When one is fortunate enough to attend a banquet, one is given to certain expectations. The meal is to be rich and delicious, well-balanced so that each course does not erase the tastes of the other, but instead enhances them. An amuse-bouche inflames the palate without satiating it, a lighter soup or salad leads into a heavy, meaty main course. And of course, there’s the promise of dessert at the end, one final sweet treat to send you home full and content.
When sitting down to write about the current revolution going on in audio dramas, it’s hard to pick a topic because so many are worthy of focus. Does one write about one singular, world-changing show like The Bright Sessions, Wooden Overcoats or Welcome to Nightvale? The staggering innovations going on in indie sound design and editing in shows like The Far Meridian, Marsfall, What’s The Frequency, or Tides? The inclusiveness not just in front of the mic, but behind it in shows as varied as Kaleidotrope, RedWing, and Love & Luck? The sheer wild narrative invention in Fall of the House of Sunshine, The Amelia Project, or Greater Boston? Shows that are wholly the product of one unique and utterly original narrative voice like Station Blue, 2298, or Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services? The creation of independent, creator-focused networks such as Whisperforge or Multitude? Or the joyous, welcoming community that has grown up around all these shows, that eschews competition and instead fosters cooperation and friendship, that lifts up rather than pushes down?
The wonderful truth is, this PodLove piece could be about any of these topics, because all of the above are true. Something special is happening right now in audio dramas. An art form that was thought to have by and large died in the United States in the 60s (give or take a Prairie Home Companion or NPR’s Star Wars) is coming back stronger than ever. As consumers, as creators, and as fans, we are fortunate enough to be at the opening stages of a feast, a banquet of limitless options, each course full of dishes for every palette.
This is no accident. As the technology behind podcasting becomes more accessible (it’s remarkable how many great shows are created with editing software that is available for free), it becomes a medium uniquely suited to help marginalized voices tell the stories Old Media have prevented in the past. It’s hard to imagine a film studio giving, say, The Far Meridian or Kalila Stormfire the resources they would deserve in live action, but in audio drama both shows are allowed the latitude to function as gorgeous sonic paintings, rich full-course meals. There is absolutely no way RedWing would have been allowed to have a queer central superhero, and there would have been studio pressure to make have the main character be a white man – for international box office, of course.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine that had The Bright Sessions been first a TV show (rather than being optioned as one now), it would have been allowed to keep the patience and compassion that is the bedrock of the show. Instead, it would likely have been “punched up” into more action, more conspiracy, less character. Or perhaps it would have been dumbed down more and more until Dr. Bright’s patients are played simply for laughs. Either possibility is both frightening and all too real.
But the beauty of independent audio drama is that not only were the creators hungry to tell these stories, they are serving an audience hungry for these stories to be told. An audience that has often been left behind, told they can only see their stories in subtext if at all. An audience that is now being given dish after dish, course after course of splendid art. And thanks to the Internet, this audience not only has the opportunity to be consumers, they have the opportunity to become a community, to find their shows and each other.
Too, while earlier it was said that audio drama died in the US in the 1960s, this is hardly true worldwide. Shows like Wooden Overcoats are drawing on the rich tradition of BBC radio, while shows like Love & Luck are part of the emerging forefront of great audio storytelling in Australia. And that’s not even getting into the work being done in non-English-speaking countries, many of which had radio remain as a far more dominant medium than the United States, and thus are able to draw on that tradition and those skills to create excellent fiction. Spain’s Prisa Radio imprint – Podium Podcasting – has wonderful shows like El Gran Apagon (The Great Blackout) and the zombie tale Informe Z. African audio drama is growing across the continent, with South Africa’s delightful sci-fi Untypical being a particular and innovative standout (jump onboard with their pilot now if you want to hear how terrific action sequences can be achieved in audio format). What’s more, efforts are being made to share these shows with audiences who don’t speak their source language. Play for Voices is doing remarkable work in that field, translating and performing radio plays from all over the world. This is a burgeoning global community.
However, of course, with all these choices, knowing where to start can be quite overwhelming. So let’s return to the banquet. If you’ll allow me, let me suggest a six-course meal that, by the end, should give you a fine taste of the riches the audio fiction world has to provide you.
COURSE 1: AMUSE-BOUCHE – STARTRIPPER!!
The first course, the amuse-bouche, is the “mouth pleaser”. One wants something light and pleasant that won’t overwhelm the rest of the meal, that prepares you for the heartier dishes to come but still delights on its own. So my first recommendation, going along with this motif, is the Whisperforge’s joyous travelogue of the universe, StarTripper!!. Former desk clerk Feston Pyxis has come into some money and finally gets the chance to explore strange new worlds, go on wild adventures, and finally live. One would think that he would be quickly overwhelmed by such things, but thanks to Ian McQuown’s supremely charming performance and Julian Mundy’s top-notch writing, Feston reveals an enthusiasm and delight in life so strong that it seems to bend the universe itself to its will. Audio wizard Mischa Stanton is in top-notch form here (the cooking show in the second episode is a particular standout). There are certain works of art that no matter the mood you’re in, will put a smile on your face. StarTripper!! is one of those works of art, and thus it is my pleasure to recommend as the first course.
