When it comes to podcasts, or even storytelling in general, it's impossible to escape Serial. Sarah Koenig's hit true crime podcast was so popular it spawned a whole new category of story—the Serial of this, the Serial of that—it's like the Uber metaphor for podcasts.
The eight-part hit podcast The Message, which recently wrapped up (no spoilers ahead), hasn't escaped the Serial comparisons either. Sure, it's been described as a sci-fi Serial, but it also boasts significant success with listeners. Over the last eight weeks, it has more than 1.2 million downloads and reached No. 1 on the iTunes podcast charts. One major difference, though, is that The Message was created by General Electric, its ad agency BBDO New York, and podcast network Panoply.
Conceived by GE's in-house media agency The Grid, along with BBDO New York, the story, written by playwright Mac Rogers, follows a fake popular-science series called "Cyphercast," about cryptographers investigating mysterious alien transmissions.
GE’s global chief creative officer Andy Goldberg says the brand wanted to add a podcast to its already formidable collection of brand content and storytelling, not just because the medium has taken off, but also to challenge itself to tell a story that wouldn’t be copying what everyone else is doing, something fundamentally different that hadn’t been done before by a brand. And so the GE Podcast Theater was born, a modern twist on the old General Electric Theater from the 1950s hosted by Ronald Reagan.
"It opened up a new story medium for us, something we hadn’t done, and with a new audience," says Goldberg. "Not necessarily a different audience—they may be engaging with us in other ways—but sometimes when you engage with an audience in a different form it takes on a whole new association, which is good. Creatively what I love about it, is it was something we hadn’t done before, and many brands shy away because in a way it’s such a throwback to old school radio. It's branded GE Podcast Theater for a reason, but at the same time it’s not like there’s a GE ad interrupting the middle of the story."
Given the many ways the brand has brought attention to its innovation and technology, whether a sci-fi throwback comic book series, a Bill Nye web series, Drone Week on Periscope, or making music with Matthew Dear or shipping freight, it's not surprising GE would give podcasts a go. But sci-fi fiction wouldn't be the the first guess for the type of show, and that's exactly why Goldberg liked the idea.
"The idea was to do a podcast that was unique and different, and we loved a sci-fi/sci-reality storyline," says Goldberg. "We worked closely with The Grid on how we’d go about creating a podcast, and BBDO really led the charge on what the storyline could be. That’s where they engaged Panoply as experts in the space in terms of production and how to build out a podcast. At the end of the day, we could’ve done a 40-minute one episode thing. But when we sat down with BBDO, we really figured out how it could be a series and amazing storyline."
BBDO New York creative director Levi Slavin says it was exciting idea, but along with the unique story opportunity and engaged audience comes fierce competition. "Subscribers are discerning, vocal, and unforgiving," says Slavin. "So our challenge was to create something that would bring listeners back each week, was specifically designed for a podcast audience, and had GE technology tastefully yet unmistakably at its heart."
In a tribute to Orson Welles's War of the Worlds, Slavin says they wanted to blur fiction and reality. "The Message wasn’t designed to trick listeners, instead to stay in-universe," says Slavin. "We wanted the story to behave like nonfiction—with supporting evidence spilling across channels. We then threaded a code through key pieces to reveal an additional recording. One made 50 years ago."
As for the brand aspect of the branded content, Goldberg compares The Message to its six-part TV show Breakthrough produced with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. "The thing that makes it great is that it doesn’t feel too branded—like our TV show Breakthrough—it’s just like this is our production or creative arm coming to life."
While Goldberg loved the story and hoped The Message would find an audience, the scale of the podcast's success blew away all expectations. "It’s one of those things, you hope for it sometimes, and you can plan the best you can to make it work and to make it good, but that doesn’t guarantee the audience will show," he says. "But we hit on all marks. I’d like to say the reception didn’t surprise me, but it really did. I thought to get into the Top 20 would be incredible. There wasn’t a specific number in my mind going in, but I didn’t think we’d hit a million downloads."
No word yet on what the follow-up will be, but the success of The Message is helping to shape how GE is approaching its future content ambitions. "This was about experimenting in a different platform, doing it well and doing it first," says Goldberg. "To be there and resurrecting GE Theater, gives us an arm to get into this—we’ve been telling great stories for a long time, but this elevates the level of storytelling we can do under the GE Theater umbrella, and gives us an opening to more narratives, more long-form, and more content, in general."