Recommended Reading #6: Audio Drama Edition

I’ve been a sucker for a good audio drama ever since middle school, when my dad introduced me to the old classics. He’d bought some sort of anthology collection on tape, and took to playing it during long drives. I have a fond memory where we were driving through the mountains at night listening to Suspense and The Shadow. Later, in high school, a friend introduced me to the inestimable Nick Danger, Third Eye, which I still think about more than is probably healthy.

So I have absolutely no idea why I waited until 2019 to start listening to audio drama podcasts. It turns out there are a lot of good ones! Some are so good, I wanted to share them. They’re 100% free, so check them out at no risk to your pocketbook:

Steal the Stars (from Tor Labs, written by Mac Rogers) tells the story of Dakota Prentiss, security chief at a secret facility to study a crashed alien ship. It’s set in a recognizable near future, where such things are done by indentured servants at a defense contractor megacorporation, and the employees are forbidden to fraternize. One day, new hire Matt Salem joins the team, and you can probably see where this is going. Taped in a warehouse, Steal the Stars has the distinction of actually sounding like it takes place in its setting. Tightly-written, easy to follow, very well-executed. Available as fourteen 40-ish minute episodes. (Warning: the link contains some spoilers in its description.)

"TANIS" is filled with images of nature, on a black background.Tanis (from the Public Radio Alliance) is an odd duck. It’s told in the format of a public radio podcast, like Serial or Radiolab. In it, fictional podcast host Nic Silver investigates the fictional myth of Tanis, a legendary locale known only from a few cryptic references. Aided by a team of irregulars he picks up as he digs deeper, he aims to uncover the truth behind these bizarre stories, which seem to gravitate around the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The first season of twelve 45-ish minute episodes works as a standalone, and I highly recommend it. Each episode seamlessly blends strange real-world events with the story’s developing mythos, in a manner I would characterize as Borgesian. Recommended especially for fans of weird fiction.

If you’re looking for something lighter, check out StarTripper!! (from Whisperforge, written by Julian Mundy). This zany space opera follows Feston Pyxis, a bored bureaucrat who sells his belongings, buys a starship, and starts a podcast narrating his adventures. Each 25-ish minute episode finds him at a new locale, within which hijinks ensue. Think Buck Rogers meets Futurama. It’s an indie production, so the audio isn’t as good as the above two, but don’t let that stop you.


What sort of audio dramas do y’all enjoy? I know it’s a niche genre, so feel free to talk about books and stories, too! I’m reading This Is How You Lose The Time War and Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, both of which are great. I think the latter was a recommendation from one of these posts…






71 replies
  1. 1
    pika says:

    So if you’re looking for something REALLY light but also smart and hilarious, try Mission to Zyxx! It’s an improvised parody/satire of all sorts of space opera/sci fi conventions. It has really good production values and editing, and it has regularly made me crack up with all sorts of smart stupidity. If I say anything more, I’ll spoil the joy!

  2. 2

    Thanks for all of this! I, too, loved those old radio mystery show tapes back in the day on long drives. I’ll check these out.

  3. 3
    jackmac says:

    Fans of the Firesign Theatre’s “Nick Danger” should also check out the oldtime radio show that was the inspiration — “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” Although several actors portrayed Dollar — the insurance investigator “with the action-packed expense account” — by far the best was Bob Bailey (1955-60).

  4. 4
    Mnemosyne says:

    Ruemara is a voice actress on a couple of different podcast dramas and a co-writer/actress on one called “Ostium” (you can google it). I can’t remember what the others are called, though.

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  6. 6
    Mnemosyne says:

    Book-wise, my local library is doing a special thing through Libby/Overdrive where you can check out popular ebooks for a 7-day loan instead of the usual 21-day loan. I need to speed through A Discovery of Witches because I only have 3 days left on the loan.

  7. 7
    RSA says:

    I’ve started reading Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, set in an alternate history of 1982 in which, among other things, Alan Turing is still around; his work has led to artificial intelligence and robots. The story isn’t about Turing but about Charlie, who buys one of the first generation of new humanoid robots. So far it’s not convincing in several ways, but there have been a few surprises. I’ll see how it turns out.

