When the true crime podcast “Serial” premiered under NPR’s refined banner in 2014, garnering critical claim and reaching an unprecedentedly large audience of approximately 80 million listeners, podcasts went mainstream. Just like how every other person in L.A. is working on a screenplay, people crack jokes that every aimless millennial rambles their thoughts into a microphone and calls it a “podcast.” But while podcasts featuring true crime, political punditry and pop culture have garnered media attention and taken over millions of listeners’ commutes, fiction podcasts have maintained a slightly lower profile.
Audio dramas emerged alongside nonfiction podcasts in the mid 2000s. Early entries into the genre mimicked the style of old-timey radio dramas like “The Lone Ranger,” and featured voice actors playing different characters while a narrator set the scene. The results were essentially well-acted audiobooks with no printed counterparts. Then “Welcome to Night Vale” premiered in 2012 with a simple premise: Cecil, the narrator, is a small-town local radio host — and Night Vale, the small town in question, is filled with eldritch creatures, bizarre happenings and nightmarish conspiracies. Within a few years, the absurdist horror comedy was being downloaded by millions of dedicated listeners every month.
“Welcome to Night Vale” may not be the first example of the fake radio show genre — think of Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast — but its massive success undoubtedly contributed to the format’s quick rise to prominence. Speculative fiction podcasts such as “The Black Tapes,” “The Message,” “King Falls AM” and “Limetown” all share the premise of a radio journalist reporting on a story that inevitably develops a fantastical, horrifying or otherwise dramatic twist or two. Found footage — or found audio recording, strictly speaking — is another popular narrative frame. There are podcasts composed of recordings of therapy sessions (“The Bright Sessions”), voicemails between a gay couple running a bar (“Love and Luck”), entries from a time-traveler’s audio diary (“Ars Paradoxica”) and an apocalypse survivor’s voice memos (“Gone”).
This creative flexibility, coupled with a low barrier to entry — basic podcast-quality microphones start at around $50, and open source audio editors such as Audacity can be downloaded for free — has led to a podcasting boom, with podcast audiences also growing exponentially thanks to the appetite for multitasking in commuting and gym-going millennials. According to iTunes approximately 350 new podcasts premiere every day, and audio dramas have grown alongside their more popular nonfiction cousins. Between 2013 and 2017, podcasts’ audience doubled in size and ad revenue tripled, according to Edison Research.
The new potential for profit in a traditionally indie medium has started to draw bigger-name brands and actors into the audio drama world. Marvel produced “Wolverine: The Long Night,” a 2018 podcast that centered on the comic book character Wolverine — an admittedly curious choice for such a taciturn character — that featured high-profile actors like Bob Balaban and Richard Armitage. Actors like Oscar Isaac (“Homecoming”), Kristen Bell (“Deadly Manners”), Nathan Fillion (“The Thrilling Adventure Hour”) and Issa Rae (“Fruit”) have lent their voices or writing to fiction podcasts. “Sadie,” a New York Times bestselling novel, was turned into a podcast by the book’s publisher, Macmillan. In this flooded market, indie creators are buoyed by an active, supportive online network of podcasters who primarily connect and collaborate on Twitter.
Recent years have also seen an explosion of high-profile fiction podcast adaptations. Fans of sci-fi/horror podcast “Limetown” were disappointed when the creators announced a hiatus after their first 2015 season to shop their podcast to television networks, but they were thrilled when the podcasters returned triumphantly with news of a television adaptation, book deal and second season. Podcasts “Welcome to Night Vale” and “Alice Isn’t Dead” have published best-selling spin-off books and joined the wave of television adaptations on the horizon. Television series based on the fiction podcasts “Tanis” and “The Bright Sessions” are also in development. Amazon Prime is ahead of the curve with their recently launched adaptation of the conspiracy thriller “Homecoming,” which snagged Julia Roberts for its lead role and garnered positive reviews. Publishing and television production companies have long appreciated properties with existing fan bases, and are now recognizing the huge potential in adapting podcasts with millions of existing fans — and in using podcasts promotionally to build audiences for releases in other media. The publishing company Macmillan has started a podcast network that debuted the smash-hit sci-fi/romance podcast “Steal the Stars” with the intention of building a fanbase before publishing their novelization.
While the podcast market grows ever more competitive, the low barrier to entry has kept the medium highly accessible even as larger players have started entering the scene. Unsurprisingly, a flood of young people and diverse stories has dominated the market. While just 8.8 percent of television characters are identified as LGBTQ+ according to GLAAD, many popular podcasts prominently feature queer characters and identities marginalized in other media, including lesbian and gay main characters (“Welcome to Night Vale,” “Alice Isn’t Dead”), asexual characters (“Ars Paradoxica”, “The Bright Sessions”), bisexual characters (“The Starship Iris”, “The Penumbra Podcast”) and trans and nonbinary characters (“The Message”). The medium is still quite white, though podcast creators and voice actors from cult favorites like Paul Bae (“The Black Tapes”) and Julia Morizawa (“The Bright Sessions”) to mainstream talents like Issa Rae (“Fruit”) are defying this trend, and directories like “Podcasts in Color” and other initiatives actively catalogue and promote podcasts led by people of color.
Audio dramas may be the least downloaded category of podcasts — at least according to Nielsen surveys — but their accessibility, diversity and creativity are helping this under-the-radar medium grow in quantity and quality. If your love of fiction has been curtailed by your college schedule, audio dramas are a great way to fit a little narrative joy into your morning walk to class. If you love podcasts but are looking for an alternative to millennial bros yelling about politics or gruesomely detailed true crime stories, audio dramas might fill that need. If you’re a hipster who wants to get in on a trend before it becomes truly mainstream, you should probably start listening now — since Marvel has arrived on the scene, things won’t stay indie for long.