Far from being a mere revival of radio dramas from days of yore, contemporary fiction podcasts have become vibrant sites of experimentation. They’re been around since the medium’s earliest years, at first mostly as shaggy affairs for fans of horror and science fiction. But the form really came into its own in the 2010s — particularly with the rise of Welcome to Night Vale, which radically sharpened the genre’s sensibilities and inspired a wave of similarly inclined creators.
These days, the overarching trend seems dictated by the inevitable march of Hollywood participation. Fiction podcasts are rich (and relatively cheap) sources of intellectual property for adaptation, which various entertainment companies are making the most of by betting they can convert cult audio shows into hit movies and TV series.
Fiction podcasts are a varied genre filled with self-actualizing writers, supremely talented improvisers, and various upstarts looking for a way into the broader entertainment industry. And they offer perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of how podcasting can capture both listeners’ imaginations and a growing industry’s dollars.
Welcome to Night Vale
You can’t really overemphasize Welcome to Night Vale’s importance to the genre. The fiction podcast that launched a million other fiction podcasts, Night Vale has also served a crucial meta-role as a vital champion and advocate for the genre. Created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the series takes the shape of a recurring community radio show broadcasting out of a desert town where every conspiracy theory is true. It’s a simple premise, but one that’s gone on to foster a massive and obsessive following, a robust touring operation, several spinoff books set within the universe, and millions upon millions of downloads. It’s the type of show that inspires passion, extrapolation, loyalty; it’s also a show that may well prove to be Simpsons-esque in its longevity. Seven years in, it continues to string out new story lines, explore new themes and ideas, and unlock new corners of the town.
There’s power in variety. Over numerous seasons, Jonathan Mitchell’s fiction anthology podcast — emulating the power of a prolific book publisher — has pumped out various kinds of stories from a wide range of genres, whether it’s a horrifying civics lesson (“That’s Democracy”), a Hollywood neo-noir featuring a fitness trainer (“The Body Genius”), or a parable on the Me Too movement revolving around a TV host who was accused on-air (“The Off Season”). The Truth is a workhorse that’s continuously riffing on the fundamentals of audio fiction. More broadly, the series serves as a reliable presence in a genre that can cycle in and out of projects fairly quickly.
The first season of Limetown packed in a ton of fiction-podcast tropes common throughout the 2014–2016 stretch: the core found-footage conceit (think Blair Witch Project, but with a voice recorder), the building up toward a larger X-Files-esque mythology (mysterious town! Secret experiments!), the gimmick of the narrator’s being a faux public-radio reporter (that’s American Public Radio), and so on. But the podcast pulled all those expected pieces together to pleasing effect, going on to attract a cult following and score its creators, Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, a shot at Hollywood. The TV adaptation, starring Jessica Biel, is set to premiere on Facebook Watch later this month.
Before Julia Roberts’s fabulous bangs there was Catherine Keener’s fabulously reserved voice performance and sizzling chemistry with Oscar Isaac. And before there was Sam Esmail’s Emmy-nominated Amazon show last year, there was Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s podcast, the first season of which followed a caseworker at a mysterious facility attending to a military veteran returning from war. Much like the TV show it generated, Homecoming the podcast was a puzzle-box mystery that slowly sprawls outward to reveal a bigger picture. While the second season ultimately went off the rails, Homecoming was nonetheless Gimlet Media’s first stab at fiction and one of the genre’s original attempts to answer the question “What if we stocked a podcast with major celebrities?” The answer, perhaps unexpectedly: It’ll be really good.
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
Accurately described as “The Goonies meets Spy Kids meets Stranger Things,” this Peabody Award–winning serialized mystery illustrates the dramatic possibilities that podcasting holds for kids’ programming. With solid scripting and a wonderful cast led by Jaiya Chetram, Mars Patel offers up the joys and sense of adventure that you’d expect from, say, the golden age of Nickelodeon. It’s still really early days for kids’ podcasts, but Mars Patel’s DNA is a road map for the subgenre’s future.
Hello From Magic Tavern
So there’s this guy who fell through a portal at the back of Burger King, which landed him in a magical world called Foon, and now he hosts a weekly podcast in a tavern with a wizard and a badger. That’s pretty much all you need to know about this long-form improv-comedy podcast, which takes the idea of both “long-form” and “improv” to new heights. The magic of Magic Tavern primarily lies in the scale of the improvisational world-building it’s been facilitating since day one, populating Foon with an ever-deepening well of characters, details, histories. It’s not the easiest show to pick up, which is why you should probably start at the beginning, but if it turns out to be your jam, you have an entire world in front of you.
The Bright Sessions
You can’t beat a strong elevator pitch, and The Bright Sessions has an all-time banger: It’s “The X-Files meets In Treatment.” Lauren Shippen’s science-fiction podcast, which revolves around a (fairly mysterious) therapist’s sessions with various supernaturally oriented patients, is a vehicle for excellent character studies and the uncanny thrills you get when juxtaposing the ordinary with the extraordinary. The podcast, which wrapped last summer, ultimately featured an overarching mythology that grew increasingly complex across its four-season run, but it always stayed grounded and focused on its characters all the way to its satisfying finish.
Alice Isn’t Dead
Joseph Fink’s love letter to Americana in general — and road trips specifically — is a creepy, pulpy delight. Centering on the odyssey of a truck driver in search of her missing wife, Alice Isn’t Dead is rich in mood, atmosphere, and imagery, eventually ramping up into a grander mythological parable about revolution and personal action. Much like The Bright Sessions, this show is a fine example of how fiction podcasts can be the ideal platform for authorial vision.
I have a sneaking suspicion that among a certain kind of narratively oriented podcast and radio producer, Ross Sutherland may be some sort of icon. Imaginary Advice is Sutherland’s laboratory for various experiments in audio fiction, full of strange excursions and sublime turns of phrases. A particularly good representative of what Imaginary Advice is all about can be found in an episode called “S.E.I.N.F.E.L.D.,” in which (a presumably fictional version of) Sutherland tries to train a program to do stand-up comedy, only for the loop to end up in an existentially depressing place. Nothing’s ever really joyful in Imaginary Advice, but it’s always at least slightly beautiful.
Wolverine: The Long Night
The opportunity couldn’t be more straightforward — take one of the more famous characters in the Marvel universe and give him a podcast. I’ll be honest: When I first heard about the project, I didn’t think very much of it, assuming it to be a shrewd piece of business and not much more. But The Long Night turned out to be significantly better than I could have ever expected. Featuring some truly excellent sound design, an innovative take on the gritty police drama, and a fantastic Richard Armitage performance as the cigar-chomping Canadian mutant, The Long Night is a wildly successful aural adaptation of a Marvel property. It is also, quite possibly, a harbinger of similar things to come, a stepping-stone toward a podcasting future with a whole lot more IP-inspired projects.