A Reflection on the State of the Audio Verse in 2019

My mantra is now “I swear one day I will be caught up on my listening list.” Every time I scroll through my podcasts to figure out what I want to listen, there’s a wonderful production I have heard great things about but haven’t had the chance to listen to, a new episode of a show I enjoy, and the temptation to start relistening to a favorite. The vast majority of what I listen to is fiction, and as podcasting has grown, the fiction podcasting space has exploded in wondrous fashion.

This will be our eighth year, during which time we’ve seen many glorious shows and tried our best to recognize great audio dramas. Every year, we’re swamped and overwhelmed by the amount of talent and hard work that is brought to our ears. I look forward to seeing how the audio verse has changed. It is the most delightful part of these awards.

As we do every year, we try to adjust and change the awards to better serve the community. In many of the conversations with community leaders, creators, fans, and internally, we receive a lot of feedback and try to find what we can be doing better. We really appreciate how supportive and responsive everyone is.

These concerns and changes are made with that feedback and conversation in mind.

-Colin J. Kelly
Chair of the Audio Verse Awards team.

Changes to the Awards Committee

Erin Sellers has joined the AVAs team, She will be wrangling our nominee showcase this year! We’re really happy to have her on board.

Changes to how we raise Funds to Remain Operational

We are incredibly thankful to everyone who has supported us over the years. We’d like to talk about why our Patreon wasn’t a good fit for us.

Patreon didn’t suit our needs because we only charged our supporters when the awards ended. Over time, we’d see people pledge, then their circumstances would change, and they’d no longer be in a position to support the awards. We debated moving to a monthly model, but we hibernate in the off months, and it didn’t seem worth our patron’s time. Indiegogo solves all these problems for us.

Please support the Audio Verse Awards on Indiegogo

The Audio Verse Awards are fully independent and autonomous. We do not run ads, nor do we charge the nominators, nominees, or voters in order to participate. In order to pay for hosting, the technical systems to ensure fair and preferential voting, not to mention compensating the people who are constantly working to make these awards are as great as they can be, we need your help.

Please support the Audio Verse Awards on Indiegogo.

Changes to our Mission and Eligibility

Embracing Fiction in Audio

Since our inception, we’ve been primarily focused on audio dramas. Back in 2011, we were started in a forum post, there were awards specifically for audiobooks, which didn’t allow audio dramas, and awards for podcasts, where fiction content was an addendum. There was a clear need for awards to recognize these wonderful productions and we’ve done our best to do right by our community.

With the rise and success of actual play podcasts, in past awards seasons, we’ve received several nominations for these works. Listening, We are hearing storytelling and sound design in these podcasts which is worthy of recognition and celebration. There is a void for these productions, just as there was a void for awards specifically focused on audio drama.

However, there is a fundamental difference in discipline between how writers script dialogue for performers, and how actual players improvise based on the situations and characters in the scene. We feel it is unfair for a writer, who has the time to craft and plan, and the performer, who can rehearse and receive direction, to compete at the same level as the player who has limited time to make a decision while doing both. They are clearly separate disciplines, and one of our guiding principles is to put people on an even playing field where you compete with your peers.

In research, we have found that high-quality actual play podcasts tell stories with the same amount of power and connection as their scripted counterparts. We’ve also seen spoken word performances which tell stories in unique ways that use immersion and sound design, with performances that embody what is going on. We’d like to recognize what we’re hearing and therefore, we’ve adjusted our categories and eligibility for the Audio Verse Awards to cover all immersive audio fiction.

Free Content not Being Free to Make and Premium Shows Behind a Paywall

This has been a point of debate with our committee for some time. We exist primarily for the independent scene and would prefer to recognize those creators. In previous years, our criteria have stated that the product needs to be freely available and accessible. Especially since we are awards decided by a public vote, voters needed to be able to go and listen to a show to be as informed as possible. Additionally, there are awards which are not available or affordable for most freely available productions while premium shows with licensed works and established publishing houses enjoy that option.

However, we have to acknowledge that free content is not free to make. While it is possible for a team of organized volunteers to create quality content for free, using free tools and freely given labor, the issue of exploitation in production is a cause for concern. With larger companies beginning to enter the scene, we have observed an ongoing conversation of valuing the work necessary to create content.  Even in productions with larger budgets, we have noted that work is still being done at less than a living wage for the people involved.

As the podcast industry grows and shapes itself, we’re seeing some interesting funding strategies, one of the most common being exclusive productions behind a paywall connected to a freely available podcast. These productions and performances are no less deserving of recognition and, after much discussion and debate, we are opening up to allow these productions in the awards.

We recognize that they will be at a disadvantage, and we will be asking them for submissions for our nominee showcase, which is freely available. We will be keeping a close eye on the data we receive. As always, we endeavor to keep these awards as fair as possible and will adjust our practices accordingly.

(Edit: To be very clear, the indie shows released for free are a significant part of the AVAs. We love you and wish to support you however best we can, and will continue to do so.

