For Everyone and No One

The Mixed Bag of the AVAs

Tal Minear
16 min readJan 19, 2024

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.” Many have called it a popularity contest, though the chair insists it’s a “preference contest.” They’re in their 10th year of running, and consist of a 12 member team.

This piece looks at the good and bad of the Audio Verse Awards — there’s a lot of both! In addition to my own opinions, I’ve asked a few other audio drama creators to chime in.

Audio Verse Awards

The AVAs bring the audio fiction community together each year to promote their favorite shows, new and old. Because fans can vote for multiple shows, it’s a competitive and collaborative awards experience. It’s common to see productions supporting other podcasts alongside their own. The AVAs are frequently an audio drama’s first award, in no small part due to their “new production” categories. I think this is fantastic. It brings credibility to indie audio fiction as a whole, which is why I hold their operations to such a high standard.

The AVAs strive for perfection — an admirable goal, but one that comes at the cost of consistency. The awards change nearly every year, so submitting can feel like a roll of a dice for creators. The modified borda count has been in place for a dependable amount of years, but the categories themselves or the ways in which nominees will advance to the finals have yet to be standardized this decade. It’s confusing, which hinders the credibility and reliability of the whole awards system. Creators cannot plan for the categories they apply for, fans cannot understand how their favorite shows make the finals, and those outside the indie sphere cannot respect an awards system that does this.

To their credit, the AVAs publish a lengthy change log every year detailing what’s different and why they’re changing it. This is a stunning level of transparency I wish more organizations would hold themselves to. But the AVAs is also the only awards system I know of that requires an annual “here’s what’s different this year” post. To my knowledge, no other awards experiment with their system quite this much. Popular vote awards have existed for a while with a process that works. Do the AVAs need to reinvent the wheel?

Some of these changes are more drastic than others. For example, a few years ago they added a Hall of Fame portion to the awards. Voters induct a handful of shows each year. It’s the last question on the ballot, and it cannot be skipped. Sarah Rosina Winkler says, “Whilst I certainly appreciate the sentiment, it’s fairly useless. The voters don’t know these shows and they’re being asked to vote anyway. It needs to be completely separated from the AVAs.” In contrast, Evo Terra wrote “Having been involved with fiction podcasting quite literally since fiction podcasting started, I know there are some fantastic fiction podcasts from the early days of podcasting that were and still are great. To me, having a new Hall of Fame category in the Audio Verse Awards will be a great way to pay homage to some of the great audio fiction shows that left their mark on today’s landscape.” Terra is overseeing the 2023 Hall of Fame, and curates The End.

New this year is a juried system of awards. Little has been said about it beyond the few paragraphs on their website. They say that “If we get enough volunteers, every nominee will receive a judged rating,” but as of publication, it’s unclear if they’ve made this number. It’s also unclear how many people make up the jury, but I spoke to two people on it. They shared that the AVA Team’s goal is to have 3 jurors to review each show and average the scores, but didn’t know if this goal had been met. I assume we’ll learn more once the winners are announced.

When I asked what the AVAs could do to improve, Jeff Van Dreason says they should simplify. “I think they need to find an identity that’s far less complex and doesn’t try to serve so many functions at once. I respect what they’re trying to do in that regard, but at this point much of the AVAs feels contradictory and it continues to get more confusing every year, both as a creator and as a voter.” I agree with Jeff — it seems that the team is trying to do too many things and managing it mediocrely. As it stands, the AVA ballot take me comparably long to fill out as voting in the US general election. It’s long, confusing, and unintuitive, especially to casual fans of just a few podcasts.

Audio Verse Accessibility

This confusion also leads to accessibility issues. Voters must vote in every category, and the voting form is often cluttered and busy. The AVA team has tried to improve their ballot layout each year, but it has been to mixed results. Caroline Mincks’ first experience voting was in 2020. They write, “I haven’t participated in the AVAs [since then], in large part because of how frustrating the experience was the first time around. Sifting through what felt like an endless list of oops-wait-they’re-still-loading thumbnail images, which were not organized in any way I could make sense of, would have been more than enough to make many people call it quits on the spot.” They noted that “at the time at least, you were not allowed to skip categories in the voting process.”

For Mincks, who had “only heard a fraction of the shows nominated for certain categories,” this led to an obligation to listen “through quite a lot of audio in a short amount of time.” They said, “I happen to be deaf, and part of what I deal with on a regular basis is what I call “hearing fatigue”. Listening takes a lot more energy for me than it does for hearing people — it’s harder for me to understand sound, it takes a lot more focus, I often have to rewind or refer to transcripts to keep up, the list goes on… It took me a really, really long time to get through all those episodes, and it was a truly exhausting ordeal.”

