The Cost of Free Audio Drama

“There's no such thing as a free lunch.” You’ve probably heard this phrase before at some point. The idea behind it is that even though ...

“There's no such thing as a free lunch.” You’ve probably heard this phrase before at some point. The idea behind it is that even though some people may get something for nothing, it’s costing the people that are giving it away.

The same thing applies when it comes to the distribution of audio dramas. There are countless audio dramas available on the Internet. The majority of them are free to either stream or download. However, as the title of this article suggests, that’s not always a good thing.

Too much of a free thing

First off, I’m not against the idea of audio drama being free. It’s a great way for people to experience the medium for the first time. Podcasts have really helped in this way. As a podcast fan, I am very appreciative of this technology. It’s brought about a new renaissance for audio drama. It’s got people who had never heard an audio drama before exposed to this wonderful storytelling method. More and more people are talking about it.

There is a downside to this, however. With so much free stuff out there, it makes it difficult for producers to make a profit on their work and for people to value really well-made audio drama. The expectation is there for audio drama to be free. Why pay for a digital download for a feature length production when you can find hundreds of audio dramas (often called audio fiction) podcasts that don't cost anything? Some may see the price of an audio drama and ask “How can I get this for free?” or “Where I can I listen to similar audio drama but get it for free?”  More on that first one later. 

In my experience, many people are settling for listening to poorly-made audio dramas that have little in the way of good sound design or acting. They either don't know how good audio drama can get or they don't want to spend the money to listen to the high quality stuff.

I read a comment from an audio drama fan that suggested that a certain series, which was no longer being made, should be given away free to everyone. That shocked me. The comment struck me as a really selfish remark. Then I thought more about it. The mentality of too many people, in other forms of media as well, is that “I shouldn't have to spend money on something to enjoy it.” YouTube and other similar sites have conditioned us to expect our entertainment to not cost us anything. The mentality is that you deserve to have something for free when so many similar things are free. It's not just audio drama. Books, music, and apps are devalued by many consumers because there are so many free options or alternatives out there.

It takes money to make something sound really good, even if that currency is time. Time dedicated to making audio drama may remove time that could be used to make money on other projects.

For some, giving away free audio drama may be a good way to build an audience. Adventures in Odyssey co-creator and Iliad House creator, Phil Lollar, has this to say about that subject:

Phil Lollar
"We gave away AIO for a very long time. But that was back when no one - NO ONE - was doing radio/audio drama, so we weren’t just building an audience, we were creating one - not just for the program, but for modern radio/audio drama period. Focus on the Family had the financial resources, praise God, to keep the program afloat during that time. But eventually, AIO had to survive and thrive on its own - which was a matter of quality.

Fortunately, modern audio dramas don’t have to create the audience, but they do have to build and keep one, which, again, in the main, is a matter of quality. Unless you have very deep pockets, you can’t keep giving away your product forever.

We have entered into a new era - or, at least, new phase - of financial support. Traditionally, projects were debt-funded - you’d borrow the money to make your product, and hopefully recoup it all in sales, along with a nice profit, on the back end. That is still how many mainstream film and TV projects are made. But with the advent of crowd funding, people are pre-paying for the product, up-front. That’s what we did with Iliad House. It is advantageous in three ways: 1) you don’t have any debt at the end of the production (except making sure the funders get the product); 2) you know going in exactly how much you have to work with, which highly discourages going over budget; and 3) It forces you to make sure your project is well thought-out and your campaign well-organized before you go into production. If things look professional, finders are more likely to take a chance on you; if things look like a hot, amateur mess, not so much.

Unfortunately, it can also mean there is very little profit when all is said and done, especially if there is no money left over for marketing. But then, there are also organizations like Patreon that can help with on-going funding — which, again, is a matter of quality: your product has to be good enough for your patrons to support on a regular basis.

Any way you go, producing an audio drama is an enormous amount of work, so you have to truly love - and live - what you’re doing. I believe that audiences - current and perhaps even yet unborn - are and will be perfectly willing to pay for material they deem is worth paying for. And it may very well be the love creatives put into their projects that makes that funding a reality.

Then again, if you truly love what you’re doing … does the money really matter?"

I believe people should always strive to do the best they can when they create media. For some, it may be a job. For others, it may be a labor of love. The choice to make your production free may be one of necessity or pure generosity.

As an independent audio drama producer myself, I can relate. My show, FaithFilled Stories, was made with the idea that it would be free for all to hear. I wanted it to be easy to find and listen to so I made it available as a podcast. Making this show gives me a way to sharpen my skills. I also wanted to make something that would have eternal value. 

