Every year for Christmas instead of just putting gifts under the Christmas tree, I hide all of the presents for my wife around the house and make a puzzle-based scavenger hunt for her. The first year was just coded messages that lead from one location to the next. The year after that I upped the ante a bit and made the clues a little crazier by putting clues behind fun URLs that lead to pictures, videos, and even a Morse-code audio message as clue to the location they were hidden. Last year the big gimmick was having Jonathan Mann write a song for her that contained a coded message, and then crafted a world inside of Minecraft that contained the clue to the next gift.
I have a lot of fun making these puzzles, and Julia loves doing them. This year, she wanted to go to New York City for the weekend while I was there on a business trip for 2 weeks. With that as her gift, there wasn't going to be a lot to hide around the house for her. So I had to think of another fun way to present her with something that made it fun to have a gift what wouldn't really happen for another month.
Last month, while I was traveling back from Florida on a business trip, I was listening to one of Julia's favorite podcasts, 36 Questions, when I had a really fun idea: what if her puzzle was all podcasts? I certainly couldn't make a musical, but I think I could do something like her other favorite kind of podcast, murder mysteries. So I set out to listen to some of her favorites like Sword and Scale and Generation Why and attempt to replicate it. But I didn't want to do something exactly like it, so I decided to combine the theme of those podcasts with one of Julia's other favorite things: dogs.
I started listening to Sword and Scale and taking some notes, thinking about the music they used, and how they tell their stories. I ended up transcribing the first couple minutes of one of their bonus episodes and just replaced words in the sentence to make it about dogs. Along the way I decided I obviously couldn't just swap out the whole story, because terrible and sad things happen to the people in these shows, so I decided to write the rest of the story myself and give it a happy ending.
Upon trying to choose good names for the dogs in the mystery story, I thought of the wonderful twitter account WeRateDogs and took a look at some good dogs in their timeline to find names to use in the podcast. As for the names of the people in the show, I just used some of my favorite video game website personalities from Waypoint and combined their names. I did this to make them sound like real people, that I knew wouldn't break the illusion too much that this could really be a serious show, but still have some sort of reference to something I like.
As for music, I wanted to legally use music that would really fit in with the theme of the show. I spent some time listening to various tracks at the Free Music Archive in the "Ambient" section, and found a composer that had whole albums for use in podcasts that were part of the creative commons license. This really enhanced the experience, making it sound just like a real podcast, without sounding like something she's already heard.
Ads are a big part of podcasts, and there are quite a few iconic ones that I thought would be funny to spoof. Serial's original Mailchimp Ad is one of the first things that came to mind. I thought I could hide a small gift in my house's mail slot, so I just changed the Mailchimp ad to fit that. Then I sent the script to several friends and family members and had them record it using the Voice Memos app on their phone and send it to me. I chopped it up to fit the Mailchimp ad and placed it in a convenient break in the podcast. Another prominent podcast sponsor is Blue Apron. My wife works for Starbucks, so she's got a Green Apron she brings home from work, so I thought another small gift could be hidden in there. I wrote out a generic podcast ad, mostly from memory of what the Blue Apron ads sound like, and swapped it with Green apron, tried to make it funny, and stuck that in another break in the story.
This all culminated in the show being posted to Apple Podcasts in a real feed that I could, if I really wanted, keep updating. I sent the link to Julia early on Christmas morning and stood by as she giggled the whole 7 minutes she listened to it. It was a fun little project that amounted to a lot of joy for both of us. She quickly caught on that the address listed in the show referenced a real-life street address in New York City, and that the ads pointed her to look in the mail slot in our garage, as well as her apron that was rolled up on our kitchen counter. The puzzle wasn't nearly as involved or challenging this year, but the method of delivery was a lot of fun for both of us.