Lance Dann: behind the scenes of the Blood Culture podcast

Compelling podcasts with a life beyond the audio as website content, films, post-show discussions with scientists, twitter feeds and an SMS text game

On 20th April 2017, the audio and digital media drama series Blood Culture went live for the first time. It is a bio-medical thriller series, which explores people’s anxieties of the marketisation of the human body, exploitation of Millennial interns and the pervasiveness of corporate control in our everyday lives. Portrayed at a meeting of science fiction and science fact, the series is a conversation between creative practice and science, with experts and scientists contributing throughout the development of the narrative. The brainchild of radio producer Lance Dann, the series had spent its first month in the iTunes drama top ten, including several periods at Number 1.

Such instant success is not unexpected. Dann has worked in radio drama for over 20 years, including as a presenter of documentaries and producers of programming for BBC Radio 4. He was previously a sound designer with the New York theatre company The Wooster Group. He is also an academic, working at the University of Brighton, focusing on interactive narrative, the influence of corporate process on creative practice and the development of augmented reality applications for use in museum and gallery settings.

What inspired you to use science in your podcasts?

The project was originally born of an interest in blood, both culturally and in terms of research that is occurring in haematology.

I had become aware of the different way in which blood is donated and circulated in different countries and cultures. For instance in America, ostensibly they have a system of altruistic donation. But this is underpinned by a market led blood economy with brokers and deals taking place away from the public eye. As a writer, I found this inspiring and interesting. And I had been in discussion with the medical charity, The Wellcome Trust, about developing an audio drama project, and so I tied the two together.

As the project developed we started working with the brilliant Cristina Lo Celso at Imperial College, London. Her work with stem cells was fascinating; from this issues of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) and immunology came into the story. We diverted a long way from our starting point of being concerned just with blood. But that is in the nature of the creative process; the journey can take you to unexpected places.

What is more important, scientific accuracy or dramatic effect with some license regarding the scientific facts?

We wanted to create a “who dunnit” where to understand the mystery, the audience would have to engage at some level with science and research. Not in a didactic way but through the beats and rhythms of the narrative. To get this right, we had to remain as accurate and focused as possible.

Our credo was that everything had to be anchored in scientific fact–or at least currently perceived and recognised fact. We worked with and consulted with a large group of experts and let their input the drama. Doing so was surprisingly easy, especially if you are working with the right people. For a writer, there is nothing more terrifying than the blank page and working within parameters makes decisions taking easier.

What kind of response have you had from your audience, could you share some anecdotes?

The audience for the project is really interesting because we have two distinct groups. An older UK audience who come to us through Resonance 104.4FM (a London arts station through whom Blood Culture is produced) and a millennial US audience who have found us online. This later group as really active, really engaged, are predominantly female–and seem to have died green hair–and have a very present relationship with the show; as I write now two fans are bantering on Twitter about the fate of seemingly missing intern.

Attached to the audio, there is a host of website, films, post-show discussions with scientists, twitter feeds. And we even an SMS text game where you chat with one of the characters. This means that we have a younger audience who are digging into this extra material and getting everything they can from the experience.

The SMS game has been interesting. Players are actually talking to a simple chat bot that we set up, who is speaking as Justine, a distressed intern at the sinister corporation Meta. Apparently, one player was caught sending texts at school. He was then taken to their headmaster who wanted to call the police about the strange conversation he had been having on his phone.

I chose SMS because it is more personal than an online chatbot. People really do start responding to Justine as if she is a real person. More than one person has tried to ask her out on a date!

Do you consider that this kind of podcasts can help people grasp the challenges and limitations faced by scientists in real life?

We were very careful to not portray scientists negatively in Season 1 of Blood Culture, the antagonist is the CEO of a major tech corporation and no individual scientist is aware of what he is doing.

Season 2 is in the works, we are planning and researching that now. We will be addressing issues of research ethics in relation to developments around the CRISPR (gene splicing) method. That will hopefully give people a clear understanding of why certain processes exist and the implications of what could happen if you bypass them.

Do you have the ambition to take this to the next stage with a wider audience?

We’re in discussion with some US podcast networks which could break the project more widely in the over there. And are also developing another season.

The interesting thing about podcasting is that their existence is longitudinal, especially with multi-part audio drama, which can still gather listeners for years to come. This is a very emergent field, these are incredibly early days. We are seeing new ways of listening and of audiences engaging with audio content. I am co-writing a book about podcasting, called Podcasting: A Digital Media Revolution, at the moment and so am very aware of how the form is evolving.

What is useful for this form of public engagement work is that the audience to a podcast listen closely, as a secondary activity yes, but it is often on headphones and in a much more focused manner than traditional radio listening. You can do so much more with that, with the nature and form of story and the sophistication of the discussion and the content. This makes it the perfect medium for an informative bio-medical thriller!

Sabine Louët

Sabine Louët

Editor at EuroScientist
Sabine has a passion for all things related to European research. A physicist by training, she has been covering stories in life science, the physical sciences, technology, policy and innovation for the past 20 years. She was previously the news editor at Nature Biotechnology. She was also involved in the creation of AlphaGalileo. She is the Founder of SciencePOD translating complex science and tech concepts into high-quality articles written in simple language.
Sabine Louët

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