Episode 67: Podcast Saga Part 20 - Unexpected Focus


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            So throughout this podcast saga, I’ve made a few comments about not discussing a type or subgenre of podcasting (paraphrasing quote) right now or just yet. Or that other plans were in the works, and it would be better to time out a topic with the announcement of a show or a release. Which then leads to a different set of problems when production delays inevitably happen because no one here actually has any clue about what they’e doing. It’s just super convenient that podcasting doesn’t make you take a competency test when you submit your RSS feed to anywhere.

            But today, I’ve actually got my act together. Somewhat. At least more than I usually do. So at the end of this episode is going to be a trailer for the newest show on the Miscellany Media Studios list. In fact, this might be the first place you can hear this trailer, considering it can take a couple days for all the approvals to go through. And I didn’t think that part of this process through. But hey, blessing in disguise, I guess: the people in the Miscellany Media Studios inner circle should really get to hear it first. So yeah, it works. Kind of. Or that’s what I’m going to stick with.

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            Anyway, somewhat building off of the comments I offered last week about Whatever Happened to the Pizza at McDonald’s: a total legit investigative journalism podcast by a total legit journalist… There’s actual several shows out there that take on this approach to an extent.

            Whatever Happened to the Pizza at McDonald’s is investigation in terms of the podcast Serial or some other true crime show: in which events happened, apparently clarification has yet to be achieved, and journalist has to find the truth. It’s more a compartmentalized mystery. Something happened over there at some time maybe even before I was born. And oooo spooky, we don’t know what happened.

            Okay, that’s a little condescending, and I don’t mean it to be. But the appeal of those types of podcasts is a little different than what I’m about to be talking about today. In that, the subjects and consequently the shows themselves feel safer because these subjects are more easily removed from the listener. But as an extension of that, it’s the listener’s curiosity that keeps them engaged as well as a bit of fear and distrust that—regardless of your opinions about the system as a while—there are still cracks that exist for cases to fall through. Like yours if it were to come up.

            But there are certain audio fiction podcasts that have added some other elements to that formula to create something that might not necessarily feels different but certainly has a very different feel to them.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 67.

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            That is to say, there are several podcasts that investigate events—whose reality can be up to interpretation—and present that narrative arch as the background for their work, an arc that runs along an arc in their personal life. You see, the investigation starts when this mystery infringes on the presenter’s life or someone the presenter cares about. The inciting action is a problem that unintentionally exposes existence of this mystery, the conflict is the investigation, and while you would think the conclusion is the explanation of these happenings, not so much. It’s more like the inciting action in the presenter’s personal life gets resolved somewhat, so the reason for the initial investigation is done and then narrator must decide whether to continue or not. As in, are we cleared for more seasons or not? Not to be too cynical, in saying that. It’s more like, sometimes things don’t go the way you want and a nice little bow is better than nothing.

            In these shows, the structure is different because of that intertwining of the character’s life and the larger mystery. However, it doesn’t just feel like an intensification of the Plot A and Plot B model. No, this can’t happen when the mystery has unknown or super-far-reaching-rather-not think about it ramifications. It’s Plot A and the very reality of our lives as we know it.

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            Now there are a few examples of this that might come to mind. But this show is based on the media that I have in my life, sticking to the ones that come into it organically. And for that. There’s the productions from the Public Radio Alliance, and minnow beats whale: Tanis, Rabbits, The Last Movie, and—if you narrow in on minnow beats whale—The Black Tapes. All of these shows have an investigative element to them—a mystery to unfold—but it’s dark and sinister, almost otherworldly, depending on how you want to define that specific term.

            I’ve talked about Tanis before in a podcast medley episode. I spoke about how Nic’s characterization was able to carry the story through is more difficult moments. And what do I mean by that? Well, it has a lot going on in terms of details, relevancy of them aside, and if you wanted to play catch up across a short period of time—so you could enjoy episodes as they were released, like I did—woo boy that was a bit of a podcast rush. Kind of like a Sugar Rush. And that wasn’t as clever as I thought it was.

            Basically Tanis is an ancient myth about an entity that touches every weird thing that has ever happened in the Pacific Northwest. Not even limit to supernatural occurrences. Tanis has its hands in everything, and everyone is after it. And Nic’s the glue that holds it all together.

            A similar thing could be said about The Last Movie is a bit less ambitious because it is a single season story, but all those episodes were also released in one day, so by design, it doesn’t quite get away from the problems I described. But hey, there’s Nic and Meerkatnip to do what Nic does in Tanis, special yay for Meerkatnip who is my favorite character in all the shows ever.

