Back at the start of 2014, I made a blogging resolution to write more about sound. About the projects I was working on and the sound based media that inspired me. 2014 was a good year for me professionally, but it was also quite a disruptive year and one that saw a lot of changes personally and professionally that meant that something as relatively minor as that challenge fell by the wayside. It needed to, there were a lot of things more important than blogging going on. However, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good idea or one that isn’t worth coming back to now that I’m somewhat more…settled.
With that in mind I would like to institute an end of month…habit. Reviewing the sound-based content (whether sound art and installations, podcasts, radio plays or radio documentaries) I consumed that month or that I made that month. That may mean that I spend a fair amount of time during the last weekend of the month listening to new material or frantically editing, but that’s no bad thing.
January has been the month of the podcast for me. I’m subscribed to a sizeable number of podcasts and I pretty much always have a backlog.
(I should stop at this point to explain that I was a reasonably early adopter of podcasts and have developed a rather eclectic selection of subscriptions, some brand new, some that I’ve been listening to faithfully for ten years, others have come and gone over the years. By and large, until recently they’ve been current affair and arts related, essentially my own personal speech radio station made up of BBC, NPR, NHK, Al-Jazeera and Guardian output. I’ve only recently moved into fictional podcasts and it’s been…enlightening.)
For a variety of reasons, this month I’ve had plenty of time to catch up on my podcast backlog, so I’ve been trying out some new podcasts, getting round to ones that I was recommended but hadn’t listened to.
Limetown was recommended to me as a ‘if you enjoyed Serial you’ll enjoy this’ podcast. But in the interim between finding out about the podcast and finally getting round to listening to it, not only had all the episodes come out but I’d completely forgotten everything I’d known about it. Therefore I spent quite a bit of the first episode uncertain as to whether or not it was fictional. I have since read an interview with the series’ creators where they talked about what a huge influence Welcome to Nightvale was to them, and while I can see that, stylistically, it appears to owe a great deal more to Serial. I don’t actually consume massive amounts of NPR output, so its hard to say if its just an NPR style that they’re riffing off of, or if its specific to Serial, but my goodness I was glad I wasn’t listening to the new series of Serial at the same time. I think I might have started to lose track of which series was fact and which is fiction. (The tone is so similar, the style, even the adverts! It’s the same company sponsoring both podcasts! Excellent work Squarespace getting in on the freaking out the audience game there!) The great strength of Limetown, I feel, is that it plays it absolutely straight. It’s a piece of long-form audio journalism and our guide in this world Lia Haddock takes her work seriously too. By turns curious, excited, scared and a little paranoid, she treats her subjects with respect, warmth and a healthy dose of scepticism even – perhaps especially – as her cold-case story that has unexpectedly warmed up, takes turns further and further into X-Files territory. It’s a testament to the actress playing her that you trust her completely, follow her willingly down this rabbit-hole into the ever increasing weirdness. You feel safe travelling with Lia, distanced from the dangers she faces by the radio format, its not until after the podcast is finished that the downright creepiness of certain events really hits you. It’s a testament to the excellent sound design that at various points you feel both like you’re listening to an actual live radio programme and like you’re right there with Lia listening to those frankly horrible voicemails and audiotapes. Also? That was one heck of a cliff-hanger to end on.
I picked up Wolf 359 after I finished Limetown. It’s taken me a good few episodes to get into it properly, largely because I had to get over the previous series first and it suffered by comparison a little. Wolf 359 is a much more traditional style science fiction radio drama. It’s very much a chamber piece, with our four-person crew stuck on a space station orbiting and observing a red dwarf star (the eponymous Wolf 359), and apparently slowly cracking under the pressure. The series lulls the listener into a false sense of security with gentle episodic tales in which the crew’s strengths and foibles are established and our preconceptions about the archetypes that they represent are thoroughly played with. However, as the series progresses, little weird things keep happening about which our guide through this world – Doug Eiffel, Communications Officer and general disaster of a human being – gets at turns really irrationally paranoid about and then gently reassured that there’s nothing to worry about. Events swing wildly from the completely mundane to the utterly absurd. (To continue our 90s TV comparisons, it’s a bit like Red Dwarf with more girls and subtler jokes.) There’s some cracking use of sound in this podcast, managing to create both the vast sense of scale involved with being on a big empty space station a very long way from Earth and also the very claustrophobic nature of being stuck in a small office, on what is essentially a big tin can in space. Almost everything we hear is Eiffel’s personal logs, so they’re necessarily skewed and subjective, but everything we hear outside of his logs, suggests that actually he could stand to be a little more suspicious of his crewmates than he actually is already.
Time will tell if the series can maintain its sense of intrigue and perhaps bump things up to properly tense and compelling. I’m only three quarters of the way through the first series so far, but as things stand I’d thoroughly recommend it as a good old-fashioned sci-fi radio drama.