hat’s off to Kc for pulling that off for as long as you have, that’s amazing.
With us, or with what I do, it is certainly low-budget. But there’s not a lot of cost involved other than, as I’ve gone along, trying to invest money back into the show, using the latest versions of software (I use Adobe Audition for most of the editing), buying sound-effects libraries, buying plug-ins that can enhance the sound, and so on. So with that very small budget, and just trying to keep up with the latest updates in the versions of the software that allows us to put it together in relatively good order and relatively professionally — I’m always trying to get better at what I do, my aspect of it, and it takes time to learn these things.
Really, nobody involved with The NoSleep Podcast is a professional at what they do; from the writers to the narrators to the musicians, all of those are people who started it basically as a hobby. And the talent is there, and the opportunity that some of these people could take it to the next level is exciting to me, that they could keep developing their skill and their craft. But I think of what we do as audio community theater: we’re not professionals; we’re accountants and bakers by day, and then we do these things as a hobby. So: low-budget, and just really basic USB mics for a lot of the narrators. They do their editing on Audacity and a lot of the open-source software. And I’m fortunately able to have a little bit higher-end gear, but that’s what it takes for us to put the show together.
I had a bunch of questions from José Arrago, and one thing he wants to know is: how many people listen to your shows regularly, and how did you build your audience? David, you want to take that one?
David: For The NoSleep Podcast, it’s been almost exclusively word-of-mouth. That’s really how we’ve grown it. We started from a relatively small sub-Reddit on Reddit — I think when the show started, there were maybe 20,000 people who were subscribed to that sub-Reddit. It’s now grown, and it became sort of a default sub-Reddit; I think there’s now over 2,000,000 subscribers. So that’s seen exponential growth, but for the podcast, it’s really just been a friend telling a friend telling a friend, and it’s grown up from very small numbers to huge numbers. And, sort of like what Kc was saying, I know a lot of podcasters keep their listener stats close to the chest, or close to the vest, and they don’t share those. But what I’ve seen — I was just actually looking at stats a little earlier — just in terms of downloads, for example, it doesn’t really give you an idea of the number of listeners. But a year ago, January in 2014, the number of the free shows that were downloaded in that month was 85,000. January of 2015, a year later, it was over 326,000. So that kind of growth is really encouraging, and it’s showing that the audience is growing, and it’s growing not because I’m advertising, not because I spend my days Twitter-bombing people and telling people about the show. I just let the fans spread the word, and to quadruple the audience in the span of a year — it’s connecting with people, and that’s very encouraging.
And Kc, are you playing your stats close to your vest, or is there anything you can tell us about that?
Kc: You said when we came in: we are currently at 32,000,000 downloads, and counting. But I will say that that was not where we started. Our top episode in the first year we were out there was maybe 1,000 downloads in a month. It started very, very slow, but with all these things, it’s “If you build it, they will come.” Eventually, people will pick up and jump on and keep going. We have gotten to the point where we can be okay touting the numbers, but there were a lot of really slow times, and it is all word-of-mouth, and it is all just making sure — and I think one of the biggest things that a lot of people don’t understand is — to produce to a schedule and stick to it, and be sure to regularly update and keep your listeners informed. Because when people are picking podcasts to listen to, or a story to get involved in, they want to know two things: number one, is it going to go away, and I’m just wasting my time? Is it going to fizzle out? Or are they just going to take seven-month hiatuses and not tell anybody and not communicate, and all of a sudden, it’s three thousand days between chapters? Stuff like that happens, there are podcasts that do it as they go, and it’s hard to keep a listener base then.
So consistency is a huge, huge thing to keep people going. And always finding ways and avenues for people to share the experience with other people, and yet don’t Twitter-bomb them. Facebook is almost becoming impossible to use as a marketing tool much anymore, unless somebody wants to share you directly, because Facebook is continually like, “Oh, you want to make a fan page?” Well, there are so many fan pages now that they’re limiting their exposure, and unless you pay . . . social media is decreasing if you’re just trying to push the word out yourself. You have to have other people share this stuff, and find ways to entice them to share it with other people. So that’s very important; contests, things like that always do really well, and it’s all being able to expose new people. But the number-one thing, and the only way that people are going to come back and re-listen and get more downloads, is producing quality content from beginning to end, and spending that extra time to make sure that you’re putting out your best possible work. If you’re like, “Eh, this is okay,” work on it more. Try and get it to the level, and always, always increase your quality standards.
And I know that you guys partnered with Nerdist Industries. Has that had a big effect on allowing you to reach a larger audience?
Kc: Contrary to what people might think, podcast networks help, but they’re not a giant seventy-five percent increase. If I was to give you a percentage increase, I would say it was about five to ten, tops, here or there. It’s not going to be a huge jump because it’s all about exposing people who would want to listen to it, so we’ve gotten more listeners from it, but it’s not as many as one might think.
I had a listener question from Julie Lee, Kc. She wants to know: When is the next sequel to We’re Alive coming out?