            The Black Tapes and Rabbits have their own hosts who hold their stories together, but the need isn’t so intense. Because their mysteries don’t feel as disjointed. Or actually, paradoxically, the pieces are more disjointed or distinct, and for that reason, it’s actually easier to see the progression of the revelation in those cases.

            That isn’t an exultation of some and condemnation of others. Really, it’s to justify why I want to move away from my original observation, somewhat: that having a “guy next door” type of host can help carry through weaknesses in a narrative. And that was the sort of thing I didn’t typically associate with these investigative type shows. In other example of investigations, a narrator is simply vehicle for information. In these show, narrators or presenters are characters in and of themselves. They might actively work to be impartial observers, but when you look into things like this, they take over your life.

            Which begs certain questions. Like how do you deal with that? How do you deal with the very nature of your world coming undone?

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            See that’s the key part of all of this: the answer and then what we do with it, or how these shows handle revelation not just as presentation but also as incorporation and the ensuing development that comes from the characters accepting these new truths. That sets these shows apart from the true crime-slash-investigative podcasts that essentially bore them. It’s not that these shows discuss a mystery to be pieced together. Rather they make you see part of your reality for the first time.

            There’s something ambitious about that, but the ambition of this construction can be a double-edged sword. Mysteries rely on relaying pieces of information. It’s gradually exposing a picture. For the traditional investigative podcast, it’s a straightforward process. Like I said before: there’s a discovery of a crime or offense, investigation, and revelation or at least clarification. Or even lack thereof. No answer is still an answer in some way. It says something about the world we live in. But rather than revealing the identity of a negative force that walks among us, it states that negative forces can get away with their actions without being held accountable despite how high the stakes may or may not be.


            But take Tanis, for example. The show or concept: it doesn’t make a difference. Tanis isn’t like that. Tanis is this larger than life mysterious force that seemingly influences all the happenings of the Pacific Northwest. Finding answers really isn’t a possible thing. When Nic flips over one rock, he only finds like ten more. On top of that, he has to unravel different threads tied to the motivation of different and opposing forces, some of whom are probably lying to him but hey maybe the lies themselves don’t entirely make sense. That’s up in the air too.

            To give you another example, Rabbits starts off with the host Carly Parker investigating the mysterious disappearance of her friend who just so happened to be trying to play a game called Rabbits that—according to the show’s universe—isn’t just a game but maybe a thread of our reality that kind of holds it together. It’s hard to say, exactly.

            And that’s the problem. It can be hard to say much about any of these things. The mental engagement required to keep up can be hard to muster in certain circumstances. And sometimes, the clues—especially in Rabbits can feel a bit… heavy handed? Yes, all of these messages are supposed to speak to Carly specifically, so there’s that. But as a solution, it’s also a problem. It’s a reason to not be so interested in the story. This is Carly’s quest. I—as an audience member—am just along for the ride.

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            In all of these show, I am passively listening to a discovery. I do not get to participate in the mystery in the same way that I do as true crime listener because of this structure. The narrator as a participant holds pieces that they don’t know are relevant, and that I have no way of knowing about.

            Once again, this isn’t meant as a critique, merely an observation. Remember. The premise of this podcast saga is that this medium permits the existence of the sorts of stories that couldn’t exist before. Public Radio Alliance and minnow beats whale certainly build off of the investigative journalism tradition, but these shows are distinct entities. Almost the next step evolutionarily speaking.

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            It boils down to this idea that someone attempting to make a documentary inevitably and despite their best effort becomes a part of the story they are trying to tell or in some ways, they have their own story that runs parallel to their investigation. I just listened to an Audible Original the other day called It Burns. In which Marc Fennell explores the controversy surrounding the world record for the world’s hottest chili pepper. Beneath the surface is his lifelong struggle with food: a negative relationship that leaves him desperate to—you could say—beat his body into submission. This is found in a few comments he makes in the beginning, and he tosses more out from time to time.

            And no, this show isn’t sponsored by Audible. I don’t have any sponsorships beyond just a Ko-fi link. It’s not relevant because of what it offers financially but because of what it offers as a counterpoint.

            Marc’s troubles are in the background of his investigation, and while you might keep them in mind during interviews and hear call backs to his personal theme in them, that’s you making a connection that may or may not be intended. It’s more easter egg than substance. Or so I thought last week when I was listening to this book. Long after I had listened to these shows.

