Writer and actor Lena Waithe has penned countless episodes of gripping television, from “Master of None” to “The Chi,” but creating an audio program is what has recently stretched her as…
Writer and actor Lena Waithe has penned countless episodes of gripping television, from “Master of None” to “The Chi,” but creating an audio program is what has recently stretched her as a storyteller. Unable to rely on facial expressions and other visual crutches, “It sort of made me work a little bit harder as a writer,” Waithe explained at the Variety x Audible Cocktails & Conversations panel.
“It’s allowed us to reclaim our imagination,” agreed Rishi Rajani, CEO of Hillman Grad, the production company founded by Waithe. “So many of the artists that we work with are so excited by this new/old version of content because the audiences get to create the characters in their head. They get to draw the scenes and settings in their minds. That can sometimes be even more powerful than what you’re seeing visually.”
“And you don’t have to memorize your lines, which is also kind of fun,” joked Waithe.
The leading creators in the audio storytelling space gathered to discuss the rapidly growing industry at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Variety senior entertainment writer Angelique Jackson hosted two in-depth discussions with the head of Audible studios, Zola Mashariki. The first was with Waithe and her colleague Rajani; the second featured the brain trust leading Hartbeat, the production company chaired by Kevin Hart, with CEO Thai Randolph and president and chief content officer Bryan Smiley in conversation.
Waithe and Hillman Grad found success with Audible series “Kym,” a comedy co-created and starring Kym Whitley loosely based on the comedian’s life. “[Kym is] really vulnerable, she opens up. That’s really important originality in storytelling. That is something that’s important to our Audible brand,” Mashariki agreed.
As Hillman Grad grows, its intent to bolster and encourage new artists remains the same. “The mission is to support emerging artists from underrepresented backgrounds in whatever way we can.” Rajani said. “That is what the mission is. That’s what the mission is going to continue to be.”
Waithe took it a step further, elaborating on what they’re looking for within that work, “What we’re doing is very specific and intentional… People always ask, ‘What do you want people to take away from the work?’ And I always say, whatever they bring to it is what they will take away… Make sure that this art has a piece of you in it somewhere. You leave a piece of yourself in that. That is usually the art that sticks.”
Watch the full conversation above.
The second panel with Hartbeat analyzed the banner’s production priorities and how it found success in Audible series such as “Finding Tamika” and “Summer of ’85.”
Randolph summarized the two pillars that govern the production studio’s mission. “The first is to keep the world laughing together,” the CEO explained to the crowd. “We are helmed by one of the most successful entertainers and definitely the most commercially successful comedian of all time. Laughter is really important to us. But the other part of that mission is to really tell representative and reflective stories. When we say representative and reflective, what does that mean? Well, 80% of the people of the world are people of color. And 50% to 51% of the people of the world are women. And we look, whether it’s with our creative partners, the composition of our teams and the stories that we tell and the storytellers who we tell them with. We try to make sure that it’s really representative of this global audience that we’re serving.”
The creators at Hartbeat strive to meet these two objectives across all their platforms, including with Audible content. “Serialized original audio programming is such an important extension of that mission,” Randolph said.
“Quite frankly, we were just blown away by how many different types of stories they were telling and the types of empowering stories that they were telling,” Mashariki explained, elaborating on Audible’s consumer reaction to Hartbeat productions. “Kevin did a self-help book with us, now he’s done two with us — and our audience really responded to it… We’re looking for people who can provide multiple, four to six pieces of original content a year, because our audience is voracious. And diverse content, not just one type of voice, one genre. It has to excel. It has to really be on a level. So they’ve delivered that.”
How did the transition from television and film flow to audio storytelling? “It’s really a more intimate kind of space to tell these different stories that really don’t translate oftentimes initially to traditional film or TV.” Smiley said. “But in an audio space, we have a chance to really let the story breathe and let the creators and the storytellers go there and have more freedom and flexibility. We found, especially with ‘Finding Tamika,’ that there’s a brilliance to what she was able to achieve by having that freedom and flexibility.”
The Audible platform also allotted the space for Hartbeat creators to experiment with several serious features. It was a surprising turn; as Randolph put it, “We have a joint venture with Charlamagne from the Breakfast Club and that joint venture, that partnership, that audio production banner packed it with Audible for a multi-year, multi-project deal, that really gave us a ton of creative freedom in bringing to life these underrepresented untold stories in a way that was really intimate, in a way that was really personal and really let us explore in ways that weren’t expected from us.”
What’s next for Hartbeat podcasts and serialized audio stories? More humor. “The first couple of things out of the gate were of a more serious tone,” Randolph revealed. “And now we have five projects in queue, in various stages of development and production. One of those is a scripted rom-com.”
And what’s on the horizon for Audible? Mashariki singled out wellness as a growing genre in the audio world; Hart’s successful self-help audiobooks are definitely an example of that success. “There’s so many things to worry about and having relief is critical and having that kind of comfortable friend in Audible is helpful,” Mashariki said. “We’re programming our content to address that.”
Watch the full conversation above.