Kc: We are currently working on a very experimental project. We’re seeing how this goes. We’re changing the model up a bit, and getting a little bit out of podcasts and into actually producing purchased series now. Because we’re like, “We’re Alive is there,” and we’re actually working on a side story called We’re Alive: Lockdown — which we just recently announced — that’s going be a four- to six-hour epic by itself, rather than breaking it up into small chunks and relying on the cliff-hangers to keep people involved. So we’re currently working on that.
All right, great. And then Lisa Robbins wants to know, David, she says: “Love NoSleep; I really loved the ‛Penpal’ series: is there anything else like that coming up?”
David: That’s a really high bar to reach: to take a series like “Penpal,” which was just so brilliantly done . . . One thing, not so much in terms of trying to duplicate “Penpal,” but just so people understand — as I mentioned, this was a story that was done in six individual parts, and we produced the first three parts, and then we took a small break, so to speak, and then we came back with Part Two, with the final three parts. So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about and stewing over for probably over a year now is: to [take] a story and [tell] it over multiple episodes. So if we were to find a story that had the length and the scope where we could, let’s say, do it as the final story in each episode, over a course of five or six episodes, and then allow people to get that cliff-hanger excitement, as Kc was mentioning — that’s something that I’d love to look into, but of course, it’s reliant on the source material. If we can get a story with the proper scope and the proper length that we can serialize it, as it were, I like that idea, and it would be something that I’d love to do. But it’s just a case of finding the source content.
When I posted that I was talking to both you guys, a listener named Daniel Watkins posted, quote: “OMG, finally! My two favorite podcasts coming together to do a Q&A! When can we see a collaboration?” So, is there any chance for a We’re Alive/NoSleep crossover coming up?
David: Well, I can play a really good zombie! So there you go, that’s maybe about the only thing I can contribute to Kc’s production . . .
Kc: You know what, David? I will take you up on that! If you record a zombie voice or noise for me, I will put it into We’re Alive: Lockdown.
David: Well, look at that, I’m a star already!
Kc: Yeah, we’ll make it work, we’ll make it happen.
David: I love it!
Kc: A lot of people are like, “Oh, yeah, we’d love to have these two things come together!” Stuff gets really complicated when you combine two different worlds, but I always like bringing in other people from other podcasts to do voices and stuff like that. It’s when you try and bring two IPs together — that doesn’t work very well, because then there’s also a lot of royalty issues, and futures. I like writing my stuff, I’ll be honest.
David: I agree. Even though what we’re doing, you can put it under the umbrella of horror podcasting, in some ways, we’re not even really podcasters, we’re more audio drama. It would be interesting to say, “Well, could we have maybe a story featuring some of the characters from We’re Alive, and do it as a one-off NoSleep Podcast story?” There’s that type of possibility, but as Kc said, the logistics of that . . . I think we’ve got two pretty good shows out there, and so enjoy them separately, and listen to them back-to-back if you want. But the idea that we can somehow merge the two universes is going to be a little too much work, I think.
Kc: We all saw what happened with Scooby-Doo and The Globe-Trotters. It’s fun, but it’s not really Scooby-Doo.
We’re pretty much out of time. Do you guys have any final thoughts on horror podcasting, or any other projects you want to let people know about, anything like that? So, David, any final words?
David: No other projects. The NoSleep Podcast takes up all of my time. I actually do it full-time now, and doing it as my full-time job is great, and I love doing it. But when the hours go from six a.m. till eight p.m., and just trying to get the show out and struggling to answer emails and that kind of thing, other projects don’t really hit the radar. We’re into our fifth season now, and the response from the listeners has been amazing, and the premium members who are signing up are just so enthusiastic and so supportive. We’re doing something right, and that’s encouraging. It’s great to have this community, as we were saying, that’s out there, and guys like Kc, and guys in the other podcasts that we mentioned. You know, there’s great content out there, and I’m just glad that podcasting in general is starting to become more mainstream. And people realize that there’s really high-quality productions out there that either are free, or cost pennies per hour. It’s available, and look into it, and get into it, because there’s great content out there.
All right, great. And Kc, final thoughts?
Kc: One — Dave, that’s awesome that you can do that full-time now. Honestly, that is living the dream, that’s something that I can’t do with We’re Alive yet — one day, maybe. But that’s awesome. And for the listeners, I would definitely say that a way to support the podcasts We’re Alive and The NoSleep Podcast: write reviews on iTunes, let people know what you think. I generally tend to not recommend doing stars, because, for whatever reason, people go, “Oh, it’s five stars or one star.” There’s very few in between. One-stars actually reduce your rating big-time, so be careful. But write reviews, tell friends, share links on Twitter of a story you like or something that’s going on. Because, like Dave said, we’re all word-of-mouth, and the only way . . . if you want to be able to hear more of stuff that we’re doing, is if you, the listener, are able to tell more people and share it with other people, like: “You know what, I probably should tell Joe, because he really likes horror stuff,” or “ He really likes that serial show Lost.” We’re not that, but we’re better. So get out there and tell your friends, and support your local community theater, as David put it.
Spread the word!