I have come to the phenomenon of podcasts a bit late. You will learn from future posts there have been a lot of trends I’ve been fashionably late to. I was formally introduced to podcasts back in 2012. This isn’t to say I wasn’t aware of their existence prior but I might as well have been ignorant considering the lack of interest I had shown in the medium up to that point.
Prior to my formal introduction and subsequent (albeit staggered and delayed) adoption of the medium my exposure to podcasts had been merely as an emerging technological oddity loosely covered in a graduate studies course in cultural communication and lumped together with internet radio. At this time the jury was still out on what potential value this medium and its then cumbersome RSS feed style delivery systems could bring the masses. Terrestrial and satellite radio were still the mainstream and podcasts seemed to only fit a niche audience. This was, after all, years before the terms smartphone or app were part of our daily lexicon and national news outlets were still attempting to educate the public on what a blog was. My only thoughts at that time as a graduate student, with at least a decade of age advancement on my fellow students, were framed through a fish eyed lens in the theories of Marshal McLuhan and Neil Postman; I wasn’t sure what podcasts were and what podcasts could be.
Podcasts evolved and entered the public consciousness without me taking interest. Color me surprised when many years later during that formal introduction podcasts had found their entry into pop-culture and were now readily available through music services and streaming services sitting snugly on the screens of my mobile devices. My introducer convinced me to take a listen to a podcast (which shall remain nameless) during a long car trip. I liked what I was hearing and had a better understanding of what they were and what they could be. I was soon using Stitcher as my go-to source for Kevin Smith’s shenanigans or skeptic style shows debunking the latest claims from the world of pseudo science.
Yet, unlike other mediums, podcasts weren’t necessarily convenient to the lifestyle I was living at the time nor to the delivery systems I was employing. Ultimately I didn’t feel I had time to explore, discern, subscribe and listen to the kind of content I would be invested in. Loyalty to shows was fleeting. Listening soon started to occur only in my car and even then podcasts weren’t my preferred commuter-audio companion. By 2013 my affair with podcasts ended with me giving up on the medium in favor of audiobooks. I thought I knew what podcasts were and what podcasts could be, but I became apathetic. So, I left podcasts mostly behind with a bit of iconoclastic bravado to cover any perceived shortcomings by in-the-know third parties and hipsters. They were a thing, but not my thing.
Time passed… and then a close friend of mine began podcasting on a nerd-culture centric show. Eventually he moved from that small show, which was based in the DMV, to a national network. Out of interest in hearing what he had to say I began carving time out to listen. This slowly brought me back around and I began to familiarize myself with the best way to not only receive podcasts but how to remain informed and current in my interaction with the medium. I was interested in hearing my friend and the content he was a part of. It turns out my iPhone and iPad had a lot more uses then just games. I thought I knew what podcasts were and what podcasts could be, but my opinion was evolving.
However, one podcast which only updated biweekly doesn’t constitute an immersive relationship with a medium I was again trying to further understand. But, this re-engagement coincided with some lifestyle changes allowing for more opportunity to explore but, outside my return to the Kevin Smith well I still wasn’t sold on a lot of the material I was investigating. I was also becoming overwhelmed by the amount of content and concerned for the potential lack of quality in my data mining. With the podcasts I did explore very few gained a return visit or my loyalty.
I eventually jumped on the Serial band wagon about ½ way into their first season. This point cannot be understated. It became an important development in my search for quality content relative to my tastes. I now felt I had an even better understanding of not only what a podcast was but what I wanted a podcast to be. I held on through Serial’s first season, exploring but never obligating myself to any additional shows. When Serial ended its first season it looked as if I could forsake the medium again. I kept my feet wet, but never fully immersed myself.
Then it happened….
My interest in the esoteric led me one day in 2015 down the rabbit hole of the Creepypasta phenomenon and I stumbled upon an article that was reviewing podcasts for the Halloween season on The Mary Sue
The podcasts reviewed in that article were taking the medium and advancing it by tapping into the fundamental ether that led to the success of shows like Lost and the resurgence of serialized storytelling across other mediums. I honestly didn’t know this was a thing.
I was not only immersed but joyfully swimming deeper.
Welcome to the world of Pacific Northwest Stories (PNWS) the ostensible podcasting “cousin” of Minnow Beats Whale, the habitat of an artistic collective actively pursuing the creation of storytelling in podcast, film, and other mediums founded by filmmaker Terry Miles.
PNWS currently produces two podcasts that have absolutely enthralled me. The first is The Black Tapes Podcast, hosted by the charming Alex Reagan; this is the one that hooked me. The second is Tanis, hosted by the equally charming Nic Silver; this came online for me not long after my obsession with The Black Tapes Podcast had taken hold– hooked again.
