Episode 57: Podcast Saga Part 10 - Who exactly is Listening…?


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            When I was about twelve, I went through this phase where I just had to have my own alarm clock. No more relying on Mom and Dad to wake me up, which was an “only child perk” that really didn’t have any drawbacks. Or at least not one that I can recall. Look, I was super spoiled, and I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t. I mean, that was somewhat inevitable. It’s what happens when you have a sick parent. There’s only so many ways either of your parents can react to that, as an extension of how hard parenting is and the lack of any sort of manual. I know it was guilt-driven: guilt over things they couldn’t help or other situations that didn’t exactly go as planned.

It lead them to be more accommodating when they could be. Like when I wanted an alarm clock. A clock that would actually get me up for school, so I wouldn’t feel like a failure. Even though failure was going to happen. I tended to give things up when life started happening, and it was always happening. Commitment to things like that wasn’t a talent of mine. Probably had to do with the whole dying parent thing.

            And if you were wondering, that whole plan didn’t work out. Failure did happen. And it was partially because things got a lot worse in time. At that point, Dad had another year left with the family before he would pass away, and despite how young I was, I knew it was going to happen and happen very soon. And I think, as a result, I became obsessed with the perception of normalcy I saw on the television. And on television they used alarm clocks.

It made sense to want all of that. After all, in normal lives, parents don’t die when you’re still young. So the grass was objectively greener on the other side.

            On the other hand, my parents didn’t know where to start when it came to kid’s alarm clocks, so they didn’t. Dad had this old brick of a clock-radio that he bought before he even met my mother, and they weren’t using it anymore, so it became mine. It sat by my bed where I tried to incorporate it in my daily routine, but even when I was losing interest, I spent a great deal of time playing with it.  The alarm was incredibly jarring, though, so I only set it off once and accidentally at that.

But the radio function was more interesting. Technically. It was the sort of thing I could play with when I was bored of anything else. Or when I didn’t want to get out of bed.

            The giant brick of a decade old clock radio found its home on my nightstand where I could sit on my bed and flip it on, just to play around. The button was sticky, but I could make it work.

            Finding a radio station I wanted to listen to, though, was a very different matter. This wasn’t the type of radio that could zero in on a station. You had to find it. And maybe it shouldn’t have been that difficult, but it was. I didn’t know how to do it. I would have been easy to someone who knew to look to the internet for a guide on how to do things, but I hadn’t fully embraced that option just yet. And that is pretty embarrassing to admit because it’s something that isn’t accepted now. As a social norm, I mean. It’s weird not to turn to the infinite library of how-to’s that we call the internet whenever you are confused or struggling. And maybe that wasn’t the case back then, but who remembers the norms from that long ago? Actually it wasn’t that long ago, so they were probably similar enough that this was still dumb. Honestly.

            Then again, that’s not the point of this story.

            Some afternoons, I would sit on my bed and turn on the radio. I started by turning the dial wildly at first and then slowly. It was just hard to find anything through the static. It was likely dying, and I lived in a big city that didn’t really have a lot of radio options but all to compete with them for the air waves. So I always had to go searching. And I didn’t understand how to do that. Hence the wild swinging at first.

            That was so long ago. But I do remember that AM came through more clearly than FM stations. I remember that because I remember assuming there was a science behind it, but it was something I didn’t know. So I stuck with AM stations, hoping I’d remember to figure the rest out later. And one day, I started slowly scanning the static for something to listen to, for anything clear to come through the noise. And then I would have to balance the dial at exactly the right spot, which wouldn’t be easy, but I was going to cross that bridge when I got to it. And that was likely going to be a long walk anyway.

            In time, I would find Radio Disney, I would find the exact point the dial needed to be at in order for me to be able to hear it. But before then, I remember was landing not on a song but on someone making a confession of sorts. Something heavy, that maybe shouldn’t be repeated by someone else, even with the many layers of anonymity that are being piled on in this case. And that segued with a cheap-ish sound effect into a show promo where the host emphatically cheered that this was an hour for forbidden confessions, declarations of past mistakes, and all sorts of other things. Darker things. There was no holding back, even if this was around the time the kids got home from school, and that was apparently the most (quote) “controversial” thing.

            I don’t remember the exact wording of anything. The memory is incredibly hazy. As a result, the words are gone, but the sentiment remains. The feeling of bearing witness to something I wasn’t supposed to see, a forbidden exchange of information. That’s what the show was clearly designed to be. And all of that was especially true for a twelve year old who was living a very sheltered life if it were not for one very critical detail.


