When a medical crisis disrupts American life, a trio of friendly, upbeat radio show hosts provide lively chatter on coping strategies, personal anecdotes and historical stories on the Atlanta-produced podcast “Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope.”
Delivered in daily five-minute installments, the show hinges not on the coronavirus but a zombie attack. Nevertheless, it has found new relevance due to the pandemic. Creators David Benedict and Diana Lancaster (who play cohosts Max O'Brien and Dr. Rosalind Clark) launched the show in October 2017 and have released more than 1,000 episodes since then.
Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope” is one of an increasing number of locally produced, scripted podcasts that combine new technology with classic storytelling techniques to enthrall and entertain podcast listeners.
Inspired by the darkly comedic “Welcome to Night Vale,” arguably the first fiction breakthrough hit in the podcast era, Benedict wondered: “What did they do to get this huge following?” He realized they spoke directly to the audience. “That’s what I also wanted to do with ‘Mercury,’” he says.
Benedict, who has been creating audio drama for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company for more than 20 years, teamed with Lancaster and other co-writers to put a fresh spin on the familiar premise of a zombie apocalypse by posing the question: “What if we made a zombie show that’s more about hope?” Consequently, “Mercury” has a narrative voice that’s closer to the positivity of public radio than the doom and gloom of “The Walking Dead.”
“Mercury’s” premise involves a handful of survivors using a campus radio station to reach beyond their small community. Although a long-running storyline on earlier episodes involved a zombie attack, Benedict usually keeps the undead in the background. “The series is very definitely centered around little bite-sized nuggets of history or philosophy or other positive messages,” Benedict says.
“Mercury’s” scripts have not literally incorporated the coronavirus, but the real-world pandemic has informed the show’s content. “We’ve had episodes taken from a journal kept by a character named Sherman, comparing and contrasting events happening with COVID-19 with how they would have been in zombie outbreak.”
The July 11 episode, “The Land of the Free,” draws parallels to the coronavirus by commenting on people who flout lockdown orders and “talked about their freedom a lot, about how it was their choice if they wanted to go out and risk encountering a zombie.”
Beginning in 2018, Atlanta podcast company iHeartMedia ramped up production of fiction shows with “The Control Group.” Atlanta independent filmmaker Bret Wood wrote and directed the miniseries based on his unproduced film script. The unnerving, paranoia-soaked psychological drama depicts a woman (Hannah Fierman) committed to a mental hospital in 1961, despite her protests that nothing is wrong with her.
Earlier this year, iHeartMedia released Wood’s second effort, “The Seventh Daughter,” about a pair of early 20th century mentalists played by Minka Wiltz and Elizabeth Hunter. Including cameos from the likes of Harry Houdini, “The Seventh Daughter’s” sprawling historical mystery weaves through seances, passenger trains, vaudeville performances and cult meetings. Both shows peaked at No. 2 on Apple podcast lists.
Wood’s podcasts, like his films, frequently explore power dynamics between individuals, building dread and discomfort as one character tries to manipulate or exert control over another. The intimacy of hearing such confrontations through ear buds only heightens the tension.
When recording, Wood likes to have two actors in the booth at the same time. “My scripts have a lot of dialogue, so we like to have them be able to act off each other.”
But the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into that approach as Wood prepares for the second season of “The Control Group.” Currently Wood and his collaborators are planning to record separately in the iHeartMedia studios while maintaining social distancing.
“We’ll probably start recording in August, one actor at a time,” Wood says. For now, Wood finds podcasts to be creatively satisfying and doesn’t miss the time and expense of making independent films.
“It took nine months to do each of the two podcasts, starting with the drafts of the original film scripts. It usually takes me two and a half years to do a film, considering the money, the planning, and the much more involved post-production process,” Wood says.
Wood’s latest film, “Those Who Deserve to Die,” is scheduled for release on DVD and Kino Now on Aug. 18, and it may be his last for a while.
“I have a feeling I won’t be making another film soon, so I may lean more to the podcast side in 2021,” he says.
Dan Bush, another Atlanta-based filmmaker creating scripted podcasts for iHeartMedia, has found the transition to audio drama surprisingly easy.
“The storytelling medium (of podcasts) is liberating,” says Bush, who co-directed the 2007 sleeper hit movie “The Signal” and released the independent thriller “The Dark Red” earlier in 2020. “Movie scripts are all ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Podcasts are ‘Tell and tell and tell and tell.’ With these podcasts, we can really dig into psychology and character."
Bush’s work for iHeartMedia includes a science fiction show with a title and cast not yet announced but due to be released before Halloween. He’s also developing “The Mantawauk Caves,” an original horror story with a social conscience and the first in a production deal between iHeartMedia and Blumhouse Productions, a film company famous for such horror hits as “The Conjuring” and “Get Out.”
Bush says social distancing has made lining up talent for podcasts easier. “Because of the virus, a lot of actors are at home, bouncing off the wall. They’re more available now,” says Bush, who has been recording his most recent shows via Zoom with performers in New York, Los Angeles and London.
“We made a YouTube video to show the actors how to set it up. Everyone recorded locally. The actors had to be actors, but they had to be audio engineers as well.”
The fiction podcast is an entertainment ideally suited for the current times. The format succeeds best when audiences have time to invest in a show because “a slowly developing relationship with the characters can have a more meaningful impact for the listener,” Bush says. And these days we have nothing if not an abundance of time.
To read the original article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, click HERE.