GE launches 'Podcast Theater' with sci-fi series

"The Message" recasts General Electric Theater for the digital age

Aiming to grab the attention of the same mobile and tech-driven Millennial audience that made "Serial" a breakout hit last year, GE has released its first brand-sponsored podcast, the science fiction story "The Message."

The eight-part series, which tells the story of cryptologists attempting to decode a 70-year-old message from outer space, made its debut on Oct. 4 on the new GE Podcast Theater, a modern take on the company’s historic "GE Theater" TV and radio series hosted by Ronald Reagan in the 1950s.

The idea is not to outright sell the company’s products within the programming, said Andy Goldberg, global creative director at GE, but to build brand awareness and affinity. "Developing a podcast enables you to build a connection with the audience without sledgehammering them with a sales message," Goldberg said.

While GE is not including product placement or sponsored messaging in the storyline, Goldberg said later episodes of "The Message" would mention the company by name.

Each podcast, about 15 minutes in length, follows narrator Nicky Tomalin as she records live "Cyphercasts" with scientists from Cypher Centers for Communications. The storyline is propelled by her curiosity and eagerness to figure out the meaning of the message, and both episodes released have ended on a cliffhanger to leave listeners wanting more.

Companion sites for the series allow listeners to further engage with the content, including a company website for Cypher Centers for Communications and a blog from the narrator.

GE was inspired to take the podcast approach, said Goldberg, after seeing the success of "Serial," which was the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes and reached 40 million downloads by the end of 2014.

The Grid, a GE-dedicated unit comprising media agency OMD and marketing shop Giant Spoon, jumpstarted the original idea for the podcast, said a GE spokesperson, and facilitated GE’s partnership with The Slate Group’s podcast network Panoply, which co-produced "The Message." BBDO, GE's longstanding creative agency, led story development and production.

The podcasts are being promoted online only, including Panoply’s social media. GE also partnered with influencers with similar audiences, like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who discussed "The Message" on his StarTalk radio show.

Available on iTunes and SoundCloud, the podcasts are being released on Sundays, said Trevor Guthrie, co-founder of Giant Spoon, to take advantage of greatest audience engagement. "People listen more on Sundays while they’re traveling," Guthrie said, "Sunday is a rich day for podcasts."

The podcast the latest in GE’s strategy to get teenagers and young adults interested in their brand, similar to when the company launched "GE Fallonventions" with NBC’s "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" last year.

One of GE’s latest ads catered to the same audience, focusing on how of the newest crop of GE employees is far different from generations past.

Whether creating a podcast or any type of television content, said Goldberg, "It’s about great storytelling, and that goes back to the beginning of time. Great storytelling is what engages audiences and captures the imagination."

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