The Rise of Fiction Podcasts


Hannah Cohen

From threatrophones to radios to smartphones, radio dramas have taken a variety of formats.

Fiction podcasts, at first encounter, are quite peculiar. A mix between radio, TV show, and play, they prove to be a perhaps ingenious way of consuming media. This medium’s origin is no less noble–it stems from radio dramas, which have done everything from introducing serialized stories into people’s homes to inciting widespread (fake) hysteria.

Pinpointing the first radio drama is difficult. Throughout the 1920s, radio stations would live broadcast plays and operas as well as works of fiction read aloud (think David Sedaris). In 1924, the BBC aired a production of Richard Hughes’ A Comedy of Dangers, the first known play that had been specifically written for radio. Initially, the radio drama didn’t take off because of its accessibility; it was aired via the Theatrophone, a telephone-like device originally released in the 1880s so the rich could tune in to operas from their homes. 

However, following the 1930s, radio quality improved dramatically and led to the so-called “Golden Age of Radio”. With this came serialized radio shows, which were multi-part productions reminiscent of TV shows that mostly featured mysteries. The most notorious drama of this era was the infamous broadcast in which supposedly millions of people thought that aliens had landed in New Jersey. On October 20, 1938, CBS Radio aired a segment of their serialized program, “Mercury Theatre on Air”, produced by Orson Welles. That evening’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which provoked a newspaper v. radio fight and led to rioting a decade later in Quito, Ecuador, most likely did not initiate the mass panic that was reported. It did, however, show that auditory drama is a viable method of expressive communication. If you’re curious about the full extent of the story, listen to Radiolab’s updated episode about this curious event.

With the rise of TV in the 1960s, fictional radio dramas faded into the background. Video never truly killed the radio star- shows kept playing with the help of Martin Esslin -but it certainly muffled it. Radio dramas came back, big time, in the form of the podcast.

Podcasts took off in 2005 with Apple releasing an updated iTunes app that supported the medium. The show MommyCast made six figures, President Bush released his weekly address via podcast, and radio shows like Radiolab, The Moth, and This American Life started to publish each weekly episode in a podcast. However, it wasn’t until the hit show Welcome to Night Vale first came out in 2012 that fiction podcasts took off.

It is important to note that fictional podcasts are not identical to their radio drama predecessors. Radio dramas, for that matter, still exist to this day and not all of them are available on your podcast app of choice. Fictional podcasts were born into the world of on-demand media- hundreds of options are accessible on multiple platforms at any hour of the day. They also are free from FCC guidelines and are oftentimes produced independently or by small corporations, letting them air diverse content that mainstream shows often struggle to produce. 

It’s difficult to figure out how different fictional podcasts came to fame and in what order they did so. While some shows get up to five million downloads a month, the genre is still fairly niched within a category of media that can be consumed in a multitude of manners. At the end of 2019, Spotify alone reported providing 500,000 podcasts. In the past eight years there has been every kind of fictional podcast you could ever hope for. Given how the genre includes a multitude of subgenres from high fantasy to soap opera, it can be difficult to figure out where to start. Thankfully, as a devoted podcast binger, I have a few recommendations.

Welcome to Night Vale

Number of episodes: 179, 20 – 30 min each

Genre(s): Sci-fi, fantasy, horror comedy

Best episode: All Hallows Eve (120)

Explicit: No

Where better to start than with the show that started it all? Now in its ninth consecutive year, Welcome to Night Vale (WTNV) has gone on numerous world tours, released three novels and four script books, and reportedly has five million downloads a month. The show features Cecil Baldwin playing Cecil Palmer, the loveable radio host of Night Vale Community Radio who narrates the happenings of “a friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” Palmer describes the bizarre occurrences, characters and fixtures of the town and surrounding places as though it is absolutely normal. Paired with an unrelated song (the “weather”) in each episode, this show is hilarious, profoundly disturbing, wise, and at times heartwarming.