COURSE 2: SOUP – ALBA SALIX, ROYAL PHYSICIAN
Since we’re going to be picking a heavier show for the main course, let’s pair it with something a little lighter and (forgive me) healthier: Alba Salix, Royal Physician. Alba Salix, consistently exasperated ex-witch and passed-over fairy tale sister, now has to keep the kingdom healthy with her two assistants: a ninja-monk-apprentice with some seriously misguided ideas about his own capabilities, and a fairy whose relentlessly naive positivity tends to run smack-dab into the world she actually inhabits. The scripts are consistently whip-smart, and the performances are equally adept. As a bonus, you can check out the same creators’ wonderful improvised live-play show, The End of Time and Other Bothers, which in its fourth episode features perhaps the single biggest laugh I’ve ever had listening to an audio drama. Fittingly, it involves a kitchen. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
COURSE 3: HORS D’OEUVRES – MAGIC KING DOM
For the hors d’ouevres, let’s chose a show whose episodes are bite-sized, but pack one heck of a punch. Magic King Dom is a fairly new entrant to the audio drama world, but it’s one that has already established a wonderful, unique voice. The plot is simple: the apocalypse happened – even in Walt Disney World. There’s only one survivor: a young girl who’s named herself Dom, who now lives in the ruins of the park. Brilliantly voiced by Lisette Alvarez (the creator of the superb Kalila Stormfire’s Magical Economick Services), Dom is a wonderful protagonist, inquisitive, effervescent, musically-inclined, and instantly sympathetic as she narrates her adventures. As the show progresses, it’s clear that showrunner A.R. Olivieri has a very specific plan, and it’s a real pleasure to hear it unfold.
COURSE 4: SALAD – WOLF 359.
OK. I’m only picking Wolf 359 for the salad course because of the plant monster. But there are certain shows that are simply mandatory listening (as we must all eat our greens), and Wolf 359 is one of them. It’s the grand-daddy of the burgeoning audio-sci-fic-comedy-corporate-jerks-conspiracy-etc. genre (which sounds very specific, but already has terrific shows like Girl in Space and We Fix Space Junk as descendants). It features all-time-great podcast characters like Renee Minkowski and Doug Eiffel, among many others. As it evolved from light space comedy to something more serious, its command of plot and tone remained pitch-perfect, always feeling of a piece. It has a rich, leitmotif-driven score that is maybe the best in audio dramas. And above all else, Wolf 359 is mandatory listening because it has, perhaps, the single best episode of any audio drama out there: Memoria. As a scientist works through the fractured psyche of a space station’s AI to repair it, time and space seem to melt away into an astonishing depiction of how to cope with anxiety. Episodes like Memoria show us what audio storytelling can achieve, and that is why Wolf 359 is mandatory. Also, there’s a plant monster. It’s cute.
COURSE 5: MAIN – LIMETOWN
Horror is one of the richest veins for audio storytelling to tap. A good sound designer and composer can do more to frighten and enchant audience than most big-budget slasher-gore films. But even years on, few have come close to this extraordinary six-episode story with an eerily irresistible premise: a planned scientific utopia-town where every single person goes missing. Many shows have attempted the Serial “one lone reporter digs up a cold case” model, and this is perhaps the best example, as American Public Radio reporter Lia Haddock asks: what happened in Limetown? Much like Wolf 359, Limetown remains one of the most influential audio dramas of this modern renaissance, oft-followed but never surpassed. The mystery is enthralling as Lia comes ever closer to the heart of darkness that consumed Limetown. And what puts Limetown over the edge? The sound. Few shows are as effective as painting a sonic picture to such a singular effect, to the point where, in the season finale, a ticking clock and two human voices are perhaps the most frightening thing you can imagine. Limetown made the bottom of my stomach drop in sheer terror. And this October, it’s finally coming back for more. I cannot wait.
COURSE 6: DESSERT – THE AMELIA PROJECT
For the final sweet course, get your best cup of cocoa and settle in for a delicious, scabrously witty delight in The Amelia Project. Like all the best, it’s a story that can only be told in audio form: an Interviewer with seemingly endless wealth and reach sits with a subject who wants to vanish from their life. In exchange for their story (and it had better be interesting), the Interviewer will create an appropriate death and rebirth. From the marvelous, metronomic sound design underlying each week’s phone message from its subject, leading into the marvelous, Shostakovichian waltz that underscores the main titles, few shows are better at instantly cuing you into what story they’re telling, and with what tone. The writing isn’t afraid to get deliriously weird and funny, and Alan Burgon’s performance as the Interviewer is a pompous, hilarious delight. And then there’s the first season finale, in which the show suddenly reveals an audacious new side. Few things in art are more exciting than creators who have the confidence and daring to take as big a risk as Amelia’s first season finale does, and in the final few minutes they pull it off with aplomb, in an astonishing combination of music, sound effects, old dialogue in new contexts, that shows what audio fiction is capable of. The Amelia Project is the perfect sardonic enchantment with which to close our banquet.
And these are just a taste of what there is to offer. I could easily have planned a seven, ten, or 21-course banquest with all the riches out there. There really is something for everyone in audio drama now and if it’s not, the barrier has never been lower to make that show yourself. It’s a veritable feast, and it’s only getting grander. More, this community is starting to wrestle with the questions any community this approachable and open must wrestle with: the line between fan and creator, how to be more accessible and diverse in casting and behind the scenes and making sure the overall community remains open and supportive. And it’s doing it with thoughtfulness and compassion, ensuring that the banquet will remain open to everyone for a long time to come.