Radio Dramas Aren’t Just for the 1930s Anymore
8 podcasts to listen to when you want to read a good book but your hands are full
Formerly considered a relic of the Golden Age of Radio, the Golden Age of the Podcast has tamed the audio drama back into something we can all listen to with ease. Here, we’ve collected eight radio fictions that offer a different kind of story experience—one that makes use of a sense not usually engaged while reading, and more importantly, one you can take in while also holding ice cream cones in both hands. Some of the best radio dramas on this list are clearly inspired by “real-life” investigative narratives like Serial, and it’s interesting to witness another way nonfiction styles inform fiction. For writers, too, there’s a lot we can learn from radio dramas — particularly how they use restricted settings, dialogue, and noise to suspend our disbelief.
So eat your two ice creams, and let the story tell itself to you.
This fictional podcast, which the Guardian describes as the hybrid between Serial and X-Files, concerns twin disappearances. First, 327 people disappeared from Limetown, Tennessee—and then, the mystery itself disappeared into the 24-hour news cycle. It is ten years later, and Lia Haddock, the investigative reporter for APR, American Public Radio, is now working to uncover what happened. It’s an unnervingly realistic dramatization — the production is so good, I kept having to check and make sure this was really fiction. There’s even a prequel novel being published by Simon & Schuster out in November this year.
This was my introduction (and many people’s introduction!) to the concept that radio drama was not exclusively an Orson Welles production. “Welcome to Night Vale” was started in 2012 and has grown into an untamable beast. There are novels and world tours and hundreds of episodes about the town of Night Vale “where every conspiracy is true.” Each episode is a news and community update. It’s a fascinating podcast series to dip in and out of when you want to think about the difference between news and storytelling. It’s also overwhelming to think about where to start, but because the episodes don’t have to be totally linear — “Time is weird, so your listening experience can be, too,” they write — the folks at Welcome to Night Vale have put together a neat Starter Pack for bouncing through some of the best episodes.
A young linguist/reporter Nicky Tomalin wants to become a low-level intern for a cryptography consultation group run by Dr. Robin Lyons and Professor Ty Waldman, but only if they’ll let her produce a podcast about their work decoding a message from outer space received 70 years ago. She calls to pitch the offer, and is promptly told to get on a train and meet them at their office. This another show that is so well produced, the acting so well done, the reporting so fun, I had to keep reminding myself it was not another season of Serial.
From Radiotopia (the folks who produce 99% Invisible, Song Exploder, Love + Radio, The Kitchen Sisters, etc.), this podcast uses sound to create narrative tension, dimensionality, and characterization in ways that are very short-story-like. In the episode “That’s Democracy” an unhinged teacher forces his students to interrogate what representative democracy looks like when representation means choosing violence. (Listening to this one in a year riddled with gun violence was really difficult for me, so proceed to that particular episode with caution.) And in a recent episode,“Fish Girl,” a girl finds a friend in a puffer fish. Because apparently in 2018 women ❤ fish?
In this complex radio drama, political corruption ravages the fictional civilization of Tumanbay. This is the pick for Game of Thrones fans who want more LGBTQ romance in their entertainment empires. (And shouldn’t that mean all Game of Thrones fans?)
As Angelica Cabral writes in Slate, what makes so many of these radio dramas interesting is what they do with setting. Most radio dramas remain committed to one contained setting — a reporter’s basement, or a classroom. In “The Bright Sessions,” the creators made the space restriction one of the central motivators for the plot of the series. Each story consists of psychologist Dr. Bright’s recordings of her sessions for her “strange and unusual” patients—people with superpowers. She’s recorded her sessions for “research purposes.” The acting on the early episodes is a bit overdone but smooths out and is worth a listen.
Ghosts are perfect for radio dramas because, in my opinion, the best ghosts are the ones you can’t see but can only hear. The Black Tapes is a docudrama that follows Alex Reagan, a journalist investigating Dr. Richard Strand — the ghost hunter who refuses to believe in ghosts. Reagan discovers Dr. Strand has a collection of Strand’s cases around mysterious Black VHS tapes. A very ’90s DIY horror stage for a ghost story.
For the zombie enthusiasts! “We’re Alive” is a more traditional production of a radio drama — with chapters and a smooth, baritone narrator who carries us from episode to episode. Each episode is part of a larger diary former Army Reserve Soldier Michael Cross keeps to record the zombie apocalypse ravaging Los Angeles. The first episode aired in 2009. It’s another one with a lot of episodes primed for bingeing, if zombie apocalypses are your thing.