The new wave of podcasts continues to roll along, offering new audio stories. Let’s get beyond Serial and look at some recent storytelling projects. I’ll introduce and sketch these out, and will save deeper analysis for another time.
In May things kicked off with The Black Tapes, a faux documentary about an NPR-style reporter investigating a paranormal debunker. Alex Reagan (pronounced /REE-gun/) works for Pacific North West Stories, a fictional NPR-affiliate; Richard Strand is a charismatic debunker of ghost hunters and demonologists. Their relationship is one part Mulder and Scully, one part Terry Gross and the Amazing Randi.
The titular tapes are VHS recordings, documentations of cases Strand has yet to debunk. Each episode is based on Alex (always first-named) exploring one of those stories. Like the X-Files there are one-off stories interlaced with a multi-episode arc. As I noted this summer on another blog The Black Tapes is funny, engaging, appropriately creepy, and very clever. The NPR parodies are loving and spot-on. Very good audio storytelling. Season one is done; season two should boot up in January.
After The Black Tapes took off some or all of crew then started another podcast. Tanis is similar in that it is also a pretend documentary about an NPR-style team investigating a mystery. It differs in genre. While Black Tapes probes the classic paranormal, Tanis explores a mix of fantasy, occult history, true crime, and hacking. If you will, while Black Tapes partakes of H.P. Lovecraft, Tanis is more Clark Ashton Smith. Tanis is “an exploration of the nature of truth, conspiracy, and information. Tanis is what happens when the lines of science and fiction start to blur…”
Nic Silver, our narrator and chief investigator, gradually accretes a strange mythos, drawing on sources as disparate as 19th-century serial killers, Weird Tales-like pulps, and the deep web. The result is dreamy, not clearly structured, occasionally disturbing, and a very appealing podcast narrative. It’s still going on, five episodes in as of this writing.
Also appearing this fall is The Message, the story of a group of cryptographers trying to crack a 70-year-old transmission. As with Tanis and Black Tapes a young, NPR-influenced narrator is our guide, embedded in a way with the would-be decrypting group. Things rapidly occur. Within a few minutes we learn the transmission came from space, is probably from aliens, and has been kept secret by the US military. The next two episodes yank the plot in several new directions, which I won’t spoil here, but they’re credible and intriguing. Then things get strange.
If Black Tapes is horror and Tanis fantasy, The Message is science fiction. Instead of Lovecraft and Smith, we get a mix of Neal Stephenson and Phil Dick. Each podcast episode is very tautly structured, racing from point to point within minimal exposition. The Message is done, ending with a splendid conclusion – be sure to listen all the way to the end of episode eight. Strongly recommended.
Then there’s Limetown, one of the most impressive podcasts I’ve heard. The conceit is that a research community was built in Tennessee around the year 2000; around 2005 all of its inhabitants mysteriously vanished. Our interlocutor is obsessed with the case, related to one of the vanished, and tries to get to the bottom of things with research and interviews.
Limetown is the opposite of The Message, as each episode is long and sprawling, taking its time to establish setting and character. It’s more like a novel, especially as we get to spend a good deal of time with each interview subject. The voice acting and writing are excellent. Also like The Message, I don’t want to spoil your experience by revealing plot twists. The creators have established something like an alternate history or mythology, and part of the story’s pleasure is being able to sink into that timeline, with its implications.
A few observations about these podcasts.
The influence of American public radio, especially This American Life and Serial, is strong. Each podcast emphasizes personal storytelling. They use modern pop/jazz/indie music as punctuation. They are self-aware and slightly self-mocking. Audio production quality is high.
Most blur the line between fiction and non-. In fact The Message actually runs a disclaimer on that point. There’s a long tradition of this kind of storytelling, including Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds radio play and today’s alternate reality games (I have a short paper on this here). The podcasts play games with this blur, using real people as themselves while having podcast actors play roles. This strikes me as a sign of ARGs influencing other media, plus, perhaps, a commentary on the truthiness of digital media.
Each of these podcasts is a genre work. Unlike Serial, Black Tapes et al move away from realism, picking some form of the fantastic to inhabit. Perhaps podcasting will see a realism/genre divide open up.
NB: please don’t misunderstand this post to imply that podcast storytelling is a new thing. It dates back a decade. There is a broad, deep corpus of work that people often neglect. I wrote about this a little in New Digital Storytelling. Then there’s the *century* of radio storytelling before that. What I’m describing in this post is just the most recent wave of using audio technology for narrative.
I’m listening to other new podcasts, but these are enough for now. For more podcasts, here’s a list of some of my favorites. I really should update that.