In an alternate universe, the Red Line is trying to secede from the MBTA and become an independent city, the Wonderland Amusement Park—closed in 1911 in our world—is still offering (lethal) rollercoaster rides, and Matt Damon sews his own Oscars tuxedos from thread purchased on Newbury Street.
That universe can be found at GreaterBostonShow.com, as well as iTunes, Pocket Casts, SoundCloud, and Stitcher. Greater Boston is a bi-monthly podcast created by Alexander Danner and Jeff Van Dreason, both MFA ’05, with several Emerson alumni comprising the cast (Kelly McCabe ’06, Julia Propp ’06, James Johnston ’15).
“It’s a lot of wild plot elements but with a dramatic [feel],” Danner said.
The show launched in March, and seven episodes later, it’s been named Fiction Podcast of the Week by The Podcast Host, featured on iTunes’ “What’s Hot” Performing Arts section, and has seen its downloads more than double from April to May. It joins ars Paradoxica, another podcast written, produced, and acted largely by Emerson alumni, that recently broke 10,000 subscribers, according to producer/director/story editor Mischa Stanton ’13.
Podcasts are a growing medium, thanks in no small part to the enormous popularity and critical acclaim of Serial, a 2014 podcast spinoff of public radio’s This American Life that reinvestigated a 1999 murder of a Maryland high school student. In 2015, one third of Americans over 12 reported listening to at least one podcast, according to the Pew Research Center. From 2008 to 2015, the percentage who reported listening to a podcast in the last month nearly doubled, from 9 percent to 17 percent, according to Pew. Maybe not a groundswell, but a steady rise at any rate.
Each half-hour episode of Greater Boston tells three characters’ stories, which eventually intertwine and coalesce around the series’ main narrative arc: An eccentric university professor is leading a referendum to withdraw the Red Line from the rest of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and make it its own mobile municipality.
“A lot of them are dealing with these genuine emotions and losses and grief and alcoholism,” Danner said. “But at the same time, they’re deciding whether to vote for the Red Line to form its own city and thinking how that would change their lives.”
Why the Red Line?
“Partly just because that’s my line, that’s the line I know,” Danner said. “But also with the culture of Cambridge, that’s where that idea is most likely to originate.”
People familiar with Greater Boston, the region, get that joke. And that’s who Danner and Van Dreason think is listening to Greater Boston, the podcast, to a large extent. “They particularly enjoy it because it makes it nostalgic,” Danner said.
Just as there is genuine human drama amid the screwball politics in the series, there are also familiar, everyday scenes of the city, but with a little tall tale mixed in. In Greater Boston, the North End is recognizably the North End, but if you visit, tie your shoes tight because the sidewalks are still sticky from the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.
Ars Paradoxica, a sci-fi podcast created by Stanton and Daniel Manning ’14, goes back in time in a literal sense.
Dr. Sally Grissom, a 21st-century physicist working on a particle accelerator, is accidentally sent back to 1943, to a ship docked in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard where government scientists trying to devise a cloaking mechanism for Allied vessels have created an anchor point in time. Once the scientists discover Grissom is from the future and realize her potential to help them win World War II, they basically imprison her in a secret community in the Utah desert.
The series is inspired by the Philadelphia Experiment, an alleged U.S. Navy project that is widely believed to be a hoax, though the destroyer escort in question, the USS Eldridge, was real.
The rest of ars Paradoxica is wholly original. Stanton said since they were a kid, they've loved science fiction and puzzles. They're a big fan of the films Inception and Primer, as well as the first few seasons of the TV show Lost.
“I always really liked time travel because by necessity, it turns everything into a puzzle,” Stanton said.
But writing a puzzle can get complicated. You essentially have to know the ending and work your way backward, Stanton said. For the first season, they and Manning handled the writing, but for ars Paradoxica’s second season (it’s three episodes in) the pair have brought in a team of four writers, all of them Emerson alumni (Tau Zaman ’13, Eli Barraza ’14, Danielle Shemaiah Pointer ’14, and Zach Erlich ’15).
And six of the podcast’s actors are Emersonians (Kristen DiMercurio ’14, Reyn Beeler ’15, Katie Speed ’13, Dan Anderson ’14, Lee Satterwhite ’15, and Eric Ibarra ’14). Stanton said the series is “85 percent Emerson,” but that percentage is slowly declining, as the dramatis personae expand and Stanton and Manning run out of classmates.
What began as a small Cold War-style audio piece on Emerson College Radio, WECB FM, in 2011 has since been featured by radio stations and podcast bloggers, and reached #35 on the iTunes Arts charts. It can also be found at arsparadoxica.com, as well as the usual podcast hosts.
Stanton attributes a lot of the show’s popularity to women ages 16 to 35. While it’s difficult to get any hard demographic information on podcast listeners, anecdotally, most of the fans who have reached out to them have been teenage girls and young women.
“The lead character is a woman, and she doesn’t get hung up with romantic subplots,” Stanton said. “It’s a woman being smart, doing what she does, and not worrying what a man thinks about it.”
Though Greater Boston is recorded in…Greater Boston, and ars Paradoxica is created out of Stanton’s Burbank, California, apartment and via Skype, the two creative teams have collaborated together, as well as with other podcast creators, Greater Boston co-creator Jeff Van Dreason said in a statement.
He said podcasters were more “kind and supportive” than any other creative group he’s ever been a part of.
“Community is a big theme of Greater Boston, so it was amazing to find such a supportive audio drama community that continues to grow, thrive, and help promote each other,” Van Dreason said in the statement. “We’ve asked Mischa [Stanton] for sound design advice more than once and they are always willing to offer guidance. And they are not alone.”