My love of podcasts boarders on obsessed. There’s endless amount of hours of interviews, news, comedy, and on and on to keep you entertained and informed on pretty much any subject you can think up. Podcasts, for those of you who do not know, are essentially talk radio on demand and this isn’t my first mention of them here (check out my article on Presidential). Every morning I walk my dog and listen to Rachael Maddow and First Up and when I am closing up shop at my job, I listen to any of the many shows produced by Crooked Media, more news. I also have go-to’s for interview and information shows in Star Talk Live and The Nerdist. These shows and many others have become so integrated in my days that in the rare occasion that I’ve listened to all the new shows in my queue, I feel off. I learn from these shows and I’ve found comfort in the voices of the hosts. Sometimes I will have them on just running in the background, only half listening. Maybe I’m cooking or cleaning…never when I’m writing though, that would be difficult! Sometimes however there are ones that are not able to be half listened to but instead need to be carefully paid attention to.
Alternate reality podcasts suck me in like nothing else.
In October of 1938 Americans across the country broke into a panic as Orson Welles and a company of actors and musicians live read the science fiction radio drama The War of the Worlds. The broadcast reached millions of homes over the airwaves the night before Halloween proclaiming that aliens had touched down and there was an attack underway. For its first twenty minutes the CBS broadcast was uninterrupted and performed straight. There were no commercial breaks and the style of the play was that of news bulletins being reported live. In a day of no rewind, if you did not hear the introduction and disclaimer of the drama right before it started, you had no way of knowing whether or not this was real or a play. CBS was flooded with phone calls of people freaking out trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, the program broke for a commercial and the introduction was made again. The next day Orson Welles was torn apart by newspapers and was claimed to have purposefully caused a panic.
I love this story so much. There is admiration to be had for Welles in his and the other actors performances and the realistic nature of their broadcast. Bravo to them. There is a laugh to be had in retrospect at the population for having believed so frantically that there were aliens touched down in their country. There were riots and evacuations. That a radio broadcast inspired so much real fear in people far and wide is amazing to me! I’ve read accounts of 100+ people fleeing a midwest town and climbing into the mountains for refuge.
Now, imagine that happening in the present. Experiencing and listening to something so real, so convincing, that you’re not sure whether you should Google it or not to see if it really happened. While we can Google, there will be no panic. There will however be gushing, gushing about how flipping amazing alternate reality podcasts are. In this post I’ll mention three that I’ve listened to recently that had me walking around with earbuds in for hours straight. The Message, Lif-e.Af/ter, and Rabbits all average at ten episodes each, ranging from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
The Message is the first season in Panoply’s anthology of alternate realities and was the first one I listened to in this genre. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve actually listened to it all the way through several times. Nicky Tomlain is out narrator and the host of her own podcast entitled CryptoCast; very meta. We begin the broadcast as Nicky seeks clearance to shadow a team of cryptologists who work at the Cipher Center for Communication. The team allows her to do this and Nicky starts right at the same time that the team is given an assignment from the government to decode something referred to only as “the message” which was first intercepted in WWII and has yet to be cracked. We learn very quickly that there are mysterious circumstances shrouding this code and the people who have worked to break it over the years. As the team begins working on this task, Nicky takes us from person to person on the team to get a better look at what each of them bring to the table. For example, Mod is a hacker (although they ask Nicky not to use that term) and is able to go places in computer land where no one else is able to reach. Tamara is a cultural historian and goes through history, mythology, and culture to find references or patterns that could relate to whatever topic the team is looking in to. While there are several other characters, there is not a character list anywhere and Wikipedia only has three or four people mentioned. Which brings me to my next point on this podcast. Reality or fiction?
When you do a search on the characters, the ones that pop up have full bios (born, school, where grew up, etc.) as though they were real people. When you search Cipher Center for Communication a company called Cipher Communications Corp is produced in the results. Small things like this make you wonder, is this a real thing that is trying to be covered up or am I going crazy? The events that transpire over the course of the cast would most certainly have made news BUT the government is involved so how do we know it isn’t just something that is being covered up?! The production of the show is really good, complete with full voice cast and all the ambient background life noises one would hear if someone was walking around recording everything as Nicky does.
As we go along on this journey with Nicky and the team, trying to uncover what this message really means, we become front seat passengers to the behind the scenes workings of this [usually] top secret facility. This fly on the wall approach to storytelling gives us all access to the happenings around our narrator.
