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The booming online audio industry has spurred the renaissance of audio dramas. Despite their popularity, producers find it hard to turn plays into profits

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Pictured is a recording booth at Jiang Guangtao's dubbing studio Voicegem

The main way Salvianta, screen name of a media worker in Beijing in her mid-20s, passes the time on her daily commutes is listening to audio dramas on MissEvan, a podcast platform. A fan of danmei (referring to male-male romance stories favored mostly by female readers), she paid for a danmei drama in late May after listening to free stories for months. “It’s my favorite drama. The character voices are awesome and the production is pretty good,” she told NewsChina.  

The once fading form of entertainment has regained its vigor thanks to the internet and technology. The online audio industry is booming as people chase a faster pace of life and try to make good use of their fragmented time. The audio industry today features audiobooks, podcasts and audio livestreaming. It gives people a break from the screen-dominated world, allowing them to multitask while listening, whether they are jogging or doing housework. 
The increasing popularity of audio dramas has seen animated online discussions about the quality of dramas, favorite voice actors and fans’ recommendations.  

Data from iiMedia Research, an industrial data provider, shows the number of users of China’s online audio market increased year-on-year to 490 million in 2019 and the market scale expanded to 17.58 billion yuan (US$2.76b), while 76 percent users on audio platforms have either subscribed or paid for a one-off product. The number is expected to reach 690 million in 2022. Young users under 30 formed the bulk of listeners in 2020, nearly 66.7 percent of the total, according to iiMedia Research. Audio drama, an emerging but strong force in the online audio market, is regarded as a promising sector, despite the challenges of turning a profit and retaining good voice acting talent.  

Tuning in Again 
Audio drama emerged in the US and UK in the 1920s on radio, becoming immediately popular in the days before television. The first radio drama in China was about the war to resist Japanese aggression, called Horrible Memories, and was broadcast in 1933 in Shanghai. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China National Radio (CNR) broadcast its first drama in 1950. Radio drama was very popular in China for several decades until the 1990s when it gradually lost momentum as other forms of entertainment took over.  

Jiang Guangtao, a 45-year-old voice actor and founder of recording studio Voicegem, recorded dramas for radio stations in the 1990s. He described the experience as “fun” as audio drama doesn’t require lip syncing and provides some room for improvisation. In recent years he started doing audio dramas again as podcasting became popular.  

Unlike film or TV, audio dramas create infinite room for the imagination. “Listeners can create their own images based on their moods, experiences and circumstances, which could alter the story. But this richness in interpretation is what we strive for as actors,” Jiang told NewsChina. 

It is not easy to produce a quality drama with sound alone. Besides a fine vocal tone, actors need strict training and practice and the ability to make the most of sound during a performance. Bian Jiang, an actor who studied dubbing at Beijing Film Academy, told NewsChina that when producing an audio drama, the first thing they do is study the script. An episode is about 20 minutes and an experienced actor can do five to seven episodes a day. But the preparation and recording processes take much longer. Bian said they once spent seven days recording one episode, and they have to keep trying until the actor develops a feel for the character. Apart from the dialogue, the performers need to act out other sound effects, like chewing, crying or struggling. The best audio drama actors can build pictures in audiences’ minds only with sound.  

By the 21st century, broadcast media began to wane and audio drama went out of fashion. But it seized the chance provided by the internet as a new media and moved online, gradually regaining its lost popularity.  

It is a group of young people who love danmei and ACG culture (anime, comics and games) that helped realize the transformation. They gathered on forums and produced their favorite audio dramas. In 2000, audio drama fans on E-time Forum produced the first online audio drama in Chinese – Watch Out the Car. Around 2005, radio drama fans on online literature websites began putting out their own audio dramas, as well as crowdsourced translations of Japanese audio dramas.  

Along the way, many amateur dubbing fans became professional voice actors. Zhang Jie, founder of 729 Voice Studio, was a fan of online audio drama and later became a professional actor for TV, cartoons and audio dramas.  

Noticing the new trend, Jiang, who had no previous experience in ACG culture and seldom read online literature, started making online audio dramas. As the opportunities poured in, he became a voice actor specializing in these genres.  

Jiang started Voicegem in 2010. Bian Jiang and Zhang Jie opened their own studios in 2016. At that time, their main business was still dubbing, but they also started to cover music production, audio dramas and cartoons. These efforts helped break down the barriers between fields and draw fans to audio drama.  

Between 2011 and 2013, online podcast apps such as Qingting FM, Himalaya and Lizhi FM emerged. Since then, podcast platforms mushroomed. Coupled with the fast growth in related fields like audio books and livestreaming, the online audio industry has taken shape in just a few years.  

