Improv had an answer to online content way before Zoom
Improvisers are dashing to Zoom, the web-based conference calling platform, in order to do shows. There have been some incredible examples of this including the Magnet Theater in New York doing many of its regular shows on there. Kornfeld and Andrews set in a Blockbuster video store? Wonderful! Yes please. I’ve been involved in a couple of shows via Zoom myself with The Maydays and we have had a great time.
Zoom is filling a gap for so many people and I’m really glad it is there. A lot of improvisers will, however, caveat their shows with the phrase “but it’s not the same” and I think they are right. That’s not to say that Zoom is a waste of time. It very clearly is not. However, I do wonder if Zoom shows will be around once we get back to having theatres open again.
There is one way of providing improv shows online that has been consistently delivering improv content much longer than Zoom. You probably know it. It’s podcasting. Podcasting is often looked down upon or mocked with the sort of titters that belong at the back of a classroom. It often feels like it is the victim of the same sort of condescension that some scripted theatre people give to improv.
However, podcasting has been on the rise for a long while. Last year the UK media regulator Ofcom published a report saying that 7.1 million people in the country listen to podcasts each week. That’s impressive. It’s even more impressive when you consider that was a year on year increase of 24% and over five years, the number of people who listened to podcasts each week had doubled. Similarly, the USA saw its largest ever annual increase in podcast listening last year. Around 32% of Americans listen monthly according to Edison Media Research.
So what is it about podcasting? Why are more and more people downloading audio content and why are increasing numbers of improv people making improv podcasts? It helps that Ofcom’s research discovered that the most popular genres were entertainment, comedy and talk shows. Whether you produce a podcast that talks about improv, like mine (The Improv Chronicle Podcast — a documentary podcast for improvisers) or whether you record a group of people improvising, improv podcasts are places to create bonds, inspire discovery and reach new audiences.
Audio, no matter how many listens or downloads you are getting, can be personal and special. UK broadcasting legend, Terry Wogan, when asked how many listeners he had, answered “just the one”. In reality he had millions of people tuning in each day, but each one was spoken to like an individual. The most important advice I’ve ever been given as a broadcaster and ever given as a radio manager is “remember, you are only ever talking to one person”. It means never saying “all you listeners out there” and just saying “you”. That, for me, is one of the key bits of magic about great audio.
Podcasting will allow you to create a more personal bond with your audience. Your audio is downloaded to your listener’s device so even when the Zoom calls are over and (please God) we’re back traveling and socialising, you will still always be in the pocket of your audience and a welcome respite on their commute to work or journey home from an event.
For improvisers there are other advantages. In improv we can have our shows set anywhere — but that’s harder to carry off well on Zoom. One of the reasons I was so attracted to improv was that, much like radio, there was an element of “theatre of the mind” about it. The audience has to imagine the set, the location, the props in the same way as they do with audio.
Still not convinced audio breeds loyalty? Consider this example from one of my former bosses. Apple has super loyal fans. Look at how many people have Apple products, go to Apple events and sing the praises of Apple. Most of their products come with a sticker of the Apple logo. How often do you see those stickers used? I can’t remember the last time I did. Now look at radio stations — their stickers are on car bumpers and in car windows in nations all over the globe. You don’t get that with brands like Apple or with TV stations (Netflix sticker anyone? Anyone?) but you do with radio. Audio feels personal and if you use it well you get rewarded for the bonds you create.
As my wonderful university tutor used to say “sound is one of the first senses to start developing in the womb and is thought to be the last sense to leave us when we die”. Radio came before cinema and television, and at the moment, audio is one of the only media left almost unaffected in quality by the current international pandemic. I suspect many improvisers will be making a home in podcasting not just “for now” but well into the future.