If there is or even could be such a thing as the perfect podcast, it could be Something True. Part of its perfection is its title. Each podcast in the series is a single story, a true story, taken from history, albeit generally an obscure corner of it. It is literally something true. The podcast is done by two people. One, Duncan Fyfe, researches and writes the script, and the other, his friend and colleague Alex Ashby, recites it and produces the audio.
It may be part of Something True’s perfection that Ashby is British. (Fyfe is a Kiwi; both live in London.) The pair share a deeply sardonic cast; Fyfe’s Twitter page features a selfie of him next to what seems to be an industrial toilet. The stories Fyfe finds are for the most part ridiculous or harrowing, crafted with a withering clarity. Ashby’s crisp delivery in that plummy accent turns them into high black comedy. The net effect is something like Benedict Cumberbatch reading letters to Penthouse.
I don’t want to give away too many of the subjects; part of the fun of Something True is not knowing the century or continent where the next one will be situated. One tale is more than 1,000 years old, and there will be blood. Others take place in the last century or close to it, and involve the shattering of souls, not skulls. But the first is about a footnote to the career of Warren G. Harding, who presided over a famously corrupt administration but who excelled at distracting public attention via goofy things, in this case turning his pet dog into a celebrity. (The dog, the celebrated Laddie Boy, even had a chair at cabinet meetings.) Another is about what happened when the city of Stockholm, back in the 17th century, got obsessed with witches, and decided to outsource the actual identification of the witches to a 13-year-old boy.
If there is one thing wrong with Something True it’s that the episodes are short — just 10 or 12 minutes — and there are but eight of them. These stories from the past are cameos, bijoux — glittering adamantine gems that may or may not hold secrets to help us understand today.
I tracked down Fyfe and Ashby recently, threw them a few questions via email, and lightly edited the result.
Duncan, congrats on the podcast. It’s bracingly, pungently written. How did your vision for it evolve?
Duncan Fyfe: It stayed consistent in that we always wanted to do a limited run of short episodes that would end before we exhausted ourselves or started to cover familiar history-podcast territory. So in that sense, we did the thing we set out to do.
We did get more ambitious about the stories we were telling. Our first episode was on Warren Harding’s dog, and we had to throw in everything there was to say about that stupid dog to fill even ten minutes of audio. And even then, there’s not a whole lot you can learn from that episode that you couldn’t also learn from that dog’s Wikipedia page. Not that I think learning is the point of our show.
It was more satisfying work to find these really complicated, convoluted subjects and craft a coherent, short, funny narrative out of those parts. Especially if it seemed like nobody had quite done that before. That felt more like what we should be doing. Stories that were thematically complete even if they weren’t biographically comprehensive.
“Malpaso” — the Maria Sanchez and William Roach story — could be where it clicked for me. I don’t even think that’s a perfect Something True story because we had to leave so much out for a ten-minute version to be at all comprehensible. But I remember reading about it for the first time and thinking it was so outrageously, perfectly batshit that inevitably someone with greater resources than us would tell that story as a long feature documentary or Netflix series. That felt exciting. Again, it felt like what we should be trying to do.
What’s your interest in history?
DF: My formal interest in history is that I took two undergraduate history courses when I was at university in New Zealand. Between them I think I averaged a B-minus. I would be really flattered and surprised if anyone came away from the podcast assuming I had any deeper background in history than that.
I’m mostly a freelance writer these days, so I spend a lot of time looking for stories that are undertold or underreported. I do a lot of work with Campo Santo, the video-game developer out of San Francisco.
Alex, how did you meet up with Duncan?
Alex Ashby: Duncan and I met about ten years ago when we were both part of Idle Thumbs, the video-game website that has since turned into a podcast network. We formed a kind of partnership with me in a broad editorial role while he did all the actual work. I don’t know how I managed to get away with that for so long, but it was deeply satisfying.
Duncan had very quickly become one of my favorite writers and reading his stories was a joy. For his birthday one year, I made a recording of one of those stories with some very rough music production underneath, just for a bit of fun. He liked it and then showed it to other people who also liked it, so we started talking about how we could do it properly.
Luckily, Duncan and I both live in London, so we were able to record in the same room with him directing me, and gradually we figured out what Something True should sound like. Our roles weren’t entirely reversed from the old writing days, but I like to think that he enjoyed getting the chance to sit back and watch me sweat for a change.
