Everybody loves a good mystery. When Serial exploded into the public consciousness this time last year it did more than spark an interest in the intriguing murder case of Hae Min Lee. Serial gave birth to a new wave of podcasts that tell mysterious stories over a number of episodes, often in the style of a public radio show hosted by a young woman. This new trend in podcasting actually hearkens back to a much earlier era of media: Radio Dramas. These audio only productions would provide a huge amount of the everyday person’s entertainment for the first half of the 20th century.
In 1953 the first episode of General Electric Theatre aired, featuring stars of the time like Cary Grant and Judy Garland. It was an anthology program that would quickly make the transition to television, hosted by none other than Ronald Reagan. Fast forward 60 years to the premiere of The Message, the first show from the new GE Podcast Theatre. Now if that immediately set off alarm bells in your head screaming “I do NOT want to listen to an entire podcast of corporate advertising” fear not. The Message is not 8 episodes of product placement. In fact one of GE’s goals in creating the podcast was to bring attention to current technology that GE is working on, without seeming like advertising, and in that they succeed.
The Message takes place in an entirely “in universe” style, with credits not rolling until the final episode concludes. You’d be forgiven for confusing the initial episodes with reality, the line between the two is blended quite subtly. Your narrator is Nicky Tomalin, a linguistics phD going to observe a team of cryptographers try to decipher an alien message from 70 years ago, the titular Message.
Note: From here on there are very minor spoilers for The Message
The storytelling in The Message is top notch. One of the best things The Message does is make the narrator a character, rather than just a blank space for the listener to imprint themselves. You quickly learn that not only does Nicky have a past you aren’t aware of, but that her past comes back to affect the course of the podcast. Nicky has not been honest about herself and her credentials, which is quite startling to both the characters and listener, because often in a podcast we like to imagine we are in the character’s head. That clever bit of storytelling was what took me from “This is interesting” to “THIS is interesting.” The Message is smart enough to be a challenging mystery that rewards relistening, without being so obtuse that you, yourself need an advanced degree to pick apart the details. After the final episode premiered, I relistened to all the episodes and was delighted to find a number of hints, clues, and references to the final episode’s events. It’s the kind of show where you can enjoy it at face level, without digging in, just as much as you can enjoy getting into the details of it. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the dogged determination to follow an ARG across half the Internet, so finding a show that has the right balance of theorizing is very attractive. Its 8 episodes are long enough to keep you fascinated without getting bogged down. They pack enough information in each 10-15 minute episode to leave you satisfied with what you’ve got but wanting more. It’s very efficient with it’s storytelling which leads to a satisfying but not drawn out conclusion, with a number of excellent twists along the way.
GE also hasn’t skimped on the production value of The Message. The voice actors are professionals, delivering convincing performances purely through audio. The music is the perfect kind of music for a radio drama, memorable and invisible in turns when it needs to be. It’s one of the more successful of the “fake radio show” types of podcasts in terms of production quality.
Now I’m hardly one to congratulate corporations on finding new ways into our lives, but I’m pretty impressed with what GE has done with The Message. Their ultimate goal for The Message is just to encourage you to look into new ultrasound technology if the content of the show interested you. The production and storytelling are top notch, and there is nary a hint of advertising to be found. If it’s a foregone conclusion at this point that corporations and advertising have invaded our lives, I wouldn’t mind if it was in the form of an excellent mystery podcast. I imagine I’m not alone in preferring a sponsored podcast than having to listen to constant ad breaks.
If you’re interested in more narrative fiction and audio drama podcasts, be sure to check out Geekly Inc’s own SAYER.