We have been worried that “premium” shows would overcrowd smaller independent productions, which is why we asked productions to be available for free in previous years. We have to acknowledge that great storytelling is present in those productions, but also that being behind a paywall is not always an indicator of the production’s quality.

The problem is that when you have a company like Marvel releasing fiction productions for free, holding and maintaining that line begins to lose its value. Our need to remain impartial and design our rules in a manner that does not affect the outcome of the awards conflicted with the desire to recognize smaller creators.

We did consider a rule limiting budget to a set number; we found that number was subjective to a personal opinion of what is a larger production. Additionally, it would have required us to reach out to every production to confirm its budget.

If an independent creator has made their production sustainable, that is good for our community. The last thing we want is for them to be ineligible because their budget was a dollar over an arbitrary line. Marvel can afford to release for free, but not everyone, and it’s easier to make art when you are not hungry and homeless.

We understand the implications and are ready to reassess the choice at any moment with the community’s input. We fully admit that we’re learning and trying new things. If our data shows that those productions have an unfair advantage, we will adjust accordingly. We appreciate you bearing with us, and trusting us to change)

The Audio Verse Awards New Mission

The Audio Verse Awards are an annual celebration, dedicated to the greatest people and productions in immersive audio fiction around the world, whether it’s an audio play, improvised, or spoken word production.

Our New Eligibility Criteria

Since we are expanding the Audio Verse Awards to allow more varieties of immersive audio fiction, our new eligibility requirements are:

  • Production must be a fictional story, not news, conversation, or behind the scenes content. 
  • Production must be exclusively audio content, not available in a video version, not a direct reading of a text as in an Audiobook.
  • Production must have elements of 
    • Performance where the words are brought to life.
    • Production Design where the listener is being given a guided experience, not empty music or ambiance under the content.
  • Production must be released on a discoverable platform, ie, an RSS feed or marketplace, not a hosting service which requires a direct link to the content, as on Dropbox or Google Drive.
  • Production must have released an episode between October 1st, 2019, and September 30th, 2020.
  • All elements must either be in the public domain or have the rights secured for presentation.

Changes to our Categories

Changes to how we determine the Winners

As podcasting has exploded, so has the number of podcasts. Last year we received over 3,000 unique nominations, yet we only recognized 48 winners, so a nomination had a 1.6% chance of winning. With the natural expansion of content, that chance will decrease.

The desire to recognize a larger group of winners and the issues raised above, we have come up with this solution. Instead of having a larger number of categories, as our preliminary lists were in the high hundreds, we have decided to forgo splitting our categories by format and genre as we have in the past. Especially since there are some productions which manage to balance the line between comedy and drama, and picking one or the other doesn’t serve them as well as we would like. The one exception to this is that we will continue to recognize new productions that premiered during the past year in their own categories. We want those productions to receive your attention to help sustain them.

Going forward, we are going to recognize multiple winners for each category and streamline our categories to be more focused on the skills and disciplines displayed in the audio verse. It’s an approach we’ve seen repeated successfully in other awards with a diverse pool of incredible talent. We feel that this will allow us to recognize a larger number of talented people without requiring us to have an incomprehensible number of categories. Our goal has expanded from recognizing the best, to celebrate the great. We’ve changed our terminology to reflect this.

The real downside is that we are going to stop having personalized certificates for each winner. However, this allows us to prepare the certificates ahead of time and will reduce the length of time between the conclusion of voting and the announcement of the winners.

Categories for Direction and Directors

Direction has been rather difficult for us to award properly. Typically, the director is someone guiding their vision for the production and when it comes to the audio verse, we’ve seen that role handled in many different ways, from performers who direct themselves, writers giving cues to performers in the script, editors giving feedback to complete scenes and some have argued that dialogue editors assembling takes from performers are directors. The issue we’ve had is quantifying what is directing in a way which is uniform across multiple productions.

The practice we are consistently seeing in a wider number of productions is a director who is present during recording and gives feedback to performers to shape the scene at the moment. In a scripted production, these vocal directors guide performances. In Improvised productions, these directors, you may also know them as Dungeon or Game Masters, playout events with their players, guiding the framework of how events unfold.

We’re proud to announce Player Direction and Vocal Direction categories to recognize the people who are responsible for that in their productions.

Changing Terminology and Our Current Glossary of Terms

We can’t believe it took five years for someone to point out to us that the Audio Engineering Categories should be called Sound Design. (Thank you, Mischa) These are the current terms and definitions we are using for the Awards:

Action Sound Design: The sound effects that convey the actions, movements, and motions of characters. 

Audio Play: A style of storytelling which operates in scripted dialogue to convey the story.

Environment Sound Design: The sound effects that convey the scenes the characters are in, the ambiance which immerses us in another location.

Improvised: A style of storytelling where the events’ outcome is decided as they are played out.

Instrumental Composition: A song where only instruments are played.

Leading Role: The main characters of the story, Leading roles to anchor the production around them.