Even though I make no profit, and all the actors are volunteers, it still costs me time and money. I bought stock music to use in possible future productions. I’ve purchased equipment to help me out with this and other projects. There’s also the time spent that I could be using on other more financially profitable endeavors. However, I want it to be a way of building God’s kingdom. That’s my purpose. Sure, I could try to sell my productions but that's not my goal. If producing that show was my main focus right now, then I may reconsider my distribution method. However, as a side project, I'm perfectly content with the way things stand.

Money: the necessary evil

Making and selling audio drama rarely will make one wealthy. If that’s your goal, then you probably need to find another field of work. You need to know why you’re making the audio drama and how you're going to at least break even with your budget.

For those that may grumble about the price of buying something from Heirloom Audio or Focus on the Family's Radio Theatre series, remember this: those productions cost THOUSANDS of dollars to make. For example, a Lamplighter Theatre production can cost around $150,000 to $250,000. What you're paying to hear the final product is a super small fraction of what it cost to make and is less than what it’s worth. 

A single episode of Adventures in Odyssey can cost in the ballpark of $10,000 to $20,000 to produce. Episodes are sold in many ways but when a single episode is purchased, the price for the consumer is around 0.01% of how much it may have cost to make! 

Those production costs can include studio rentals, scriptwriters, actors, cast catering, transportation and lodging, directors, voice-track editors, sound design, foley, composers, artwork illustration, packaging layout and design, etc. To get a high-quality product, you've got to put in the effort and money necessary to keep a high standard of excellence.

Now, for those that might be shouting at their screens, “What about the ministries that produce audio dramas? If an audio drama is supposed to be a ministry tool, why doesn’t the organization make it free for all to hear?” 

They still have to find a way to pay for the making of those productions. Just like a church, it can be open for anyone to attend. However, if the congregation and church members fail to tithe and financially support the church, the church may have to close its doors or find other means to fund the work.

Many shows, like Adventures in Odyssey and Down Gilead Lane, are sold as CD and MP3 products. However, they also air on the radio and allow current episodes to be listened to on-demand for a limited time. Fans of those shows can buy those episodes to hear them anytime and get the benefit of higher quality audio files and (in some cases) extended episodes. 

Many fans, including me, grumbled at the idea of Adventures in Odyssey creating the AIO Club with exclusive episodes. I’m past that now and am a big fan of the subscription service. The main purpose of the Club is to help fund the production of Odyssey. From what I’ve heard, Club subscriptions have gotten AIO to the point that they’re not in the red anymore. Because less people buy CDs or purchase MP3s, they had to find a way to keep producing the show.

Discovery Mountain is another similar situation. It started as a podcast and sold some merchandise and CDs of the episodes. They release new content every week. However, they recently launched the Discovery Mountain Club as a means to generate more revenue to support the show. This allows them to still release episodes for free. Like AIO, it's made by a ministry organization. More than likely not enough people donate or buy products to keep the show going. It costs money to create and distribute that much content for free.

Another way some have gone about raising money for audio dramas is having people donate before giving away the content. For some time, RiverCross gave away episodes to their children’s series, Jabota Bridge, to anyone that gave them a donation of any amount. To my knowledge, that is no longer the case and they are looking at other ways to distribute their productions to the general public.

I understand that not everyone has the means or staff to sell CDs and MP3s of their content. It can be a complicated business. Some may want it to be strictly a ministry tool and rely totally on donations. Some sell copies as well as receive donations. The Brinkman Adventures is one of the latter. Ian Bultman, creator of that series, says:

Ian Bultman
"As far as creating high-quality audio drama, we don't do it for the money. It costs more to create it than we take in through sales. We make audio drama because it is such a great way to communicate eternal principles and direct people to their Creator. Also, we sense this as a calling from God. If the money stopped flowing, we would stop producing. For the last ten years, God has provided the stories along with the funding.

With that said, if listeners appreciate good content, I encourage them to support the creators. Some of us are non-profits and rely on the donations of listeners. Others are trying to make the numbers work through sales and advertising. Either way, I see supporting and creating good audio drama as an investment. It touches so many people for so many years, making it a wise use of money and time. Audio theatre is one of the best methods to tell stories. And we both know stories can change people. Jesus himself modeled this."

Some organizations may not be able to maintain productions on donations and small amounts of purchases alone. If you want to put content out consistently, going with a paid-only model may be more beneficial. One such series that switched from the former to the latter is Jonathan Park. Mark Rasche, CEO of Wise King Media, shared some of the reasoning behind the change in distribution method for the show:

Mark Rasche
"[W]e’ve found that free audio adventures on the internet are a net negative, whether they are offered through podcasts or traditional radio broadcasts. This has been particularly true with Wise King Media since we’re a for-profit company. Unlike 501(c)3 non-profit organizations such as Focus on the Family and Lamplighter, WKM receives no donor revenues to help underwrite the cost of providing free content and support the mission of expanding our outreach. We have zero donations and rely solely on product sales for revenue. (For what it’s worth, I wrote a blog [post] about this back in 2016.)