  8. 8

    @RSA: That book got ripped to shit in the SF/F world, I’m curious to see what you think.

  9. 9
    Nicole says:

    I’ll also cheerfully self-promote the one I write for, Uncanny County. It’s a paranormal Southwestern comedy-horror (Twilight Zone meets the Coen brothers is the way it’s been described), although not all episodes take place in the Southwest. The show won the Parsec Award 3 years in a row and a lot of Audioverse awards. Episodes are also free: UncannyCounty.com, or you can find it on iTunes, Stitcher, the usual places.

  10. 10
    Shana says:

    @jackmac: One of our local NPR stations, WAMU, runs old radio programs on Sunday evenings and they regularly have Johnny Dollar as one of their shows. Probably available as a stream if folks are interested.

  11. 11
    NotMax says:

    @jackmac

    Wow, that brings back memories of listening to Johnny Dollar broadcasts live on the radio.

  12. 12
    LuciaMia says:

    Firesign Theatre! I can still recite their skits. “Forward….into the past!
    ************
    These days I listen to a lot of BBCRadio4, their comedy and drama channel.

  13. 13

    @jackmac: ooh, I’ll have to check that out!

  14. 14
    NotMax says:

    So far as podcasts go, should make mention of Welcome to Night Vale.

  15. 15
    dm says:

    @Millard Filmore: @Millard Filmore: that’s by Meatball Fulton. He has a lot of series in the same vein, with many of the same characters. “The green velvet chair”, “Moon over Morocco”, and more. Sort of Firesign Theatre meets spiritual journey, and a lot of fun.

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    Blue mouser says:

    The radio play adaptations of some of Neil Gaiman’s novels has been fantastic. Neverwhere with James McAvoy as Richard and Natalie Dormer as Door is a delight to listen to as is the adaptation of the Graveyard book. The Scarifyiers radio play series is really well done. My favorite episode from the series , The 13th Hallows” has guest star David Gareth Lloyd from Torchwood.

    On a more serious note the best audio drama I ever listened to was about the Piper Alpha disaster. Based on the Lord Cullen report, it is a minute to minute dramatization of how the event unfolded from the eyewitness report of the survivors and others around them (the accounts of those in nearby oil /gas rigs and the head office). For some reason it’s not really available to download or stream but if you can find it, it’s worth a listen

    For comedy series, Cabin Pressure by John Finnemore is just perfect. Starring Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Finnemore it is a wonderful balance of comedy and drama

    As a fan of radio dramas will check out some of the series recommended here

  18. 18
    Blue mouser says:

    @LuciaMia: Me too. I love their dramas,especially the murder mystery ones

  19. 19
    R-Jud says:

    Consider me another vote for Steal The Stars! I also like Within the Wires, which is from the Welcome to Night Vale people, and Alice Isn’t Dead, ibid.

    Right now (literally) I am listening to 1865, which is a dramatisation of the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. Strongly recommend that.

  20. 20

    @Blue mouser:

    The radio play adaptations of some of Neil Gaiman’s novels has been fantastic. Neverwhere with James McAvoy as Richard and Natalie Dormer as Door is a delight to listen to as is the adaptation of the Graveyard book.

    IIRC, Neverwhere is like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that the radio play came first. Gaiman was apparently unhappy about some of the things he had to leave out of the radio version and wrote the novel so he could put them back in.

  21. 21
    R-Jud says:

    The BBC has a pretty good sci-fi drama called “Forest 404” that is also worth checking out!

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    RSA says:

    @Major Major Major Major:

    That book got ripped to shit in the SF/F world

    I’m not surprised. So far (maybe a third of the way in?) the biggest weakness is world building. As one review puts it, McEwan brings an elephant into the room [practical artificial intelligence] but doesn’t bother to move any of the furniture. :-) Sort of like Data in Star Trek TNG, without the backstory for why he was unique.

