You know the story. How does it go again? Someone’s having a hard time, the world seems empty, media becomes difficult to consume—until along come podcasts. It’s not that this is a boilerplate tale, but more that podcasting has come up in a time when a diversity of media is sorely needed. Diversity in the media style itself—audio versus visual storytelling—and in the content—queer voices, disabled voices, voices of people of color, mentally ill voices, poor voices—have enabled it to be a medium of the oppressed and marginalized.
Podcasting didn’t worm its way into my life until 2013, a year before I got my first smartphone. I knew about them before—Welcome to Night Vale had briefly flashed across my Facebook feed and The Moth was a favorite of one of my college friends—but it seemed pointless to listen to them while I was working, the only time I was on my laptop and not playing music or video of some kind. But in 2013, I was desperate. So I downloaded them onto my Microsoft Zune.
I’m pausing here for those of you who need to laugh to do so. I still have that Zune, by the way, and it’s still fully functional. I mean, barring the part where Microsoft shut down everything relating to Zune software. Leave my precious piece of obsolete technology alone.
This list of episodes starts in 2013 and tracks both progress and impact until the present day. I’m getting more personal than I’ve allowed myself to be before, following in the steps of fellow cherished reporters Wil Williams, Gavin Gaddis, and Alex at AudioDramaRama. To that end, before we get started, this needs a content warning for a brief reference to suicidal ideation (in Wormwood), and discussions of depression, anxiety, homophobia, and content related to Hurricane Maria.
Early Summer 2013: Wormwood, The Coming Storm (episode 1)
This was it, the podcast that started it all. In 2013, I was trapped after an abysmal year in my grandmother’s rickety, ancient house in Generic Tiny Town southern Illinois, surrounded by corn fields and my own untreated depression and anxiety. And I was alone—my grandmother’s health was deteriorating quickly by this point and my mother, who usually comes with me, was unable to come until much later—and the isolation and helplessness heightened my depression to an unbearable state.
However patchy it was, I had internet access. This part of the story is hazy, like it usually is for those who are seeking absolutely anything to hold onto, but I ended up on a list of audio fiction podcasts, most of them prior to Night Vale. The little bit I’d heard of Night Vale back in 2012 had intrigued me, so I had clicked through like a woman sliding down the research rabbit hole that is the internet, and this show called Wormwood caught my eye. It had the vibe, the one that resonated with a city girl trapped without even a functional car in a dead-end town with nothing but a gas station and corn fields for miles. (Hilariously, in the creepily coincidental and comedic manner that is endemic to Wormwood, I would find out much later from people involved in the production that the creature in the tale is based on legends local to where I was that summer).
Wormwood became a lifeline. For an entire summer, what became my reason to keep going was, “I need to find out what happens to Xander and Sparrow, I need to know what’s going on in Wormwood.” “One more day,” I said, “so I can find out.” I rationed Wormwood, because if I wasn’t careful, I would quickly run out of the 90 or so episodes, and that thought actually brought on anxiety attacks more than once. Slowly, Wormwood grounded me: I watched TV and solved crosswords with my grandmother, whose mind wasn’t failing at all; I worked on the first breaths of my graduate school application, a project that I have nearly completed after 4 years; I stayed anchored to that audio as much as I could until my mother arrived and I could breathe a little more easily.
With Wormwood came everything else, like an avalanche. Suddenly, here was something that I could close my eyes to when I was screen-fatigued, when I was walking around, on a commute, or working and unable to watch TV at the same time. Here was something that with my Zune, and later my smartphone, I now had access to. And while I could talk in detail about all of those podcasts that followed, the ones I used to fill in the gaps between Wormwood episodes and the ones that kept me from losing my actual mind in data entry jobs and the ones that guided me back from the fringes of anxiety attacks—Supermarket Matters, Tales from the Museum, The Kingery, NoSleep, The Byron Chronicles, Red Sands Investigations, Wolf 359, Black Jack Justice—I’d rather skip ahead a whole bunch.
April 2017: MarsCorp, Health & Safety (episode 2)
Pay no attention to the grad school related gap behind the curtain. What’s important is that I listened to MarsCorp in 2017 and I used my newly public Twitter account (which I had removed from private only a few months earlier to tell an author I liked that their book was amazing) to inform the team at Definitely Human that I was digging their work,right after episode 2 made me spill caffeine all over the breakfast table. To my astonishment, they replied, and engaged in conversation. Twitter was a mystery to me then (frankly, it still is) and I was under the firm, unwavering belief that anyone with a little blue check next to their name would never care if I said anything positive about them. They probably got millions of things like that every day.
Okay, so, that’s not quite what reality looks like, especially for independent podcast networks that thrive off their community engagement. But MarsCorp talking back to me filled me with the rabid and buoyant confidence of someone liberated, and I have the people at Definitely Human to thank, at least in part, for where I am today. Right now, you’re reading this on my personal website that I’ve launched from the platform built from all of your kind words, from your creative minds publishing audio fiction so good I couldn’t shut up about it, and from your ceaseless support.
I like that I associate it all with ultimately wanting to tell someone they made me laugh.