The Black Tapes Podcast, hosted by Alex Reagan centers around a journalistic investigation that leads to an interaction with the mysterious Dr. Richard Strand of the Strand Institute. Strand is a puzzle box of a personality apparently holding onto deep secrets as he works as a skeptic to disprove supernatural phenomenon. It’s this interaction which switches the focus of Alex’s initial investigation onto a collection of “black tapes” Dr. Strand has in his possession, and onto Dr. Strand himself. Strand becomes a jumping off point for investigations into supernatural phenomenon and strange occurrences which may or may not be related. From here I will let you listen on your own….
Tanis, hosted by Nic Silver centers around Nic’s interest in the myth of Tanis. Nic takes along Meerkatnip, a subversive information broker (read that as hacker) to unlock the possible last great mystery of our age: Tanis, a purported mythical city that may or may not exist as a city, but rather/also an idea, or concept, or awareness of knowledge/enlightenment. Nic’s investigation, which starts out simple enough soon becomes layered in characters and conspiracy that creep into his life tugging at the threads of something that should exist in the hive mind of human mythology like Atlantis or Sasquatch, but seemingly has remained hidden, even in the information age, except from a few…the Runners. From here I will let you listen on your own….
Both podcasts deal with esoteric concepts laced with arcane theory with detours through the historical, the supernatural, the mythical, the religious, and the geographic Pacific Northwest of North America. Alex Reagan and Nic Silver appear on both shows and it may not be too far of a stretch to suggest that deep beneath the two shows’ thick atmospheres of mystery their respective narratives share the same mythology if not the same DNA. This remains to be seen.
Both podcasts are docu-dramas and presented in a form similar to Serial. It’s a format that serves the type of storytelling being presented well and lends the hosts and their content an anchor in our world that brings it validation and believability. In fact, the convincing nature of the storytelling is so robust I find myself doubting that I am listening to works of fiction and have often questioned whether or not what I am listening to is real. I am questioning the boundaries of realites myself this very moment in fact. There in lies the beauty of Alex and Nic. They are reliable narrators in the avatars of journalists and I have come to trust them completely.
The narratives of both podcasts are complex. These are not podcasts to be listen to casually or in the presence of notable distractors. They are both presenting layered dramatic arcs with events, characters, subjects, and objects, all of which are of enigmatic relevance. The effects are that you may need to listen through episodes more than once…or take notes. You don’t lose out on the enjoyment if you don’t. But, you do need to pay attention. None of this is negative. I have opted to re-listen to both podcasts and like a favorite television series it gets better the second time through.
In preparation for sharing this experience with you I started to research the origins and relationship between Pacific Northwest Stories (PNWS) and Minnow Beats Whale in an attempt to learn more about the creative team behind these enigmatic audio treasures. I’m still a bit foggy on the nuances of their connection and the personalities listed on their respective websites. A bit more digging may be required by those of you interested in the nature of their tethered existence. Furthermore, I’d suggest there is a deliberate effort to reduce the amount of readily available information in an attempt to allow their creations to sit in the shadowy world they’ve generated and one that would be suited to host an alternate reality game.
There is an active place over on Reddit for the fans to come together and dissect such things.
I for one am content scratching at the surface (for now) of what I suggest is a rare and alluring platform to generate superior storytelling in an age where we can suffer from inept, narcissistic, and socially valueless content disguised as news, entertainment, or opinion. My fear was just this. I wasn’t initially sure what podcasts were and what podcasts could but I did fear they would become nothing but clearing houses for such substance and their potential would fall by the wayside. Thankfully podcasts broke out into genres and Modern Audio Drama is a thing.
As I often tell my students, simply being born with talent doesn’t absolve you from the acquisition of skill. Skill is the tool in which we carve our talent into existence. It’s clear the PNWS team of Paul Bae (Partner Producer), Terry Miles (partner Producer), Alex Reagan (Host), Nic Silver (Host, Producer), Christiana Raines (Producer Emeritus) and Alan Williams (Engineer) along with their cavalcade of researchers have setup a formula for success. This success is evident in the reception their work has received: the high review marks on iTunes are evidence of this.
The podcast market is saturated with professionals, moderates, and neophytes. There is more content available than one could listen to in a lifetime. In our western society of instant gratification and our on-demand mentality its refreshing to have works of art like the Black Tapes Podcast and Tanis to turn to. These are podcasts that actively challenge us to keep up and pay attention. The team behind them understand the power of the medium they’ve chosen to channel their message, and that should be respected. I for one finally feel I understand what podcasts are, what podcasts were meant for, and PNWS is what I wanted podcasts to be.
Please investigate them and give them both a listen. They had the power to influence my appreciation of an entire medium and open the doors to other fantastic podcasts. I sincerely hope they may at least give you a thrill and/or a chill.
Until next time I bid thee love and merriment.