  24. 24
    Neldob says:

    I read Embracing Defeat. An Artist of the Floating World deals with the same issues and is also really good. Sure is hard to see clearly and not let anybody evade responsibility.

  25. 25
    Jager says:

    When I was in grade school, I’d rush home to listen to Sky King. When it was produced for TV, I was so disappointed, Sky King was played by a middle-aged guy, wearing khakis and he flew a dorky Beech D 33. The producers needed to focus group a bunch of 7 and 8-year-old boys to get it right I was even disappointed in Sky’s niece Penny.

    On the radio version of “Gunsmoke,” Matt Dillon was voiced by William Conrad. Incredible pipes.

  26. 26

    @RSA: there was also the small matter of interviews McEwan gave about how science fiction is completely lacking in literary qualities and he’s the first author with the groundbreaking idea of writing about practical AI…

  27. 27
    Darrin Ziliak (formerly glocksman) says:

    Boston Blackie Radio

    When I was a kid, the local PBS affiliate ran a lot of the old Boston Blackie movies and watching them turned me into a fan of the character.
    Later on I bought a few episodes on cassette and from what I can recall, they weren’t bad at all.

  28. 28
    Sab says:

    @Major Major Major Major: When werr those interviews? Ursula LeGuin had a long career.

  29. 29
    WereBear says:

    The Shadow Knows.

    Some with Orson Welles!

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    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    Watching Last Night of the Proms. Just started the second half (the fun bit) The Promenaders have festooned the conductor’s podium with rainbow flags. I think tonight is going to be raucus to say the least

  32. 32
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    @Blue mouser: Neil Gaiman wrote my favourite episode of Dr. Who ever “The Doctor’s Wife” it was just sheer brilliance. “Do fish have fingers?” “Who said fish fingers?” “You do two minutes from now”

  33. 33
    ynwxu says:

    I remember being hooked for a while on CBS Mystery Theater. I don’t know how well they’ve aged.

    https://www.cbsrmt.com/

  34. 34
    Brachiator says:

    Some years ago, I worked a late shift and would listen to radio drama on CBS radio on the drive home. A good range of stuff, from Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel, to Johnny Dollar and the more heroic adventures of Harry Lime before the time of The Third Man.

    Was Suspense narrated by EG Marshall? There was a particular episode that I tried to track down for a while. It was one of the few that featured a female protagonist, a troubled teen. Maybe it was another show, X something.

    Some of the old Jack Benny comedy shows also held up well.

  35. 35
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    Just learned that the mezzo suprano, Jamie Barton, singing the last night of the proms is a gay woman which explains the rainbow flags She is about to sing “Somewhere over the rainbow”

  36. 36
    Faithful Lurker says:

    I’d like to recommend any of the ZBS stories, especially Moon Over Morocco, The Fourth Tower and Return to Inverness. Meatball Fulton was the driving force behind an amazing group of radio actors. Jack Flanders, Little Frieda,Sam the voodoo man, etc., some of these are on Audible.

  37. 37
    joel hanes says:

    Used to love episodes of Chicken Man on Armed Forces Radio.

    That said, my two favorite radio plays are Firesign’s
    I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus
    Everything You Know Is Wront

  38. 38
    artem1s says:

    I’ve been listening to books on CDs so I don’t have to listen to the morning news on the radio while driving to work. the latest, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. I understand she was a prolific writer. I’m looking forward to listening to more

  39. 39

    @artem1s: Douglas Adams read each of his books if that’s something you’d be interested in.

  40. 40
    West of the Rockies says:

    Great topic, M^4!

    My junior high English teacher used to play old radio shows on Fridays and quiz us on small details. He called it a listening skills exercise. I enjoyed I Love a Mystery and The Weird Circle.

    I introduced my daughter to old time radio, too. She would often go to bed listening to Tarzan and such.

