First Impressions: “What’s the Frequency” Sets New Bar for Early Audio Drama Episodes

What’s the Frequency is a new “psychedelic noir audio drama” by Greater Boston veteran, creator James Oliva. The show follows a large cast of characters in a fictionalized 1940s L.A. where the only radio broadcast still running is a serial written by a man who’s recently gone missing. Taken from the show’s website, here is a summary of What’s the Frequency:

A psychedelic noir audio drama podcast set in 1940s Los Angeles. Recently radio broadcasts in the city have been reduced to static, leaving a popular radio serial as the only remaining show on the air. Even then the show finds itself continuously interrupted by a mysterious broadcast. A lone distorted voice reaching out for help. Follow Walter “Troubles” Mix and his partner Whitney as they search for a missing writer and navigate through a city quickly falling into madness. Could the mysterious voice be the culprit? Will anyone be able to stop the madness from spreading? And… What’s The Frequency?

While only two episodes have been released so far, I was given access to the third episode for review purposes.

I think often about the first episode of an audio drama. In so many cases, first episodes are something to get through in order to hit the meat of a show. First episodes are difficult to nail down; you need to make sure you’re hitting tone, character, and exposition, all while juggling production and trying to make your show as unique as possible on a first listen. In such a saturated genre, making sure your show stands out is imperative. Still, I look back on so many first episodes of podcasts and think about how much they’ve grown, not how impeccably they started.

I cannot imagine this will be the case with What’s the Frequency. With only three episodes–and starting on its first–the show has already proven itself to be strange, intriguing, and very self-aware. What’s the Frequency has spent no time in audio getting to know itself; the listener is immediately thrown into the show’s world, which feels meticulously formed, even if very few details on it are given so far. The characters, too, are shockingly lifelike, even within the 1940s L.A. noir pastiche. The show has the energy and care of a passion project on all fronts: the writing, the production, and the acting. In its first three episodes, What’s the Frequency has had the most impressive premier of any audio drama in recent memory.

Specifically, what the show does better than most in the industry is set its tone. While comparing What’s the Frequency to The Penumbra Podcast might be the most obvious choice given the noir stylings, the show feels much more like The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air trapped inside the world of Bioshock. There’s an air of whimsy, comedy, and tongue-in-cheek writing, but those moments are wrapped up in a deeply unsettling world–a juxtaposition that makes both elements more pronounced, and the show even more exciting. What’s the Frequency has managed to scare me without being horror, make me laugh without being a comedy, and still make me not even care much about what genre it truly does fall into. It’s a show that doesn’t want to be defined besides its own self-asserted description of “psychedelic noir audio drama,” and with good reason: no other description of genre would fit it correctly. What’s the Frequency exists more or less in its own categorization.

I can imagine, though, that the “psychedelic” aspect may have listeners initially frustrated, as they might have been with The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air or the show’s older sibling, Greater Boston. It should be known before listening that What’s the Frequency is not a show you can put on in the background, absorbing a simple plot. What’s the Frequency demands attention, and the attention should be paid. Each episode not only begs but deserves more than one listen, making it feel almost like a game as the listener tries to piece everything together and follow narrative lines. What’s the Frequency is not an easy podcast, but that should be seen as a compliment. What’s the Frequency pushes the boundaries of the audio drama medium past its current expectations in a way I hope will inspire future shows to debut so bravely.

You can find What’s the Frequency on the show’s website or any major podcast platform. Transcripts are also posted for each episode.

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