On Sunday, October 30, 1938, CBS broadcast a radio adaptation of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds. The episode, narrated and directed by Orson Welles, was produced as breaking news coverage of a Martian invasion. In the days that followed, prominent American newspapers reported that the War of the Worlds had caused public panic, widespread alarm, and mass hysteria because many listeners had mistaken it for real news. Though modern researchers have questioned these reports, War of the Worlds remains a testament to the dramatic power of genre subversion, which is when a story adopts a familiar narrative form but subverts the audiences’s expectations of it.
In recent months there’s been a genre-subverting trend in the world of serial fiction podcasts. This seems to have happened across two waves, first in mid-to-late-2015 and next in late-2015-to-present. The first of these shows are produced as serious investigative documentaries, à la Serial, but they portray entirely fictional events and subvert the documentary form. The second group of shows are produced as found footage and seemingly deny that they’re podcasts all-together. By allowing the audience to eavesdrop on purportedly private recordings, shows in the second group elicit a sense of wonder, the thrill of discovery, and unabashed voyeuristic glee.
I’ve made a list of my favorites from each group.
Podcasts that subvert the documentary form
The Black Tapes (May 21, 2015)
The Black Tapes documents fictional reporter Alex Reagan’s exposé of Dr. Richard Strand. Strand is an avowed skeptic, modeled after James Randi, and the Strand Foundation offers a prize for proof of the paranormal. Reagan discovers that though Strand has received many tapes of unexplained phenomena, he has only disclosed the ones he was able to debunk. When she confronts him about this, Strand agrees to revisit every tape that remains unexplained. The Black Tapes boasts high-production value and a unique aesthetic that has already spawned a successful spin-off, Tanis. Unfortunately, the show does itself a great disservice with jarring, ham handed, mid-program sponsor messages that detract from the immersion it works so hard to produce. Though sponsor messages are a necessary evil, programs like The No Sleep Podcast and Suprisingly Awesome demonstrate that a little attention to how they are incorporated goes a long way.
Limetown (July 24, 2015)
Limetown follows fictional reporter Lia Haddock as she investigates the disappearance of more than three-hundred men, women, and children, from a small Tennessee town of the same name. Haddock discovers that asking “what happened to Limetown?” is less important than asking “what happened in Limetown?” and soon finds herself embroiled in the story. Limetown stands out, is exceptionally well-written, persuasively authentic, and deftly handles episodic cliffhangers and narrative arcs.
The Message (October 3, 2015)
The Message opens with a conversation between its fictional host, Nicky Tomalin, and the Cipher Centers For Communication, a highly respected cryptography consultancy group. Tomalin, who holds a masters degree in linguistics, is enamored with the founders of Cipher and has offered to do an unpaid internship in exchange for permission to podcast the experience. Fortuitously, Cipher has just been offered an NSA contract to decode a message they “have reason to believe was transmitted by an extraterrestrial”. The founders of Cipher are skeptical of the NSA’s motivations and accept the contract on the condition that their decryption efforts can be publicly broadcast through Tomalin’s podcast. The Message is delightful. It boasts high production value, fantastic voice acting, and a very well-conceived surprise ending.
Tanis (Oct 13, 2015)
From the exquisite attention to detail and supplementary lore to the cyberpunk, grunge-rock-obsessed fixation on the unexplained, Tanis is a labour of love. The show, which is a spin-off of The Black Tapes, follows the fictional reporter Nic Silver on his quest to discover Tanis. Like The Black Tapes, Tanis routinely incorporates real-world mysteries and unapologetically celebrates the Pacific Northwest. Though Tanis is produced by the same team as The Black Tapes, it is more authentic, personal, and immersive. For the SNES gamers among you, Tanis feels like the podcast incarnation of Shadowrun. Unfortunately, Tanis suffers from the same jarring sponsor messages as The Black Tapes, and though the shows exist in the same universe, we’ve yet to hear a true crossover episode.
Podcasts that subvert the podcast form
The Bright Sessions (October 27, 2015)
- Produced by Lauren Shippen, Mischa Stanton, Anna Lore, and Elizabeth Laird
- Support this podcast on Patreon
The Bright Sessions follows the fictional practice of Dr. Joan Bright, a therapist who specializes in so-called atypicals (people who possess special abilities à la Heroes). The show, which is produced as recordings of therapy sessions, shines in its portrayal of the typical emotional challenges that Dr. Bright’s atypical patients face. Though Dr. Bright’s clients are initially oblivious to each other, The Bright Sessions weaves them masterfully into a beautiful commentary on the human condition. The Bright Sessions is at its best when it makes the listener feel guilty for listening in.
Alice Isn’t Dead (March 7, 2016)
Alice Isn’t Dead is a terrifying new podcast from the Welcome To Night Vale team. Though it lacks the characteristic humour of Welcome To Night Vale, Alice is set in the same universe and I’ve come to think of it as Night Vale through the looking glass (dat Alice Is Dead reference doe). Alice is produced as a first-person retelling and features an unnamed narrator who is searching for her estranged wife. The show is brilliantly well-written and — despite the supernatural tale it tells — distressingly believable.
Archive 81 (April 5, 2016)
Archive 81 is produced as found footage and documents fictional archivist Daniel Powell’s work at the Housing Historical Committee of New York State. In the first moments of the show we hear Powell, who has accepted a live-in position at a deserted archive, agree to keep his company-issued recorder activated for the entirety of his tenure. “Don’t worry about it Dan,” his boss says, “just leave it on and forget about it. It’s just for liability. Legal stuff. Lawyers, right?” Suuuuuuuuper riiiiiiiiiiiiiight, boss bro, ‘lawyer stuff’. As Powell works through the audio cassettes that compose archive 81, we learn of the Vicer Towers Residential Block, hear interviews with creepy residents, and listen helplessly as Powell slips into isolation-induced madness.
Also published on Medium.