  41. 41
    RSA says:

    @Major Major Major Major:

    there was also the small matter of interviews McEwan gave about how science fiction is completely lacking in literary qualities and he’s the first author with the groundbreaking idea of writing about practical AI…

    Hah! Yeah, I can see how that would be endearing. Funny thing: I made a similar (but not nearly as strong) comment in a discussion elsewhere recently, that while it’s easy to find good literary SF these days, I’d only count a handful of pre-1960s SF works as being of literary quality, due to the genre’s pulp and adventure story roots. At least compared to contemporary literature of the time. And that’s fine! But some of the most famous mainstream writers who have dipped their toes in SF are not up to speed.

  42. 42
    debbie says:

    @RSA:

    I’ve read it. I’ve loved McEwan’s works for many years. I don’t read a lot of science fiction, so I can’t speak to the book’s shortcomings in regard to the genre. I can say, however, the book is not one of his best efforts — like by a mile.

    Why does everyone think they can and should try their hand at science fiction and dystopia?

  43. 43
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Litlebritdifrnt:

    That episode has a lot of revelations about the sentience of the TARDIS that I’m not sure everyone got. Especially when she says, “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and I ran away.”

    She takes the Doctor where he needs to go, not where he wants to go.

  44. 44
    ruemara says:

    So none of you are following my podcast, Ostium? Way to support.
    And no, not Tanis. It devolves into “hey, this is a weird thing.” “Yes, that thing is weird.” “Such weirdness, that thing.” “Yes.” level of dialogue. And it’s slow to start. and finish.

    Big Loop podcast is a great anthology, The Magnus Archives is like a great Hammer Horror Anthology blended with an overarching story each little story connects back to. Flyest Fables is a modern fairy tale set in a fantastic book that creates fantastic situations. White Vault is a wonderful horror story that feels like the classic cinema of The Thing (1980’s) or Alien. Within The Wires is amazing, season 1 in particular. Alice Isn’t Dead is another great horror/weirdness podcast. We Fix Space Junk is a malevolent Red Dwarvish comedy, as is Girl In Space – but just a touch more serious. There’s the Night Light Podcast for horror written (and performed – sometimes, me again) by black writers.Victoria’s Lift is a Twilight Zone-esque series centered around a mysterious little girl and her elevator. Inn Between is a fun, D & D ish fantasy quest show (hey, there’s me!) and that’s my recommendations just off the top of my head. Wait, one more absolutely beloved on, Love & Luck Podcast from Aus, that’s about a magical reality earth and two queer men who heal their community and I adore it. But you should go listen to and support Ostium, because I’m in it. And we’re in Boston – well, I am – in October for PodTales Con.

  45. 45

    @RSA: yeah, it was the “step aside, children!” nature of the book’s release that attracted the wrong kind of attention. It’s been a rich and literary genre for like half a century though, depending on what your cutoff is, it’s so weird that people still hold that opinion.

    Margaret Atwood actually made a similarly dismissive comment about the genre as being “talking squids in outer space,” which is hilarious because 1) she’s a freaking SFF author and 2) that sounds like a great book!

  46. 46
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    @Mnemosyne: @Mnemosyne: “Why would I ever give you back” Was a really telling comment how she wanted to go on adventures and the only way she could do so was with a willing companion

  47. 47

    @ruemara: I didn’t know you had a podcast until this thread, I don’t think. I’ll check it out.

    I thought Tanis was strong enough taken as a stand-alone season 1 to include. The format is cool and I learned stuff. The writing could certainly be more polished—you can still see the toolmarks in places—but I thought it was a good genre entry. ETA I can totally see where you’re coming from though!

  48. 48
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    Jamie Barton just waved a rainbow flag during Rule Brittania

  49. 49
    ruemara says:

    @Major Major Major Major: Eh. Limetown, then. I get Tanis & Blacktapes confused. And Rabbit Rabbit.

  50. 50

    @ruemara: did a few episodes of Limetown. Not my fave.

  51. 51
    RSA says:

    @debbie: Would you be willing to summarize your thoughts on Machines Like Me, what works or doesn’t work? I’d be interested.