Before Wise King Media was established, Jonathan Park (one of WKM’s two brands) was housed under a couple of non-profits for many years. These two ministries relied heavily on donations to subsidize product sales and keep the brand solvent and free to a large percentage of listeners. Radio distribution was subsequently discontinued altogether, shortly after WKM was established in 2015. This decision was made following extensive research and a customer survey showing that a large percentage of our predominantly homeschool (and frugal) listening audience was opting to listen to JP for free (via radio), rather than purchasing CDs.

While there can certainly be long-term brand-building benefits to offering free content on the internet, supplemental revenue channels are needed (depending on the type of corporate structure and business model) to offset the distribution costs and inevitable reduction in sales revenues, (e.g. sponsors, donors, affiliate revenue, advertising placements, etc.)"

Scourge of the sea and Internet

Now it's time for the free audio drama I do have a big problem with, and that's when consumers make paid audio drama into free audio drama.

Sharing a cassette tape or CD was a common occurrence years ago. Now, some may think that sharing MP3 files with friends or family may constitute the same thing. Nope! They now own a copy that was obtained by illegal means. 

One of the excuses for this action may be, "It’s not that much money. Someone else will buy it and make up for it." First, if it’s not that much money, why can’t you buy it for the person you want to hear it? Secondly, other people may share your mindset. If so many people don’t donate or get audio dramas legally, the amount of content created will go down or production will stop completely. 

You see warning labels on books, DVDs, and music albums warning against copying or illegally sharing material from said items. Not many audio drama CD packages I’ve seen have these warnings but the principle is still there. 

Too many people, including Christian families, do this even though it goes against one of the Ten Commandments. It’s stealing. It’s stealing possible revenue that the audio drama creators could be making. You’re stealing by asserting a (nonexistent) right to become a free distributor of materials that are meant to be purchased by its consumers. To quote a line from the anti-piracy campaign from the early 2000s, “You wouldn’t steal a car...” But would you steal an audio drama that is only available for purchase?

The technology of the day makes it a lot easier for people to pirate audio drama than it is for movies or television shows. DRM is almost non-existent on purchased audio content, with audiobooks usually being an exception.  You wouldn’t believe how many people upload episodes of popular audio dramas on YouTube or make a public podcast with them. I have reported some of these in the past. However, people may do the same thing again later with a different method.

If you think that pirating audio drama doesn’t hurt creators, think again. Jerry Robbins, co-owner and artistic director of Colonial Radio Theatre, has had a lot of experience with fighting against piracy of his produced material.

Jerry Robbins
"When we started out in 1995, audio drama was not as popular as it is today. In fact, I thought we were the only ones doing it, until I discovered Jim French Productions. We created a business model and decided to give it five years and see where we were. Around this time, CD's were taking the place of cassettes. We only had about seven shows in release at that time; but we moved into digital production and purchased the first digital workstation available for home use. A few years after that, MP3's became popular, and we started making our shows available in that format. When more people started getting h[o]m[e] computers and editing software became available, we started seeing a lot of audio drama popping up online as free downloads. After a couple of years, people would see our shows and ask why they were not free, and I would respond that we were a business and couldn't make shows with snazzy cover art and original music scores for free and stay around. Thus began the struggle -- after a while I started seeing our shows pop up on various sites, even YouTube, as free downloads. Take a show like our GETTYSBURG. We're selling it on Amazon and other online stores, and someone could find it online elsewhere as a free download. It got to a point where I would take two days a month searching the internet and shutting down sites that were giving away our shows free of charge. One site even had a complete store of Colonial Radio titles! I downloaded several of them to make sure I was not mistaken... and I got the shows free of charge into my download folder. Over the years we found people taking some of our shows (in particular, the POWDER RIVER series) - repackaging them, and selling them! When confronted they replied that they thought it was an old show and in public domain. A simple check on our website would have shown them otherwise. I think people just assumed that audio drama was free (or should be free) because the producers creating content for free far outnumbered those of us who were trying to make it work as a business. It all just blended together to them.

Piracy hurt us more than the competition from free downloads. There is a well-known pirating organization that offers our shows as well; they are in an area where they are free of copyright laws, and they distribute major motion pictures, and audio. Even the biggest of the Hollywood studios can't touch them. They claim that producers are all "super rich" and can afford to lose a few dollars. Well, Colonial Radio is not super rich, and this company had distributed over 10,000 illegal downloads of our production of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. That's 10,000 free copies on a show that I worked on for over a year and would never see a dime on. We were hoping for a huge hit with this Ray Bradbury production - and this pirating company made sure it didn't happen... and this was years ago - I am sure they have given out many more freebies since then.

