August Saint Freytag

Concept and Experience Designer, Video and Story Artist
Best in landscape.

A Roadside Picnic

The story leading up to the creation of the Harmont Zone Radio Podcast and its premiere episode, looking into the distant past and its essential inspiration, Roadside Picnic.

One or two years before I eventually read the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1972, orig. “Пикник на обочине”) for the first time while studying art, the title had an entirely different association for me, not one in Soviet-Russian sci-fi literature but in strange audio form; an alluring interchange of dark and melancholic music, broken up with field recordings, sound experiments, and unexplained things caught in the aether; a project known by its full name as the “Roadside Picnic Radio Podcast”.

With this article, I want to give you an in on what this project meant to me, how it chaperoned me, and some of what it set in motion. This is the companion article to “A Town of Harmont”.

Original landing page on


The project was created by artist and cinematographer Joshua Zucker-Pluda and existed as a binder of episodes. When you first found the site, you’d be taken in by a monochromatic landing page, followed by a grid of artworks for each of the releases with nothing but a tiny amount of information — everything else, what it was, what was inside, or when it came out, would be a mystery. Eventually, you’d select one at random, maybe the first one, maybe the most recent one, and click play.

The episodes are between 1½ and 3 hours long. The first thing you hear is a text-to-speech voice, welcoming you with an electronic “You are listening to Roadside Picnic Radio Podcast” after which you are plunged instantly into a wave of noise, a highly distorted, lost-and-foregone-sounding radio broadcast, then fading into an opening moderation with a warm welcome. You get a few sentences about the episode’s theme and sporadically a few remarks on the project itself. What follows is an orderly rhythm of three or more tracks, sounds, and ambiences from a wide assortment of genres and sources. Between these sets, the host goes through the pieces one by one in ping-pong-order, notes artists, album titles, and publication details.

Musical genres in the episodes are hard to describe; they range from Darkwave, Dark Ambient, Slowcore (part of a genre called “Sadcore”), Dream Pop, over Post-Punk, Post-Rock, Instrumental Rock, Math Rock, Art Rock, Space Rock, and Psychedelic, to all the genres today described as “Shoegaze” and at the centre — of course — a lot of Ambient, Noise, and Experimental.

Original episode list on


At one point in its earlier history, the project described itself as a “themed monthly podcast”. Titles pick up a range of recognisable and charged terms like #1 “Melancholy/Decay”, #3 “Terror/Static”, #7 “Night/Warmth”, #9 “Trek/Ceremony”, #13 “Foreboding/Drift”, and the former end-of-the-line episode #17 “Cryptic/Occult”. A theme can apply to the backstory of selected artists, the history of a specific piece, or the sound itself and its own emotional evocation.

The podcast is unmistakably at home in the wider radius of the world of Strugatsky’s novel, though with a notable American skew of its original Eastern European cultural roots. I stop to wonder how an imagined audio project made by modern-day Georgian and Russian (the birth nationalities of the book’s authors) or neighbouring Ukrainian artists might sound next to it, what noise floors it might lay down, what kind of music they might scavenge in the ambient wilds.

A closeness to its literary role model also shows in the selection of themes, themes I cannot dissociate from how the fictional Zone feels to me, the way it feels in my heart, an intangible and deeply emotional connection to this indescribably strange place that is physically as inhospitable an earthly place could be, yet so inviting, beckoning, so restful and cozy. I can only fail to put across how much this project got me and got to me.


I first discovered Roadside Picnic around 2011 by absolute coincidence. While I was an unaware tourist in the world of field recordings, sound art (“Klangkunst”), and audio installations, I’ve had a bit of contact with some of the things that were also directly inspired by the source material in the form of a certain series of games unmistakably moulded by way of the countries at the Black Sea and was as such — to someone who grew up in Western Europe — my first proper contact with the incorporeal tristesse générale of the other half of Europe.

Swedish historian and associate professor Gudrun Persson describes how this state of mind historically took root as citizens’ lives were changed in the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the next phase [leading up to the collapse], the tristesse, the listlessness, emerges. The notion is broader than “boredom”; it is the mixture of tedium and resignation that is found in Soviet daily life, the sense of hopelessness. The tristesse was the antipode of the inflated proclamations, and grew out of the gap between the public lie, the propaganda, and the Soviet reality. […] It is the general hopelessness that spread throughout the society, a society in which the younger generation had no prospects for the future. […] Under socialist realism, the culture was supposed to foster future generations of devoted citizens. [It] was out of just this proclaimed reality, rather than true reality, that the tristesse grew.

— Gudrun Persson, Four Essays on Russia, On the Meaning of the Tristesse and the Lie, Baltic Worlds, 07/2010

There are two prominent ambassadors of this heritage to the Western world I know best; one is undoubtedly Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” (1979, Mosfilm) in its cryptically told journey of a field guide, a professor, and a writer to find a hidden room in the centre of the Zone, its story incredibly bleak and disoriented, its scenic work industrial and oppressive. The second one, released 28 years later, was my first contact in the form of the video game series STALKER (Ukrainian developer GSC game world, titles released from 2007 to 2009), a game where you take the role of one of many loners entering the Zone to find riches unique to the anomalous land — a point where the novel, Tarkovsky’s film, and GSC’s game series meet as they all describe the irresistible attraction of the Zone’s mysterious artefacts and the wishes they grant to whoever survives the indescribable forces sealing them away from an oblivious outside world.