November 2017: Steal the Stars, As Fierce, As Colossal, As All-Consuming (episode 14)
Alongside MarsCorp, at breakneck speed, came Steal the Stars. It is difficult to put into words what this podcast did for me. It probably comes as no surprise that I clung to Steal the Stars during the worst parts of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. It was an escape from the fact that I couldn’t reach my family for weeks, that I felt once again abandoned and alone in ways worse than the heights of my depression could have ever imagined by itself. When the words hurricane season leave my mouth now, I think of the devastation Maria left on my island, and I think of the highspeed force behind fiction. With Steal the Stars, I felt the oblique horror and vicious delight from the finale deep in my bones. If I think about it right now, I still grin a little wildly at the computer screen. I will engage in polite and positive conversation about it any day of the week (really, just at-me on Twitter, let’s do this). The very first written work I published was about Steal the Stars’ finale, alongside Bob Koester from Immunities. I’ve literally designed a tattoo with the title of the finale. Is that going too hard?
The Steal the Stars team are some of the most responsive, kind creative folks I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with, and they helped me break out of my shell whether they know it or not. They created a beautifully agonizing story, a work that has cut itself into my brain—sometimes, at night, I stare at the ceiling and think about the subtle callbacks woven into the finale, who I know in real life that is closest to Tripp, what it means to choose love above all else, and on and on. Steal the Stars didn’t just give me something to enjoy, it gave me something to think about, something to piece apart with trembling, analytic hands—in the end, what I most want to do is understand what makes people tick through the safe space that fiction provides.
December 2017: Outliers, I Cannot Sleep (episode 7)
I listened to this episode again and again when it came out, this monologue from the fictionalized Johanna Ferrour, a woman documented as part of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Ferrour was the leader of the group who arrested Lord Chancellor Simon Sudbury, who had implemented an oppressive, third head tax (a uniform tax applied to every person). She didn’t just lead the group — it’s recorded that the leader of the group dragged Sudbury from his safe place and onto the chopping block, where he was beheaded after eight blows from an axe. Johanna dragged him. She ordered the death of the treasurer, and was instrumental in setting fire to Savoy Palace.
Outliers is a scored and soundscaped anthology podcast that showcases the stories of people who were bystanders to major historical events, or made into outliers by the writing of history. Every time I listen to this episode, and it is often, I am filled with fire in my veins and the hairs of my arms stand on end. In this era, justice is a slim commodity, and I listen to this when I need a taste of justice, when someone needs to face the people and answer for what they’ve done. We deserve that moment of feeling like we’ve got a victory, when the world just won’t give us one. Whether or not the Peasants’ Revolt was a victory, the empowerment I get from listening to this fictionalized Johanna is sometimes what I need to wade through the news and just get through the day.
PS. What kind of bribery is needed for me to get a season two of Outliers?
January 2018: Love and Luck, Episode 22: Radio Interview
I grew up in a homophobic environment; there’s no shaking that fact. Even when I was older, more comfortable with the fact that I owed no one for whoever I loved or found attractive, I knew there was no safe space for me to turn to. There were no queer clubs at all, let alone any accessible to someone under twenty-one, and no support for the potential queer community. We all lived in separate closets.
Love and Luck’s queer audio fiction centers around two queer men falling in love, and their eventual building of the Love & Luck Bar, an all-ages queer space. Episode 22 is the broadcast of their radio interview and, reader, I sobbed. I cried enormous, joyous, slightly bitter tears, because here in this audio, I was hearing about the creation of a safe space for queer people, a haven, a community, things I never had growing up and even, to some extent, didn’t have until very recently. It reminded me how lucky I am to have found fellow queer people, how some people still have to hide in the closet even though they don’t want to, and how many things could have been different if I’d had the opportunity. After listening to this episode, I genuinely felt like a crack had been healed, something patched over and ignored for a long time because I had no way to address it.
April 2018: Cocotazo Audio Theatre, Open Mic: Puerto Rico (episode 5)
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September of 2017. The aftermath was like the hurricane had never left; the true long-term impact of colonization in Puerto Rico had its ugly face revealed to the world, even though we had already known it. My parents, and many friends, still lived there, and I’ve never taken to Facebook as quickly as I did in order to connect with classmates I had literally not spoken to since 2008. In my high school graduating class, I was one of the last to know if my parents were alive because they lived far away from everyone, up on a mountain in the middle of nowhere in a place prone to mudslides and full of precariously perched enormous trees.
Every nightmare story running through your head right now? I thought of them all, and more. I found online broadcasting from someone who had internet two and a half weeks after Maria who was reporting devastation numbers, whether aid or access had reached different towns, any news that was being reported out of different towns. I became frantic.
Natural disasters don’t just make you desperate; they change you, intrinsically and permanently.
Months after, I listened to this episode from Cocotazo Audio Theatre, which is a variety audio fiction podcast from voices of Puerto Ricans and Latiné voices. This episode is 4 poems about Puerto Rico after Maria, and each one tied me a little closer to my people, but especially those suffering on the mainland with me, a different kind of suffering. I heard myself in some of those, and I heard my friends, and I heard my family; to hear those accents, and that language, and those turns of phrase meant everything. That kind of audio doesn’t go away; it stays with you. Have you ever experienced soundscaped poetry? Poetry that’s had a score matched to it? Every performance was art made in the eye of a storm, and I will never forget how much it helped heal me, calm me, and held my hand as I stood up again on both feet.
This isn’t the whole of my story, of course—there’s an enormous gap from 2013 to 2017 where I went to grad school and grapped with figuring out how to spend time working and spend time listening to podcasts, and boiling everything down to a page would take a book instead—but it’s some of the most salient. And in truth, I do consider the most important points in time of my journey from listener to writer to have come only within the past year and change. The rise has been meteoric for me, like I’ve been on an uncontrollable rocket launch sometimes. Thank you, podcasts, and especially audio fiction, for everything you’ve given me. I hope to give everything I can right back.