The Message, Received
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #73. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.
In high school, I found a CD copy of Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Once, at a party we used to throw every summer at an old house in the woods, we turned out the lights and played it.
In the front room, pitch black save for the faint light from the outline of glow-in-the-dark city skyline we’d painted on the wall, we gathered around the boom box, and listened. The recording was so dated that sharing it wasn’t about scaring each other, but about giving ourselves permission to be carried away to a different place and time – a time of radio dramas and odd accents, when news bulletins could tear into broadcasts of live music piped over the airwaves from “the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza” in downtown New York City.
A time, too, when the lines got crossed or blurred or both and some got swept into a frenzy by drama that, to them, felt all too real.
I’ve loved the radio since I was a kid, keeping score on the Yankees games and often leaving it on all night, past the postgame, for any number of shows that might follow. Later, my grandfather gave me his shortwave radio and I’d listen to broadcasts from the furthest reaches using a Monitoring Times magazine that helped me pinpoint their frequencies.
I went from there into talk radio, and for the past decade, I moved predictably into podcasts.
Some of my favorite podcasts, like The Truth, have emerged from that old radio storytelling tradition. (I’d recommend to Unwinnable Weekly readers a recent episode, “Enjoy the Suffering,” about a trip into the deepest pits of hell, or “Dark Matter,” which tells the story of scientist who dares to peek into the most mysterious corners of the universe.) For the past few months, I’ve given 10 minutes a week to The Message, a serialized sci-fi podcast about an extraterrestrial transmission recorded by the U.S. government 70 years ago.
The final episode hit my player late last month. I won’t spoil the ending or even attempt to give it a review. The fact that the show exists, with all its successes and failures, is enough.
A short synopsis of the show, though, in case you’re curious: Nicky Tomalin is a student recording the inner workings of Cypher, a renowned cryptology consultant group, as they try to decode the strange, alien message on behalf of the NSA. The podcast teases you for a couple episodes before you hear the message – then alerts you that listening to it might have been a fatal mistake.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.