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Listen to some audio fiction podcasts already

Tired of Netflix? Allow me to suggest an entertainment medium that I, personally, benefit from.

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Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 16 2020

11 min read

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When people find out I’m involved in Arden, they have one question: What is Arden?

Once we’re past that question, they have a second question: Where did you get the idea for Arden? That’s something that I have explained here.

But then, people ask something else: So there are fiction podcasts now? And yes. Yes, there are.

To be sure, this is something that Americans ask more often than, say, the Brits, because the rich tradition of plays written for the radio has lived on in the United Kingdom, whereas it’s largely withered away and died in the US. But I am frequently struck by how many people are baffled by the notion that a podcast could be used to tell a fictional story, as though the notion had never occurred to them.

Well, allow me to be possibly the first to tell you that audio fiction podcasts are a blast, and some amazing work is being done in the format, from extremely professional shows produced by massive studios all the way down to completely independent productions made by folks like myself. You can find shows made for hundreds of thousands of dollars with actors you’ve heard of; you can find shows made for five bucks by one guy in his garage. It’s all out there, waiting for you to discover it.

So in this special edition of the newsletter, allow me to recommend five gateway audio fiction podcasts that I frequently use to get folks into the medium, then a few more that will speak to specific concerns that often keep potential fans from diving in.

After that, it’s up to you. There are hundreds upon hundreds of audio fiction podcasts to explore. If you love the taste you get from this newsletter, please follow great podcast critics like Wil Williams, Elena Fernández Collins, and David Rheinstrom to find more great shows. I’m just a dabbler. These folks are dedicated to making podcast criticism the thriving field it is.

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The cast of Arden records season one. (Credit: Emily VanDerWerff)

5 great gateway podcasts for the would-be audio fiction fan

Zero Hours: This has become the audio fiction podcast I recommend to people who are curious about the medium for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s an anthology series about seven different duos who believe they are experiencing the end of the world, scattered from the 1700s to the 2300s. Second of all, it’s beautifully acted by an all-star team of audio fiction heavy-hitters. Finally, it’s written and directed by Sarah Shachat, Gabriel Urbina, and Zach Valenti, who are some of the best in the biz. This is a great show to start with because while there’s connective tissue running between the episodes, you can pick ones that sound more interesting than others and listen out of order. Or you can listen straight through like I did! Find it here.

Limetown (season one): This one has fallen a bit in my estimation, because I wasn’t a huge fan of season two. But season one of this show — in which a radio journalist looks in to the mysterious disappearance of an entire town of people — is maybe the best “fake radio show” podcast there is, using the tropes of NPR-style investigations against you. It’s a show that boils down to something the medium does well: long conversations between two people that grow more and more tense as they go on. Season two squandered a lot of that potential, but season one is peerless, so long as you don’t mind having few answers to your questions. Find it here.

The Bright Sessions: Audio fiction tends to be a medium dominated by high concepts and big, genre-y premises, because if you want to set a story aboard a spaceship, well, you don’t need to actually build a spaceship set. You can just say you’re on one. Too often, these shows do amazing world-building but skimp on their characters, which is too bad. That’s not the case with The Bright Sessions, from audio fiction stalwart Lauren Shippen. This series, too, is a long string of conversations between two people (in this case a therapist who treats people with mysterious powers and her clients), and it slowly builds a whole world out of character interactions. It’s the kind of thing that will be amazing in the inevitable TV adaptation, while also being perfectly suited to this particular medium. Find it here.

The Big Loop: Hey, it’s another show made up of what are primarily long conversations between two people! I promise you there is a method to my selections here, which is: without actors’ faces to rely on, many people struggle to tell apart players in large ensemble casts without having a good grounding in how audio fiction works, what tropes it loves, etc. So these shows, which strip the medium down to its essence, are good places to start. Anyway, The Big Loop, from audio fiction vet Paul Bae, is an anthology where each and every episode is set out at the fringes of society, whether this one we live in now or some imagined one. (It feels, to me, like an immense influence on Zero Hours, especially.) There’s a sense of the way that we’re all connected running through the show, but also you can just appreciate it as a series of fun tales if you prefer. Find it here.

Unwell: If you’re listening to all five of these, I’d save this one for last, as I think it works best if you’re already at least somewhat familiar with how modern audio fiction works. (It’s a show that uses some of those tropes against you in fun ways.) But it’s my favorite of a wave of promising new shows that debuted in 2019, mostly because I love ghosts and this has ghosts. But it’s also a series that serves to highlight the ways that sound design has become an integral part of audio fiction in a way it wasn’t even two or three years ago. (When we launched Arden, a series that’s a fake NPR show, most shows were fake NPR shows where the sound design was mostly unfussy.) What I love about Unwell is how often you can tell where something is happening just by how it sounds. There’s a physicality to this show that feels as if it should be impossible in an audio-only space. But it’s not. Find it here.