Looking from 2009 into the present, the game series is followed by an undying mod community that has been keeping it alive for around 15 years (which can be argued is 13 years over the usually expected lifetime of a game of its type) with signs only pointing to its reinforced continuity. If we want to find half an answer to how a radio podcast created in Eastern Europe would sound like, we can take our ears to some of the most popular modifications created for these titles and the music they include. A milestone in this space is Misery and its countless successors.

When you were scrambling into a shelter from the immanent dangers of the Zone, there would be a radio sitting on a shelf, playing a moody programme interspersed with interference, all entrenched in the already heavy atmosphere of the game. It featured music from Soviet rock group Kino, energetic Russian group Lumen, the subdued tone of Low, mystifying Danish band The Rumour Said Fire, with a bit of Dire Straits and Johnny Cash, an enticing mix of tracks in Russian and English, from the rebellion-shouting “Get Free” by Major Lazer to the strums of these mist-covered mountains of “Brothers in Arms”.

This rapprochement was a gradual process, of course. We’re moving over into 2012, a year of intensifying self-expression, ill-advised decisions and oblivious goodbyes. I came back to the episodes again and again, they felt so personal that I wanted to share them with everyone. When my oldest friend and I were working for hours on prints in the darkroom, there’d be “Beauty/Memory” playing on a MacBook in the background. When my favourite house guest was sitting down with me for a night-time round of chess in our makeshift gathering place, “Storm/Weight” was brewing right beside us. When I was living in the family home of one of my best friends for a month in early 2013, we’d be working quietly side-by-side, surrounded by a bit of “Desolation/Renewal” and preparing a lot for our “Trek/Ceremony” later on. It was actually while I was there that the last episode of Roadside Picnic was released, discovered by chance on the occasional return to the site and just finding it right there, inconspicuously, like it was nothing, in the top-left tile, “Cryptic/Occult”. Some of the mornings, when everyone was out of the house but me, I would practice “Für Alina” (1976, Arvo Pärt) on the piano in their living room, inspired solely by the eerie #11 “Bleak/Lost”. The specific style used for that track (“tintinnabuli”) led me to a quote of the composer, I’d like to include here, one that spiritually seems to fit with my own view of the project and how it accompanied me.

“In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises — and everything that is unimportant falls away.”

— Arvo Pärt (from Richard E. Rodda, liner notes for Arvo Pärt Fratres, I Fiamminghi, The Orchestra of Flanders, Rudolf Werthen)

A high point I vividly remember when all of this came together was soon after I had just started at university, buying a used copy of the novel and reading Roadside Picnic while listening to Roadside Picnic. Thinking back to these years, it was a comfort, a retreat, a strange resonance… it was great.

Cut Off

And then, the site went quiet. I still made my occasional trips to the site to check for something new, any message or announcements, like I had many times, ever since I first found it. I re-listened to the whole catalogue many times, took related artists and records from it. Every once in a while, there would be a hint of music somewhere that made me think of it, that seemed to carry that same kind of mood and feeling. In 2015, episodes 1–10 disappeared from the list and the site itself followed soon after. In 2017, a new landing page appeared, announcing an episode archive and marking the project’s lifetime as 2005–2013.

Over the course of these years, I was on my own trek of a steady sentimental decline and that was reflected in my musical taste I today dub “The Muted Years”. A diverse mix of modern indie music began melting down into what was more and more slowcore, ambience, and noise. The evolution went from Boards of Canada, Mogwai, and Sigur Rós, alongside soundtrack and non-soundtrack compilations of Max Richter, The Album Leaf, Helios, the million albums of 36, Caspian, Joy Wants Eternity, Arms and Sleepers, Brian McBride, The American Dollar, the deeply touching music of Deaf Center, 65daysofstatic, Maybeshewill, Fennesz, Explosions in the Sky, and the amazing Godspeed You! Black Emperor, then sent off into the abyss with Stars of the Lid only followed by hour-long recordings of wind and thunderstorm sounds and terminating eventually in nothing but brown noise. From lively, aggressive riffs, I fell off into the calm and quiet, vocals disappearing entirely, until only a base floor of generated noise remained. And no episode archive ever came.


The idea of trying to create my own spin-off project has been there for quite a while. Harmont Zone is the shape this takes after years of listening to the original Roadside Picnic episodes, spreading out from individual tracks and featured records, then years of distance after they were no longer available. In a way, it is a procession, a public ceremony, without invading the territory of the original or trying to outright continue where it left off in different handwriting — it is more a re-imagination than a sequel or a remake, so what I am inviting you to listen to now is a pristine first episode of my own view of the Zone, like a weathered tape that was carried from its heart to the outskirts, passed on from stalker to stalker.

Closing Remarks

On the side, I’d like to note a few noteworthy events that were left out of the main story but still deserve a remark.

  1. With eight years of suspension, original creator Joshua Zucker-Pluda emerged and delivered episode 18 “Entropy/Rebirth” of Roadside Picnic in 2021 when outlining and track selection on the project were already underway (at crawling pace). I was demotivated to go through with it for some time but picked it back up by a matter of mood and atmosphere around Christmastime of 2021 with end-of-the-year/end-of-the-world sentiment on my mind.

  2. Thanks to an exchange with a few users from Reddit, I do have access to the old episodes again, so that wish has been fulfilled by now. The updated site at still has no episode archive, so the only publicly available episodes are the last #18 and its preceding #17 as an upload on Soundcloud.