Helen Quigley, Producer/Director, B7 Media and Audioteria

Content POV: Andrew Mark Sewell and Helen Quigley

New York, NY | February 05, 2024

Andrew Mark Sewell and Helen Quigley are the multi award-winning Producer and Director team behind UK indie B7 Media and recently launched audio drama platform Audioteria. Along with Sound Designer and Composer, Jon Nicholls, they share their thoughts on the future of audio drama storytelling, the backstory to creating Audioteria, and how the emergence of AI should perhaps be something to embrace and not fear.

New York Festivals: Share your thoughts about the future of storytelling.

Since the dawn of time the fundamentals of storytelling haven’t changed. Whilst – as the maxim goes – there are only seven basic plots – the means by which we tell stories has evolved. From primitive cave drawings to the world of immersive stories with virtual characters, now the spectre of AI is threatening to remove the writer and actor entirely from the equation.

Andrew Mark Sewell, Producer/Director, B7 Media and Audioteria

Understandably there’s a lot of fear surrounding the use of AI, but as former BBC colleague has shown, it can also be a tool that works hand in hand with the creative process. One of the companies at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of storytelling with Virtual characters who understand you is Charisma Entertainment run by a former BBC colleague, Guy Gadney, who always was a bit of a visionary. Guy and his team’s mission has been to create a platform for writers, which was rooted in foundations of storytelling and used natural language instead of code.

As Guy explains, “Our vision is that AI will have a huge impact on storytelling across entertainment, education and marketing. We built to be at the heart of this new era, as a single engine that powers interactive storytelling, placing our audiences in immersive worlds with strong and believable characters.”

Interestingly, people are now experimenting with using ChatGPT and AI voice tools to create radio drama. Red Odyssey: The Final Hour a short radio play, in the style of a vintage radio show, about the first human mission to Mars, was produced using tools from the artificial intelligence voice startup, ElevenLabs.

The creator Ryan Morrison explains how it was put together: “All the voices were selected from the ElevenLabs library and I used text-to-speech rather than voice-to-speech. The music was created using Google’s MusicFX and the sound effects used were all from under a public domain licence. Editing was done using Podcastle, an impressive AI-heavy audio editing platform that has its own synthetic voice tools.” But as Ryan rightly observes, whilst the audio quality and the natural tone of the voice were impressive, they lack emotion or performance direction.

Will synthetic voices ever sound in anyway natural – and human? Unlikely. Not unless, as my producing partner Helen Quigley points out, they learn to breathe. Much of a performance is carried in the breath and in the body, and AI currently has neither. Pitch, emphasis and emotion are all inherent in breathing. Without it, the human nuance is lost. For now, an AI produced audio drama all sounds pretty soulless and not in any way engaging, with little to no sense of pacing or drama. That said, it’s frighteningly impressive what can be achieved even at this early stage of the AI evolution.

Voice actors are justifiably worried about the implication of AI will have on their careers and whilst personally I don’t believe that AI will ever (entirely) replace an actor, for things such as e-learning, corporate videos, automated help desks, train announcements, etc., then the future is looking pretty bleak for the jobbing voice artist.

I asked Jon Nicholls, one of our regular sound designers and composers, who also works extensively for BBC Radio and Audible, for his thoughts on the implication and benefits of AI in the production process.

“Everyone’s talking about AI of course, and as a composer as well as a sound designer I can particularly appreciate musicians’ and actors’ concerns about it. It’s clearly spreading into the sound design world as well; there are already plugins that will generate both background SFX and foley instantly. However, I think producers probably want to collaborate with particular sound designers for their individual sensibilities and aesthetic approach (rather than simply their technical resources). Sound design for audio fiction is about musicality, wit, the ability to take short and long-term perspectives, and above all a sense of drama - all of which are less easily replicated by AI (for now).

Where I think AI is bringing something genuinely exciting and also useful is in the area of audio processing, especially noise reduction. Izotope RX has been a staple for everyone for a long time, but I’ve had some really extraordinary results with AI-based noise reduction on what seemed to be completely unsalvageable material that had defeated RX. The emergence of more powerful computers like the new Mac M1 / M2 series means that multiple instances of these kind of plugins can now run in real time, rather than having to be run offline, which saves a significant amount of time.”

AI is here to stay, and its arrival does rather remind me of the doom mongering of “Vinyl is dead” when CD’s became the predominant means by which we consumed our music and audiobooks, which in turn were replaced by digital streaming and downloads, but in a bizarre twist Vinyl has made a vibrant and unexpected return to the market and even CD sales are on the increase. Far from physical media being extinct it has managed to co-exist with its digital counterparts. So, in turn I believe AI will evolve to become a tool that will aid the creative and production process, but human intervention will always remain at the heart.

New York Festivals: What types of technology do you find yourself using in drama?

A while back I remember being told by a commissioning editor that we shouldn’t make our audio dramas quite so detailed in terms of sound design and music mix, since; “Our listeners are busy doing other things around the house whilst they’re listening to the drama” (sic). Fortunately, as I argued at the time, if the audio drama is gripping enough, the listener will stop what they’re doing to enjoy the full listening experience.

