(elderly male voice) Have you listened to it yet?
(female voice) Not Yet. We’re having a discussion about that. But if I offered you a chance to listen to it right now?
(elderly male voice) Well we don’t really know what it is. Voices? Music? Breathing? But you know. I’m not going to mess with that thing.
(female voice) To sum it up: Extraterrestrials.
—Teaser for The Message
Podcasting is associated with the commercial content that the hosts cheerfully pitch from Naturebox.com to Blue Apron almost as much as the podcast itself. In addition, they’re almost exclusively news, comedy or otherwise factual information based. That’s why it’s so unusual to listen to a podcast that’s set in an immersive fiction-based world with no commercial interruption.
On October 4, 2015, The Message arrived, heralded by an eerie teaser that made it seem like the audio equivalent of all those History channel investigations into aliens that you just know are going to be filled with goofy re-enactments and Fox Mulder–like declarations of those that “want to believe.” The show is about a young female narrator’s audio recordings of a group of elite cryptographers attempts to translate an alien broadcast from the 1940s that may or may not have killed nearly everyone that listened to it.
The commercially uninterrupted first-person narrative format, along with a fantastic story, produced a fly-on-the-wall effect and got listeners hooked. Garnering nearly 5 million downloads, The Message was a hit and an equal parts collaboration between GE, the Panoply Network of Podcasts and its partner agencies BBDO and Giant Spoon.
GE was one of the early pioneers of radio content beginning in 1912 with experimental radio station 2XI. In the 1920s, GE was partnering with an early pre-NBC affiliate to make several hour long variety shows. Finally and most famously, CBS produced General Electric Theater in 1953 filled with popular stars of the time, like Cary Grant and Judy Garland.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that the massive popularity of Serial, the podcast that followed the twisting and turning story of a murder of a high school student over an entire season, led GE to the realization that “podcasting could be entertainment.”
The ultimate goal of GE Podcast Theater may be to get you to buy more GE appliances and embrace science and technology as a way of life, but their branding is very subtle in this endeavor. In the entire eight-episode series run of The Message, you don’t hear any product names that aren’t relevant to the story, and there isn’t even a “brought to you by” voiceover like in serialized radio dramas from the 1930s to 1950s.
The three episodes so far of LifeAfter, GE’s latest scripted podcast, follow the same pattern: no breaks, pauses or trace of interruption. LifeAfter follows a low level FBI employee named Ross Barnes who, while at work, can’t stop listening to voice recordings of his deceased wife Charlie on an app called Voicetree. All of a sudden she starts talking to him through the app. How could this be possible? How can he keep talking to her and not get fired?
In an audio drama, the sound is the most important element. John Dryden, executive producer and series director of LifeAfter, discussed with me the process of creating a believable soundscape.
Observer: How important was it to try and capture authentic sound effects and not produce them in the studio?
John Dryden: Recording a drama outside of the studio is less about capturing “authentic” sounds—which can always be added later in post-production—and more about tapping into the physicality of everything we do in life. In a studio the microphones are in fixed positions and it becomes only about the words. Recording outside the studio allows us to block out scenes if it were real life and have the microphone constantly on the move following the action. Doing it in this way is really about getting more authentic and interesting performances from the actors. Audio dramas recorded in studio often have a strange stilted quality. We wanted ours to feel like it is firmly set in the real world, to have an almost documentary feel, especially as the science in the drama is really not so farfetched.
Were there any particularly difficult challenges in getting a certain sound?
It’s always difficult making an audio drama on location because you give up much of the control you have when working in a studio. Sounds you don’t even notice in your everyday life suddenly become major issues as soon as you hit the record button. New York is a tricky city to record in in the summer months because there is the constant hum of air-conditioning units everywhere. It’s very difficult to escape from. On the whole though, recording on location gave us much more than we had to sacrifice. We could have characters, running up stairwells, through live office spaces, getting in and out of cars etc. which gives the drama very dynamic energy.
