NOTE: Major spoilers about The Polybius Conspiracy podcast in the following post.
At the end of The Polybius Conspiracy, there is a veritable moment of mystery. Of an accident unfolding into a revelation of the kernel of the entire series. It occurs towards the very end as Jon Frechette talks about Bobby Feldstein’s video. You’re wondering, he says, what’s going through his head? This moment – one I have gone back to many times – is hinging upon this line to convey an almost meta-poetical narrative where Frechette is not only narrating a character in a narrative but inserting that thought into the listener. What is happening? – you are made to wonder. Disappointment, frustration, despair – he says – before revealing Bobby’s last words on the podcast – Goddamit, I know what happened. The Polybius Conspiracy concluded at that very moment. I remember listening to it the first time and being caught completely unaware. It was only the second time when I listened to it – after listening to all the episodes, on that occasion – that I could appreciate the moment for what it was. It was – and in my very humble opinion, still is – the most perfect slow burner podcast that I have consumed. Which is what I am about to write about, in this post. Listen to the entire series before we begin! Here’s the first episode.
These days, the presence of podcasts is ubiquitous. This ubiquity makes one wonder about the form itself. The most common form is the direct dialogue form of podcasts: people speaking on a topic. That form, of enlightening the masses, of telling a story comes in all different shapes and sizes: Blockchain technology (Varanida), prisoners in San Quentin (Ear Hustle) and so on and so forth. That is a form that may differ in the way it presents itself but there is always a script of Q&A. There are people like Benjamen Walker (The Theory of Everything) who twist it around – chairs are thrown from rooftops, phone calls of complaints about the podcast are played in the podcast. He disrupts the way you would consume his podcast and redirects your attention to things that . There is Roman Mars (99% Invisible) who gives you the fleeting feeling of meandering into an anecdote before throwing an epiphany at you; it is always a dazzling effect. But the podcast that completely turns it upside down is the podcast that blurs the distance between the narrated content and the listener. Two podcasts come to mind: the recently concluded Death in Ice Valley and The Polybius Conspiracy that was put out by Radiotopia last fall.
The two podcasts could not be more different. Death in Ice Valley is about the Isdal Woman case which is an unsolved mystery from the 1970s. It was produced by the BBC and NRK. The Polybius Conspiracy is about an urban legend in Portland in the 1980. What brings them together? The proximity question – Death in Ice Valley was a work-in-progress. The producers relied heavily on the kind of responses they received from their audience and definitely followed leads that came from the Facebook group that they had created. The listeners were partly stakeholders of the entire process of the whole. The proximity to the content was uniquely close. The ‘knowledge’ from the podcast was one that was not from the enlightenment that one could gain out of it. It was not functional in that sense. It was simply something you as a listener could intervene and interject things into. As every episode unraveled into new clues and more leads, the slow burn was that ‘unknowledge’ – that unknowability of the end point which seemed even more elusive since the people making it were also not sure where they were going.
The Polybius Conspiracy, on the other hand, did something very different. This podcast simply inserted the audience into the podcast. Let us think of the timeframe of the episodes. If the producers come to Portland for a podcast about an urban legend, the narration puts the listener as a viewer of an event that has already taken place. The moment the ruptures into that timeline becomes incorporated into the podcast, the “truth” of the podcast also starts to blur the distance between the listener and the producers, so to speak. The moments, like the “break in” in Episode 7 or the moment Marc Sims – Reuben’s partner – surfaces on the podcast, it is a universe that one can “believe” in. These are moments that are performed for the audience and are given access to. The moment when Marc Sims’ partner Reuben seemingly hangs up on the producers, there is no layer that protects the listener from the fact that there is an “unknowability” – not only from the seeming mystery of the entire narrative, but also where does the contour of this ‘unknowledge’ stem from? The slow burn of the layers that the listener can always insert into this podcast is where the proximity between the podcast and its listeners lies – it can always be negotiated with more commonsense questions. Like: a. Was it Marc? Was Reuben delusional? Does it matter?
As a listener, I am not that bothered by the “fact-or-fiction” question of the two podcasts (Slate has already called The Polybius Conspiracy it fake, btw). What is more fascinating to me is precisely this residue of the contour between the two kingdoms of fact and fiction that are opposing only in theory. In the way most narratives unfold, the two things are merely versions where one layer enriches the other. The form of the podcasts – used rarely to bring up such important questions – is ripe for such experiments and we are luckier for it.
My recommendations for podcasts this time?
a. Doosra by BBC is one of the most refreshing sports podcasts. Mainly on cricket but also about a bunch of kids of South Asian origin who talk about society, family, sports, nationalism, and lots and lots of cricket. This is an unmissable one.
b. Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything had two extraordinary episodes in the False Alarm! series that deserve a double shout-out
c. Radiolab‘s “Unraveling Bolero” is one of the most moving and astonishing things I have heard in a long long time.