Late last fall, a strange voicemail popped up on Alia Tavakolian’s cellphone. It was an automated female voice saying, “Goodbye from Yahoo.” It’s the kind of message you receive when you’ve permanently shut down your account or when it’s been hacked. No cause for alarm.
Unless, of course, you’re about to start tracking down some of the world’s best hackers — the case for Tavakolian, who was in the early reporting and production phase for the podcast Breach, a Spoke Media production that hit the internet Monday.
“I got chills; I was freaked out,” Tavakolian says.
When she called the number back, another automated message told her that she received the voicemail because someone had attempted to access her account. She hadn’t thought about her Yahoo email address since she was a teenager.
“Like most people in the world, it was my entry point into the internet," she says. "And we realized pretty quickly that this moment — that voicemail — was the entry point into the story.”
Just like that, Tavakolian moved from the producer booth to behind the mic. With her co-host, cybersecurity journalist Bob Sullivan, she serves as the journeywoman on this adventure into the unwieldy and sometimes scary world of internet breaches.
Tavakolian fell into the world of podcast production sideways. She graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in theater in 2012 with the vision of opening a theater company that would operate in surprising spaces throughout Dallas. And she did. Davis Street Collective, which launched with a Tavakolian-directed production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, garnered favorable critical attention. But like many small companies running on the gumption of a few young people, it fell by the wayside in pursuit of other projects. Tavakolian was a co-founder of the wildly popular Shakespeare in the Bar series.
Her actor friend Josh Kumler, who at the time was running the performative talk show Bar Politics, first introduced her to the world of podcasting. He invited her on to, as she put it, “come talk about tacos on a mic.” She didn't know Kumler was working with Keith Reynolds, the CEO and founder of Spoke Media, to test Tavakolian’s talent on mic.
“Alia showed up one day in late 2015 for a podcast audition that she didn't know was a podcast audition,” Reynolds says. “When she started speaking, everyone in the room was like, 'That is the voice of a podcast star.’”
Reynolds hired her to narrate an audiobook on the spot. At the time, audiobooks were a majority of Spoke’s business, which last year transitioned into primarily podcasts. But Tavakolian says starting with the audition, she was hooked. She pitched herself to Reynolds and his then business partner Lindsay Graham as a full-time employee. It wasn’t long before she took over the audiobooks department. When Graham split from the company in 2017, Reynolds hired her to be his new business partner. Today, Tavakolian is a co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Spoke Media.
“We both are passionate about creating killer stories and audio and giving a microphone to people who don’t normally get it,” Tavakolian says. “I love the world of podcasts right now. It’s the Wild West — there are no rules.”
Breach has changed Tavakolian’s life, especially the way she uses the internet.
“When I started reporting this show, all my passwords were the same,” Tavakolian says. “And I thought the word hacker was synonymous with crime because of Mr. Robot.”
The security software company Carbonite and the podcast network Midroll first approached Spoke with the idea to produce a podcast about data breaches. Tavakolian says her first thought was of the Ashley Madison debacle, in which hackers blackmailed users of the website, a hub for people interested in extramarital affairs, with the threat of making their actions public.
“Because sex,” Tavakolian laughs.
They focused on Yahoo, the biggest data breach in history. In 2014, the email server that millions of people joined in the early aughts was hacked. But this news wasn’t made public until 2016, and in the last few months, the breach has been tied to Russian meddling, resulting in the first federal indictment related to this kind of internet crime. When production on the show began last fall, no one knew how increasingly relevant this show would become.
“We’re scrambling to keep up with our push notifications and figuring out how to put them in the show last minute,” Tavakolian says. “Bob and I have gone on this detective journey to figure out what it all means.”
The suspenseful journey includes interviews with some of the world’s best hackers, potential blackmail, phone calls to a California prison, Russian conspiracy and a host of other reasons to arm yourself with a password keeper. At one point in production, two hackers pulled out of the project. One of them broke into Spoke’s computer system and wiped the audio of the interview. Tavakolian had a back-up, but on the company computers, it was like the audio never existed.
“At this point, we’ve been hacked,” Tavakolian says. “It’s funny because we’re doing a show about breaches, and suddenly we’re breached and subsequently have to learn how to deal with breaches.”
Tavakolian worked closely with Janielle Kastner, a Dallas-based playwright, to weave these narrative lines together. Kastner was the first to identify the natural chemistry of Sullivan and Tavakolian on the mic and suggest they co-host the show.
“Bob is the tech journalist. He knows everything. Alia represents us. She’ll ask what exactly is a breach and is it different from a hack and is different from an incident. The whole system is designed so the consumers don’t actually know because if they did, they would be scared,” Kastner says. “One of the things Alia says the most often is, ‘Oh my god, that’s terrifying.’ She represents what I think the audience will feel.”
These days, Tavakolian has more than one password for her various accounts and keeps a better eye out for potential security threats. But even in light of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data sweep, she has no plans to join the #deletefacebook movement.
“It’s not hashtag delete your email, hashtag delete your Twitter,” Tavakolian says. “It’s how do we regulate these tools on the Internet. They are the internet.”
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.