            Now, I love spicy foods like Marc does. It’s a trait that I inherited from my father, to my mother’s chagrin. And as a woman in the 21st century, yeah, the food thing has its moments. So there is a sense in which I want to connect to Marc on this journey and better understand the piece he offers in so much as he does offer one.

            You see, the more likeable the host is or the stronger their reason for wanting to pursue an answer, the stronger certain questions are essentially begged. There’s the more innocent ones like “how do you feel right now” or “how are you right now in hearing this person say this thing.” But there are also the more sinister ones like “what is your point” or certain manifestations of “why are you doing this.”

            I imagine this is somewhat the product of the social media influencer or it’s a product the same trend that bore: social media influences being a type of creator whose strength comes in their realness or (quote) authenticity. Think YouTube. Because this is a weird byproduct of their faulty algorithms in so many ways.

So okay, a YouTuber posts content about them, their point of view, or their lives. It’s essentially their show to do with whatever they want. But given the thirst of the algorithm for as much content from a single creator as possible, an arrangement that keeps their subscribers coming back to the website daily to see more advertisements that give them money, there is a certain type of creator that can easily gain traction and then becomes a cultural force.

            Cue the daily vlogger whose content is presented as being a continuous glimpse into the daily life like reality TV but with less production and people involved. So less of a filter. A daily vlogger could run their entire channel by themselves and many do in the beginning. And as their audience grows and the business side of it does too, more people might be involved and that facade of authenticity might increasingly become a facade. But you don’t see behind the proverbial curtain as an audience member. You only have your assumptions: assumptions based on framing. And YouTube presents itself as the place for independent creators to be themselves. The truth of that not withstanding

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            Even for other types of content creators, the audience still believes they know the creator simply because the creator’s personality is the appeal and/or brand. A beauty guru, for example might lead with their makeup skills, but with so many makeup tutorials on the website, personality drives the content to the audience ahead of the competitions’. But that personality creates an audience with a certain type of expectation or assumption.

            And this is called parasocial interaction. Or it can be. The original term coined in the 1950s. The core of the theory is that the audience develops a belief that the figure they observe in media is more of a (quote) “friend.” But I’m going to chalk some of those limitations to the times. Remember this was devised in the 1950s, and no one knew what was going to happen to media in sixty years and the form that all this new content was going to take. Never mind the consequences. To bolster my approach, I’ll also add that the psychologists involved in this theory highlighted television as the medium of choice for these things. And considering that YouTube--where this is most obvious—is the (quote) “new television,” it’s worth revisiting and reinterpreting these ideas in light of these new developments.

            With that in mind, essentially, an audience might feel a connection to their creator of choice, but it’s a one-sided relationship created from observation or media consumption. In YouTube, this seems particularly relevant because what are we observing but the person in what could be thought of as a natural habit or in their natural form, even if we can’t prove it. That’s just what we’ve been lead to believe YouTube for.

            None of this is inherently bad. Parasocial interactions can help model behavior—that is a double edged sword though—as  well as help someone construct their identity. Or just feel a sense of satisfaction. Parasocial interactions can’t be our interactions, but they do provide something. However, cue comment about how you can die from drinking too much water. Water—a basic component for your existence—can genuinely kill you if you take it too far.

            You see, we normally hear about parasocial interactions when they go too far. Like it leads someone going to their favorite YouTuber’s home uninvited, and a bunch of other people condoning it when someone pleads for it to stop. And just to make my position very clear. Don’t do that. Respect privacy.

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            But to backtrack to where I actually want to go, parasocial interactions aren’t necessarily bad. For one, these interactions can convey or teach positive behavior. They can do the opposite yes, but stay on this side of the line with me for a moment.

And in that moment, let’s go back to YouTube for a moment. Jenna Marbles is the industry standard for talking about positive forces in the YouTube space. Despite her years on the platform and all her success, she presents herself as still a down to earth person who makes goofy content guaranteed to make you smile. Like the pupsicle video she made the week before this episode went live. Also she and her partner adopted a rescue greyhound and modeled—albeit in a limited capacity—the proper way to bring a rescue dog into a new home and what to expect when you do it. Positivity incarnate. But also realistic

            We can go back to mainstream media to see a different manifestation of this that hasn’t quite found its roots in theory yet. A community on reddit, known as r/freefolk, that is devoted to Game of Thrones, raised money for Emilia Clarke’s charity Same You that helps young people who have suffered from brain injuries or strokes. If you aren’t familiar with Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke played Daenerys Targaryen who kind of had that whole (spoiler) mad queen moment at the end. Yeah this all happened in the wake of the disastrous and poorly received Season 8. Which r/freefolk did not enjoy and you can figure that out pretty quick. Here’s the thing though, the community’s devotion to her and the work she put into the show outweighed their opinions on the show and its ending. And from that relationship, they did an incredible thing for a cause close to her heart.

