When they found the tapes, Max Weinreich ’16 and his father were exploring slot canyons in southern Utah, “Bilbo Baggins style,” as Max describes it. The nearest outpost of civilization was Boulder, Utah, population 226, and the last town in the US to receive its mail by horse and buggy. Shadowed by rock walls ten times the height of a man, they spotted a watertight, leathery black bag. Inside were seven cassette tapes.
On the tapes, which Max brought home and played on an old Walkman, four people narrate the story of the “Blackstone Expedition.” The story goes: on March 20, 1986, a team of canyoneers set out in search of a naturalist who had gone missing in 1981 in Kane County, Utah — a place where, according to the tapes, “no sane person would ever hope to end up.”
Weinreich, who has been involved with WYBC Yale Radio since his freshman year, was fascinated with the tapes, which he believes to be real audio journals. He decided to circulate the story beyond Utah’s Dry Fork Coyote Gulch, via WYBC. In spring of 2014, he and co-host Patrick Reed ’16 began Episode 1 of Primary Source with a disclaimer: “This is not going to be your standard music show fare.”
After listening to five hours of badly damaged audio, putting the tapes in order, editing them into a narrative, and finally broadcasting online, he also uploaded the episodes as podcasts on his personal website. “This was before the feeding frenzy which is Serial, so at the time I thought that experimental serial storytelling on radio was a complete shot in the dark,” he said.
Serial, hosted by NPR’s Sarah Koenig, investigated a murder that occurred fifteen years ago in Baltimore — on air, opening a new court of public opinion. Koenig’s voice is frequently described as “addictive,” and the show took just one month to hit five million downloads. By way of comparison, NPR’s This American Life, the storytelling podcast that inspired Serial, took four years to reach one million listeners.
Some say Serial, and other newly popular podcasts like Invisibilia and Welcome to Nightvale, are reviving radio’s Golden Age of audio storytelling. In 1938, Orson Welles singlehandedly convinced America that an alien invasion was in progress by reading The War of the Worlds. Since then, television and the Internet have loosened the grip of pure audio on the American imagination. That is, until a decade ago, when podcasts proliferated online. By some estimates, national podcast listening has tripled in the past five years, reaching 75 million unique monthly downloads.
So why are people tuning in now?
Andrew Horowitz, a professor at Tulane and former curator of the New Haven Oral History Project, believes the power of the spoken word, as opposed to an image or video, lies in its absence. “The voice is real, set — you hear its particularities, the fact of pauses and breaths, hesitations and excitements. But it is not literal. You are forced to imagine the scene that the voice describes. The fullness of the story comes together not in the telling but in your own imagination. You must participate in the process of recreating the past anew.”
Weinreich chose the medium of radio because “the joy of the [found] tapes is in the crackles and rumbles, which I could have never transcribed onto paper.” The voices that formed the basis for Primary Source are by turns excited and ominous, forcing their hearer to imagine fantastical things. One expeditioner, lost in landscapes he describes as “eternal wastes,” addresses future listeners of the seventh tape: “We are of course standing in the throat of god. It’s a steam vent. In this trance we commune with the voice.”
Though Weinreich believes the expedition actually occurred, saying, “I take the story for what it is,” he acknowledges that it’s an open question. Weinreich says many of the people he’s played the tapes for reacted with disbelief, and Everett Frame, the vanished man, yields no Google results. Weinreich began his broadcasts declaring that the tapes were the product of true events, but says that once the content became less grounded, he gave up on trying to prove the facts: “It’s valuable to play them anyway, as the tale is fascinating.”
The advancement of the podcast into America’s audio culture has lessons for student radio — and sometimes, inspiration. For WYBC, getting listeners to tune in to a broadcast at a specific time is a daily challenge, according to WYBC’s general manager Jeff Zhang ’16. WBYC programming director Chris Cappello ’17 believes that, for this reason, further podcasting is essential to the future of WYBC, making programming available to a much larger audience.
But while there may be a large audience for shows like Serial, Weinreich didn’t find corresponding success last spring. When Serial became an international craze this year, Weinreich found himself both surprised and disappointed. “In my perfect world, Primary Source would have been that game-changer.”
To his knowledge, only three people listened to all of Primary Source. “My parents haven’t listened to the whole show, even though my dad was there when we found the tapes, but they have certainly listened to Serial in full.”
But Weinreich describes working in any capacity for a student radio station as the original dream: “Playing crazy desert tapes for a tiny listenership? Also awesome!”