This Show is Drugs for Your Ears

Why Ross Sutherland's Imaginary Advice podcast is so good it should probably be illegal

A robot, force-fed Jerry Seinfeld routines, performs a stand-up set that starts out unfunny, veers into the meta, then becomes wistful and deeply melancholic. A chain-smoking exorcist named Dave Stewart takes on a challenging case of demonic possession, armed with a small bottle of CK One “blessed by his Holiness” and chants from the pop song “Mambo No. 5,” which he calls “the most sophisticated piece of sonic weaponry to be developed this side of Armageddon.” A list of playful, increasingly absurd descriptions of the moon turns into a sincere meditation on language and invention. Every episode of Imaginary Advice is a sonic adventure that combines storytelling and mini-essays with supple sound design. Most stories feature “one person wandering through a weird landscape,” according to its creator. That person is the Peterborough, UK-based poet and performer Ross Sutherland. 

“This has literally changed my mind about what podcasts are capable of. I am delirious thinking of the possibilities.”

Sutherland has released a single episode of his podcast every month for the past six years. By the end of the first year, he had about a hundred listeners. Today, about 10,000 people are content to wander this weird landscape with him. Some are lonely bartenders strolling the streets of Auckland at 4 am. Others are famous podcast creators, like Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor of the atmospheric fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist, who assigned Allusionist listeners specific episodes of Imaginary Advice as compulsory listening. (These famous endorsements led to his 49th episode, “Re: the Moon,” being listened to 17,400 times on Soundcloud alone.) The jazz saxophonist Curtis Stigers is also a big fan. Last year, Nick Quah of the Hot Pod newsletter listed it as one of 10 podcasts that shaped the fiction genre. And other podcast critics regularly feature it on their essential listening round-ups

A surreal voice whispering in your ear

If Imaginary Advice sounds so singular, it might be because it was more inspired by poetry and performance than anything in the broader podcast-scape. Some of its sound emerged out of an experimental album of spoken word poetry that Sutherland deliberately tried to record in strange places. “In a club bathroom; whilst jogging, out of breath…” he recalls, with a laugh. The effort was an amusing diversion, but he appreciated the numinous place the vocal recording seemed to inhabit—a close-range, private register “in a nice place between the page and the stage.” 

Photo by Chris Scott

“We listen to audio last thing at night, in the bath, on our way to work when we hate ourselves,” he says. “It fits into these weird, slightly vulnerable intervals where we don’t know what to do with ourselves. And it’s intimate. It’s a voice literally whispering in your ear.” Which meant that you had the privacy of reading a book, with the added “texture” of the voice; “the whole extra vector of sincerity, and insincerity, which is otherwise the domain of the stage,” he adds. 

Another element of performance that Sutherland drew into his podcast was the interstitial material that poets used before and in between presenting their poems onstage. “Sometimes, they’re explainers, sometimes they’re mini-essays on parallel subjects,” he says. “But I wanted to blur the boundary between the introduction and the poem. So my short stories have long footnotes in them, and my essays have poetic digressions in the middle. Sometimes, you get a half-hour essay with a poem dropped in the middle, like a dream sequence.” Even with these blurred boundaries and dreamy interludes, most episodes are composed of one-part poem or story, one-part patter, or “essay.” 

Music is another essential component. Not just for mood and emphasis, but also to structure the episode. “I use music to draw little frames around particular sections and aid transitions into different types of voice,” he says. “It makes a huge difference in a podcast like mine, where it’s shifting style over the course of the episode.” 

Music is an art form Sutherland likes to “hoover up” inspiration from in more ways than one. He has found that podcasts which employ a linear storytelling method too easily lose listeners if they tune out even momentarily. So he likes to structure his stories like dance music, in a way that cycles, crests, and repeats. “They’re little stories that loop,” he says. “The same thing happens in cycles.” He’s also fond of mimicking the effect of something called the “kill switch” on the turntable mixer, which abruptly cuts out the music. “Quite often, I’ve stolen that,” he says. “I’ll crank the music loud, with the story and dialogue, and then have the soundtrack cut out, so it sounds like [there are] quotation marks around the words.”

