About a year ago, I stumbled on my first audio-drama podcast, a fictional story told over a series of episodes and seasons. I occasionally cringed at some awkward voice-acting, but mostly, I was intrigued by this new experiment in story-telling. Or maybe more a return to a rather old way of storytelling. It was with the first episode of Limetown that I remember thinking, “Wow, this is going to be big!”
Two years later, okay, audio-drama podcasts haven’t exactly exploded in popularity, but some recent podcasts have reignited my certainty that this genre is going places! It’s a medium to watch—you heard it here first! (Though they’ve got to find a better way to market it than, “Television for your ears.” I’m looking at you, Tanis.)
Where to jump in? After stalking the fiction podcasts on iTunes over the past couple years, below are my top 5 recommendations as of July 2017.
Heidi was a psychologist in an experimental program for re-acclimating veteran soldiers into civilian life. Now, she’s hiding out as a waitress. This psychological thriller weaves together what happened.
One of the biggest flaws of most fiction podcasts is inconsistent acting and dialogue that doesn’t quite land as natural. Homecoming is a signpost that the game is being upped in the audio-drama world with its stellar cast of TV and movie actors. Caroline Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, and others deliver amazing performances that take this genre from amateur fun to the next level. Another podcast, Bronzeville, has followed suit, starring Laurence Fishburne, Larenz Tate, and Tika Sumpter and is next on my list to try. With this kind of talent coming into the playing field, I’m wondering if we might see some pay-to-listen podcasts in the future, but for now, we’re getting these excellent performances for free.
A series of taped therapy sessions with individuals struggling with supernatural abilities. But what, exactly, is their therapist up to? I’m currently in the middle of Season 1 of The Bright Sessions and am not surprised to find out it’s won multiple podcast awards. The acting is great, the characters are interesting, and I’m intrigued to unfurl the larger plot that’s being hinted at. You may notice there’s no production company. The actress who plays Sam is also the creator, writer, producer, social media maven, and on and on, which is the most enchanting thing I’ve ever heard (can I too make my own podcast story? hmm…). I admit, this one took me a little while to get into because the first few episodes feel disjointed, jumping between three different patients. But give it a few episodes, an easy feat as they’re each around 15 minutes long, and you’ll start getting pulled in to the different stories and the mystery of whether their therapist is really in this to help patients.
What starts as a piece on ghost hunting leads a journalist to the enigmatic founder of an organization dedicated to debunking the paranormal. While he’s exposed most of the cases sent his way as having rational explanations, there are a series of cases he hasn’t (yet?) been able to debunk, nicknamed, “the black tapes.”
While this podcast has its flaws—inconsistent acting, dialogue that swings between sounding natural and scripted, exciting moments being told after the fact to accommodate the narrative tool of it being a podcast—this one gripped me and pulled me along the story unlike any other. It’s reminiscent of the X-Files and its episodes range from cool and spooky (like Episode 103, “The Unsound,” about a piece of music said to kill a person within one year after listening to it) to ones that gave me the real creeps (like Episode 104, “Turn That Frown Upside Down” about a murder straight out of an urban legend). If you like your podcasts to deliver the chills and thrills and can overlook the slightly amateur quality, I’d highly recommend the Black Tapes.
While following the trail of her missing friend, a woman with a troubled past stumbles into a secret, dangerous game. Is it the key to finding her friend, or a path toward a similar fate?
I love the premise of this podcast, with its secret society of players and clues hidden in real life to follow. There are definite flaws in its execution: jumps in logic I didn’t quite buy and a lack of explanation for how the narrator found out about the supposedly highly secret game in the first place. You should also prepare for a Matrix-esque turn I would have been more prepared for if I’d read the podcast’s description rather than jumping in blindly. Despite that, it definitely kept me engaged and had a thought-provoking ending to its Season 1. It’s nice to have a first season wrap up in such a way that the podcast could continue or feel satisfyingly complete.
Ten years ago, the entire population of a small town in Tennessee disappeared, a case that mystified a nation. Investigative reporter, Lia Haddock, begins to poke around as part of a podcast, only to find the case isn’t cold and she may have gotten into something beyond what she’s capable of handling.
Limetown has perhaps one of the strongest starts to an audio-drama I’ve ever heard. In the wake of Serial’s flash popularity, Limetown used it as a framework with a fictional story instead of a real-life one. Supposedly, there was supposed to be a Season 2, but the podcast got a book deal and started developing a TV pilot, which has delayed the production. The last episode was released in December 2015, so to say they’ve been distracted from the original form of the story is an understatement. Time will tell if this was a good call, as the podcast has largely fallen off people’s radar and new innovation and talent in the genre may make a return less exciting. That said, it’s absolutely worth a listen and, who knows, you may soon be seeing this “television for your ears” presentation on your actual television.
What do you think? Have you listened to any of the above? Feel I’ve missed a gem? Share in the comments below!