Sci-fi podcasts tend to be modest affairs, and are usually hosted by enthusiastic amateurs or up-and-coming writers. But in recent years radio professionals have been creating shows with much higher production values. One of those shows is Flash Forward, hosted by science journalist Rose Eveleth.
“Sci-fi is so powerful in getting us to imagine things, and imagine futures,” Eveleth says in Episode 272 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It puts you into these worlds and makes you think, ‘What would I do in that situation?’”
Another highly-produced show is Imaginary Worlds, created by Eric Molinsky, whose long career in public radio includes work for Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He was drawn to podcasting in part because of the freedom to go deep on his favorite geeky topics.
“That was the first thing I remember noticing with Roman Mars and 99% Invisible, which was one of the first big podcasts, was that it sounded like public radio, but he could make it as long as he wanted, which was so liberating for a public radio producer,” Molinsky says.
Sci-fi fans are also being treated to professionally-produced audio dramas like Steal the Stars, Limetown, and The Message. But is all this content going to draw listeners away from the fans-and-writers talk shows that have traditionally dominated sci-fi podcasting?
“I feel like ever since Serial came out there’s been this whole influx of really highly produced, high-quality podcasts,” says Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley. “And I just wonder, what is the future for podcasts like mine?”
But Rose Eveleth feels that many people—particularly those who work in radio—tend to overestimate the importance of high production values.
“I think that there is this thing in public radio where they want the most pristine sound, which makes sense if you have a big budget and you have studios and you can do that,” she says. “But I also sometimes feel like it’s more important to have a good show, and sometimes I think there’s a little bit of fetishizing nice microphones.”
Listen to the complete interview with Rose Eveleth and Eric Molinsky in Episode 272 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Eric Molinsky on public radio:
“The people listening to the show very often would not be very well versed in [science fiction], and I felt like I often had to keep justifying why we were talking about this on public radio. And I always found with other public radio shows, or like NPR, when they would cover this stuff, they absolutely had to mention how much money these movies were making, or how many viewers this TV show had, just to justify why they were talking about it, and I remember that frustrated me a lot. … I also felt like public radio rarely talked about the issues within science fiction and fantasy, and the really interesting, in-depth conversations that the fans were having about this kind of stuff.”
Rose Eveleth on interviewing scientists:
“There are some scientists who don’t want to do future stuff, which I totally understand. Some of them have had their work misrepresented in the past. … As a scientist it’s always really risky when you start talking about hypotheticals, because your job is not to talk about hypotheticals, your job is to talk about what you know and what you can test and what you can measure, and so I do try to be very careful and very clear, and try to separate the scientists from the zany, future-y stuff as much as possible. Because it’s a lose-lose situation if I make them look like they’re predicting something that they’re not, and then they get mad and then other scientists don’t want to talk to me, so I’m pretty careful about that stuff.”
Rose Eveleth on her episode “The Carbon Gene”:
“I did this episode, and it went out, and I got a text message a couple days later that said, ‘Hey, they just talked about you on the Rush Limbaugh show.’ Apparently Rush Limbaugh thought that I was literally proposing this. He saw the headline, and went on this whole rant about how liberals are trying to genetically engineer our babies to combat climate change. It was this whole thing, and he went on this whole rant about it on his show, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is really bad.’ And it was actually really interesting, because I was waiting to be inundated with Rush Limbaugh listeners—to my email, or to Twitter or whatever—and I got nothing. Not a single person got in touch with me.”
Eric Molinsky on his episode “When Cthulhu Calls”:
“I did an episode with Here Be Monsters, we did a collaboration, which was set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft. It was basically a fake episode, which starts out realistic—in fact, we did interview, I think, some kind of scientist, but eventually it got so ludicrous that I was interviewing H.P. Lovecraft’s brain in a jar, and it was making anti-Semitic comments toward me. And I could not have been more clear in the beginning that ‘This is going to start out real, but it is a radio drama.’ In the description on social media, in the description on your phone, it says ‘This is a radio drama.’ And I could not believe how many people wrote me and said, ‘I completely forgot. It was so believable that I forgot, and I’m really angry at you for misleading me.’”