The Red Line Secedes—And That’s Just the Beginning

Greater Boston

Illustration by Stefan Mallette.

These First-Time Podcasters Will Derail Your Morning Commute

By Alyssa Vaughn

It’s two kidnappers, their victim, and a ghost,” Alexander Danner explains, his crisp, narratorial voice cutting through the evening din of Diesel Cafe. He takes a sip of his coffee, then finishes his sentence:

“They’re arguing over how to pluralize ‘hippopotamus.’”

So goes the plot of one of Danner’s all-time favorite scenes in “Greater Boston,” the podcast he writes and produces with his friend, former classmate, and fellow Cambridge resident Jeff VanDreason. The podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and more, recently broke 425,000 downloads. It is also a finalist in several categories—longform writing, audio engineering, acting, and overall comedic production—of the Audio Verse Awards, an award program celebrating free dramatic podcasts.

It’s abundantly clear just from Danner’s one-sentence scene description that “Greater Boston” is not the morning-commute stuff of NPR or Slate. It’s an audio drama, or a serialized, performative narrative. A form that was abundantly popular on radio from the 1920s to 1940s, the recent rise of podcasting has allowed the audio drama to reemerge.

Danner and VanDreason’s show is set in a fictionalized version of the Boston area. There are frequent references to actual local places (the Kendall Landmark Theater, the Longfellow Bridge, the Cambridge Marriott), and there are even interviews with real Bostonians interspersed throughout the narrative. But there’s a critical difference that sets this version of Boston apart: The MBTA’s Red Line secedes from the rest of the city—platforms, cars, and all. It becomes an independent city, complete with its own mayor.

The episodes are riddled with bizarre elements that will remind former English majors of magical realism and slipstream fiction. Episode 21, which contains the aforementioned hippopotamus debate, also includes candlepin bowling, a kidnapping, “cheese robots,” and a secret elevator.

The episode, it should be noted, is only 32 minutes long.

From its novelistic, multi-narrative structure to its intimate monologues, “Greater Boston” could only have been dreamed up by serious literature nerds. Danner and VanDreason both originally planned to be professional writers, and they were pursuing MFAs at Emerson College when they met in a playwriting class in 2003.

They supported each other as their plays were chosen for production. “Mine was a post-apocalyptic office comedy,” says Danner.

“And mine was about private investigators who also served as random love connectors,” VanDreason chimes in. “Like, they spy on people to connect—well, it’s hard to explain without it sounding really creepy.”

VanDreason and Danner became fast friends. While a brief post-graduate stint with a theater company fell through and put their playwriting aspirations on hold, the two continued to share their writing with each other long after they graduated.

Both felt that they had entered a lull, however. Danner worked on indie comics and textbooks, and VanDreason wrote a full novel, but neither was getting published as much as they had hoped.

Nearly eight years passed before Danner sent VanDreason a story about the Stamatis siblings, the family that would later become the core of “Greater Boston.” Danner planned to send it out for potential publication, but also hoped to record an audio version.

When he initially asked VanDreason if he wanted to partner with him on the project, VanDreason turned him down.

“I wasn’t quite sure where it was going,” VanDreason says. But, as Danner began the revision process, VanDreason “just started getting really interested in the story and the potential it had.”

Danner and VanDreason began meeting regularly at Diesel Cafe to discuss the show. Finally, after about a year and a half, they had written the first season of “Greater Boston”—roughly a novel’s worth of content.

Podcasts are famously accessible to create. Anyone with a microphone, computer, and internet connection can produce one, host it on a popular “pod-catcher” like Stitcher or Apple Podcasts, and wait hopefully for listeners to roll in. About 17 percent of Americans—an estimated 48 million people—listen to at least one podcast weekly, according to a recent study by Edison Research, and with over half a million podcasts available on the Apple Podcasts app, they certainly have no shortage of listening material.

Like many first-time podcasters, Danner and VanDreason had no experience in audio production before launching their show. They educated themselves with tutorials on YouTube and, recorded many of their first episodes on a Zoom microphone (a simple, affordable sound recorder available on Amazon), and set up a makeshift recording studio in Danner’s basement, where they still record some of the show today.

“We hung up some moving blankets to try to muffle the sound … It looks like a fabric shower stall, right next to the laundry machines,” Danner says. “The traffic’s right outside. There’s lots of stopping and starting again.”

As the show has developed, Danner and VanDreason’s audio skills have also evolved. While the first season of “Greater Boston” is primarily built around long monologues—the simplest to record and edit—the following two seasons include more conversations between characters and more original foley (recorded sound effects).

Much of Danner and VanDreason’s growth came out of listener feedback on their first episodes.

“We had some kind people who reached out and said, for the early episodes, ‘Your levels are too high here,’ or ‘You should cut the music; it’s too loud,’” VanDreason says.

“There’s a great community,” Danner adds.

“Community” is a word that Danner and VanDreason use often. When they talk about how they amassed a following for “Greater Boston,” for example, they point to the other podcasters who shouted them out on social media.

“Another audio drama creator … started an ‘audio drama Sunday’ hashtag,” says VanDreason. “He recommended a lot of other shows that he liked, and one of them was us. We were associated with this little community, and people found out about us through other creators.”

Danner and VanDreason also attempt to build community in their cast. While many podcasts include voices recorded by actors who are located in different cities, Danner and VanDreason try to bring as much of their cast into the same room as they can when recording.

“Performances are better if they’re there playing off each other,” VanDreason says. “But scheduling is one of the most difficult things we do.”

Most importantly, though, Danner and VanDreason identify the mission of “Greater Boston” as community building. The show, they admit, has become increasingly political over its three seasons, tackling topics like gentrification and racial discrimination. They have intentionally written a diverse cast of characters, and they have spoken with their friends and voice actors to be sure their representations were accurate.

“When we’re getting into subjects that are out of our lane, we talk to the actors who will be playing those characters and get their input,” Danner says. “If we’re writing a character who is talking about race, I try not to funnel it from my own perspective. I try to think about, ‘OK, what am I hearing people say who have lived this, and how do I put that into this character … to amplify what they’re saying?’”

By starting these conversations and trying to understand worldviews and life experiences different from their own, Danner and VanDreason are engaging in a practice they hope their readers are inspired to engage in as well: authentic community participation.

In one of the first episodes of the series, a character is riding the Red Line. “Charlotte knows the rules of mass transit—speak to no one, touch no one, acknowledge the existence of no one,” the Narrator, played by Danner, says. “She violates the rules. She says ‘hello’ to each passenger as they enter. Nothing more.”

It’s absurd to visualize this scene unfolding on the Red Line—in real life, there are no Charlottes. But the point of “Greater Boston” is that there should be.

“I think about the Red Line all the time, and how people are on the Red Line and don’t say a word to each other—you just kind of scrunch into your seat as much as possible,” VanDreason says. “But people have a lot more in common than we often stop and talk about and recognize. I hope that this show kind of pushes people to talk to their neighbors more.”

This story originally appeared in the Free Time Fervor issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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