            That’s what I remember, and I also remember wanting to listen to more. I was fascinated with the secrets we keep, the dark side of our lives and of human nature. And this was the best way of getting it that I had ever see. Sure, there was day time drama TV, and I’m not talking about soap operas, I mean those more… questionable day time talk shows. They weren’t cutting it for me. They were too overtop, likely fake, and just annoying. But this promo had lead me to believe that I had stumbled upon something that was more up my alley. But as a result, it was also far more forbidden than anything I had encountered before.

            And so I got scared. Dad was home, after all. Sleeping but home. So I shut it off, promising myself that I would find that show again.

            But I never did.

(Music fades out)

            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 57.

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            That’s the sort of memory that might not be real. I’m fairly confident that it is, albeit incredibly broken and worn down from time and the many trials that happened between now and then. But still, even if it’s not true, there’s a reason my brain made it up. And that’s a reason that connects to the subjects of today’s episode.

            Before we get too much deeper into it or actually into it at all, I do want to say that, I’m well aware that you might have opinions on my topic choice or choices for this episode. And that you’ll have reasons and even evidence for your critiques. All of that is true. But you’re drawing your conclusions just as organically as I’ve reached mine.

            Mine being that I don’t think I could talk about one and not the other. Because, in this case, it’s not so much about the shows, though both are good and difficult to compare, which is not what I want to do. It’s the concept that I want to talk about. Because I think this is yet another instance where podcasting gave a story concept the ability to shine. And it was rewarded for it. We were reward for it.

            Not once but twice.

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            So okay, if you’ve spent anytime even glancing at this podcast feed history, you’ll notice that I love the various Night Vale Presents productions, and I’ve said in the past that this related trust in that creative team stems from Welcome to Night Vale being my gateway podcast. I’ve said a lot about it, but in this context, I’ll introduce it in a slightly different way. Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, is essentially a bimonthly podcast told in the style of a community update show for an isolated desert town that should not be found. Seriously, don’t. The show is full of the announcements that you really don’t receive so much anymore but are very pertinent to people’s day to day lives. And in putting that way, it might be concerning that we don’t hear announcements like this anymore. We might get them on the local news, in the paper, but it’s definitely going to be a more piecemeal experience for any of us who are not in Night Vale.

            That might seem idyllic, but Night Vale is a small, dessert community with very overt and clear dysfunctions that might make any other method of transmitting information impossible. That isn’t to say that the radio show isn’t without its problems. I mean, there’s at least one occasion where Cecil, the voice of Night Vale, blatantly forgot to make an announcement because he was distracted with his love life. But we all love him anyway,so there’s that.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Meanwhile, to finally give you a show, I’ve never talked about. King Falls AM, a production of the Make Believe Picture Company, at first glance can look like it has a very similar premise. It is also the radio show of a more isolated community, but it’s a late night talk show, and true to that time of night, there’s mysterious things happening in King Falls. Sammy Stevens and Benjamin Arnold co-host the show, and part of the appeal is the way they interact with each other. They also take callers, like all late night shows do. Oh you didn’t know that late night radios shows take on callers? What? Did you think you who struggled to sleep at night? Who was confronted with your own failings? Your mistakes? Your inadequacies?

            Actually, there’s a lot of us. And that’s not as comforting as it probably should be.

            I know there might be a temptation to compare of the two simply because of the overlap in their premises. And I say that because that actually cost me a relationship. Or—as I like to say—the trash took itself out with minimal prompting. Thanks Dude. You saved me some trouble. Look sometimes our relationship with the media we love is stronger than the relationship we have with a romantic partner. It is what it is.

            And I’m not going to deny that there are some similarities to be found that this episode is being rooted in, but I’m not bringing these shows together to compare them. I’m bringing them together because they’re both amazing and I want you to know about both of them. I recommend them to you, dear listener, in this episode, and they both are examples of the thing I actually wanted to talk about.

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            The first thing to note, I think, is that podcasting created a medium for these creators to make radio type shows without the need a radio executive to approve it. Which I just don’t think they could get, assuming you could find a radio executive. I mean, I don’t even know how many of them are out there anymore, so good luck even finding them. Never mind the other stuff.

            In both instances, these creators had stoies they wanted to tell, needed space to do it, and podcasting’s openness gave them that space. That’s the sort of thing that I’ve been saying all along.

