Radio plays and serialized dramas aren't anything new - most people have heard the story about how Orson Welles scared everyone silly during the broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, making America think Martians were really attacking. But for a time after podcasts became popular, it seemed the true crime genre would dominate the storytelling corner of the industry. Fortunately for all of us, fiction podcasts broke through. Tons of talented creatives are turning to the medium to deliver rich, searing dramas, tense and thrilling horror stories, and energetic, hilarious comedies with crackling scripts, lush sound design, and innovative recording techniques. Here are ten great examples of the hundreds of incredible storytelling podcasts out there.
Welcome To Night Vale
It'd be impossible to list great narrative podcasts without paying tribute to the one that paved the way: Welcome To Night Vale. With episodes dating back to 2012, it might be a daunting prospect to start this one if you haven't already, even if it is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. But fortunately, you can jump into this twice-monthly podcast at any point, since it’s presented as community bulletins of a normally banal nature: weather, news, and traffic updates for a small desert town. But in Night Vale, all conspiracy theories are true, so the bulletins include UFO sightings, hovering cats giving birth to spiny kittens, and sentient patches of haze. Darkly funny, poetic, and truly bizarre, this one lives up to the hype, and more.
Mission To Zyxx
Mission To Zyxx is a hilarious improvised science fiction podcast chronicling the adventures of a bunch of ambassadors trying to establish contact with “the a** end of space,” or the Zyxx Quadrant. Join "Pleck Decksetter" and the entire crew on their adventures in the CLINT cloning facility, dealing with Flarn crime lords, and being summoned to the planet Klongtdt, “which is spelled like that and full of children.” Created and performed by veteran comedy writers and improv performers from New York’s famed Upright Citizens Brigade theatre and featuring great cameos from stars like Paul F. Thompkins and Bobby Moynihan, Mission To Zyxx is guaranteed to give any Earthling some good belly laughs.
At times disturbingly familiar while managing to remain completely absurd, Bubble is a scripted comedy series from Maximum Fun, the organization responsible for tons of great podcasts like Dr Gameshow, Go Fact Yourself, and Judge John Hodgman, among many others (including Mission To Zyxx!). This nightmarish vision of the gig economy follows a group of hipsters living in a literal bubble, a dome erected over the town of Fairhaven to protect them from the goblin-like monsters who dwell outside in the Brush. Our heroes get along much like many of us do: with side-hustles galore, working for Postmates and running Etsy stores, while also signing on to the Huntr app to get paid for killing monsters. Listening to the protagonists trying to find love, make money, and stay safe in an increasingly insane world, it’s clear that Bubble gives a new meaning to the phrase “it’s funny because it’s true.”
Post-apocalyptic thrillers are pretty par for the course, but often they involve nuclear bombs or earth-ending wars or, in the case of Mad Max, a lack of water. The creators behind Blackout had a different vision, one truly disturbing due to its seeming certainty: what happens to society when the power grid goes down? When we no longer have lights, the Internet, communications, healthcare equipment, navigation systems? Modern civilization would experience a collapse of epic proportions. Blackout follows a small-town radio DJ, played by Academy Award winner Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), trying to be a voice of hope in the midst of this collapse, in this intense and exciting series.
The Control Group
The Control Group is not for the faint of heart. Set in a mental institution in 1961, this drama follows a psychiatrist who takes money from the CIA to implement radical, and often unethical, treatments at the women’s institute he runs. He quickly becomes obsessed with a new patient, "Karen," trying electroshock, hypnosis, sleep therapy, and even more unsavory practices to break her. Creator Bret Wood originally envisioned this story as a feature film, so he steered clear of first-person narration or describing scenery, relying on the top-notch sound design to set the stage. Well-produced, dark, and disturbing, this historical fiction will stick with you long after it’s over.
Beautifully written and performed by Dane Terry with a gorgeous score and original songs, Dreamboy is a surreal, almost poetic story about a spun-out musician spending the winter in Cleveland, Ohio, working at the Pepper Heights Zoo and trying not to spend too much time on Grindr. He finds himself dealing with a trio of creepy Girl Scouts, his own terrifying nightmares, unexplained deaths, and a murderous zebra. And the color of nighttime is changing… A trippy, otherworldly story no one should miss.
Put your headphones on for this one: Darkest Night is a terrifyingly creepy horror podcast specifically made to tingle your spine. How? Not only is it a podcast about the dying memories and final moments of victims of cannibals and cults - scary enough on its own - the creators record it using a binaural microphone shaped like a human head that captures sound the same way our ears do. The actors move around, as if they’re onstage, lending an acute reality to the intense subject material. Featuring voice talents like Paul Scheer, RuPaul, Missi Pyle, Jason Mewes, and many more, this chilling series is worth the binge.
My Dad Wrote A Porno
A slight departure from the other offerings on this list, My Dad Wrote A Porno is a podcast from TV director Jamie Morton, reading aloud chapters of his father’s dirty book, Belinda Blinked. These decidedly unsexy volumes, written by a retired Northern Irish builder “sitting drunk at his keyboard,” chronicle the adventures of nymphomaniac kitchenware saleswoman Belinda Blumenthal with erotically charged phrases too unique to transcribe here. With his fellow hosts Alice Levine and James Cooper along for the ride, this charming podcast is a bit like Mystery Science Theater for bad erotica, and it's so popular it’s getting its own HBO special.
Hello From The Magic Tavern
Hello From The Magic Tavern is an improvised podcast from Chicago comedian Arnie Niekamp that follows a guy (also named Arnie Niekamp) who falls into a dimensional portal behind a Burger King that takes him to a magical land called Foon. Since he’s there, and he still has a wifi signal from the Burger King, the fictional Niekamp decides to set up his podcasting equipment at the local tavern, the Vermillion Minotaur, and interview the locals, ranging from Matt Young’s pompous wizard to Adal Rifai's shapeshifter who usually takes the form of a badger. Featuring hilarious guests like Felicia Day and Jordan Klepper, these interviews nudge along a delightful story arc and provide tons of laughs on the way.
The Mysterious Secrets Of Uncle Bertie's Botanarium
Lush, fantastical, and very funny, the Victorian-era comedy adventure The Mysterious Secrets Of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium stars Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Moana) as Lord Joseph Banks, a real renowned botanist who advised King George III and is responsible for bringing eucalyptus to the West. Clement’s version is a starched-up, rather dimwitted “squillionaire” off to find his Uncle Bertie, who disappeared on an expedition to find the “source of all pleasure in the world,” a plant called Heaven’s Clover. On the way, Banks encounters cannibalistic sausages, eats pungent cheeses, and clashes with cultures he could never have imagined. The sound design makes this podcast stand out even more, creating rich atmospheres that put you right in the center of the action. A must-listen.
If you want to be sure you're listening to the podcasts everyone else is checking out, iHeartRadio has you covered. Every Monday, iHeartRadio releases a chart showing the most popular podcasts of the week. Stay up to date on what's trending by checking out the chart here. There's even a chart just for radio podcasts here, featuring all your favorite iHeartRadio personalities like Bobby Bones, Elvis Duran, Steve Harvey and dozens of others.
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