The Radio-Age Genius of The Message

The popular fictional podcast tells a modern sci-fi story in the grand tradition of The War of the Worlds.

GE Podcast Theater

When Orson Welles’s radio drama The War of the Worlds aired in 1938, simulating a news broadcast about an alien invasion of Earth, newspapers published stories detailing the national hysteria it sparked. This narrative, it turns out, was overblown, making it even more unlikely today that the podcast miniseries The Message will cause any real panic. But over eight weeks, it’s nailed the same intriguing sense of hyper-reality that Welles pioneered. Chronicling a scientific team’s efforts to decode a toxic bit of alien communication, The Message is a genuinely unsettling listen, like a horror-film parody of Serial split into 15-minute chunks, the last of which airs Sunday.

Much of The Message’s appeal comes from its charming mix of old and new media. The podcast was produced by General Electric as a kind of throwback to GE Theater, an anthology series hosted by the then-actor Ronald Reagan on CBS radio before it became a TV hit. The company’s native branding frees The Message from the typical ad interruptions for companies like Squarespace, while lending it an air of nostalgia and authenticity. The podcast won’t exactly convince listeners of a genuine alien threat, but it’s at least fun to hear it try.

In meta fashion, The Message is actually “Cyphercast,” a (fake) popular-science series about cryptographers investigating mysterious transmissions. After an earnest graduate student named Nicky Tomalin joins the team, the NSA invites them to decipher a perplexing signal received decades earlier that seems to be alien in origin. They quickly realize that it contains some sort of sonically transmitted virus that causes those who listen to it to suffer respiratory arrest. Though it has a sci-fi bent, The Message feels most similar to tales of explorers disturbing ancient Egyptian burial grounds and awakening a deadly curse.

The Message was written by Mac Rogers, a playwright best known for The Honeycomb Trilogy, which is currently playing off-Broadway. When asked to write “Serial with aliens” for Slate’s Panoply network, he said he decided on a sound-based monster to go with the medium he was writing for. The podcast rolled out with a fancy, mysterious website that encouraged fans to investigate online to try and solve some of the show’s secrets. The move recalled 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, a found-footage horror film that purportedly documented real events, and managed to fool some viewers into believing so.

The Message faces many of the same challenges that found-footage films do. In films like Blair Witch, characters are constantly having to explain why they’re bringing a camera to investigate some creepy building (it’s never quite clear how they manage not to drop the camera as they run away screaming). Similarly, with The Message, some of the necessary exposition required to set up the plot feels clunky. Nicky has to regularly justify why she still has her microphone turned on, and why she hasn’t taken the podcast down considering the terrifying implications of broadcasting an alien virus on the Internet. But it’s easy to forgive these visible seams because the overall effect is so creepy.

It’s also a delight to see GE and Panoply explore the limits of the podcasting medium. The Message is clearly inspired by the success of Serial, but it plays with the format in a creative way. The radio play, especially in America, is now all but extinct. But The Message proved it had something new to offer and debuted in the top 10 on iTunes’s podcast charts when it was released. It’s since inspired thousands of fans to engage in guesswork and larger theories on Reddit, much in the way any on-screen sci-fi franchise would.

In many ways, The Message feels excitingly modern. It has a diverse cast of characters and manages to convey that fact in a clear but subtle way (no easy feat when you can only hear people’s voices). It’s an Internet-based piece of entertainment that taps into broader fears of a connected world, suggesting that thousands of listeners are falling victim to the same disease plaguing the scientists trying to decode the alien broadcast. Yes, it’s a piece of native advertising, inspired by GE’s investment in sonic-health treatments, a slightly insidious fact that reflects the future of entertainment. But businesses know listeners skip through ads whenever they can, so why not instead build them right into the show if it can be done in an enjoyable way?

Sunday’s episode may choose to wrap everything up, or it may leave the mystery open-ended. Either way, The Message’s success should be a clear signal to Panoply and others to indulge this burgeoning format. The “found footage” approach won’t work forever, but there are plenty of other angles for the podcast radio play to pursue. And in an era of binge-watching, it’s nice to wait every week for a new batch of clues that helps expand a mystery in a meaningful way. With that in mind, The Message’s biggest success has been how effortlessly and inventively it recalls a simpler time for our digital age.