Fine, but I want shows that aren’t hardcore genre things

Most acclaimed audio fiction podcasts tend to be sci-fi, fantasy, or horror series, because the space doesn’t exactly lend itself to kitchen sink drama unless you are an exquisitely good writer. (I keep trying.) Here are three shows that I think fall outside one of those genres and are very good.

Wooden Overcoats: It’s kind of amazing how few shows in this space are just drop-dead funny sitcoms, but Wooden Overcoats, about competing funeral directors on a fictional island off the coast of Britain, scratches that itch for me. It is very funny, with great performances and a terrific premise. Find it here.

Within the Wires: This feels like I’m stretching the limits of this particular category a lot, because there’s something very Lynchian and weird about this show, which may turn off those of you looking for something realistic. But there’s nothing quite like this show, which structures each season as a new series of recordings delivered to a different listener. Who the listener is becomes something fun to tease out. Find it here.

Harlem Queen: It’s always a bit surprising to me how little historical fiction there is in the audio fiction space, as you’d expect that to be a natural go-to. Here’s one of my favorite examples, a loose biography of a very real woman who lived during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Find it here.

Fine, but I want shows with a more naturalistic acting style

A thing you will quickly find with audio fiction is that the acting is often deliberately performative, both because that’s the standard for the medium and because it’s hard to convey emotion when we can’t see your face. Without visual cues, acting can very easily become over the top. All of the shows listed above avoid this problem, but so do these shows!

Girl in Space: I describe this to people as “sci-fi ASMR,” because it’s just so low-key pleasant to listen to. Its vibe is cozier than you’d expect for a story about a woman who’s stuck on a dying ship all alone in the middle of space… or is she all alone?? And that cozy vibe is so reliant on the acting being dry, low-key, and inviting. I also have to put this on the list because creator and star Sarah Rhea Warner hails from South Dakota like I do. Find it here.

Steal the Stars: Here’s a show where the acting can feel a little over the top and performative, but because it’s a space opera, it feels absolutely appropriate to the genre. Something working in this medium has taught me is that BIG performances can work if they match the world and emotions. Anyway, this is also written by Mac Rogers, who is one of the best in the field, so it’ll work as a great gateway to his stuff. Find it here.

Arden: Okay, I’m gonna sneak my own show on the list, but in the category where I praise myself the least. I really do think we have one of the best casts in all of audio fiction, and I’m routinely blown away by the things our actors come up with. Also, we’re a fake true-crime adaptation of Shakespeare plays! And a queer romance! And a bunch of other things! Find us here! Support us here! And here!

Fine, but I want shows that aren’t hyper-serialized

A lot of the best audio fiction shows are ones where you have to get really invested in a deeply serialized plot and a sprawling world. That’s not for everybody! So here are three shows that have intensely episodic pleasures.

The Amelia Project: If you want to disappear, you can contact The Amelia Project, and they’ll figure out a way to make it happen. I love how every episode of this show is its own intricate puzzle box. There’s a larger story going on here, but the chief delight comes from the way each episode unfolds bit by bit to reveal something new and delightful. Find it here.

Alba Salix, Royal Physician: I’m sure some people will quibble with me classifying this as not hyper-serialized, since it’s set in a fantasy kingdom and has all manner of complicated political intrigue, but the chief reason to recommend it is how funny it is and how good the character work is. You don’t really need to get super in to the world-building to enjoy this show, which makes me think it qualifies here. Find it here.

Knifepoint Horror: About as pure an anthology show as you can get, with each new episode telling a new spooky story that will genuinely frighten you. (I think I have a pretty bold constitution, and this show fucks me up from time to time.) If you want something that is purely episodic, this is your best bet. Find it here.

I already feel bad about a dozen titles I left off this list, but I wanted to give a brief introduction. (And, yes, I deliberately skewed toward stuff produced by indie creators. There’s a ton of great professionally produced stuff, too, like Wolverine and Angel of Vine and so on.) And if any of the above intrigues, their creators usually have other shows worth diving in to.

There’s so much stuff for you to listen to! I’m very jealous! You are about to have a great time! But before you go and do that…

The obligatory fundraiser moment: The Arden IndieGoGo campaign is entering its final 72 hours, and we have an amazing commitment from one of our fans: They will match every dollar we raise between now and Tuesday, February 18, at 4 pm Pacific (when our campaign ends) up to $3,400! If you can give us any money at all, that money will be doubled. Check out the campaign to see some amazing perks, like a soundtrack album, an annotated script book, and the rest of that Roger Ebert story. Thank you, all!

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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