Podcasts are particularly well placed to experiment with audio in a risk-free way. Martin Zaltz Austwick (Answer Me This, Maddie’s Sound Explorers and Song by Song) and Jeff Emtman (Here Be Monsters, The Outer Reach) have certainly had fun experimenting with their latest project. Neutrinowatch is a fiction podcast that follows John Welles, a scientist studying neutrinos in Western Antarctica. When his research station is bombarded by cosmic radiation, his computer (named Wendy) begins to act erratically.
This is already an interesting story, but the real experiment of Neutrinowatch is the use of an ever-changing audio regenerated by code everyday. The press release describes the experience listening to Neutrinowatch as “like being in a recurring dream. Each day you might listen and recognize elements from the day before, but somehow the details just keep shifting.”
We caught up with Martin and Jeff to find out what went into making this incredible show.
This seems to have been a great labour of love. With your backgrounds, you could have probably made any number of podcasts – where did the idea for such a concept-podcast come from?
MARTIN: For me, being able to try something more fictional and experimental – I’ve wanted to work in fiction, and work more experimentally, for a while, but haven’t quite found my way in until now. Also, we were worried that other people would start doing this and we wanted to get it out in the world before loads of people beat us to it!
JEFF: Ages ago, I went to an art museum where there was an exhibit from an artist who’d made this machine that spat out a bunch of pink plastic sludge once per day. The machine would turn on and a pre-defined amount of sludge run through a spout squirt on to a conveyer belt below. So each day, the thing would make a lumpy sludge statue. The imperfections of the machine and the sludge material meant that each day’s sculpture was a slightly different size and shape. But each day’s sludge sculpture was still fundamentally identifiable as part of the same project.
That idea stuck with me and I wanted to try to do that same thing with podcasting. And I’m so glad that Martin did too, because he’s really good at coding.
Did you take inspiration from any podcasts in particular before you started, or were you inspired more by things outside of the podcast realm?
M: I think Jeff has his own thoughts, but Imaginary Advice is I think my favourite podcast, and Ross is endlessly inventive with form and ideas in that show.
More specifically, Welcome to Night Vale did an episode a while back where they used ad-injection technology to swap between 3 (I think) different endings to one of their stories. We’re not able to use that sort of tech (at least, not yet), but it was an inspiration in terms of creative approaches to audio that could be personalised to the listener.
There’s a blogpost where I reference the video game Silent Hill 3. The episode (The Most Popular Podcast in the Universe, Tomorrow) is very simple, all that changes is the date, because I wanted the last part of the story to happen *today* – whenever today is. It has a “the monster is inside the house” feel to me. So then I had to make a story where it mattered that it was happening today.
The World Outside My Window is influenced by how Quantum Computers work, but that’s a real digression.
J: In my twenties, I lived in a house in Seattle where we rented out our backyard to Forrest Perrine, a painter friend who used a covered area back there as his studio. Instead of rent each month, he offered to pay us in dinners. And each month he’d put together these kinda avant garde multi-course meals for us. He liked to keep us guessing…unexpected spicy elements, dry ice, caramel lattices, pop rocks as garnish. He’d follow enough convention to keep the dishes recognizable, but he never followed convention just for the sake of following convention. Which is the exact same thing I appreciated about his paintings.
I think about that connection between the paintings and the food all the time and try to bring some of that same energy to Neutrinowatch–following convention where it’s necessary, but leaving it behind where it isn’t.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned producing this type of podcast?
M: Um… it takes a lot of explaining? 😀
J: Learning to code requires a lot of comfortability with failure. But it truly does get easier with time.
What’s the most amount of times you’ve listened to an episode yourself?
M: I listened to World Outside My Window a lot – because getting the mix right on a song with lots of different options for instruments was quite hard. Dozens of times. But that’s somewhat the case when you produce music anyway.
J: I’ve listened to The Daily Blast hundreds of times, trying to get the filters just right so it picks up on all the news items I want it to and none of the ones I don’t. Some truly dark stuff still slips through every once in a while, but all that listening definitely helped make that situation rarer.
The podcast is semi-fictional. Because of the randomised aspect of it, I have to ask – did you find yourself questioning reality at any point?! (because I was certainly trying to find the line between truth and fiction!)
M: Well, Wendy feels pretty real to us. 😀 Some of our planet facts are real, some are nonsense, I’ve tried to be reasonably clear about which are which. The Neutrino Observation network is kind of a real thing, but in our parallel reality it works differently. I don’t think there’s a cosmic event that would trigger a neutrino burst and then something that destroys only hard drives a few days later, but (like his examiners) I haven’t read John Welles’ thesis!
J: I think Martin got this pretty right 🙂
Listen to Neutrinowatch now on your favourite podcast app.