But there is also a lot of constructed sound design in LifeAfter and one of the biggest challenges was making the “angels”—humans who have effectively become living, moving extensions of the LifeAfter program—sound convincing. As the digital program connects with their nerves and muscles and voice-box, it’s like they are having to relearn how to speak. They need to glitch a lot and it was a challenge to find a way of doing this. In the end it was partly performance and partly post-production. Another big sound design challenge was creating the world of the hereafter—the sounds that followers of LifeAfter hear in their headphones as they prepare to be rejoined with their digital loved-ones in digital heaven. Sounds confusing? It will all become clear as the series progresses!
Is there any chance the talented cast would perform live in the future?
A live show of LifeAfter would be truly awesome!
I also spoke to Mac Rogers, a playwright and writer for both LifeAfter and The Message, about how he approaches making viable long-form storytelling without visuals.
Observer: How do you maintain an ominous mood while still leaving the audience feeling hopeful and wanting to come back?
Mac Rogers: Well to some degree I think the ominous mood is part of what makes the audience want to come back: they want to figure out what’s happening, what all the seemingly unconnected early details portend—and they want to see if a character they like who is caught up in that ominous situation is going to be okay. But in terms of finding that balance between ominousness and hope, that all comes down to the audience experience of watching our main character fight back—and get better at fighting back. In LifeAfter, I wanted to create a sense that our protagonist Ross is in deep, way over his head, caught between forces much larger than himself, but that over the course of the story he gets braver about standing up to these forces and savvier about how to do so effectively. Watching Ross learn and improve will hopefully add an element of optimism to a suspenseful and frightening story.
Are there any other shows (TV or podcast) that you like that are pushing boundaries of imagination?
In terms of podcasts, I’ve been blown away by Alice Isn’t Dead and its explorations into a sort of shadow-world along America’s long, lonely stretches of highway. On television (or streaming, I guess) I’ve really been quite taken by Sense8’s vision of global interconnectedness, of a sort of human internet that treats the sharing of information as an act of profound generosity.
Long-form storytelling is the opposite of short viral videos where millions of people watch someone slam a basketball or fall over while squishing grapes. How do you keep the audience hooked and or entertained against that kind of competition?
I think its two things. One, I think that podcasts—and audio drama in general—have a unique advantage in delivering stories to people simply because people don’t have to watch them to take in the storytelling. People can enjoy a podcast drama while washing dishes, commuting, running errands, folding clothes. They’re stories that fit comfortably into the busywork interstices of our lives. The second thing comes down to the number one rule of storytelling: You’ve got to make your audience be worried about your main character. You’ve got to have them wondering between episodes if their hero’s going to be okay. The way I’ve approached this with LifeAfter is to make it essentially an espionage thriller—but without a Bond or a Bourne at the center, with an ordinary person instead. We don’t have the comfort of knowing he has a Liam Neeson-esque “particular set of skills.” He’s way out of his depth, and might very well not make it alive to the end of part 10. If listeners like Ross and empathize with him to any degree, they’ll take a break from the viral videos and check in on him every Sunday.
What inspires you?
In terms of storytelling, it’s the force that keeps the hero in the story. A friend once told me, “I tried to write a play, but I couldn’t finish it because I couldn’t figure out why the characters wouldn’t all just leave the stage.” This became a huge guideline for me in script-writing. Because a story is, after all, an unpleasant place to be. There’s all that conflict, all those stakes. In real life, we frequently try to opt out of excitement because excitement is stressful, maybe even dangerous. So what keeps the characters in a fictional story right in the middle of the conflict? It’s usually the discovery that they care about something more than their personal safety. And that this thing they care about has given them unexpected reservoirs of courage. LifeAfter is at its heart a deeply unconventional love story about a man who finds that getting a second chance to be with his wife—a chance to be a better husband than he was before, to care for her better than he did before—is more important to him than his safety. That’s what inspires me: characters who surprise themselves with their capacity for courage.