Nearly 80 years have gone by since Orson Welles’ audio drama “The War of the Worlds” premiered on CBS, back when CBS was a radio network and not a TV station. While entirely fictional, Welles’ show was edited to sound like a newsreel. As the legend goes, the broadcast was so widely listened to and believed to be true that it caused mass hysteria, leading many people to think that Earth was at the mercy of a real-life alien invasion.
It’s a phenomenon that’s not entirely behind us. Video may have killed the radio star (and the Internet may have killed video), but a new form of audio entertainment has met and even surpassed the popularity of golden-age radio dramas: podcasts. According to the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of Americans age 12 or older say they have listened to a podcast in the past month. Their rise in popularity is relatively new; Libsyn, a widely-used podcast hosting service, reports that there were 3.3 billion requests for downloads in 2015, more than double the number in 2012.
Much of the success of podcasts can be attributed to long-running radio shows like “This American Life,” which became available on iTunes in 2006, and runaway spin-off hits like “Serial.” The majority of these shows are non-fiction and take a journalistic approach to their storytelling. But, believe it or not, there is still audio narrative fiction out there, only now you can listen to it on your phone instead of through a transmitter.
Admittedly, I’m no stranger to the small, small world of narrative fiction podcasts. This past summer I worked on the production of “Wolf 359,” a science-fiction serial created by Gabriel Urbina, graduate of the Wesleyan Class of 2013. I’m also well aware of the bizarre cultural zeitgeist that is “Welcome to Night Vale.” But if you’ve already binged those two shows and want some more audio storytelling for your commute across campus, here are five more radio dramas to check out:
I wouldn’t be surprised if a small portion of “Limetown” listeners thought it was an entirely true, thorough investigation into the disappearance of a small town in Tennessee. That’s because “Limetown,” in true “War of the Worlds” fashion, utilizes the style and format of its nonfictional counterparts to tell its story. But instead of being edited like a newsreel, “Limetown” sounds a lot more like “Serial” or an NPR feature. It builds its plot through interviews, soundbites, and contemporary news stories, making its true crime-esque mystery sound all the more real.
This is the obligatory, “delightfully British” show on the list. As it turns out, radio dramas are alive and well in Britain, thanks to the BBC, but “Wooden Overcoats” is by far the most popular narrative fiction from the UK available on iTunes. It’s a familiar story with a gallows humor twist: The stubborn undertaker Rudyard Funn runs the only funeral parlor on the island of Piffling, together with his squabbling family, until one day a handsome rival sets up shop across the square. What follows is a hilarious, absurd tale of a no-frills businessman attempting to take down his sensational competitor. Besides being a great audio addition to the canon of British comedy (along with “Cabin Pressure,” sadly not available for free), “Wooden Overcoats” has some of the best sound editing and mixing that I’ve ever heard in a podcast. You’ll feel as though you’re really there on the Channel Islands, caught between the tug-of-war of two funeral homes.
“The Bright Sessions”
Here’s a concept: A therapist sees patients with supernatural abilities, in the same vein as “X-Men” or “Misfits.” But, he makes the creepy decision to record their sessions. Listening to this show feels uncomfortably like eavesdropping; the voice acting is so good that, as writer/producer Lauren Shippen has told me, multiple listeners thought the first episode was a real psychotherapy session, until the concept of time travel came up halfway through. It’s a strange, oddly cathartic podcast for anyone with an interest in psychological dramas or superhero plot lines.
“The Black Tapes”
Like “Limetown,” Pacific Northwest Stories’ “The Black Tapes” is a fictional wolf in NPR’s clothing. It takes a slightly more on-the-ground approach, taping interviews that “journalist” Alex Reagan has with ghost hunters as her story develops, so that we feel as though we’re learning new information with her. Sometimes Alex’s flowery descriptions of her interviewees give away how literary the show is (“cool blue eyes that betray a sharper intelligence”), but they also add to its nostalgic, paranormal atmosphere, a hybrid of a Stephen King novel and a found footage horror flick. Suffice it to say, it’s not a show for the faint of heart, although it is one of iTunes’ most popular audio fiction podcasts.
“Alice Isn’t Dead”
If you thought “The Black Tapes” sounded a little like the Netflix summer hit “Stranger Things,” “Alice Isn’t Dead” is quite the match for the Duffer brothers’ serialized tribute to ’80s cult films. Just listen to its synth-filled soundtrack. Created by the same writers and producers as “Welcome to Night Vale,” “Alice Isn’t Dead” is a one-woman show about a truck driver searching for her wife, Alice, who was thought to be deceased. Along the way, she discovers similar anomalies to those described in “Night Vale”: not-quite-human murderers, time warps, and other mysteries that cannot easily be explained. The driver’s descriptions of her encounters are extremely vivid and chilling, interspersed with personal messages to Alice and vulnerable pleas for her to come back. It’s a haunting and brilliant show, proving that the formula that made “Night Vale” so successful is far from a one-hit wonder.