There was a time when families would huddle around the old wooden console radio to listen to their favorite radio dramas. The shows they listened to had names like The Shadow, The Mysterious Traveler, Lights Out, Suspense, and The Mercury Theatre on the Air (the Orson Welles show responsible for “The War of the Worlds”). Of course, no old time radio show was without a corporate sponsor, like Ironized Yeast, Phillips’ Milk Of Magnesia, Campbell’s Soup, and yes, General Electric. Now a good 60 years after television sets began to push radios out of the living room, GE and Panoply (Slate’s podcast network) are trying to channel the golden age of radio in their collaborative podcast, The Message.
A Message From Outer Space
The Message is an old-time sci-fi radio drama spiffed up for the golden age of podcasts. Set for a limited run of eight episodes, the show purports to document in real time an attempt to decrypt a message believed to be from extraterrestrials.
The story revolves around fictional podcaster and self-proclaimed linguistics expert Nicky Tomalin, who had been hosting a run-of-the-mill podcast about linguistics until recently when she worked her way into The Cypher Centers for Communication, a private consulting firm renowned for its codebreaking expertise. Tomalin somehow managed to persuade the heads of Cypher to let her hang around as an unpaid intern while she collects information for her podcast, the name of which Tomalin appropriately changes to Cyphercast. The invitation to come record a podcast inside the walls of a business that specializes in analyzing secret codes and messages may seem unusual, but the Cypher team has their own reasons for wanting an audio documentarian on their premises at this time.
Tomalin’s work at Cypher coincides with Cypher’s receipt of a request from the NSA to analyze one of the great unbroken codes of our time, simply referred to as “The Message.” The Message is an audio recording captured by the U.S. military back in 1945 that is believed to have come from outer space. Until now, the recording was not known or available to the public, and possibly for good reason. We find out in the first episode that the recording may have a deadly effect on those who listen to it, which, if you hang on through the second episode, will include you.
Tomalin interviews members of the Cypher team and records conversations, calls and meetings in their office, as the team works to crack the code. The task becomes more and more urgent in each episode as the effects of the recording begin to appear. Like any fun thriller, as you get deeper into the story, you also begin to question the motivations of everyone involved: the heads of Cypher, the NSA, even the plucky host.
More Than a Podcast
If the podcast alone is not enough to suck you into the fictional world of The Message, you can also find the drama playing out online. A blog written from Tomalin’s perspective and a website for Cypher have both been set up. Tomalin’s blog includes regular updates as new episodes are released and provides more detail about the host’s thinking and motivations as she records the show. The Cypher website sets up a game of sorts for those listeners interested in testing out their own codebreaking skills. There is a login option on the site that appears to require some ‘ciphering of your own if you want to get through to the other side. While each episode of the podcast tends to be a short 10 to 15 minutes long, the producers of the show have clearly put in a lot more work behind the microphone to make this an inclusive experience for interested listeners.
We’re now five episodes into to The Message’s eight-episode run and are getting close to what should be the climactic end of the show. The nail biting has officially begun. The show’s creators have done a fantastic job of creating suspense from the very first episode, and as a listener, you hope for a spectacular, twisty end to this short but wild ride. On the other hand, with all this build up and the stakes that have been laid out (we’re talking aliens and a deadly curse after all), it’s natural to be wary of a let down. We’ll have to see how this turns out, but having watched TV shows like Lost and The X-Files, I’ve learned to temper my expectations of a sci-fi drama building toward a surprise ending. That said, the full-in commitment for this show should come in under two hours (not counting any time you devote to Tomalin’s blog or the Cypher site), so a less than perfect landing could be more easily forgiven than a flat finale of a show that ran for years.
Some critics have not been as forgiving about The Message’s reliance on the cliffhanger, which is regularly employed at the end of each episode. My recommendation is that you make sure you know what you’re getting into before you listen to this show. This is a rollercoaster. You wouldn’t go to Six Flags, wait in line to ride the Twisted Colossus, then complain afterward that the ride had too many dips and turns. The makers of The Message are clearly trying to hark back to the staged drama of old-time radio and are liberally using one of the great plot devices from that era. If you’re looking for a more sophisticated take on audio fiction, I’d suggest moving on to other shows. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a fun ride with lots of dips and turns, then hop on. We’re only mid-ride, but so far The Message has provided plenty of thrills that should keep its listeners huddling around their phones and computers for the final three episodes.
Update: The final episode of The Message was released on Sunday, November 22, 2015, and the verdict? Well, as I said in the original article, the show was pointing toward a dramatic ending, and it was natural to be a little skeptical of whether the show’s creators and writers could pull it off. In the end, though, I think the finale was fun and fulfilling, giving listeners just the right dose of surprise and satisfaction without being too clever. If you’ve listened to the series, feel free to leave a comment below with your own thoughts on The Message.