We’re seeing a rise in public radio-style sci-fi.
When the public radio reporter Alex Reagan first encountered the work of Dr. Richard Strand, a skeptical paranormal investigator, she wasn't intending to do go further than a single interview: the idea was to produce a series of human-interest stories on people with oddball jobs.
She certainly didn't expect to go full-on Serial on Strand's work, producing a two-season podcast based on his unsolved cases in which she and her team reverse-engineered an audio file that supposedly killed its listeners and interviewed a teenager imprisoned for murdering his parents over the finer points of satanic geometry.
If the show's executive producers are to be believed, Reagan's podcast, The Black Tapes, is one of the more recent projects to spin off of Pacific Northwest Stories, a locally beloved public radio network based in Seattle and Vancouver. Following the meteoric popularity of radio shows like This American Life, the PNWS team—which includes the intrepid, colloquially inclined Reagan and her producer Nic Silver—spun off its own series of podcasts: The Black Tapes,an investigation of Richard Strand's spooky unsolved cases, and Tanis, in which Silver attempts to find the origins of a legend surrounding the eponymous mythological city, a riddle he considers one of the last true mysteries of the internet age.
The shows, which are released every other week, are recognizable journalistic efforts in the podcasting age: The hosts record and respond to tips from listeners and tape meeting in their office, where they debate the merits of a story's angle. Once, when Alex was concerned about whether she'd coerced a source, Nic read a passage from the Canadian Association of Journalists code of ethics on-air.
Pacific Northwest Stories' shows are obsessively researched and littered with the kinds of real-life figures and local legends that drive the conspiracy internet bonkers
All that casual, personality-driven reporting is supposed to come off as genuine. "We want to be that voice in your ear that you trust," executive producers Terry Miles and Paul Bae told me.
The whole thing is so spot-on that you might be forgiven if, like some of the gullible listeners who mistook 1938's War of the Worlds broadcast for an actual alien invasion, you take them at their word at first.
Hopefully, at least by the time sources start disappearing, you'll realize these are carefully scripted dramas—more Welcome to Nightvale than Radiolab. Not that Miles, Nic Silver's "cousin," or his producing partner Bae will admit it. They insist the stories are true, and the shows are inspired by the character-driven journalism of Truman Capote and Ira Glass.
The Black Tapes and Tanis join a handful of recent podcasts to take the rules of documentary-style podcasting and use them to create spooky, cyclical sci-fi—something between Lost and the radio horror plays of the '30s and '40s but, you know, moonlighting as a documentary. Last year, the GE-sponsored mini-series The Message put a citizen journalist armed with a tape recorder at the center of a pandemic-slash-alien-invasion straight out of The X-Files; in Limetown, a public radio producer investigates the disappearance of an entire town.
For all the fantastic long-formy journalism showcased in true crime dramas like Serial, it can be disappointing when the carefully ushered narrative arc gives way to, well, messy (and often unsatisfying) realities. The stories from Pacific Northwest Stories may not be real, but at least they have real conclusions.
I was first introduced to The Black Tapes by a friend who thought they were real. I listened to most of the first season back-to-back on a long late-night bus ride between states. Around the third episode or so, when a gruesome ghost with an upside-down face appears, a well-meaning guy sitting behind me tapped my shoulder to ask the time and I nearly lost it. When it's at its best, The Black Tapes is legitimately creepy, likely more so for its audio format; the big reveal that so often ruins horror movies, where the terrifying monster turns out to be just some shifty stitched-together CGI, never comes.
Some podcasts you want to put on while you make dinner or endure a morning commute; this is the kind of self-referential, dense mystery that demands your entire attention. And the world in which The Black Tapes and Tanis take place isn't so much an alternate reality as one that hovers comfortably adjacent to ours. Pacific Northwest Stories' shows are obsessively researched and littered with the kinds of real-life figures and local legends that drive the conspiracy internet bonkers: the Order of the Golden Dawn, the mythological basis of The Dungeon Master's Guide, the occult enthusiast and rocket scientist Jack Parsons, the Manson murders.
"The Pacific Northwest just generates these kinds of stories," Bae said. "Psychos, missing persons, unsolved mysteries."
Bae and Miles say they're drawn to these stories for their obscurity in a world where it's possible to know everything on a subject in just a couple of keystrokes. "It's hard to keep anything mysterious and secret with so much information at our fingertips," said Miles. In fact, they refuse to tell me anything about the "true crime" show they are working on next, out of fear that their legions of gumshoe fans will start digging before they can get the first episode out. And yes, they do get a ton of mail from fans positing various theories—or reporting on their own creepypasta-esque ghost stories. "I hope to god they're not real," said Bae. "It's fucking creepy."