Long before there were Netflix shows for the bingeing, or Reddit or Insta for the scrolling, the primary medium for entertainment was the radio. To be sure people gathered around their Magnavox or RCA to listen to a bit of jazz or big band music or for one of FDR’s comforting Fireside Chats, but most exciting for many “having a listen” were the radio plays of the 1930s and 40s.
Through sound effects, voice acting, narration, and music, these carefully produced dramatic audio programs, performed live at the time, made the best possible use of their medium to tell short stories that gripped their audiences with every bit of the power that a show like The Queen’s Gambit or Game of Thrones does today. Though the 1930s, 40s, and to some extent the 50s are often called “The Golden Age of Radio,” far from an antiquated medium, the fictional audio drama (or comedy) is enjoying a great resurgence today in the form of the fictional podcast.
What separates a radio play of yore from a fictional podcast of the present? There’s the obvious difference that in the past you needed to gather around a radio at a specific time to listen to the program whereas today you can enjoy a fiction podcast any time and anywhere and via myriad devices. Then there’s, like, how…
Actually, that’s basically it. Like a great radio play of the past, the best fiction podcasts of today use sounds, music, dialogue, and narration to tell stories ranging from the charmingly mundane to the fanciful and fantastic sci-fi to the harrowing to the comfortingly maudlin. Perhaps the only real difference beyond how you listen today vs. in the past is to how much you can now listen: There is a surfeit of fiction
Or at least it would have been were you not already here reading about a few of the best fiction podcasts to “listen in” to right now.
Solve: A Murder Mystery Podcast
Each episode of this true crime-style podcast draws the listener into a fictional tale rife with deception, death, intrigue, and mystery. Even as you enjoy the story unfolding, you are tasked with trying to figure out who the real criminal is, who the hapless victim, who’s to be trusted, and who’s not. SOLVE episodes range from around 40 minutes to as short as 20, and all are sure to please fans of the crime drama genre.
Welcome To Night Vale: A Dark Comedy Sci-Fi Podcast
This often hilarious podcast makes perfect use of the aural medium by presenting itself in the form of a small town radio news show. The stories are told in the form of weather updates, police reports, advertisements, city council minutes, and more. What the stories tend to contain, however, are tales of mysterious unidentified lights in the sky, bizarre figures flitting about in the shadows at night, “soul-reaping, malevolent” spirits, and more. The deadpan delivery of the often wild tales only adds to the humor. It’s almost like watching a sci-fi series on Netflix, but with your ears.
Wooden Overcoats: A Grim Sit-Com Podcast
Six Feet Under proved a family funeral parlor could make a great backdrop for a comedic TV show. “Wooden Overcoats” proves the same is true for podcasts. This satirical program, winner of a British Podcast Award and Best of iTunes recognition, sees two rival funeral homes pitted against one another to stay in business, and in the business of death, sometimes murder is part of the plan.
Love and Luck: “Australia’s First LGBT Drama Podcast”
Tired of crime and sci-fi and fantasy and other such wackiness in your fiction podcasts? Then this charming little tale of two guys falling in love and making a go of a relationship in current-day Melbourne is your antidote. The stories are told in the form of swapped voicemails, many of which run on and on in cringe-worthy awkwardness that’s all too relatable for anyone who has ever been in the early phase of a relationship.
The Truth: The Short Story Podcast
Not looking for a long series that you’ll need to listen to in sequence over many an hour? Then this podcast is perfect for you. Each “episode” is a standalone piece, an audio short story/short play, so you can listen to any of them any time. Most podcasts are a bit less than half an hour, the perfect amount of time for a run, for dinner prep, or to make your commute an aural pleasure.
THE MAGNUS ARCHIVES – Weekly Horror Podcast
Join Jonathan Sims as he does his work pouring through the archives of the Magnus Institute, “an organization dedicated to researching the esoteric and the weird.” He’ll find plenty of dark, twisted things within and soon find himself part of the story, and you’re headed into this dark fantasy world alongside. Podcasts range from a half hour to nearly hour-long programs.
Voyage To The Stars: Space Comedy Podcast
The year is 2263 and a hapless team of earthling explorers have found themselves on the wrong side of the universe thanks to an ill-planned trip through a wormhole. The characters are dramatic and silly, the stories overwrought in the best possible way, and anyone who loves the space opera genre with a tongue-in-cheek twist.
The Amelia Project: Mystery and Comedy Unite
Remember the Schwarzenegger movie Eraser? If not, that’s OK, it’s about a B or B- grade film for the A+ action star (and all around good guy governor). This amusing dark comedy podcast is centered on the same premise: an agency that fakes clients’ deaths and sets them up with a new life. Sure, it’s been done, but not like this. Clients include national politicians, former cult leaders, and even stranger figures who need to start over.
Homecoming: A Deep Psychological Dive
Now more than a half decade old, this pioneering podcast remains fresh and gripping. Made featuring voice talent from Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, Amy Sedaris, and David Cross, among others, the story, told via dialogue between a psychologist and patient, phone calls, eavesdropped conversations, and more tells the story of troubled soldier trying to transition back to civilian life. The audio program was so good it spawned a TV series produced by Amazon.
Wolverine: A Marvel Podcast
You’ve read the comic books, you’ve seen the movies, now enjoy your favorite Marvel superhero semi-antihero, Wolverine (AKA Logan), via rich audio tapestry in this dark quest podcast. This is the first scripted podcast from Marvel and will be a thrill to those who love the classic character but is also a fine mystery even for those unacquainted with mutant lore but who love a good story. The first season is set in bleak, frosty Alaska, the second in the depths of the Louisiana bayou.
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