The means by which everyone listens to audio drama is evolving all the time and with the emergence of Dolby Atmos, we’re seeing the likes of Audible adopting this as their premium standard for audio dramas and enhanced audiobooks. Even car manufacturers are getting in on the act with Mercedes the first to announce at The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that they are installing what is effectively a mini theatrical Dolby audio system in their upcoming E class vehicles.

I’ll leave the last word with sound designer and composer, Jon Nicholls who firmly believes the emergence of Dolby Atmos as both a design process and listening environment is *the* major development.

“Although most people probably aren’t currently going to be listening on dedicated Dolby devices (though that’s rapidly changing) or home multi-speaker Dolby systems, however even as a binaural stereo downmix it offers not only a completely immersive listening experience but also a hugely flexible sound design environment. For the sizeable proportion of people not listening on headphones, Dolby mixes also collapse down to standard stereo far more effectively than for example material recorded binaurally.

Speaking from a sound design perspective, of course it’s exciting to play with the more extreme possibilities of moving sounds around the listener. However, in drama contexts, I feel that it’s the ability to place sounds subtly in their actual ‘real-world’ positions that can create a truly immersive experience, as well the opportunities to create truly spacious soundscaped backdrops.

The nature of ‘immersiveness’ in an audio drama context, now that the technology has advanced to this point, is an interesting thing to consider, and I do feel there’s a balance to be struck when working in Dolby (as in stereo) between what you could term ‘realism’ and imagination. Audio drama is often referred to as ‘cinema for the ears’; a more accurate phrase is perhaps ‘cinema for the mind’, working as it does through a very particular active synergy with the listener’s imagination. As sound designers, really, we’re working firstly to trigger pictures in listeners’ minds, and secondly keep them immersed – by which I mean anchored - in the story. Practically speaking, this means creating just the right level of detail to enable the ‘mental movie’ to be created, and also holding back on anything (however technically exciting!) that might pull people out of it.”

New York Festivals: What are the most profound changes you’ve noticed in the art of storytelling in the past 5 years?

The fundamental building blocks of storytelling haven’t changed nor will they, but as technology and delivery methods evolve, so does the ambition of content producers to enhance and provide the listener with a more immersive and engaging experience. Whilst it’s undoubtedly an exciting time technologically (and formally) for audio fiction, as sound designer Jon Nicholls rightly points out it’s probably especially important right now to make sure the technology is serving our storytelling, rather than the other way round.

Jon elaborates: “As it gets easier to achieve ever-greater degrees of technical precision, we should keep a hold of the non-precise elements that make great audio drama: movement, breath, dirt, actors working in a shared space. One of the greatest sound design resources is ‘wildtrack’ - not only the sounds of the actors, but more broadly simply the world happening around us. I always encourage producers to get out of the studio and record on location; capturing the unpredictability of real-world life and movement and then bringing that back into the precision of an Atmos design process can lead to some truly exciting outcomes.”

When I look back on a bygone era of BBC audio drama, it was all very rooted in theatrical conventions – since not surprisingly most of the writers and directors coming to the medium hailed from theatre. Nowadays, the writers, producers, directors, sound designers, composers work in a multitude of media, not least film, television and video games. A direct consequence of this is that the “stage play on radio” feel has been replaced with a far more authentic production that feels “lived in” feeding the listener’s imagination and truly delivering – movies of the mind.

New York Festivals: You recently launched - could you share the backstory on its development?

The creation of Audioteria was born out of a desire to create a home for audio drama made by independent producers. A dedicated digital platform whose aim is to promote, market and distribute the very best of independently produced audio drama, enhanced audiobooks and audio theatre, which is stored and listened to on its own (iOS or Android) app. It will also provide a home for previously broadcast content, now out of license, that hasn’t yet found a home anywhere else.

Outside of the BBC, with its vast output of audio drama (over 300 hours produced a year, but still a radical reduction from its heyday of over 600 hours), there isn’t a single platform that pulls together the very best in audio drama. Yes, there is the audiobook market goliath that is Audible, but whilst they’ve been producing some big-ticket, star-led audio drama productions, promoted with billboards along the Hollywood Boulevard – which that alone would blow in their entirety most indies audio drama annual budgets - finding the content in their app amidst the tens of thousands of audiobook titles isn’t easy and the interface still treats full-cast drama as such. This can be confusing for subscribers who were expecting a book and got a beautifully crafted drama instead; just read some of the reviews!

So, in a nutshell Audioteria is a dedicated platform that showcases out of license commissions that can be made available commercially, or brand-new dramas or new fiction podcast series which may benefit initially from an exclusive window as a paid download. Ultimately, we want our partner producers and creators to see better financial returns on their content - receiving 75% of the revenue from consumer sales – enabling them to reinvest in making more great audio dramas!

What Audioteria isn’t, is a podcast directory or a streamer, so we’re not looking to host existing free content. All audio is curated. We want listeners to know they’re getting a high standard for their purchase, especially when so much audio drama is available via subscription, or for free elsewhere.

We’d love to hear from any indie producers who have previously available or broadcast drama programmes stashed away that could find a home at This may also include some docudramas, children’s stories, or enhanced fiction audiobooks featuring sound design.

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© 2024 Andrew Mark Sewell, Helen Quigley, Jon Nicholls.