I admire the precise modulation of your readings; what is your acting history? I suppose it’s just the way we Americans are intimidated by a British accent, but I have to say it’s done with brio. Your articulation of the seemingly innocent word hobbies in the episode “Babylon” is worth the price of admission.
AA: I had no formal training, but when I was young I used to listen to old radio plays and audiobooks on cassette. I would play them again and again until the poor things kamikazed through overuse. I think I could still probably repeat large portions of those tapes even today, and I think that’s where I got a feel for what a vocal performance should sound like.
It’s possible that the accent really does help. I think we are a lot more forgiving of performances in voices that we don’t hear every day.
As I started production on the first few episodes I realized that I was, in fact, fairly awful. I had thought I sounded normal, but while listening back I was nervous and monotone, to say nothing of the poor microphone skills. So I rerecorded everything from scratch, trying to really commit and be as dynamic as my natural sense of shame would allow. It came out much better after that, but my lack of training was definitely paid for in time and energy.
And how has the podcast been received?
AA: Everyone had good things to say except for one man who didn’t like the swearing, but that’s fine. We got around 10,000 listeners a week, which apparently isn’t very many, but is certainly far more than I had hoped for. It was one of those rare things that I was so proud of I honestly wouldn’t have minded if we had never found an audience, but it’s lovely to hear that it pleased so many people.
DF: It was a rabbi who got upset at us about all the swearing, which I think makes it way worse.
Where do you stumble upon the stories? Some are tangential to things we’ve heard about, like the Teapot Dome scandal, or Scientology — footnotes to history as done by the Coen Brothers. Others are epic tales in their own right, like “Ruska Pravda,” which out–Game of Thrones Game of Thrones.
DF: Yeah, characters like Charles Forbes and Jack Parsons you discover because they’re footnotes in better-known stories. In the Heart of the Sea, about the sinking of the Essex, is a pretty well-known book [the true tale on which Melville tangentially based Moby-Dick, and the subject of a recent movie], but I never saw anyone talk about the part of it that grabbed me. It’s just, I think, one paragraph, [about] one of the sailors aboard the Essex. That to me felt like it warranted its own book.
You have to keep an eye out and follow anything weird you think or see. Olga of Kiev [the subject of the episode “Ruska Pravda”], I came across that story because I was reading about weaponized animals for fun.
As of course one would. So Alex, you do the production? With just your voice and some fairly rudimentary sound cues (some of which themselves are quite funny), the productions pack a punch.
AA: Duncan had collected an enormous list of potential creative commons music and had written a cue sheet for each episode, which gave different ideas on how to use music to accentuate or undercut certain moods. I learned the basics of some audio editing tools and started putting things together slowly.
I would have my dialogue playing in the background while I skipped through about a hundred pieces of music, waiting to hear something that matched. Then I would move on to the next section of dialogue and repeat the process. As I got more confident, I began to mess around a little more with the rhythms of the dialogue and music. I would try to edit the speed of my delivery to match the music tempo, or synchronize them so that gaps in the dialogue were filled by flourishes in the music and vice versa.
The result of this was that every 10-to-15-minute episode took about three days of work (there are about 50 pieces of music in this first series), which while slow-paced was immensely satisfying. I don’t know how much of a difference those edits made to the listener’s experience, but I hope the effort ended up providing at least some of the punch you mentioned rather than just being indulgent.
I almost hate to ask this question, but do you ever choose the stories based on their contemporary relevance? Certainly “Häxprocessor” has some brutal resonance today. So does “The President’s Dog.” Actually, so does “Charlie Joyride,” and “Babylon,” too!
DF: I actually wrote all these episodes in 2015 and early 2016, so, no, it wasn’t on my mind that, for example, the joyful cronyism of the Warren Harding administration would be extremely topical by the time the episodes aired. That was a happy accident for the podcast and a big fucking bummer for the world. No, I never chose anything based on its potential topicality — our podcast is slow to make, and relevance is a moving target. Not to say I felt any of the stories we did were ever irrelevant. Human behavior doesn’t seem to change a whole lot.
Will Something True be returning?
DF: Yeah. I know we’d all like to do more. When exactly that will happen, though, I don’t know.
Something True is available at your friendly local podcast marketplace. Details on the show and an archive can be found here.