Psycho-Noir Audiodrama Asks “What’s The Frequency?”

0 Comments 13 September 2017

Creator James Oliva discusses the conception and influences behind his new psycho-noir audiodrama series What’s The Frequency?.

by Daniel Barron



Just as collector culture has applied a new coat of varnish to antiquated formats like the cassette tape, the ease and ubiquity of podcasts have revived that old-timey format of the radio drama. Modern technology, a wider embrace of genre fiction, and post-streaming binge culture have allowed a wealth of programs such as Limetown or Homecoming to achieve popular success, some even attracting mainstream talent. Writer and voice actor James Oliva caught the bug, himself, when he jumped onboard the cast of his longtime friend Alexander Danner’s show Greater Boston, a tragicomic magic-realist anthology series previously covered on this site.

Today marks the debut of Oliva’s own labor of love, What’s The Frequency?, serialized audiodrama he created and writes with Danner taking a role as his producer. A psycho-noir set in 1940s Los Angeles, the genre-bending show follows PI. Walter “Troubles” Mix and his partner Whitney as they search for a missing writer and navigate through a city sinking into madness. Radio broadcasts in the city are being reduced to static, leaving a popular radio serial, the soap Love, Honor, and Decay, as the only remaining show on the air. Meanwhile, a lone, distorted voice cries out for help. Could they be the key to what’s a happening? As the “channels” phases in and out and the narratives seem to fold in on themselves, the listener will begin to question the reliability of the show’s narrator and the true nature of the story they’ve been following.

In the following interview, Oliva discusses blending horror and noir conventions, how he collaborates with his actors, and the podcast dramas that might make you a convert.


The trailer:



What is the elevator pitch for What’s The Frequency?
Wow. I’m not sure if it COULD be elevator pitched but I’m gonna try. The show is a psychedelic noir set in 1940s Los Angeles. A not-so-hardboiled private investigator named Walter and his bodyguard Whitney are hired to find a missing writer. Getting in their way is a city quickly falling into madness and a crime boss obsessed with a special typewriter. It’s like LA Confidential meets David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman’s love child.


What inspired you to do it?
These things always boil down to an alchemy of sorts, with many things lending to the cause. It basically started just over a year ago. I watch Eternal Sunshine For The Spotless Mind on TV and was struck with just how horrifying the events of the movie were. I couldn’t help but think how effective that style would be if applied to an actual horror movie concept. This eventually became my screenplay The Gloom. After I had finished the first draft of it I couldn’t shake some of the ways I felt I had not really capitalized on my idea. I had been looking to write an audiodrama and had felt that doing a horror audiodrama would be a good idea due to its popularity. So I ended up taken a single element from my screenplay and began wrapping an entire concept around it. Next thing you know I have What’s The Frequency?. Ultimately I wanted to do something that would challenge the ear of the podcast listener. I wanted to be psychedelic and weird.


What are the biggest pop culture influences behind the show?
Charlie Kaufman as previously mentioned. David Lynch is a huge influence on this show. I’ve been such a fan of both for an incredibly long time. One of the main directives of the audio design to more to scare the listeners with the context of a moment rather than visceral sound effects. I’d say Dan Harmon’s work has been a big influence on this show. I’ve always been into meta humor and stories. Dan Harmon is a master at telling those kinds of stories. Rick and Morty destroys me constantly.



Art: Dan Greene


Was it daunting to conceive and put together your own show?
Sure, at times it was. We used a really short production schedule, like crazy short. The show’s entire twelve episodes were written between early February and early April. We then had the show fully cast by early May and started recording immediately, which we finished up at the end of June. This wasn’t a standard audiodrama production and thankfully I had a great support system in the audiodrama community. They are what have to be the most supportive group of artists I’ve ever been around. The biggest issues we faced had to do with the sound design. In general there are a ton of issues to worry about with actors recording themselves and directing themselves.

From the sound design standpoint, you need to consider recording space and how each actor has a unique space they are recording in. Different mics can also create subtle differences. Since the cast is comprised of actors living in all different parts of the country and a few outside of the country, these concerns become amplified. It’s a disadvantage but something that can be overcome. Especially if you have a talented sound designer… and we have one of those in [Greater Boston co-creator] Alexander Danner.


What have you learned about audiodrama storytelling and the production aspects from your experiences as a cast member on Greater Boston?
With Greater Boston, I am the only actor that works remotely. I don’t get to interact with the other actors. I learned a lot from working on Greater Boston voice acting-wise, which has helped inform my style of directing this project. I decided early on that I would allow each actor to self-direct their performance after a one-on-one rehearsal. The rehearsals were held over Slack using the app’s voice chat feature.


Was it difficult to explain the concept to the cast and crew?
Yes it was and still is! I certainly went out of my way to explain myself to the cast and crew and have come away with the less information I give out the better for everyone. I have a tendency to overexplain and a desire to be understood, which can backfire in situations like this project. Lucky none of the cast walked away. It’s hard streamlining ALL of the ideas that you are working with on a show and pick out the just the relevant ones to an actor. I opted to complete transparency. I pulled back the curtain and showed them how the sausage was made…so to speak.


Was there a model you directed the cast towards for reference?
I did point them to David Lynch in an effort to explain the type of horror we would be getting into. Most did not however know who David Lynch was or had ever seen anything of his. I settled on a different path to explain it. One that was more universal.

The example I used was, “You know when you are having a dream and it’s a pretty okay basic dream? Let’s say you are at your house and you’re having a get together with friends. You decide to go to your bedroom to change clothes. Now when you enter your room you see something out of the corner of your eye. It’s a man standing in the corner staring at you. You’re a little freaked and ask him to leave. He says ‘It’s okay. I’ve always been here.’ Again you tell him to leave. Again he matter of factly says ‘It’s okay… I’ve always been here.’ Right there! There is this moment you get that sinking feeling in you belly. You realize you aren’t safe though nothing major has happened. You can no longer rely on a familiar environment to keep you safe.”

That method was a pretty effective way to bridge the cast to the abstract concepts of what we were going for.


whats the frequency



What aspects of the show are you most excited about?
I’m really excited to share something I believe to be a very different audiodrama listening experience. I’m excited to see how the show connects with people…if it even connects at all. This is a show that regardless of it being mine, it’s the type of show I would like to listen to. It’ll be really cool to see if there are others that are like-minded.


What audiodramas should people should be listening to if they would like to pick up on the format?
Greater Boston is truly a wonderful show. Bright Sessions, which is about individuals with unique abilities who learn to cope through therapy. The British podcast comedy Wooden Overcoats is a great one to start with and probably the one I’d choose first to get you acquainted with the format. Hadron Gospel Hour and Hector vs. The Future are also amazing.



Listen to the first episode of What’s The Frequency? RIGHT HERE. Like what you’re hearing? Support the show on Patreon! Subscribe here.


Learn more about What’s The Frequency? on the official website.

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- who has written 423 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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