In the past, the AVA team has responded to requests to allow skipping categories by encouraging use of the Nominee Showcase to listen to more podcasts instead. In 2020, Evan Tess Murray said on Twitter “I actively dislike listening to AP shows and should not be judging them…. it feels strange to rate shows in a format I personally dislike.” The response from the AVA account was to say “We’re confident with the nominee showcase you’ll find one to your taste.” Mincks told them that “requiring this [amount of] research for these categories in order to vote and not giving the option to skip any presents an accessibility issue.” A user agreed, saying “I’m disabled. your voting system is inaccessible for those of us who can’t spend hours researching & listening to things that don’t interest us anyway, when some of these things don’t have transcripts or easily accessible info. Not letting up skip is a major accessibility issue.”

The official response by the AVA team, posted October 16 2020, stated “during our first few years, we learned that skipping categories can be abused by voters for one particular show to influence the results. However, we do take accessibility very seriously.” Wil Williams observed of their response, “you seem to be saying your method is fine and good, regardless of people saying actually it is not… I’m not seeing evidence of accountability being taken.” The march of time seems to agree — despite their claim that “if we can adjust things to make things more accessible, we will,” categories remain unskippable three years later, and the Nominee Showcase’s transcripts are hit or miss. But unlike in 2020, voters do not have to put 10 shows in each category to submit a ballot. Small progress is still progress!

Newton Schottelkotte observes, “The voting in the AVAs only takes forever and is so complicated and annoying because you can’t just go in, vote for your favorite shows in the categories they’re actually in, skip anything you don’t want to/don’t feel informed enough to vote in, and leave. They are so dedicated to arbitrarily denying it’s a popularity contest that they have made it actively more cumbersome to vote, thus ensuring that only the shows with the most rabidly dedicated fans actually go in and vote. By trying to not be a popularity contest they have become the APEX of one to a torture nexus degree.”

Sarah Rosina Winkler consistently tries to “listen to every single show before getting to rate it,” without success. “In [2023], I listened to 94 episodes on the Nominee Showcase… for a total of 58 hours, [with] 28 episodes to go. It’s too much to listen to within a month, and it’s tiring to boot. I appreciate the new changes to the voting system — especially as it doesn’t force my laptop into overdrive — that you can choose which shows you want to rate, but it’s still a lot of work for the people voting. Especially if you consider that some episodes on the Nominee Showcase can go for two hours. How can you be expected to make a reasonable decision like that?”

Audio Verse Aspersions

In the past, the team has struggled with criticism. Before this year, I’ve kept any negative opinions of the AVAs to myself, so I asked Wil Williams if they’d be willing to share their experience speaking to the AVA team in previous years. They said:

For at least two years of the AVAs, I have been asked directly to provide feedback on proposed categories and submission processes for the upcoming year. My feedback was clear, consistent, and hopefully, kind: I expressed that I felt the categories were too complicated and confusing, especially for fans who might not be versed in industry terminology — let alone the idiosyncratic and opaque vocabulary used by the AVAs. I also stressed that making massive changes to the categories, voting system, etc. every year does not help the nominees or the fans, and continues to make for a confusing and inaccessible system.

These conversations were always presented to me via Discord. I did not start any of these conversations myself. My thoughts and feedback were directly sought out. And each year, my feedback was ignored. I was bafflingly treated like I had done nothing but praise the proposed changes. It was very surreal. I tried to emphasize that I was not agreeing, and in fact, did not think the changes would be good — and still, I was treated like I was in agreement. I stopped trying to get on the same page, because frankly, I did not think it was possible.

The one time I did initiate conversation directly with the AVAs, it was in a reply to a thread on their Twitter, and I was asking a clarification question for a detail that confused me — and confused others, who had come to me asking for clarification in case I understood something they didn’t. I was responded to by the same person who had asked me for feedback before coming into my Discord DMs and calling me hostile. I was guilted for having the conversation in public (again, it was in a reply to a thread that they had posted on Twitter, in public), and blamed for not having memory of past conversations that loosely related to the topic at hand. I explained my motivation for asking, and I asked why I was being called hostile, given my question was very simple. I was then told I was never called hostile. When I showed a screenshot of where this person had called me hostile, the blame continued to come back onto me.