Number of episodes: 12, 25 min each

Genre(s): Soap, realistic, comedy

Best episode: Minor Knife Fight (8)

Explicit: Yes

Despite it only having one season, Gossip encapsulates everything that makes a show binge-worthy: teenage girls disappearing, a very creepy priest, and the love lives of everyone in town. It centers around three very different friends gossiping about anything and everything that comes their way against a backdrop of ridiculous characters and even more ridiculous storylines. After each narrative episode, creator Allison Raskin interviews one of her friends about the “juiciest” gossip that they’ve encountered. Although some of the jokes don’t land quite how you’d want them to, the biggest critique of the show is how soon it ends.

The Strange Case of Starship Iris

Number of episodes: 10, 35 – 40 min each

Genre(s): Sci-fi, mystery

Best episode: The Carmen Gambit (5)

Explicit: Yes

The Strange Case of Starship Iris opens with biologist Violet Liu trapped on a doomed spaceship, having just watched all of her fellow crewmates explode. What follows is a story about finding family, resilience, and secrets. The use of the audience superior position (listen to the credits!), espionage, and cool space aliens all create a dazzling series that will tear your heart out over and over again. While all the action draws you in, the beautifully developed characters will make you want to stay.

Mission to Zyxx

Number of episodes: Three seasons, 20 episodes each, 40 – 60 min per episode

Genre(s): Comedy, spoof sci-fi

Best episode: Are You There Rodd? It’s Me, Goerlich (s3 e12)

Explicit: Yes

This phenomenal improv show’s premise is similar to many other fiction podcasts- a small crew of found family in space defeating the bad guys -but its execution is wonderfully unique. For four seasons, the crew fails to complete their very important space missions to strange corners of the Zyxx Quadrant, where they meet sentient moss, immortal dodecahedrons, and weird bug creatures and stuff. The not-so-subtle pop culture parodies remind you of a non-problematic Simpsons and the jokes will make you bend over, perhaps slightly in pain, with laughter.

Within the Wires

Number of episodes: 5 seasons, 10 episodes each, 15 – 20 min per episode

Genre(s): epistolary fiction, mystery, dystopia

Best episode: Ohara Museum of Art (1980) (s2 e8)

Explicit: Yes 

Within the Wires stands out among an already diverse genre. Created by a co-writer of WTNV, its unique method of incorporating the style of epistolary fiction into an audio format is captivating. The first season is told via meditation tapes, and while the first two may leave you wondering what it’s all about, the rest of the storyline combines a seemingly calming presence with something far more sinister. Each season has different characters in an alternate 20th century but still connects everyone behind its aura of mystery and themes of family, art, and society. It is perhaps the most beautifully written fiction podcast out there. Be sure to stay through the credits for some “you time”.


Number of episodes: 9, 20 – 35 min each

Genre(s): sci-fi, drama

Best episode: The Sea Lady (5)

Explicit: Yes

Short but engaging, this podcast is perfect for your next long car ride (or 300th walk around your neighborhood). While its premise is very familiar- lone biologist is stranded on a planet -it takes an unusual and captivating turn. Dr. Winifred Urus (Julia Schifini) is a xenobiologist stuck on a moon with a unique environment of giant tides, 120 hour days, and lots and lots of new life forms. The story includes some personal drama and some survivalist themes, but at its best moments, it’s a woman narrating her takes on the completely new life forms she encounters.

King Falls AM

Number of episodes: 100, 10 – 50 min each 

Genre(s): paranormal, comedy

Best episode: Burger King of Kings (47)

Explicit: Yes

King Falls AM may be yet another radio show from Weird Town, USA, but the character design and production value of this podcast make it in a category of its own. The show is hosted by Sammy Stevens (Kyle Brown) and Ben Arnold (Noah James), whose dynamic of skeptic and believer create lively discussions of the rainbow lights, apparitions, white roses, and most of all fully developed characters. While they’ve only been able to come up with one baseline plot (that then semi-repeated itself), the multitude of gregarious people the hosts come across and the unlikely connections they end up creating make the show funny, sweet, and familiar.

Other recommendations

The Orbiting Human Circus (Of the Air!)

The White Vault

Alice Isn’t Dead

The Penumbra Podcast

Adventures in New America

Hello From the Magic Tavern

The Adventure Zone

Wooden Overcoats

The Magnus Archives

Wolf 359