Once upon a time, they were called radio dramas, and everyone tuned in. But television killed them off. Now they’re back in the form of fiction podcasts, which you can listen to whenever you want, wherever you are. The return of audio fiction storytelling was initially led by a DIY cottage industry, but as it’s become more popular, it’s become more corporate. Bigger entertainment companies have brought along marketing pull and star power — resulting in podcasts like Gimlet Media’s Homecoming, which starred Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac, and QCODE’s Blackout, featuring Rami Malek.
Radiotopia’s Passenger List is the product of these new ambitions. It’s a serialized fiction podcast series that revolves around a flight that goes missing over the Atlantic and the stories of the people onboard. While the show has an overarching mystery, each episode will focus on a different passenger on the plane, with a cast featuring Kelly Marie Tran (who played Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as the lead, along with Colin Morgan, Rob Benedict, and Patti LuPone in supporting roles. It’s the creation of John Scott Dryden, who wrote the fantastic BBC radio-drama epic Tumanbay as well as the 2016 podcast sci-fi thriller LifeAfter, and is co-written and co-directed by Lauren Shippen, whose independent fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions, has earned her a devout following since its creation in 2015.
Shippen describes the show as a “kind of ripped-from-the-headlines” thing. “Passenger List is very much based off the various flights that have disappeared over the past ten years — some of which were later found, some of which stayed mysteriously vanished,” she says. “But when I came on the project, John Dryden and I started conceptualizing the show as a study of grief. Particularly through Kelly’s character, Kaitlin Le, who’s working through the grief of losing her brother on the flight by trying to solve the mystery of its disappearance.”
That approach also required attention to authenticity. When Tran joined the project, she and Shippen worked to build the character around the performer, a collaboration that was new for both of them. Tran says she felt strongly about having Kaitlin “feel the way a lot of kids from immigrant families do, who have a sort of in-between language that goes in and out of English and Vietnamese.” The two sat down and went through every single script together. “That was really cool for me as an actress to have a chance to do that,” says Tran. “A lot of times when you’re working on bigger projects, there isn’t really time or the freedom to do that.”
The actress found the podcast form both focusing and liberating. “It felt like doing a play, in a weird and fun way,” she says. “You don’t have all these cameras on you, so you don’t have to do the same scene 20 million times to get coverage. You’re really just focusing on the performance and the voice.”
The big picture: “It’s a look at how the chaos of today’s world makes it harder to grieve,” says Shippen. “How do you work on connecting with people and being a person in the world when you’re also worrying about things like global terrorism and the environmental crisis?”
Passenger List premieres September 16.
*This article appears in the September 2, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
More From Fall Preview
- The Best Classical Music Performances to See This Fall
- Anthony Roth Costanzo Is the Pharaoh We Need
- The Canadian Cree Artist Remixing History in the Met’s Great Hall