This was the last time I spoke with any representative of the AVAs, and is very indicative to me of how their upper management responds to criticism in public spaces where they cannot hide. In private, meanwhile, the responses to criticism are even more confusing. I am glad that the AVAs have afforded so many creators the accolades they deserve and, often, greater professional opportunities. I, however, am not going to put any energy into hoping or expecting that the way the AVAs are run will change for the better.

Williams provided screenshots of these interactions to me, and I can personally confirm their claims.

While I feel that the team’s communication has never been great, in the past I excused it. It was a free awards run by unpaid volunteers — and if it took them three months to count the ballots, so be it. Disappearing behind a wall of silence has been as standard between rounds four years ago as it is today. Finalist voting closed Jan 2, and nothing has been said when we can expect the winners to be announced. Last year, tabulations were finished on January 30, and winners were announced on March 19. No updates were posted between these two dates.

I’m willing to cut a lot of slack for a small group making something for free. But two years ago, they started charging for entry, and not much has changed. Initially, I was strongly in favor of adding a small fee to submit your show to the AVAs. The team was clearly overworked, and I’m generally a fan of people getting paid for what they do. Plus, the scholarships for shows that can’t afford the fee are working great. In the past two years, I’ve seen that nearly every show applying for sponsorship will receive one in the end. Additionally, compared to the hundreds of dollars the Ambies and Signal Awards charge, $25 pales in comparison. I’ll be the first in line to proclaim how reasonable this fee is. It’s on par with the early submission fees for web festivals, and it doesn’t even increase as the deadline approaches.

In 2022, each team member received about $550. Yet, they’re still referred to as volunteers, which is a bit misleading. Their FAQ says “in 2021, each volunteer received $434, and in 2022, it was approximately $554 per volunteer.” While I may dislike their wording, but I truly appreciate the transparency in reporting these figures. Last year, I counted 191 shows in the list of nominees — an revenue of $4,775 if each show paid $25. The website in 2022 showed 6 team members, and if they each got $554 that’s $3,324 profit. Their FAQ says, “Our operational expenses are our website and hosting, our mailing list for the number of participants we email for the awards, our voting systems to ensure fair and accurate, and tools for accessibility sadly kept behind paywalls. We use the fees submitted to cover any shows which can’t afford the entry fee, and the rest goes to our volunteers who share it equally.” Since the team has doubled between this year and last, I’d guess each member will receive about half of what they got last year.

I do think each member of the AVA team deserves more than this for their work. In past years, I’ve seen firsthand how much time goes into running the AVAs. This year, the community manager said “I have dedicated multiple hours every single day since September (with months more to go) to try and provide outreach and answer questions.” Running an awards is hard work. No matter the faults of the awards, the team is passionate and well intentioned. Brad Williams (no relation to Wil Williams) says, “I have absolutely no doubt that the people running [the AVAs] are doing so earnestly and with the best interests of the community as well as fiction podcasting in general at the core of their efforts… building a truly fair and equitable program to recognize creative works for their quality is incredibly difficult.”

Audio Verse Accidents

That being said, I did expect to see some difference in how the AVAs would be run with a few thousand dollars at their disposal. Perhaps there is a difference internally, but externally… well, they’re still goofing. That’s their wording, not mine.

They goofed.

Due to display issues, votes were not properly counted for the Recurring Voices and Director categories in the first 24 hours of finalist voting this year. In response, the AVAs closed the ballot, “decided the best remedy [was] to clean out the existing votes cast and start again,” and did exactly that. I asked “why is it fair to all categories [to] remove all the votes?” and got the response, “In our assessment, it is more expedient if we start over in voting with a clean ballot than trying to find ways to collect data after people have already voted. We have not tossed any ballots.”

I attempted to clarify, “If you have the data from my ballot on the first day of voting, why aren’t you using it?” but the team did not reply. I genuinely do not know what to call the removal of my ballot because I voted in the first day, if not the tossing of. The ignoring of early ballots? I’m not sure why they didn’t keep the votes for correctly displayed categories, run additional votes for the two messed up categories, or test their form before finals voting opened. This is the sort of thing I’m happy to excuse for a group of unpaid volunteers, but less so for a team accepting $25 from most of the 100+ shows nominated.

Updates to the issues with voting were first shared to the now-defunct AD Lab Discord server. Anyone could join this server, but posts to it were only visible to members. The AD Lab was not directly connected to the AVAs, so people wanting more information on the awards may not have known to join it. Thankfully, an update was later sent to their mailing list and posted on social media.

