Dan Powell

Dan Powell, a Darlington School graduate now living and working in Brooklyn, New York, snaps a selfie from inside a studio while recording "Archive 81," a podcast he co-created. / Contributed

While freelancing on odd jobs as a sound engineer in New York City, Daniel Powell started working for a sound effects library.

The job required the 2008 Darlington graduate to spend hours alone in his apartment, listening to and cataloging an assortment of sounds. When his friends headed out each morning to their office jobs, he stayed at home, in the place where his life beyond work is supposed to unfold.

“It’s kind of surreal,” he said, sharing that all of his interactions with his co-workers and supervisor were done over phone calls or Skype.

Then one night in 2015, while Powell’s college friend Marc Sollinger was in the city visiting, this job, with its “inherent weirdness,” became the inspiration for their audio-drama podcast “Archive 81.”  

“The conceit of a character, alone, listening to weird sounds is something that we were super interested in exploring,” said Sollinger in an email. “But there was also a lot of different stuff that was going on in both of our lives/themes we were thinking of that fed into Archive 81, from the loneliness of big cities, to the dehumanizing nature of working for large corporations, to even the nature of free will.

The solitude Powell experienced in his work life and the basic task of the job was imagined as a “sound-footage horror abstract,” with the main character, Dan, being an archivist of recordings for the Housing Historical Committee of New York. The recordings Dan listens to, made by a social worker interviewing residents of an apartment building, drag him into a mysterious and obscure “Lovecraftian” world.

This was not the first project Powell and Sollinger worked together on. While in his last year at Syracuse University in New York, Powell helped Sollinger with his college thesis project, a science-fiction audio drama. Powell worked on some of the sound design and played the main character in the story, and the project ended up sparking a friendship between the two.

Though Powell majored in English at Syracuse, it was his time there, specifically in taking an elective studio recording class for music, in which he cultured a lifelong interest of his. He left college intent on being a sound engineer, a creative pursuit with a technical edge.

Since a young age, he remembers his mom and dad, who taught at Darlington and later was an administrator at the school, always playing music for him, and then playing on his own. It was through music that the world of sound opened up for him.

By the time he was 9, Powell was a one-man crew recording radio shows on the family computer, using the sound recorder program on Windows 95 to distort sounds.

“Working with sound has always been a constant thing in my life,” he said.

When the idea for “Archive 81” emerged, Powell had just begun hitting freelancing hard, landing gigs for location sound and studio work.

With the excitement from their apartment brainstorming session, Powell and Sollinger continued to communicate through Skype and instant messaging for months, constructing the concept of what they wanted the podcast to be. They reached a production timeline, and Sollinger began writing the scripts, with Powell offering input while determining the sound-related aspects of the podcast. Within five weeks the scripts for the 10-episode first season were done, and final revisions finished about a month after.

A major focus of the writing and production was to let the sound tell the story and describe the world of the podcast, not burdening it with extra explanatory dialogue — the sound of a door leading to a dark room opening instead of using a voice to describe this. 

With a very small budget to start, Powell and Sollinger pulled from their friends, friends of friends and Craigslist to find the right voices to fill out their cast. But in having to pay them, they did not have any money to rent a studio.

However, a friend’s apartment had the makings of a studio room, especially with some added DIY improvements. A few weekends later, recording began with about four people — all that would fit in the room — filling the makeshift studio.

The co-creators thought at the time of release, if they had around 10,000 listeners then there would be a second season. And with thousands more than that, there was a second season, then a third season, which is ongoing with new episodes released every other Wednesday.

After the first season, as word of the podcast spread, Powell said advertisers came aboard and the press took notice. Also, a Patreon page — patreon.com/archive81 — was created, letting fans support their work through donations.

The podcast is now one of two of the production company Dead Signals, started by Powell and Sollinger — their other project is “The Deep Vault.”

From the podcast’s inception as an idea freely conjured up by two friends, Powell and Sollinger have been able to make a small business of it. But it remains a side gig for both of them, though requiring much of the work of a full-time job — not so much time for happy hours with friends, Powell joked. 

Powell left behind freelancing and now works for American Public Media on a business and economics show, which runs on National Public Radio. Sollinger is an associate producer at Innovation Hub, a public radio show out of WGBH in Boston. 

When they went about making the podcast, the idea was not to make the most popular or the dominator of the top 100 podcasts chart, Powell said. It was for Powell and Sollinger to challenge themselves creatively while producing the best audio drama possible. And from that focus, new opportunities have followed, he said.

If nothing else, for those “weird and nerdy” kids like Powell was growing up, there’s an option out there to indulge their curiosities, he laughed.

The podcast can be found on Apple podcasts, Google Play or SoundCloud.