If Imaginary Advice does have a podcast forebear, it’s probably Blue Jam, the sketch podcast that played on BBC Radio 1 in the wee hours in the late ’90s. “It had this late-night psychedelic feel,” he says, “It had lots of music, it was hypnotic, it had odd humor, and it was uncomfortable and lyrical. I was a huge fan.” He also considers “ambient storytelling” podcasts kindred spirits. These include the Twin Peaks podcast Diane, in which fans of the show discuss it “as if it were a dream they shared,” and podcasts devoted to discussing bad movies he never intends to see. “Ambitious failure is my favorite genre,” he says.

One of the things that sets Imaginary Advice apart is Sutherland’s distinctive vocal delivery, which combines the surprising diction and imagery of poetry with the bounciness and energy of a theatrical soliloquy. But his delivery also sounds rambly and spontaneous—like an excited voice mail from a tipsy friend. “I write in a way that sounds like my voice,” he says. “I like it to sound loose, and slightly scratchy. I try to capture the rhythm of speech on the page. So you have sentences with no end. Where I give up and try again. I lean on natural language construction, so it’s not something literary, that you can stick in a book.” These writerly soliloquies come peppered with artefacts of quotidian life, such as Google searches and references to the modern pop culture canon, including shows like Seinfeld, Sex and the City and the movie Groundhog Day.

A writer’s podcaster

Sutherland describes his process as a trust exercise with himself. He has a whiteboard scattered with small phrases—“ideas that go strange places.” He mulls them over until it’s “time to crack on.” And then, in the flurry of developing his idea, the form and the story gradually emerge. “That’s possibly carried on from poetry,” he says. “I don’t think you should write a poem if you knew where you were going. That’s why poems have all these internal rule systems. You inhibit yourself from saying the easy thought, so you take the long way round to the more original thought.” 

Making Imaginary Advice feels somewhat similar, like playing a game “with only a rough idea of the rules.” It reminds him of an ancient divination practice, like pyromancy—“staring into a fire and telling a story out of what’s inside it.” Gradually, close to the third-week mark, what starts out as a “chaotic, ridiculous mess” starts to become something “meaningful and personal—if I’m lucky,” he adds.

What’s unmistakable from listening to an episode is Sutherland’s love of language, and his love of explicating the process of literary invention. That’s why he thinks his podcast especially appeals to people who are interested in writing: “because I present creative work and the back-end,” he says. This small, but growing pool of language-loving listeners—half of whom live in the United States—has been increasing organically, through word of mouth, every year. 

The process of audience growth is quite slow, but Sutherland says when he finds new listeners he tends to hold on to them. That could be because Imaginary Advice offers such a weird and specific pleasure in one’s listening diet, it is quite literally irreplaceable. Nothing sounds quite like it in the podcast-verse. A sampling of its hundred iTunes reviews, which average a rating of 4.9, reflect this sentiment. “I was MOVED to write this review out of sheer joy,” says an especially rapturous one. “This has literally changed my mind about what podcasts are capable of. I am delirious thinking of the possibilities.” Another one gushes: “Ross, you are a gold-plated snowdrift. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Initially, tears in my eyes from laughing and then, poetry.” 

Photo by Hayley Madden

Around 200 such ardent fans keep the podcast going via Patreon, alongside the occasional top-up of Arts Council grants. Before the pandemic, Sutherland had a number of side hustles, including tutoring and theater work, which vanished due to indefinitely stretched out social distancing regimes. After he mentioned his cash crunch on the show, however, he received a generous spurt of listener donations. “I can’t tell you how that feels to have the community support me at this time,” he says.

Sutherland is about to release a five-part mini-series about a cult, which is purportedly made by this cult. The spark for this mini-series came from two words on his whiteboard: “puzzle episode?” “There will be ARG (alternate reality game) elements in it,” he says. “What you’re listening to is the ‘official podcast,’ and if you solve the puzzle, you can follow clues to a secret behind-the-scenes episode hidden someplace on the internet.” The idea is to make people “listen in a different way,” so they are forced to share resources and knowledge to solve a puzzle together. In the future, he plans to conscript his followers into many more audio adventures that “nobody would ever commission.”

Curious what it sounds like? Take a listen to this short episode.

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