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            In some ways, parasocial interactions are inevitable. Remember, it’s all observation-based. So media consumption leads to that in some form, and it’s the specific manifestations that should be discussed and examined. Usually on a case by case basis to determine if a parasocial interaction is reasonable.

            But at the same time, this is what the Public Radio Alliance and minnow beats whale play with: this inclination to connect to the person at the forefront of the story. So make them a character and solidify what is bound to happen anyway. If I, as an audience member, am to grow attached or invested in the documentary lead, then they are relevant. They are a part of the story as well.

            And to me, that’s what sets these podcasts apart. It’s an appeal to this impulse. I wouldn’t say “pandering” by any stretch of the imagination. As creatures, we need connections. It’s how we work and thrive. While it’s true that it’s not a real connection, at the same time, it shouldn’t be. It is a fictional story, after all. And parasocial interactions shouldn’t be the be all end all, but they’re great at getting you through a difficult point.

            To add to that, the stakes of the mysteries would intensify the need for some sort of personal anchor. This is our very reality coming undone. Sterile presentation is only going to encourage me to chuck my podcast listening device across the room to make it stop.

            I’m not exaggerating when I say that the narrators are the glue that holds the story and the listener together. Because this is the actual conclusion I am making. These shows tap into the parasocial impulse and that impulse can compensate when ambition doesn’t quite carry.

            There’s something absolutely brilliant in all of this. Making stories like these in which reality bends aren’t easy because you as a writer might not necessarily know how that bend will work or how to make that logic consistent. Never mind how to explain that through someone who wouldn’t have this information.

            And that leads to a sort of pinnacle question: why care about the mystery when we are helpless to do anything about it and we can’t have all the information anyway? After all, we aren’t the chosen ones. But on the other hand, we know the person who is. And we’re getting kind of worried about them.

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            Thanks for listening. Now, here’s that bonus trailer I promised you. Follow @miscellanymedia on Twitter for updates on our newest show Aishi Online. Soon to hit a podcast player near you.

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            Hi. We’ve met before. (Music fades in) Probably. Or not. I don’t… I don’t know. I jumped into this whole podcasting thing after lurking for a long time, and I still don’t understand how people find their shows. You know, that’s how I am with the entire social internet, if I am to be completely honest. Like… I had a Twitter account for years that I have never tweeted from. I didn’t really use it. At least, not in the (quote) “social” way. I really just liked being moderately engaged or informed on global affairs and looking at cute animal pictures. And Twitter is great for both superficial information and cute animals. Neat.

            Well, not exactly neat. There’s a lot more to the internet than that. And I’m bad at most of it.

            And you know what else? I think a lot of people aren’t great at socializing, but I might be one of the few who fail in a digital context. Maybe don’t think too much about that if you don’t want a sudden controversy. Because I promise I am getting to that. In time.

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            If you didn’t know about my other podcast, The Oracle of Dusk, I’m really curious how you managed to find this one, but hi, let me catch you up. The important thing is that The Oracle of Dusk, whose titular character is named Delphi or calls herself Delphi, has a Twitter account. Or the show has a Twitter account with her name on it to create some sort of immersion. And that was the point. I mean, Step 1 immersion. Step 2, a series of questions marks. Step 3. Fan base.

            Okay in terms of a plan, that isn’t so great, but I thought that’s what other people were doing, even if I didn’t understand it. So that had to be the thing to do right? And this may seem cold—why couldn’t I do that too? I mean I had this story to tell, and people might find it mildly interesting. But only if they can hear it.

            So I made the show and then the Twitter account and started off only making in-character tweets. I built up the account, connected with other audio fiction fans and creators, kept tweeting, made more connections, kept tweeting… And all the while, I was trying to maintain a distinct all-lowercase style—to the chagrin of autocorrect.

            But then that stopped, and then before or… I don’t know, but it wasn’t me tweeting as Delphi anymore. It was something else and whatever it was I don’t know if I understand it. But it felt familiar. It has happened before. I know that, and I know that this is something I need to talk about.

            The Oracle of Dusk is Delphi’s story. Now, I need to tell mine.

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