When server members asked questions about the AVAs’ fees, the community manger responded:

Sadly, this experience has begun to sour me on this community. If the volunteers are given a little gas money after working hours every day, why are we the bad guys? Why is the awards show suddenly villainized? Is it because it’s easy to attack a faceless entity and easy to forget that we’re just a small group of human beings who want a place to celebrate audio dramas? This is my first year. I can’t speak to the past. And no one on our team believes there isn’t room for improvement. But stop for a minute and recognize we are people before spreading all of this slander.

The two most negative statements I saw while were these questions: “what has the new $25 entry fee contributed to?” and “Wait so not really all volunteers? I’m confused.” When asked, the community manger elaborated:

The slander comes from it being spread around that the awards are not ‘transparent’ in discussing where our fees are distributed. That is a willful false statement meant to defame the awards because not only has the information been readily available under our ‘FAQ’ on our website for years, but numerous links have been provided to that information, yet people are actively choosing to continue the false statements in order to damage the awards reputation.

The question “Where does the entry fee go?” is the 9th question on the FAQ, which is itself in the middle of the two thousand word “about” page on the website. I’ll admit to looking for and not finding it initially, which makes me curious about how many of the “willful false statements” came from others in my position. I also wonder how useful numerous links are if they’re buried in the replies of ever-breaking Twitter threads or sitting in hidden Discord channels. But the question at the top of my mind is: Why does the community manager assume bad faith?

Audio Verse Afflictions

I think this illustrates the issue at the core of the AVAs — a desire to please the entire community. This manifests not only in the constant changes to the awards, but the level of frustration in the team’s response to criticism. Everything about the awards seems to be taken personally by them. Queries are deemed hostile. Questions are attacks. Confusion is slander. It comes across like they’re angry about not receiving the thanks they think they deserve. Or maybe the team is stressed out by the pressure of perfection, and merely lashing out. Neither is a great scenario.

The problem is that the “audio drama community,” whatever that may be, is unlikely to come together and thank anyone. Indie audio drama consists of diverse and overlapping circles of fans and creators that can’t even agree on what audio drama is. Doing anything for this community is, by nature, a thankless task. Expecting accolades for your work is a path towards anger and frustration when those accolades don’t come. It is truly impossible to please everyone, and I wish the AVAs would stop trying. It’s negatively impacting both their team members and the awards itself.

I want the team to know that fans and creators hold the AVAs to a high standard because they want to participate in something successful and good. The team receives criticism because people have faith in their improvement, not because the awards are their favorite punching bag. People only take the time to share their thoughts when there’s a chance they’ll be listened to. Some people, like Brad Williams, have found their feedback welcome. Others, like Wil Williams, have found their feedback ignored. It’s truly a mixed bag.

But do the AVAs even need to listen? Jeff Van Dreason says:

This is their vision and while others can and should offer advice, we should also respect their autonomy to do it their way and find the best way for them to do it. I think sometimes people think ‘I gave them advice and they didn’t listen to me.’ They don’t…have to? Should they improve? Absolutely, but if the advice they’re receiving runs contrary to how they want to run the thing, who is that for us to say? We can opt out of participating if we find it to be too big of a problem or not in line with what we want out of an audio fiction award.

Matters of accessibility aside, I give the AVAs full permission to stop listening to us and make the thing they want to make — one thing, instead of numerous different things in one AVA shaped cloak. I hope the team’s takeaway from the criticisms of this piece is to understand that perfection is pointless and applause will never come. The nebulous entity of “the audio drama community” is not who the AVAs should be making happy. The AVAs should be making the AVA team happy. From an outsider perspective, that doesn’t seem to be happening right now.

The AVA’s quest for perfection is a quest to please everyone. To be the best popular vote awards, but not be a popularity contest. To be a way to discover new shows, but also to award old shows. To be sustainable, but accessible. It’s for indie audio fiction, but also not quite, because the AVAs welcome all. It’s for scripted shows and improv shows (but not if you’re behind a paywall), storytelling podcasts (but not this year because there were too few last time), fan works (but not if you’re infringing on IP), ever-growing groups with complicated exceptions to cast the widest possible net.

Every year they change how it works, spaghetti thrown at the wall to see what sticks. Add a entry fee. Hall of Fame. Juried portion. Expand the scope, and expand it again. The AVAs want to be everything. Are they doing the opposite instead?



Tal Minear

Tal (they/them) is fiction podcast producer who cannot be stopped from making things and will occasionally write about audio fiction.