In 2014, one thing changed the entire podcasting landscape.
That one thing was Serial.
That year Serial became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads. Launched in October, Serial told the story of the murder investigation of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore area High School student found dead back in 1999. By December of 2014, Serial had reached 40 million downloads, averaging about 3.4 million downloads per episode.
With this massive success, advertisers realized that podcasts were a viable place to find audiences. With more money coming in, the podcasting space took off and is still continuing to grow today.
Quickly on the coattails of Serial, a trend emerged; podcast audiences love listening to “True Crime”. But when it comes to podcasts it turns out, the crime didn’t necessarily have to be “true”.
With that, a new crop of fictional podcasts hit the market. Much like how early plays included explanatory speeches to address the audience or early novels were told through letters, these podcasts borrowed elements from “true crime”. Shows like Limetown, The Message, and The Black Tapes follow fictional reporters, pursuing some kind of mystery, much like Serial. Those mysteries and those reporters just happen to be fictional.
Now, the second generation of fictional podcasts has just begun, and we’re seeing more and more shows drop the framing device of journalism and instead put you right into the action. Shows like Homecoming and Sandra move away from explaining every piece of audio that’s heard and why it got recorded in the first place.
In this vein, allow us to introduce a new fictional podcast…
Mutual Friends is your new favorite fictional mystery podcast. Fully dramatized with actors and sound effects, Mutual Friends tells the story of what happens when your past comes back in a big way. When everyone’s a suspect, is there an easy answer for what happened?
Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher, Mutual Friends is a 5 episode long show with a total runtime under 30 mins — perfect for your next podcast binge. Subscribe today so you don’t miss a single twist or turn.
The story of Mutual Friends starts with a dead body on Crawford University’s campus. Word is crawling across campus and everyone’s trying to learn what happened. When Arthur learns his freshman year roommate was found dead in the middle of the street, he goes back to his old friend group hoping to figure out what happened. Arthur never really fit in with his freshman hall, but his roommate Jason always made sure he was included. Now that Jason’s dead, Arthur’s surprised just how easy it is to reconnect, but as new stories start to emerge, it’s hard not to get tangled in the web of secrets. Arthur eventually learns, when it comes to your Mutual Friends, you’d be surprised what they’re capable of.
The journey of Mutual Friends started back in the Fall of 2017. Back then the newly minted cohort of Emerging Media Master’s students was tasked with creating the original pitch for their projects. Back then I presented on Emerald.
Emerald was going to be a fictional mystery podcast, much like Mutual Friends, but what made Emerald different was that it was going to be a “choose your own adventure” podcast.
Inspired by the adventure books of my childhood, Emerald would follow the story of Maggie, a college student who finds a mysterious door in the library which leads to a hidden world of conspiracy. At the end of each episode, the audience would be given a choice and then be told which episode to listen to next. I was excited to get started on such a unique idea.
The next semester in the spring, we took Digital Storytelling; which for the first half the semester focused on the narrative power of video games. My friend Kate and I decided to make a game for the final project, testing out our ability to create a story that gave the audience a choice. We created Rent Week.
The story of Rent Week was designed to help players empathize and understand how one week on a college campus can feel very different depending on your economic freedom. Players chose between three characters of different economic status and then tried to make it through the week with their bank account and mental status intact.
We had a lot of fun making Rent Week, but we also realized something crucial; writing splitting narratives is hard! First, we had to plan out every choice and every consequence for each character, calculating winning and losing thresholds. Then, we had to write new sections of the story for every single choice the user could make. Once we filled out an entire spreadsheet I realized, the dream of making a choose your own adventure podcast was going to have to wait until I had more time and more people to help me.
Getting Feedback and Making Changes
Throughout this process, I’d been hearing from a lot of people, both in person and through user research, that fictional podcasts sounded interesting, but they could never find one short enough to consume quickly. With all of the content out their clamoring for their attention, potential listeners wanted something that was short and sweet that they could listen to on a bus ride or a quick drive to work.
All of this information influenced the creation of Mutual Friends. With my fellow students volunteering the vocal talents, Mutual Friends runs for only 5 episodes, averaging about 7 mins per episode. With a runtime under 30 mins, Mutual Friends is the perfect length to entice new audiences into the audio drama world.
Through creating Mutual Friends, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to fully produce a show, and ensure a level of quality that won’t turn listeners away. Early feedback had a lot of listeners complaining about the volume of sound effects or the cheesy dialogue. After a few rewrites and a few audio mixing lessons, Mutual Friends now sounds like actual humans talking while also not blasting anyone’s eardrums.
A Long Road Comes to an End
The story of Mutual Friends grapples with how we make friends and how people we think we know can surprise us in horrible ways. Ironically, people surprised me a lot while making the show, but it was actually in the best possible ways.
Creating a whole show from scratch can feel pretty daunting at times. There were moments along the way when I just felt paralyzed, not able to make the next necessary move.
It wasn’t until I reached out to others, either for an opinion or for help recording a character, that I finally felt like I was making progress. Bringing other’s into my process is what finally brought life to Mutual Friends.
I want to thank every person who gave me their time and patience in the recording booth and every person who gave me their opinion on a website, logo, or poster along the way. Each one of you helped me get out of my head and break the toxic perfection/procrastination cycle.
My advice for those to come; start everything early, get plenty of outside opinions, and never be afraid to ask for help.