New: A production which has premiered its first episode during the eligibility period.

Performer: The person bringing a text to life through their performance.

Player: The person who reacts and responds to a scene as their character would.

Player Director: The person organizing and moderating a group of players in an improvised production.

Role in an Ensemble Cast: These are roles in shows without main leading roles where the cast operates in an ensemble, sharing the spotlight as each character gets their turn.

Spoken Word: A style of storytelling where a single performer embodies a story and details as they convey them to the audience through prose or poetry.

Supporting Role: These characters flesh out the world of a production with leading roles, interacting and shaping the main characters.

Vocal Composition: A song with a vocal performance.

Vocal Director: The person encouraging and tempering the work of a performer as they record.

Writer: The person generating words on a page for a performer.

Our Current List of Categories

These thirty-two categories will recognize the top five in each as decided by preferential voting, recognizing 160 winners for this upcoming year.

Music Categories

  • Instrumental Composition in a New Production
  • Instrumental Composition in a Production
  • Vocal Composition in a New Production
  • Vocal Composition in a Production

Sound Design Categories

  • Action Sound Design in a New Production
  • Action Sound Design in a Production
  • Environment Sound Design in a New Production
  • Environment Sound Design in a Production

Writing Categories

  • Writing of a New Spoken Word Production
  • Writing of a Spoken Word Production
  • Writing of a New Audio Play Production
  • Writing of an Audio Play Production

Directing Categories

  • Player Director of a New Production
  • Player Direction of a Production
  • Vocal Direction of a New Production
  • Vocal Direction of a Production

Performance and Player Categories

  • Performance of a Leading Role in a New Audio Play Production
  • Performance of a Leading Role in an Audio Play Production
  • Performance of a Supporting Role in a New Audio PlayProduction
  • Performance of a Supporting Role in an Audio Play Production
  • Performance of a Role in an Ensemble Cast for a New Audio Play Production
  • Performance of a Role in an Ensemble Cast for an Audio Play Production
  • Performance of a New Spoken Word Production
  • Performance of a Spoken Word Production
  • Player in an Improvised Production
  • Player in a new Improvised Production

Production Categories

  • New Improvised Production
  • Improvised Production
  • New Spoken Word Production
  • Spoken Word Production
  • New Audio Play Production
  • Audio Play Production

Changes in our Nomination System

Increasing the Gate to be Nominated to Three People

Back in 2017, due to the sheer number of nominations we receive, we introduced a two-nomination system where two separate people needed to nominate something for it to make our list of nominees. This helps keep our list of nominees comprehensible, especially on mobile browsers, as well as increasing the value being nominated has. 

We’re going to increase the gate to require three separate people to make a nomination for it to proceed in the awards. Especially in light of our other changes we’re making this year, it should mean that a nomination carries more weight.

Please remember, once they are on the list, additional nominations does not increase the production’s chance of winning.

Spelling Matters

Just a reminder that our system relies on the nomination to be spelled consistently. We’re going to put a note on the nomination form asking for the nominee’s name to be spelled exactly as it is listed on the show’s website. Hopefully, such spelling issues are resolved with no issue, but help us, help you!

Nominee showcase

We’re going to go back to asking shows to submit an episode from the eligibility period for the nominee showcase. We believe that gives a better insight into the quality and content of the show than a 15-minute sample.

Changes in our Voting System

One Round to Decide Them All

In designing the original the Audio Verse Awards voting system, we determined that two rounds of voting allowed our current survey system to ensure as fair as a public vote as we could.

That was before we had affordable technology to run preferential voting, which we tested during the final voting phase last year to wonderful success. We are designed for voters who listen to a huge variety of podcasts, and the ability to recognize winners not by who has the most votes, but rather which are the most preferred made an incredible difference. By taking into account the preferences of the voters, last year was the closest awards we’ve ever had.

We’ve also noticed a trend where some people vote in finalist voting but not the final voting, and vice versa. We’d like to merge those sets of people into a more cohesive group and get a better idea of what the community as a whole prefers to recognize. This, coupled with the changes to our categories and winners, we are going to move to one round of voting this year using preferential voting. We believe that will cut down on the amount of time it takes to decide the winners while also giving a better picture of the audio verse.

The Eternal Struggle for Fair-play

Every year there are cheaters and people trying to game the system. We see you, you know who you are. We give the benefit of the doubt where we can, but just a reminder that active interference in the operation of the awards may result in disqualification. We understand that you may be loyal to a particular show or production group, but that is at odds with our purpose to recognize the great work this community shows. As always we will identify and address these issues internally as they come up.

A Thank You to the Community

The Audio Verse Awards is always indebted to you, the Audio Fiction Podcasting community, as without you creating and listening to shows, we do not exist. 

We’re hoping these changes serve the community better, and welcome feedback sent directly to us at audioverseawards@gmail.com or our contact form so we can discuss and respond as a team. Thank you to everyone who’s reached out to us, or sat down with us to talk. We appreciate you, and your passion for audio storytelling.