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Podcasting’s Wild West: Sci-Fi Audio Drama Creators Gideon Media

When it comes to audio dramas that capture the attention of both listeners and critics alike, the team at Gideon Media stands out among the best. The creators behind the hit noir science fiction podcast Steal The Stars and the critically lauded stage sci-fi saga The Honeycomb TrilogyGideon Media crafts gripping productions that explore human grace and darkness, religion, sexuality, politics, culture, and the often strange bonds that tie people together in a rapidly changing world. 

The creative trio—Mac Rogers (writer), Jordana Williams (director), and Sean Williams (producer)—have been running a New York-based theatre company, Gideon Productions, for the past twenty years, grounding them firmly in the world of innovative drama across a range of genres, including science fiction.

Gideon Media Producer Sean Williams
(photo credit: Kent Meister)

Like many of their podcasting counterparts, they’ve bootstrapped their way into audio drama. Sean held a day job in audio production and music education, while Mac wrote commercial projects. Together with Jordana as director, they put on several plays in their spare time. Their audience began to grow, and in 2015, they put on a trilogy of sci-fi plays called The Honeycomb Trilogy.

At the same time, companies like Panoply, Slate and GE started looking for corporate collaborations that would blend new media with advertising. Mac suddenly found himself with the opportunity to write an inventive piece of audio fiction featuring native advertising for GE. The result was The Message, a Webby award-winning podcast released in 2015. Described as “Serial meets The War of the Worlds,” The Message is known for its strong storytelling and innovative feel. And its success still stands as a beacon for sci-fi podcasters today.

At that point, things dramatically shifted for the trio.

“I said, how hard would it be for us to set up our own shingle, where we retain the intellectual property?” says Mac.

Sean agreed the idea was doable. “It suddenly occurred to us that we might be able to make enough money doing audio drama to support our theater career, which now seems insane,” he says. “It was long enough ago that we didn’t know this space [for making audio drama] existed. Now, it’s largely become what we do.”

Gideon Media Director Jordana Williams

Jordana calls this moment in their collective career fortuitous. 

“Mac had all these bona fides from doing The Message, and the folks at Tor MacMillan had seen some of our audio plays,” she says. “He was established in the audio world, but we were not as a production company. But some of the decision makers at Tor were familiar with our stage work.”

The book publisher was planning to launch Tor Labs, an imprint of Tor Books dedicated to producing experimental projects. So they asked Gideon Media for pitches. Out of that collaboration was born Steal the Stars, a pulpy UFO investigation story that went on to be downloaded over two million times and was an Audie Awards Finalist for Best Audio Drama. 

Since then, the team at Gideon Media has continued their own productions, doubling down on sci-fi audio fiction and yielding fantastic podcasts that sci-fi fans adore.

Working with Legends

Throughout the rest of 2021, fans of audio dramas can expect more top-notch productions from Mac, Jordana, and Sean. In partnership with celebrated playwright Wallace Shawn and director André Gregory, the legendary duo behind My Dinner with André and Vanya On 42nd Street, Gideon Media has already premiered two new audio dramas over the past few weeks. 

“As theater makers in New York, Wallace Shawn is the pinnacle of what theater makers can do on our level,” says Sean. “We have been insane fans of his for twenty years. Wallace Shawn has actually affected our style as a theater company.” 

Gideon Media Writer Mac Rogers
(photo credit: Kent Meister)

So, when Shawn’s agent reached out to Sean’s agent to suggest a podcast collaboration, it was an easy decision to meet with him and work on two shows with him.

First, there’s The Designated Mourner. It follows the struggles of Jack, a man whose relationships with his wife, his father and himself are all disintegrating, even as the once-liberal society he inhabits descends into authoritarianism. 

Then, there’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors, also written by Wallace Shawn and directed by André Gregory, tells the tale of a doctor who invents a groundbreaking nutrient intended to end world hunger. Instead, it radically transforms the food chain, chemically disrupting animal and human bodies, leading to a global illness and outbreaks of disturbing behavior. 

The team began working on the two shows in January 2020—before COVID-19, when the idea behind Grasses of a Thousand Colors seemed less plausible than it does today. Within two months, Sean says, everything changed. They recorded the shows remotely, with Andre Gregory directed remotely via an iPad the team provided him.

“It was an experience that, if I spend the rest of my life, I will probably never have another experience this strange and beautiful and specific,” says Sean. “We stopped recording every day because Black Lives Matter was marching past people’s houses, and because people went outside every day at 7 p.m. to bang pots and pans for the first responders. It was absolutely incredible, and I can’t believe the timing.”

Upcoming Shows to Look Forward To

As 2021 goes into its second half, the team at Gideon Media has a lot more great entertainment for podcast fans, works they have written, directed and produced themselves. “We have lots of stuff brewing, lots of stuff coming your way,” says Jordana.

Premiering July 16 is Give Me Away. This eerie, haunting sci-fi story is centered around a mysterious spaceship that crashes in the Nevada desert. Called “The Ghosthouse,” the spaceship generates the screams of thousands of extraterrestrial political prisoners uploaded into its horrific mainframe. The only way to free them is to transfer them into the bodies of humans willing to share their minds with an alien second consciousness. 

But who would volunteer for that, and why? Graham Shapiro, divorced and adrift at age 50, is one of the first to raise his hand. Give Me Away follows Graham’s journey into a world of radical hospitality, one which will touch everything—and everyone—in his life.

Coming in August is The Earth Movesa real-time dark comedy about how even the most unwanted schmuck can still make waves. People tune into Brent Ziff’s radio show to hear him make fun of losers. But tonight’s loser, Leo Short, is calling with a message straight from the bowels of the Earth that’s going to put everything Brent knows on shaky ground.

And launching at the end of August is the poignant and emotional God of Obsidian, a dark fairy tale gaslighting which follows a woman, Alice, as she desperately seeks the story that will help her escape from her tormentor, Nathan, and make her way back across the perilous bridge to freedom.

God of Obsidian happens to be one of my favorite pieces we’ve ever done as a theater company. It’s just two people working through a relationship that slowly disintegrates,” says Sean.

“But because it’s Mac, it’s framed in a fairy tale,” says Jordana. “It’s a sort of dark, emotionally complex fairy tale.”

“What has been so great about the three of us working together and the community of artists who have worked with us consistently is that we are responding to stuff as artists as it’s happening,” says Sean. 

“Audio drama is such a different thing than either TV or film, which takes so long to develop, or even fiction which takes so long to go through the editing and publication process. Because it’s the Wild West with audip drama, we can set our own schedule. We can basically say, ‘I want to talk about this.’”

Why Speculative Fiction Is the Genre of Choice

Digging deeper into what motivates the creativity of Gideon Media, particularly its writer Mac, it becomes clearer why sci-fi and related speculative fiction subgenres are such an appropriate fit.

“Our work explores what’s strange about being human, and human about being strange,” Jordana says. “We explore human grace and darkness through genre and other cultural touchstones. If you talk about the world exactly as it is, everyone has their ideas set already. If you go in any number of speculative fiction directions, it creates that much space and breathing room that a person might look at it in a different way.”

Gideon Media’s podcast fiction offerings are available free on-demand to listeners across all platforms where podcasts may be found.