Fiction Podcasts Are Trying Too Hard to Be Like Serial
A month ago, a new podcast named The Message debuted and shot into the Top 10 on the iTunes Podcast chart. Hosted by Nicky Tomalin, the eight-part series follows a team of cryptographers tasked with analyzing a declassified, 70-year-old audio recording of extraterrestrial origin. But unlike other docu-series podcasts that dole out pieces of information over time, this isn’t the work of public radio or an independent investigative journalist. It’s a work of fiction, a collaboration between advertising giant BBDO and podcast network Panoply, and sponsored by General Electric.
This kind of subsidized entertainment has been a part of GE’s history for over 60 years. In February 1953, CBS debuted General Electric Theater, an anthology show hosted by none other than future President Ronald Reagan. Over the course of 10 seasons and 209 episodes, it featured stars like James Dean, Lee Marvin, and Sammy Davis Jr. amidst blatant product placement for the title sponsor. (Think The Truman Show.) According to GE’s global creative director Andy Goldberg, the goal with The Message is similar. The point of the podcast, he says, is to blend “science fiction and science reality” in a way that makes the GE brand visible to podcast listeners clamoring for storytelling in the style of Serial.
But that’s not the only new fictional podcast lighting up the charts—and definitely not the only one looking to glom onto the success of Sarah Koenig’s This American Life spinoff. In addition to The Message there’s also Limetown, from New York-based writers Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers, which has been billed as The X-Files-meets-Serial. (Creators of both podcasts cite Welcome to Night Vale as inspiration, as well.) Beyond that there are podcasts like The Black Tapes, We’re Alive, and many other serials that haven’t even climbed the charts yet.
Limetown, a serialized mystery centers on a fictional public radio host investigating the disappearance of an entire town, is an independently produced series (like Night Vale) from two guys who were inspired to write a radio drama as a first foray for a new production company. Meanwhile, The Message is a meticulously scrutinized collaboration between one of the largest corporations on the planet, a massive advertising firm, and a podcast network. They’re on totally different sides of the podcast boom. One show is using the relatively low barrier to entry of podcasting to potentially reach a large listener base; the other is trying to leverage the rising popularity of a newer medium for brand awareness. But they both grasp at the same question: Can the viral success of Serial and Night Vale be engineered?
Extracting Podcast DNA
Welcome to Night Vale was the original breakthrough fictional podcast. The show regularly sells out its live tour stops, and creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor dropped by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert recently to promote the first novel set in the town (which hit bookshelves this week). The true-crime phenomenon of Serial inspired t-shirts, a Saturday Night Live sketch, countless discussion podcasts, and endless speculation about a second season. They’re both examples of how a podcast can become recognizable pop culture. And both The Message and Limetown, which deal with supernatural stories in a discrete serialized format, arrived at eerily similar blends of those established shows from different sides.
The Message started within GE’s in-house “media agency” The Grid, which fostered the initial work with BBDO, focusing on maintaining short episodes that would string listeners along, encourage speculation, and secure that brass ring of advertising, consumer engagement.
But one of the most important aspects of The Message’s formation, and the one that elucidates just how closely the show wants to follow Serial, was the creation of narrator/reporter Nicky Tomalin, who is not only the central character, but exists outside the podcast as well with a fictional blog. Goldberg says that “from the beginning” everyone knew The Message would have a female narrator.
“From a casting perspective, the most important thing was her voice,” Goldberg says. “We wanted one that felt young but informed, someone who had a pleasing voice, but also that made you listen.”
Limetown, on the other hand, actually came about as an idea between creators Bronkie and Akers a year before Serial debuted. “When [Serial] came out, it was like, oh no, this sounds a lot like what we’re doing,” Akers says. But the popularity of Koenig’s podcast offered potential publicity for any others following in the wake, so Bronkie and Akers forged ahead, wrote and produced seven episodes, and have been rolling them out just over a year later.
And just like The Message, Limetown chose a female narrator, the fictional “American Public Radio” host Lia Haddock, who has a familial connection to the Limetown disappearances. Says Bronkie, “When we were casting Leah Haddock, the sides said we were looking for a young, up-and-coming Terry Gross.”
There’s a burgeoning market for fictional shows like these, as illustrated by new episodes bumping the shows back up the iTunes charts each week. And both limited series have lifted elements of the two breakout podcasts and sewn them into the fabric of a new show. But aping the style of popular shows is one thing; coming up with sufficient substance to back up previously established identifying markers of those shows is another.
Serial found a needle in a haystack: a true crime cold case that contained multiple threads to investigate, a potentially unfit defense attorney, and racial bias from a jury. Because the surfeit of information allowed Koenig and Co. to whittle down episodes to just the most compelling material, she didn’t need to rely on typical cliffhanger tropes. The Message and Limetown don’t have that same benefit.
The Message has been particularly egregious in overusing cliffhangers. The first episode ends with an interview clip cautioning that the titular alien dispatch is cursed and kills people. The second episode ends by playing that message after countless Ring-esque warnings that listening could have harmful consequences. The third episode concludes with a researcher inexplicably hyperventilating and passing out during a recorded interview. And the fourth, released this past Sunday, ends with the cryptologists suddenly questioning a lead character’s credibility and identity. That’s four cliffhangers in four episodes that average 12.5 minutes each. Serial ran for 513 minutes over 12 episodes and only once felt like it left its audience dangling—when it took a two-week Thanksgiving break.
Welcome To Night Vale cultivated its fanbase by providing a consistent darkly comic tone while continually expanding the story of its town. Since it’s open-ended, the show has deepened its mythology, not beholden to telling one pulse-pounding story in a short time.
Limetown and The Message both feel caught between worldbuilding and spellbinding serialized stories. It feels like the shows are begging for fans instead of earning them. At times, they sound like the optional audio diaries players can pick up to hear the history of Rapture throughout BioShock—only without, you know, the immersive gameplay. They would be compelling as secondary experiences within an interactive story. But as standalone podcasts, they don’t quite capture the same magic as Serial or Night Vale.
But that’s OK. Serial’s second season remains in production, and Night Vale only airs two episodes per month. There’s plenty of room for other shows to capture the attention of fans. Plus, more fictional podcasts occupying the iTunes charts means that other creators might look at the medium in the future.
“I want to see the show whose sole purpose is to kill Limetown,” says Akers. “That’s how these things work. That’s how every art form has pushed itself forward, and podcasts need that. Benchmarks, things to aim at.”