The same is true for Lif-e.Af/ter which is the second season in the anthology*. We are this time within the offices of the FBI and are privy to the story of one Ross Barnes. Eight months ago Ross’ wife Charlie was killed and he is still very heavily entrenched in his grief. In this world, there is a social media platform called Voice Tree that allows users to record minute long audio clips on the company motto that voice gives you more connection than other forms of media. To cope with his grief, or maybe to feed it, Ross listens endlessly to Charlie’s Voice Tree posts. He becomes obsessed to the point where it is effecting his performance at work and his relationships with his friends. One day as Ross is listening to his favorite curated posts, the whole profile disappears. He freaks out of course and shortly after he has a panic attack/meltdown, the profile reappears. Now, however, there is something new. The profile is speaking directly to him and not in one minute clips either. This raises the very Black Mirror question of are our digital selves different and separate from our physical selves (very similar to S4:E1)? Does a person have to have a body to exist? To begin with, Ross thinks he is going crazy. The Charlie voice doesn’t speak to anyone else so he has no way of proving definitively that he is not just making this up in his head; that he hasn’t broken with reality. As the story progresses, the voice of Charlie is interrupted occasionally by the voice of Sasha who is somehow behind all of this. With Sasha’s appearance comes a sinister twist to the tale and prompts the moral wrongness of exploiting someone’s grief.
While the first season of Panoply’s drama had a more War of the Worlds vibe, Lif-e.Af/ter takes a departure from that and feels much more Black Mirror-esque. The questioning of morals and the integration of not too far off future tech makes for another seemingly real story. The exploration of human emotion and what makes us us is very interesting in this season. We get to know Charlie only through the makeup of her digital self. This makes you wonder, how different from the physical human Charlie is this digital one? When Ross starts feeling uneasy about this point in particular, he asks digital Charlie about a trip that they had taken which Charlie hadn’t mentioned in any of her Voice Tree posts. Because the digital version has nothing to draw from, she/it is unable to answer the questions Ross asks. This leads him to realize the difference between the two. From this show, you begin to question, as you do when watching Black Mirror, what is ethical in regards to our future as humans and the evolution of technology in our lives.
The last show I’ll dive in to is the one I have listened to most recently. Actually, I started this post within an hour of having finished listening. Rabbits is produced by the Public Radio Alliance which has quite a few of these immersive alternate reality shows. Again we are brought along by a narrator who is making a podcast while we are listening to a podcast. Carly Parker’s best friend Yumiko has gone missing under very bizarre circumstances. It is quickly determined that the police are brushing this off as a youth rebelling against her strict Asian parents and that they are not too overly concerned. Carly however is not convinced of this and it isn’t too long into her own investigation that weird clues begin to pop up. Within this world, Carly works for the Public Radio Alliance and her bosses suggest that she create this podcast for real time evidence of her findings and also to provide a trail of bread crumbs should anything happen to Carly along the way.
It turns out that Rabbits is a super secret real life game in which players from around the world solve riddles, puzzles, and collect clues in the hopes of becoming the champion of the current round. The modern iteration of the game is in it’s ninth round and is simply referred to as Nine. Evidence shows that One began sometime pre-WWII and that there were rounds played before them but that there is no way of proving it. Carly puts clues together and slowly realizes that Yumiko was playing Nine and that she was really deep in. Over the course of her investigation, Carly meets other players and goes on wild goose chases (or down rabbit holes, if you will) to connect one clue to another.
As with the other shows, there is a full voice cast in this one and background noises as well. The production of this one is so good that the other day I was walking and listening and I had to take out my earbuds to figure out if it had just started raining or if it was just something I was hearing within the show. While the pacing of the dialogue is sometimes uncomfortably slow and awkward, the premise is so good that you’re able to set that aside and still become engrossed. And just like the endings of the other two, Rabbits leaves you with a weird “what if” feeling that doesn’t leave you for a couple days. While The Message has feelings of War of the Worlds and Lif-e.Af/ter has thematic ties to Black Mirror, Rabbits takes that techy “what if” and also throws in The Ring and The Matrix to further blow your mind.
These weird after effect feelings are an aspect of the genre that I admire deeply. To have such an impact on the audience that they are questioning their reality ties directly back to the first drama from the War of the Worlds broadcast. There are definitely more than just these three shows in this genre but they are great points of entry for immersing yourself in a world of questions and uncertainties. I highly recommend losing yourself in these alternate realities.**
*When searching for The Message you have to search Lif-e.Af/ter as the title changes with the season. They are all listed together as one show but with different seasons.
**Not mentioned here is the podcast TANIS which I began listening to immediately after Rabbits. It is produced by the same team (Pacific Northwest Stories) and is Really good. Do yourself a favor and add this one to your “to listen” list as well!