            And then there’s the point that lacking visuals is a critical part of both stories. Night Vale is presented as a place where outward appearance or bodily form in every avenue is completely irrelevant. I mean, the vague yet menacing agencies both of the government and, I imagine, the nonprofit sector don’t care who you are. So why should the rest of us?

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            For King Falls AM, the mysterious happenings of King Falls works better without a visual component, as all mysteries or horror-esque stories do. I mean, I think we’ve all heard of or seen a horror movie fall flat when the visuals did. For example, there were certain rumors about Netflix’s Bird Box that the creature was supposed to be shown, but they knew that was going to be a poor artistic decision that would ruin the movie, so they cut it.

            At the heart of this, for better or worse, is the fact that we are a very visual heavy culture or civilization. And I am definitely underqualified to explain why or how we got here. But I think it is safe for me to say that we all put trust in our eyes and in our sight. We let this particular sense guide us more than any other. And so removing that can improve the atmosphere of the story, even when it comes to aspects of the story that don’t explicitly matter to the mystery. It’s scarier to know that you won’t see something coming should it start coming at you. Or—at least—that’s the impression I got from the first episode. Because yeah, King Falls AM hits the ground running, in many regards. And there’s something to be said about not knowing what happened when something clearly happened.

            Yes, with the call-ins, there’s always going to be that air of unseen threats. But in a medium defined by not being able to see anything, there’s no taking the camera outside of the studio walls. The hosts of the show will always be your eyes.

            Eyes connect us with the world or that seems to be their purpose now. In fact everything about human nature is about connection. And in King Falls AM, without thet natural connection that comes from your eyes, you develop a different one. Your mind adapts to the situation. And suddenly, Sammy and Ben and every voice you hear mean all the more to you.

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            But that’s not the important thing. There’s a reason I opened up with that anecdote about a supposed radio program I don’t entirely remember. Because back then, I was seeking connection. A connection to some alternate life that still validated the suffering I was experiencing in mine.

            It’s a real human impulse, to seek out another person and be connected to them. To tether ourselves to people we see are here with us. People that we know are there, even if their motivations are lost on us. Look, we can’t think too much about the details all the time. I mean, speaking from experience, doing so is going to make you incredibly anxious. It’s a great way to lose your footing. And it also doesn’t matter. We just know that we need it, and we have to find it in some way or some place, even if it isn’t a literal place.

            That’s something radio was and still is capable of. Because there’s one important thing to point out in this discussion. Radio programming will always be anchored to time because of scheduling. Each show has its own slot. It cannot start earlier. And the crew will be in a lot trouble if it goes later. And so listening to each program is something you have to consciously opt into. Calling into the show more so. When a show is on, for that moment, a community—disregarding all boundaries and physical space—is formed. Listening to radio is an act of coming together. Not because we have to, but because we can. We can come around something we find interesting or a type of music we love. Then we have a reason to be together, figuratively. To break the kind of bread that satiates the heart and soul not the stomach.

 (Music fades out and new music fades in)

            This podcast, mine, the one you are listening to, has always been about the way we connect to media, but in these shows, we see this idea of connection play out in a different way. By replicating radio they replay this act of coming together around a small box, of listening to a story at an appointed time. For an audience that can feel more adrift than those that came before. Sure, we aren’t getting together at a specific hour, more like a specific upload day. And we also retain the freedom to come and go as we may actually need to. So I guess isn’t the same thing.

            But it’s the rigid boundary that got taken down as the general public got the ability to tell their own stories. Rigid boundaries are the ones to lose, to be fair. They just aren’t that great.

            These two shows also represent progress in this way, as we stand at this crossroads between what we use to have and what we have started to get. Now we know that communities, real communities, aren’t meant to be about boundaries, even city lines. Even boundaries that are at first glance obvious and reasonable. Like geographic ones. These shows make me ask somewhat difficult questions. Why can I only care about my neighbors who (for those of you who like a little shade) make podcasting incredibly difficult? Why instead can’t I care about a podcaster miles away? Why can’t I care about Sammy and Ben whose banter reminds me of how I talked to a friend I don’t see anymore? Why can’t I care about the Night Vale intern whose odds at this new job are as bad as I was afraid mine would be at my new job? Why can’t I renegotiate these boundaries I have inherited? Or have stepped into?

            What I love about audio fiction podcasting is that every show makes me ask why I couldn’t have things differently in this plane of existence? Why can’t I push boundaries or change the rules a little bit? Why do the concepts that govern my life have to be bound to the past? Can I have new ones?

            Because, honestly, I’d like to have some new ones.

(Music fades out.)