Audio drama was able to carve out its own niche. In 2014, audio platform MissEvan was established. Audio drama is one of its most popular segments along with audio manga and books. Many other major platforms including Himalaya and Qingting FM also host audio dramas.  
Pump Up the Volume 
At first, online audio dramas created by enthusiasts were free, and their listeners were hardcore fans. Gradually, the platforms accumulated enough users and were able to monetize. MissEvan started by releasing a lot of free radio dramas to build subscribers. The voice actors, who have their own fan bases, helped draw listeners to MissEvan. This laid the foundation for MissEvan to develop its core business around paid audio dramas.  

Paid audio dramas are mostly produced by companies who buy the copyright of novels, adapt them into an audio format and then employ well-known voice actors to bring them to life. In January 2018, 729 Voice Studio adapted a novel by Priest, a webwriter on original online literature site jjwxc.net, into an audio drama on MissEvan. The first series got 32 million plays, a success among commercial audio dramas.  

Himalaya, which started producing audio dramas in 2019, presented the serialized audio adaptation of sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s The Three-body Problem. Divided into six series and priced at 198 yuan (US$31), The Three-body Problem has over 72 million plays.  

Li Shuo, founder of Weisheng Culture which deals with music copyright and audio post-production for film and TV, collaborated with 729 Voice Studio to score  

The Three-body Problem. After it was broadcast, Himalaya told him they planned to release a soundtrack album. Li, a fan of Liu Cixin, said he did not expect so many users would be willing to pay 30 yuan (US$4.7) for the album. According to Himalaya’s website, the soundtrack album had been played 375,000 times by June, although one can listen multiple times after paying once, and there is no data about how many individuals paid for it. But it reflects the popularity of the drama. This made Li see the potential of audio drama so he decided to get into the business too.  

Among the 490 million consumers in the online audio market in 2019, 76 percent pay for content, each spending 202 yuan (US$32) on average annually, according to data from iiMedia Research. This market, particularly audio drama and books, is expected to have growing influence on wider age groups, leading to more investors flooding in.  

In March, CNR launched its own audio platform Yunting to keep pace with the trend. A month later, Kuwo, a music platform owned by Tencent Music, announced a deal with Chinese Literature, one of China’s largest online publishing and ebook companies, to adapt popular novels and cartoons into audio dramas. In May 2020, Qingting FM and digital content provider COL partnered up to tap the audio market.  

Challenges Ahead 
For producers, popularity does not always equal profit. Despite the huge number of plays, the revenue model is lacking. There are only two ways to profit: Charging users per episode or annual subscriptions, yet most users do not pay for content. Besides, not all age groups are shelling out for audio. For example, on Himalaya, except for The Threebody Problem, most of the top 10 most popular dramas are adapted from wuxia (martial arts fantasy) and danmei stories, signaling that young ACG fans remain the bulk of paid users.  

There is no accurate figure for how many people are engaged in the industry or the revenue it produces, as most of those involved also work in other fields, including film and TV dubbing, directing, sound design and the music industry, so they have multiple streams of income. But generally, the market for audio drama is in the early stages. With the exceptions of Himalaya and MissEvan, most audio platforms mainly offer free audio dramas.  

While some voice actors have made their careers in audio drama, incomes for less popular and unknown actors are poor. For example, voice actors make money from voicing advertisements, games, TV series and audio dramas, but advertising pays the highest. For a 90-second ad, A-list voice actors can make 20,000-30,000 yuan (US$3,142-4,713), much higher than the best-paid audio drama jobs.  

Li Shuo said that an average actor earns only 100-300 yuan (US$15.7-47.1) for a one-hour gig. Even though they may perform in different scenes, an unknown actor earns at most several thousand yuan a month, Li said. The low wages are driving voice talent to seek work in other fields, resulting in lower-quality dramas that could hamper the development of the industry in the long run, interviewed insiders said.  

But the potential of audio drama is evident. As the coronavirus pandemic made TV shoots more challenging, audio dramas and voice acting, which does not require close contact, provides more flexibility. In March, Calls, an American TV series that combines audio and minimal abstract visuals to tell horror stories, was released on Apple TV+ and generated discussions over its format.  

Inspired by Calls, Li Shuo is considering experimental audio dramas, confident in the potential market. The Three-body Problem was known for being difficult to adapt for film or TV. But in audio drama, realizing the imagery typical of sci-fi novels is not a problem. “Audio might indeed be the best vehicle for sci-fi stories,” Liu Cixin said of the audio version of The Three-body Problem when it came out in late 2019.  

Besides, there is ample room for audio drama content to become more diverse and attract more listeners. Even though danmei and ACG stories dominate the market right now, it implies there is growing room for new themes. Many literary works are yet to be adapted, which means there is still lots of room to play.