In 2015, a new fictional podcast hit iTunes. Called “The Message,” it told the story of one woman’s journey into a mysterious organization tasked with decoding an extraterrestrial transmission that made anyone who heard it fall ill. The show was captivating, thrilling and addictive. And the company behind it was a surprise — General Electric, the same name emblazoned on the electric stove in my childhood home.
It was a slightly scary radio tale for the 21st century, the kind of marriage between nostalgia and innovation that worked. It’s also one that GE hopes to continue with its latest podcast: “LifeAfter.”
The new podcast follows a widower in his attempts to reconnect with his late wife via the recordings she left on an all-audio social media platform. Listening to the teaser for “LifeAfter,” it’s hard not to be intrigued and a little chilled. Nicky Tomalin, the protagonist of “The Message,” is back, and she repeats herself eerily, telling listeners: “I’m here to tell you that some voices live forever.”
The main thrust of the upcoming podcast seems to be this: What happens to our digital remnants when our physical forms have passed on? And, if we can continually access our departed loved ones online, is it healthy to do so? A fictional podcast seems a suitable space for exploring these futuristic scenarios — instead of reporting on how we experience things now, this format allows us to imagine (without the cost-prohibitive, time-consuming elements required from film or television) a world we haven’t yet experienced.
“The podcast is such a unique way to tell a story. It’s audio. It’s like old-school radio,” GE chief creative officer Andy Goldberg told The Huffington Post. “Compare it to a book. When you read a book, it has so much more detail than any film would, because the writer has to paint the picture, and audio’s the same way.”
“We take it ... a little to the extreme, if you will, in how someone who’s passed on is still talking to you and communicating with you,” Goldberg said. “There’s the idea of: What is the digital plane? How is there this digital version of someone left over, and how can they communicate?”
Tomalin’s voice on the series teaser is oddly reminiscent of the voices we hear coming from the digital “personal assistants” we interact with, whether it’s a soothing Google Maps voice, Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Combine it with the current fascination with the humanlike “hosts” of “Westworld,” and it seems “LifeAfter” is coming at a time when the culture is particularly concerned with human identity and technology.
“There’s AI [artificial intelligence] that’s going to be really helpful to us individuals to make our lives better, make our lives more useful, be more productive, and then there’s AI that gets a little creepy, right?” Goldberg said. “It sort of pushes the envelope of ‘Terminator’-esque. You don’t really wanna go there, where machines get too smart for the human beings. I think there’s something really interesting about that mindset right now, of everything going on. We are surrounded by things that are connected ... [The podcast] is a different play on it.”
What makes GE’s podcasting story so interesting — aside from the, you know, actual storytelling — is that the company does branded podcasting that, for the most part, doesn’t play like an advertorial.
Since most podcasts are available to users for free, earning money through advertisements (and, in the cases of networks like Radiotopia, donor drives) are a necessary part of keeping the lights on. Listeners can still easily fast forward over sponsored content, so it’s advantageous for creators to make an experience that’s not annoying at worst, and genuinely enjoyable at best, for their audiences.
This thread that GE is exploring seems to be a natural fit for the brand, as a way to shift its public perception and introduce potentially obscure technology to a rapt audience. The immediate concern that arises in the discussion of branded content is whether a company can be, by definition, objective when representing itself — but for a fictional narrative, objectivity is not at stake. It was possible to listen to “The Message,” understand that the old-timey-sounding GE Podcast Theater was behind it, but not feel as though you were tuning in to a 10-episode commercial.
“Brands can bring entertainment to light as well as any other entertainment entity, as long as you do it right, and as long as you aren’t deceiving the audience or overselling the audience in it,” Goldberg said. A fictional podcast, he said, has the influence of the GE brand without being overt about it. As an example, Goldberg cited ultrasound technology that appeared in “The Message” as a GE product that wasn’t explicitly called out as such.
The new podcast is a continuation of its predecessor. “GE’s going through this massive transformation becoming this digital industrial company, and we said, ‘What better way to do that through the podcast than to tell a digital story?’” said Goldberg. “’LifeAfter’ is about your digital afterlife and what happens there.”