There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.
In the first moments of Blackout, a new podcast from Endeavor Audio, we ride along with the pilot of a fighter jet who is flying over the White Mountains of New Hampshire, when suddenly he notices something off, and abruptly loses power and crashes.
The episode jumps to a recording made by a DJ named Simon Itani (voiced by Mr. Robot / Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek), who says that he’s documenting what’s transpired in the months since power went out across the United States. The series follows several storylines as Itani’s small town copes without power. Itani gets shot at when he goes to investigate the power outage at a local broadcast tower, while his son Hunter and some friends discover the downed pilot — and end up stumbling on a bigger plot when they come across an individual in the woods.
Blackout is a slickly produced show, and it plays out a bit like a novel, reminding me of Joe Hill’s post-apocalyptic novel The Fireman. Both are about the collapse of civilization as it plays out in New Hampshire, examining how dependent people are on all the trappings of the 21st century, and how easily communities can fall prey to power-hungry individuals who simply want to control as much as they can of the world that surrounds them.
The series comes from former political reporter Scott Conroy, who tells The Verge that he’s very familiar with the state of New Hampshire and its motto, “Live free or die” — he grew up in the region. “I actually grew up in Massachusetts and have family in New Hampshire,” he says, “I was a journalist for about 11 years, and mostly covered politics and in particular, presidential campaigns. I spent a lot of time in New Hampshire covering the primaries and wrote a book about [them].”
Blackout began coming together after Malek expressed interest in a film script Conroy had written about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Conroy used the opportunity to pitch him on Blackout, and the idea soon transformed into a podcast. Malek became a producer on the show, and they went about casting and recording the series, using a big sound stage in Hollywood. “It wasn’t like the actors were sitting around the table reading their scripts — we tried to position them in a way that was organic and they were participating in scenes in the podcast,” Conroy says. “That was really helpful, allowed them to be more physical in their acting, and hopefully was sort of more realistic than reading their lines.”
For the story, Conroy was interested in how far-flung and isolated communities functioned, especially in moments of crisis. “I actually had the idea for the setting before I fleshed out the concept for the podcast.” That setting coincided with some of the reporting he came across in the last year about the vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid, and the fragility of institutions in crisis. “I’m really interested in the idea that institutions that we’ve collectively taken for granted in this country are actually a lot more vulnerable than we think they are, and I think people are feeling that more and more since the election of Trump.”
He explained that he was born in the 1980s and remembered growing up in a world where smartphones and computers weren’t prevalent, and wanted to explore how people would react to a situation where theses devices and the online world simply vanished. That forms part of the motivation of some of the show’s antagonists: they’re frustrated by modern technology, and feel that our reliance on tech has diminished society as a whole. Conroy shares some of those concerns. “I am personally pretty skeptical of Silicon Valley and what all of this stuff is doing to our brains and society,” he says, citing the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal as a waking-up moment for consumers. “Facebook and some of these other tech companies aren’t as benevolent as they’ve been collectively regarded. I thought it would be interesting to have the villains of the podcast think [this way].”
Over the course of the first season, it becomes clear that there’s a larger conspiracy at stake, and Conroy notes that they haven’t had a chance to figure out what to do next. “We would love to continue with another season, but frankly, we haven’t had any in-depth conversations about that, because we’ve been so busy,” he says. “We were literally editing the last episode the day before we released it. We’re taking a little bit of a breather now that we’ve released that episode.”
The plan is to continue the podcast, and maybe even adapt it into a TV series. “There’s been some significant interest in that.”