Podcasts are one of the fastest–growing forms of media in recent years. According to a CBS News poll, two–thirds of Americans listen to podcasts, and the New York Times reports that nearly one–third do so regularly. This is a far cry from a few years ago, when podcasts were a largely niche genre.
I absolutely love podcasts. While working in a lab last summer, I listened to podcasts for nearly 7–8 hours every day. Most of what I listen to are fiction podcasts—everything from spellbinding, serialized narratives to the ever–growing selection of Dungeons & Dragons–based podcasts. However, I'm continuously surprised by how few people in my life know anything about the wide world of fiction podcasts.
When perusing through lists of the most downloaded podcasts, it's easy to observe trends in genre and content. Apple’s list of the top downloaded podcasts of 2018 is dominated by daily news podcasts (The Daily, Fresh Air, Up First), commentary podcasts (The Joe Rogan Experience, The Dave Ramsey Show, Chelsea Handler: Life Will be the Death of Me, Office Ladies), educational podcasts (Stuff You Should Know, Ted Talks Daily, This American Life), politics (The Ben Shapiro Show, Pod Save America), and true crime podcasts (My Favorite Murder, Crime Junkie, The Thing About Pam, Dateline NBC). All of these are in some way rooted in nonfiction. Even when I checked the “Top Shows” list on the Apple Podcasts app while writing this article, there was not a single fiction podcast to be found.
Fiction podcasts harken back to the advent of radio dramas, popularized in the 1930s. However, they also represent a new form of storytelling, with its own form and genre conventions. Oftentimes, fiction podcasts become well–known because they are adapted for mainstream media, like film or television. Gimlet Media’s podcast Homecoming became the Amazon Prime television series starring Julia Roberts. The original podcast starred Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer.
Two–Up Productions’ podcast Limetown will soon be adapted into a Facebook Watch series starring Jessica Biel. Even Welcome to Night Vale, a veritable behemoth within the fiction podcast industry, has expanded to side novels, live shows, and is set to become an FX television series. While it's exciting that these podcasts are successful enough to warrant adaptations, it's a shame that people rarely appreciate them in their original audio forms. Their virtues are not appreciated until they have “broken free” into television, novels, or film. The goal of this creative medium should not be to ultimately escape the podcast format.
Fiction podcasts make creative use of an audio–only medium. Radiotopia’s Passenger List, which was the top fiction podcast on Apple Podcasts at the time of writing this article, is recorded on iPhone and phone lines to give it a distorted and disorienting effect. Passenger List also has a star–studded cast, featuring Kelly Marie Tran of Star Wars fame and Broadway legend Patti LuPone.
Welcome to Night Vale deals with surrealism, absurdism, and conspiracy in a way that is compounded by the lack of a visual reference. Similarly, Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives, a horror podcast, explores themes of cosmic horror and eldritch beings. These creatures are unfathomable to the human eye, which works very well in an audio–only medium. Hello from the Magic Tavern is a comedy podcast featuring interviews with fictional magical characters. Fantasy shows such as the Dungeons & Dragons–inspired The Adventure Zone, thrive in this audio–only medium because fans can visualize the fantasy in their heads. Fantasy thrives off of audience imagination, and these podcasts take advantage of that.
These podcasts also feature diverse representation. Many characters on podcasts like Welcome To Night Vale or The Adventure Zone identify as LGBTQ. The narrator and main character of Welcome to Night Vale, radio host Cecil, is gay, and much of the show follows his infatuation and relationship with his eventual husband Carlos. Similarly, the creators of The Adventure Zone, the McElroy family, feature multiple LGBT couples and characters. This feels refreshing, as this type of representation is still rare in mainstream film and television.
Fiction podcasts may not have the largest audiences, but the fans they have are deeply loyal and passionate. Many podcasts such as The Adventure Zone and Welcome to Night Vale got their audience through word of mouth and fan work. The spin–off novels for these podcasts were New York Times Best Sellers. The acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons–based podcast Critical Role started a Kickstarter for an animated project, and it raised nearly nine million dollars in just five weeks, breaking Kickstarter’s record for the most funded film or TV project. Clearly, audiences are invested in these shows.
It’s time for podcast listeners to give the fictional world a try. It’s full of diversity, amazing voice actors, and beautifully crafted stories, and it's a brand new form of storytelling. Scroll through the fiction genre on your podcast app—you never know what world you may end up in.