Streaming also is a major factor. When Colonial Radio Shows were only available on CD's and MP3s, we did okay. As soon as streaming came to light, our business went down almost 70%. People don't want to buy physical CD's or store MP3 files anymore. These days they want to go online and stream a show, which is fine for the listeners, but zaps revenue down to mere pennies. The landscape has certainly changed over the 27 years since we produced our first show."

Take a look at shows like Iliad House, Time Chroniclers, and Red Rock Mysteries. It's been literally years since any more episodes have come out. It's not a matter of them not being good stories or not having high production quality (they all do!). It's that not enough people bought copies of those series. And, in some cases, people uploaded all the episodes of one series on YouTube without the creator's permission. I reported this piracy and the episodes were taken down. But how many other ways have people stolen revenue from those creators? If you're wanting to see those series (or any series) continue, then make sure you do your best to spread the word about them and buy (not steal) the episodes. If you see someone pirating audio drama, speak up!

Supportive and frugal

I’ve heard a version of this phrase many times: people will do what they really want to. Applied to buying audio drama, if you really want something, you’ll do what you can to buy it. In my part-time job and college years, I bought many audio dramas and subscribed to audio drama streaming services. It wasn’t because I was an affluent person (I’m still not one today). It was because 1. I love well-made audio drama. 2. I want to support the producers so they can keep making more. 

Although I like to buy CDs or MP3s of audio drama, there are times where I feel like I should donate money to shows that don't sell their productions. I’ve donated money to ReFrame Ministries even though they give away all the Kids Corner episodes for free now. I was blown away by the Luther in Real Time series so I donated to Ligonier Ministries. It's the kind of stuff I would be buying if they sold it so I believe I should give the producers some amount of money. I want to show my appreciation to them and help them keep paying for the bandwidth and storage for them to keep their content online. I encourage everyone reading this to do the same.

I may be in the minority. I don’t go to the movies or subscribe to Netflix. I’m an audio-first guy when it comes to entertainment. Those two entertainment venues I mentioned are expensive. However, you can get a subscription to the Adventures in Odyssey Club or Dramafy for even less than Netflix. You can purchase a digital copy of a Patch the Pirate or Nick Guy, Private Eye album for less than some movie tickets. If people will pay money in the double digits purchasing a movie or buying a book, why not audio drama? It’s not a lesser form of entertainment. In fact, I think it’s superior in many ways.

I know it can be a harder decision to buy an audio drama you’ve never heard before or from a new production company. That’s part of the reason Audio Theatre Central exists. Myself and many others listen to hundreds of hours of audio drama to see if it’s worth talking about and if it’s worth your time and money. 

You can also wait for productions to go on sale to buy your audio dramas. Producers like Lamplighter Ministries and Wise King Media have sales multiple times a year. Here at ATC we do a roundup of the many sales around Black Friday. Those are great times to try out a new series or gift one to a friend.

If you know someone in your life that would like a certain audio drama, buy it for them if you have the means. Don’t break the law or The Ten Commandments by giving them content they didn’t buy themselves.

There are also plenty of legal options to listen to audio drama for free.

  • You can listen to many shows on terrestrial and Internet radio stations (including Porchlight FM Radio). 
  • If you already subscribe to a music streaming service, there are many audio dramas you can listen to along with your music (Jungle Jam and Professor Phineas T. Boggs, to name a couple). 
  • Some shows will let you play the first episode for free to give you a taste of what the show is like.
  • There are many good audio dramas that are released as podcasts by their producers.

The end goal 

Myself and the rest of the ATC team are here to promote and encourage the making of good audio drama. If you're reading this, I'm sure you agree that's a good thing. We always try to motivate listeners to do what they can to help creators continue making great content. I hope that this article has made you rethink some things and made you aware of the challenges of audio drama distribution. You can help make a difference by remembering the topics covered in this article:

  • Don’t have the expectation that all audio drama should be free.
  • Think about how pirating hurts creators and don’t be a pirate yourself.
  • Be wise with your money and support.

Appreciate the art form of audio drama. Appreciate the time it takes to make it. Most of all, let the makers of your favorite audio dramas know you appreciate them by supporting them financially to help them create more wonderful shows for everyone to enjoy!

Special thanks to the following industry professionals for their contributions to this article:
Ian Bultman
Phil Lollar
Mark Rasche
Jerry Robbins 

Additional Sources:
Adventures in Odyssey staff, Focus on the Family

Austin Peachey is a die-hard reader and audio drama fan. He's run the Adventures in Odyssey Blog for over 12 years and has produced a few audio dramas of his own, including FaithFilled Stories. He's also helped work on the 2nd edition of The Official Guide to Odyssey and is a member of the Audio Drama Alliance.


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