WTFs are as common as caffeine amongst twenty-first century boys and girls. When this abbreviation instead unfurls as “what’s the frequency?,” the pop-culture reference dates back to the 1980s and ’90s. In 1986, the CBS news anchor Dan Rather was attacked outside his Manhattan apartment by an unknown assailant who had cryptically chanted “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” in between the blows. REM sang about the incident and “what’s the frequency” became a kind of byword for quirky urban paranoia. James Oliva’s bold new podcast What’s The Frequency? is nominally set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, but it comes to be curiously liberated from any recognisable milieu. The puzzle for the listener is to work out where its own quirkiness and paranoia fit.
I have heard Cian Gill, the Strange Ireland podcastmaker, maintain that horror podcasts “almost always share an obsession with their own medium.” For Gill, horror podcasting represents a new lease of life for the “found footage” genre, following its general depletion within contemporary cinema. The Black Tapes and The Polybius Conspiracy pretend to be documentary podcasts; The Black Tapes and Archive 81 revolve around libraries of VHS tapes; whilst The White Vault is a collection of mostly corporate audio recordings. Gill singles out Tribulation for the centrality of a radio broadcast to its plot. If we are taking Gill’s analysis up again with What’s The Frequency?, his remarks on the nostalgic attraction of radio will come in handy:
… podcasts lend themselves to particularly intimate stories and to imitating more intimate mediums such as campfire storytelling or listening to radio. Those of us old enough to have done so remember the experience of twisting the dial through a haze of static until a mysterious voice cuts through, and the feeling that it could be coming from anywhere.
The starting-point of What’s The Frequency? is just this experience. The whole podcast is dumped in front of you like a working wireless set from the 1940s. There are bursts of static as the dial twists. There is a mother story, a kind of fresh and hale inner-city crime mystery, which has the clearest signal on the airwaves. Then there are scenes from a radio play that has a clichéd, tinny, post-war feel, with a cardboard husband coming home to his wife, and this play grows ever more stilted and histrionic. There are recordings of a distorted voice that broods upon its loss of memory and about pressing on into a deep forest. Finally there are adverts for household goods that sound like merry pastiches of life in the 1940s, though one could not in the end rule them out as being genuine patented products from this period. There is a nutritional cigarette for pregnant women and a kitchen spray that makes food dazzle appealingly.
During the 1940s, radio theatre achieved a pre-eminence as an entertainment medium that it has never enjoyed since. The radio dramas “Johnny Dollar” and “Suspense” ran for thirteen and twenty years respectively. In plumping for noir crime-fighting, What’s The Frequency? settles upon a genre that had bloomed in a vast crop during this decade. But the podcast never concentrates on the 1940s as fully as it could do. It is set in the 1940s but it never really feels like it is completely there. Nothing is openly anachronistic and yet there are no conspicuously knowledgeable uses of the historical material either.
What’s The Frequency? is admittedly on top of that lyricism that you find within Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction. Villains get the tar knocked right out of them, husbands have to scoot upstairs, and one child is a little cuddle-cub. I am reminded of the speculative art movement Steampunk, which is simultaneously infatuated with the glamour of Victorian life and totally liberated from the need to give any realistic account of it. Steampunk is set in a fantasy nineteenth century in which modern inventions turn up, now powered by steam. The distinction in What’s The Frequency? is far more subtle. The aesthetic of the 1940s is enhanced with airier freedoms from the 1960s, as well as by cultural elements from this decade and others. The podcast describes itself as “psychedelic noir,” a mishmash that is comparable to Steampunk. There was as much psychedelia in the 1940s as there was noir in the 1960s.
The main story’s detective pairing, Walter “Troubles” Mix (Karim C. Kronfli) and Whit (Tanja Milojevic), bear a niggling resemblance to the high stars of the 1960s John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) from the UK television show The Avengers. The likeness comes to receive an odd, extra emphasis because What’s The Frequency? is set in Los Angeles. Troubles does not speak with the cynical snarl that I imagine Philip Marlowe possessing, but in Steed’s own plummy, velvety tones. He often sounds like a bemused English civil servant and he has the same twinkle.
The weight of The Avengers does not just rest here. There was a playfulness to The Avengers that no subsequent crime or espionage drama has ever quite managed to replicate. Steed and Peel always withstood the acid of the series’ intensifying silliness. They karate-chopped and coolly wisecracked their way through scenarios that had fielded robotic assassins and hypnotic extra-terrestrial plants, whilst continuing to somehow uphold a stern sartorial faultlessness. They would flirt chastely with each other, like a brother and sister, rather as Troubles and Whit do. The series could be frightening, or at least startling, as well. What’s The Frequency? comes with its own similar spectrum that runs from whimsical playfulness to hysteria to outright, gale-force horror. Everything combines so slickly that it never jars when an innocuous exchange in a dry cleaner’s terminates in the storeman being apparently disembowelled, or when the inhabitants of the uneasily amusing radio play become frantic at finding themselves locked inside their own home.
The soundscaping of this podcast, with its garbled voices and industrial sprays of static and deft sampling, is, however, pure 1990s. It makes me think of a DJ Shadow mixtape. Of course, the nostalgia is not so much for the ’90s as for the pre-digital age, when audio recordings could still become warped or scrambled with such a luxurious grain. A more specific ’90s reference can be found in the omnipresent Spishak corporation, whose name is actually taken from a sketch series on the US comedy show Mad TV (1995-). Mad TV’s Spishak was responsible for marketing ludicrous products, such as plutonium-based Christmas lights and a somewhat bulky “once a year” tampon. What’s The Frequency? shies away from the innocent hilarity of Mad TV and it seems to hold a preference for duplicating the stilted texture of their fake adverts, the odd jumps in their dialogue and the deliberate glitches.
Yet the extent to which you have to invest in this podcast is more typical of the twenty-first century and of how we commit to box sets. The house paradox is that you are not really meant to follow where the story is going – the point is to savour its gorgeous playfulness – and yet you always have to listen tremendously carefully. There is an expansive cast and you are supposed to know who everybody is and where they belong within the story. Transcripts are published alongside the episodes for precisely this purpose. Indeed, the rawest horror will emerge from your occasional confusion about what is happening. During the disaster in the dry cleaner’s, you are stunned by the scene’s free-floating unpredictability, as it melts into screams and mayhem. You have to listen again, and read up on what had unfolded, in order to successfully process it. By then, the original horror will have dissipated, like the force of a dream when it is remembered hours later.
Another twenty-first century feature of What’s The Frequency? is the podcasters’ desire to gather together a community. There are no real adverts to break the spell within the podcast and hence you have no opportunity to finance it passively. You are instead meant to do your homework outside of its world. You are meant to subscribe to it and review it on iTunes and purchase stocks in it through Patreon.
So where does What’s The Frequency? fit? Mikhail Bakhtin would have called this podcast a heteroglossia. I would say that it is just incredibly busy.