Last year, the true crime podcast Serial effortlessly proved what’s old can still be new, morphing investigative radio into something fit for the second web. It also turned mad profits, showing how even free content can still result in revenue. When something becomes profitable, the world notices.
General Electric noticed. Realizing radio dramas were once their forte, the New York conglomerate teamed up with Slate’s podcast network Panoply to resurrect General Electric Theater, their TV and radio anthology from 1953 into podcast form. Enter The Message, a fictional sci-fi series about an amateur enthusiast trying to decode a 70-year-old message from outer space.
Evoking the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast that stunned audiences, the show debuted in the Top 10 of iTunes and climbed up to number one right before its finale during the Thanksgiving weekend. The show now sits at number six on iTunes’ top podcasts, shoulder-to-shoulder with staples like This American Life and Radiolab.
Before the weekend, Panoply’s chief content officer Andy Bowers spoke to Inverse over the phone about finding the shape of The Message, the crucial elements to make branded content anti-commercial, and the coming future of podcasting.
GE came to you guys with the initial pitch. What were your initial opinions on the premise?
Well, because it was going to be sponsored content, I thought it was a cool idea. I just wanted to make sure that they were really dedicated to making a good, entertaining story. It very quickly became clear to me that they did not just want to make a big commercial. They wanted to hearken back to their roots in early television with GE Theater. The emphasis was on entertainment. I thought it was a terrific idea.
I’m personally a huge fan of old radio shows, I used to listen to Green Hornet serials from the ‘30s and I think we’ve all listened to War of the Worlds. But a lot of people my age didn’t, yet podcasting has taken off. How difficult was it to strike a balance between new and old medias?
I’m like you. I grew up listening to records of old radio shows. I loved how they put ideas and pictures in your mind without actually showing you pictures. I’ve been doing various iterations of radio drama over the years, I was with NPR for a long time. I’ve felt for a while that younger generations would appreciate audio drama, but there was really no place for it. I come from public radio, their formats are now tightly regimented with news and information. With few exceptions, drama or scripted content doesn’t really fit. Commercial radio even more so. When I lived in Britain for a few years, I was interested in how audio drama there has never gone away. It’s some of the most popular stuff on.
I knew that it was possible to update the form just because it can be so powerful. I think audio books hint at that a little, how popular they’ve become. I was encouraged and enthusiastic about giving it a try. When we decided early on to actually use the medium of podcasting within this to try to make it feel more urgent, more now, because we wanted it to feel like it was actually unfolding War of the Worlds style, as people were listening week to week. From the comments I’ve been reading on iTunes and other places, it seems like people are saying, well, I know it’s not a real disease, but I had a cough the other day and I’m kind of worried about it.
I actually saw people on Reddit who were disappointed that The Message is fictional, which is really funny when you consider the history of radio dramas like, once again, War of the Worlds.
I’m tickled by that. We talked for a long time about how best to present this. We didn’t want to create any mass panic and didn’t think we really would, but we decided to, in the visual elements of it, make it very clear. It says GE Podcast Theater on the cover art. Anyone looking at it could quickly see. In the show itself, we made the decision not to say anything overt. “GE Podcast Theater presents duh duh duh…” We didn’t say anything about that until the very end of the last episode. That was to allow people to suspend their disbelief as much as they wanted to or could. I’m pleased with that balance we struck.
New media today is very focused on on-demand binges. Right now everyone is talking about Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix. Why did The Message stick to traditional week-by-week releases as opposed to a release all at once?
We talked about that. That model is intriguing. We all like Netflix shows, so we were contemplating whether that would work in this case. What we decided was that Netflix is a closed environment, and if you have Netflix, you have Netflix. They can promote what they want when it drops. When something new is on Netflix, it’s hard to miss it if you’re a subscriber. Podcasting is in an open-source environment. There’s iTunes, but we can’t force them to promote us. They’ve been very generous about promoting us, and they did give The Message some promotion, but we can’t control that. We can’t make sure people know a big bunch of episodes dropped. We decided that was smarter to let the audience build over weeks, hoping to get word of mouth and that people would catch up. That seems to be what happened. The audience grew every week, and by the last episode on Sunday, it reached heights we had only dreamed of.
A similar phenomenon happened to Serial, which in regards to storytelling and form also seems to have a major influence on The Message. Would that be correct?
I would call it a minor influence.
People seem to just assume that it was a Serial takeoff. We actually did not think of that nearly as much as people who were listening to it did.
What were some of the influences, then?
I would say War of the Worlds was more of an influence than Serial. When we were deciding who the narrator would be, probably the choice of a female narrator was consciously or unconsciously due to Serial and doing a self-reflective podcast inevitably would lead to that, but the story is not one of a journalist covering a story. It’s an amateur who’s in a situation and describing the situation that she’s in. If you look at it on paper, it didn’t jump out to us, but this sounded so much like Serial. I think when we put it together, I can understand why people think that, but it was not as much in front of mind as it seems perhaps. Not to say I didn’t love Serial.
Besides the obvious fact that podcasts are accessible any time, why do you think they have taken off as one of the most dominant mediums forms for, and I hate to use this demographic term, millennials? Why are young people so enamored by what would have been years ago such a retro format?
I think it’s the on-demand nature. I think it’s the disruption. Most podcasts are connected in some generational way to public radio [but] public radio has been offering, like television, limited bandwidth. You can only have so many shows on every hour of the day. What podcasting did is vastly expand the possibilities of what you can consume. That gives people who would have had to work their way up in, say, public radio, be able to do what they want immediately. You’re hearing a lot of things from people who are younger, who didn’t have the chance to get behind a microphone in public radio and they’re experimenting. I like to say we’re filmmakers in the 1910s, where you don’t even know what the rules are yet because we’re making them. We don’t know what works. We know some things that work, but there’s a lot more to be discovered. It’s a really exciting time to be a part of this.
Speaking of films, the structure of The Message is like a documentary. It’s fictional with a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s framed like it’s happening ala a journalistic report. How difficult was it to find that effect? Something that’s supposed to feel spur of the moment, but actually all planned out?
We approached it like those of us who come from public radio would approach a radio script. The writer, Mac Rogers, who’s a playwright, loved the idea of trying to mimic radio. What he brought to it that I loved was really interesting characters. That’s where you get tripped up if you’re trying to mimic real life. In real life, they present themselves because they’re real, but [for us] someone had to go through and think of a lot of backstories, some of which never even showed up in the story which he created and talked about with the actors. Then when he gave us early drafts of scripts, I was editing like I would have edited a journalistic script. “Oh, this language would be simpler. We should make sure we’re saying people’s names to avoid confusion over who’s talking.” We approached it as though it were real in our editing. Whether we succeeded is up to you and everyone else.
What is the future for GE Podcast Theater? Will there be a season two, or an entirely new show?
We don’t have anything to announce on that yet.
What do you think podcasting’s future will look like in regards to branded content and distribution?
You can imagine other companies have noticed this. We were already doing some custom-branded work with companies before we did this. We’ve gotten a lot more inquiries since the show, especially since it hit #1. I hope companies are learning the right lessons, that GE’s light touch with this was, I think, what made it successful. No one is going to seek out something they think is a commercial, so I think they made the right choice. I hope other companies learn from that.
As for the future of scripted [drama/comedy] in podcasting, that’s extremely bright. I think there’s a feeling in the air that people want to try this. For people like you and me who like it, I think a golden age is going to come.
The whole first season of The Message is now available on iTunes and other podcast services.