Channeling Berlin in the Podcast “Blackout” With Rami Malek

The City That Trees Built gets some gritty podcast glory

When we first meet Simon Itani — the protagonist of the new hit fiction podcast “Blackout” — we aren’t quite sure where he is, and neither is he. “Somewhere on the border between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, I think,” the character muses.

We aren’t quite sure how Simon ended up there, but we know he just survived a plane crash after soaring above the White Mountains, and — according to his foreboding captain’s log — “it’s 103 days since the blackout began.”

But any eagle-eared listener is sure to recognize the voice behind the podcast’s main character: newly minted Oscar winner Rami Malek.

After channeling Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a hacker in the television show “Mr. Robot,” Malek’s latest role finds him playing a 39-year-old local radio DJ in Berlin, New Hampshire, who’s trying to piece together why the power grid went down in his hometown and — soon, we learn — the rest of the country. The sound-rich audio thriller, backed by production companies QCode and Endeavor Audio, catapulted to one of the top slots on iTunes charts within weeks of its launch in March.

New Hampshire residents who are psyched to see their home turf get this kind of star treatment have “Blackout” creator and self-professed New Hampshire enthusiast Scott Conroy to thank. A longtime political reporter, Conroy logged “more 17-hour days on the campaign trail than [he’d] care to admit” following presidential hopefuls across the state. But now that he’s in the business of writing scripts, not news stories, he hoped to channel his affection for the Granite State into a narrative that wasn’t centered on the presidential primary.

“I had this idea of telling a story of a big, massive event, but through the prism of a very small town and kind of a tight-knit community, and to see what happens when that community falls increasingly into a state of tribalism, and how our dependence on technology relates to all of that,” Conroy explains.

Berlin, he says, seemed a perfect backdrop for a tale about a community that finds itself — literally — off the grid. As a reporter, Conroy says he was struck by the approach most presidential hopefuls took to campaigning in New Hampshire’s North Country: Typically, they’d carve out time for one or two obligatory trips, but otherwise treating the region as something of an afterthought.

“I got a real sense from the people in Berlin and the North Country, in general, that they’ve sort of been forgotten — by the country and even in the context of the state,” Conroy says.

While the story at the center of the podcast is, of course, fictional, Conroy hopes the characters and the personal struggles they bring to the story nonetheless reflect the realities of daily life in this oft-overlooked region.

“I wanted to capture a particular place and hone in on what makes northern New Hampshire, and Berlin, specifically, kind of a microcosm for a lot of issues the country as a whole is facing,” Conroy explains, “when it comes to the decline of certain way of life that was vibrant for a long time and the way the country has changed in the last decade plus and how we’re all trying to reconcile with that.”

Whether the podcast lives up to those aspirations, we’ll leave it up to locals to decide. Catch its eight-run episode on iTunes or your preferred podcast platform of choice.

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