Audio fiction has been a popular trend since the dawn of time, but podcasting has given the genre a new lease of life, with creators across the world using the medium to release serialised long-form narratives that have captivated audiences.
Christof Luputka is the writer and creator of The Leviathan Chronicles, a science fiction podcast that has been running for 16 years, first published in 2008. After partnering with podcast network Realm and racking up over 3,000 downloads, the series is expanding, with a spinoff called The Invenios Expeditions dropping later this year. We spoke to Laputka about his journey in audio fiction, what he’s learned, and the process of writing movies for the ears.
How would you describe your podcast?
It's about immortality. Our story starts back in the Middle Ages where a medicine woman in medieval Scandinavia comes across an alien spacecraft that has crashed. In exchange for nursing the aliens that she finds back to health, they modify her DNA so that she can not only become immortal but confer immortality to others.
Against the backdrop of the Crusades and the Middle Ages, she decides to sequester herself from humanity and build a utopian society called Leviathan in the deepest part of the Earth's ocean, the Marianas Trench. It then goes to the modern age, where the CIA discovers the existence of Leviathan and deems it a threat to US sovereignty - creating a three-way war across the world between the CIA, the immortals who want to stay sequestered in Leviathan, and those who want to rejoin humanity.
Why did you start your podcast?
There was a period back in 2014 to 2015 when people were releasing audio books and taking the Charles Dickens approach of: let me take my unpublished manuscript and podcast one chapter of my work a week and build the audience that all the publishing houses were saying wasn't there.
So as I was listening to these shows, I kept thinking, God, there should be a gunshot there. There should be a music swell or we should have a great British narrator describing these scenes. So that was one of the impetuses that got us excited to create Leviathan.
What advice do you wish you were given when you started?
Well, I'd say, first of all, if you are thinking of getting into fiction podcasting, you will not find a more supportive community. If you are thinking of doing anywhere from a five to 10-episode season of something, get all the episodes written first. You will save time and money by recording in one big fell swoop, and then giving yourself the runway to do all the post-production work. In the beginning, we were writing an episode, and producing it, and then I'd write another episode and produce it; it created such an inconsistent timetable of release that it impacts your listenership. They want consistency so they can keep the storyline and the characters fresh in their minds.
Also, nobody's an island - find a great team of people who are as passionate about the project as you are. And if you can't find them locally, find them online because there are a lot of people who want to write, act, create and lend their talents. Going to Audio Hub on Facebook or audio drama forums on Reddit are great resources for people who are interested in hearing the stories come alive through audio.
How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?
We have between 10 and 20 actors per episode, and that can vary a bit. The core team of Leviathan is myself, Robin Shore, who does all of our sound design, and Luke Allen, who does all of the music and creates a lot of the graphics that you see in our multimedia. And we have a wider group of friends that work with us on a project-by-project basis. We've done a lot of work with Soundbox in LA. They handle a lot of the onsite recording and some of the preliminary mixing that we do, so that when we get stuff from Soundbox, it's primarily to add our sound effects and our music, because the dialogue has kind of already been cut.
In terms of the creative process of writing, some episodes come quicker than others. As the writer, sometimes I'll write an episode in a week and sometimes it'll take me two to three months to write an episode.
Do you monetise your podcast?
Monetisation is always a challenge for everybody in podcasting. There's so many new listeners coming into podcasting, but the adtech hasn't completely caught up with that. So I think that's what's really holding back a lot of podcasters from monetisation, and thereby really accelerating their growth. We're constantly trying to find new ways to both measure our audiences and give a better quality of our listenership to potential advertisers, to bring people in to help us grow the stories that we're trying to create.
In the early days, we were somewhat self-financed. We were excited to see what we could do with [audio fiction]... to just see how good we could make a scene sound. When I heard what we could do, we started out self-financing and then we started to sell some of our director's cuts of episodes and started taking an outside investment. So that's what our arc has been for monetisation.
Who is your biggest listenership?
Primarily, it's the UK and America, with America being the vast lion’s share of our listeners. I'd say most of our listeners kind of barbell a little bit, where we get a lot of older, I'd say 40 to 45-plus listeners that kind of view us in that old radio drama revival sense. We’re a full-cast audio drama, we have a cast of about 70 actors from around the world who all participate in the project, original music and the most cinematic sound effects we can create to make a movie for your ears.
For a lot of people, that's evocative of Doctor Who or some of the other radio plays that they've heard when they were much younger. But we also get a younger audience that's familiar with podcasting.
What have you learned about yourself since starting your podcast?
There’s a big event in America called Dragon Con, they used to do something called the Parsec Awards, which was in celebration of audio fiction. It was one of the first awards we were up for and we didn't get it. I was like, "Gosh, I thought we did a great job." My ego was certainly bruised by it. I didn't realise one of our fans was in the audience. The ceremony was over and he came up to me. He had a very debilitating medical condition and had to undergo routine spinal taps, and he was explaining how listening to Leviathan during those painful medical procedures was the best form of escape.
And then I realised that moment about myself, when you learn that what you're creating makes somebody's life a little better, it provides you with more satisfaction, encouragement, and drive to create, more than any kind of accolade or money. It was deeply satisfying in a way that I don't think I could have seen before. When somebody is listening to your story, you have a collaboration with their imagination. That's intimate. Your stories can affect people, and that in turn affects you. I've learned that the relationship between the creator and the audience is very real, it's very visceral. It's made me a better writer on podcasts, because you realise you're not doing this in a vacuum.
What was the last podcast you listened to?
Listening to really great quality audio drama, KC Wayland’s We're Alive series, they are one of the gold standards. KC started when we did, if you like an infected podcast that is epic in its scope, he's been doing some of the best work out there. For any of Fred Greenhalgh’s work, Dark Tome is another good one that people should listen to.
There's a great one I just listened to called Starship Q Star, which is a great space comedy. I’ll let listeners discover what it's all about, but it's done by an Australian group. And you can tell they're having so much fun while they're doing it. It's a comedy set in space, primarily an LGBTQ spacecraft that is the last surviving remnants of humanity.