  52. 52
    Brachiator says:

    @debbie:

    Why does everyone think they can and should try their hand at science fiction and dystopia?

    Some writers think that they are “classing up the joint.” People like McEwan seem to believe that all SF is hack writing which they are improving by pouring on some Literature sauce. The arrogance is the assumption that whatever came before was worthless or insufficient.

    I have not read McEwan’s novel, but some summaries sound as though he is writing about themes that have been thoroughly explored in SF. One issue may be that many of the critics praising the novel dismiss SF as sniffily as does McEwan.

    This reminds me a bit of some of the reactions to the upcoming film Joker. Some people involved in the production in a minor way have gone out of their way to declare that the film is for adults, because it’s not about characters who wear capes and spandex suits.

    Joker has won a lot of early praise and even some Oscar buzz, especially from some critics who love to moan that they hate comic book films or are tired of them. And yet it is odd that they bring such haughty praise to a film that would not exist if there was no comic book villain in the first place.

    Also, I think the best genre work is great precisely because it is relatively modest. A great hamburger does not need to be made from the most expensive cut of beef. And if you load it up with too many sauces and extras you end up with a soggy, unsavory mess.

  53. 53
    ruemara says:

    @Major Major Major Major: Fair. I tried it and didn’t like it. Much like Nightvale. Then I went back again and liked it! Weird. Have you tried Caravan Podcast?

  54. 54
    oatler. says:

    Stanley Unwin’s radio bits on the BBC are priceless. You may remember him as the narrator on the “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” lp.

  55. 55

    @ruemara: I have not! Looks interesting.

  56. 56
    ruemara says:

    @Major Major Major Major: Oh, I got a bunch. Some are more obscure but deserve a wider audience. Lots of lgbtqia creators and POC creators.

  57. 57
    RSA says:

    @Brachiator:

    I have not read McEwan’s novel, but some summaries sound as though he is writing about themes that have been thoroughly explored in SF.

    My take so far is that this is the case, though I’m not an expert. That said, it’s plausible that McEwan’s writing is better than those who have explored the theme before him. I think revisiting existing ideas can sink an SF work–SF has been called a literature of ideas–but it may not be detrimental to a mainstream work.

  58. 58

    @RSA:

    I think revisiting existing ideas can sink an SF work–SF has been called a literature of ideas–but it may not be detrimental to a mainstream work.

    But… he wrote an SF work.

  59. 59
    J R in WV says:

    I don’t care for podcasts, as it distracts me from my reading… is that too strange? But I’ve been reading for a V long time, and I read an article about speed reading while in Jr High, and started trying to do it as it was described in the article… now I can read really fast, much faster than people can speak a role.

    Reading fiction is my escape from our dystopian present — Crazed perfect leader and all his despicable minions. Can’t stand it, so check out into the world of Science Fiction and odd Fantasy. More realistic, orcs and fairies and ghouls, than current events, AND less threatening than Crazed “Perfect” Leader~!!

    No offense to those making audio fiction, hope for your success and happiness!! Maybe I’ll try it while scanning and editing photos… and Thanks for sharing so many suggestions that fellow Jackals enjoy!!

    ETA quote marks for “perfect” leader…

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    DanF says:

    This might keep you busy for a couple decades: https://archive.org/details/oldtimeradio

  62. 62
    debbie says:

    @RSA:

    That’s just it: He can craft better sentences than most writers. But that’s not enough to carry the book. Like I said, I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but it felt like he hadn’t given a whole lot of thought or imagination to AI or its implications.

  63. 63
    RSA says:

    @Major Major Major Major:

    But… he wrote an SF work.

    Oops, maybe I was unclear. Or confused. :-)

    I think that a given work can be considered from different perspectives, and the standards are different for the SF and mainstream genres. Machines Like Us may be a bad SF novel but an adequate mainstream novel. Jo Walton, for example, describes what it’s like for a mainstream reader to bounce off what is considered a good SF novel; the opposite can also happen.

  64. 64
    low-tech cyclist says:

    Later, in high school, a friend introduced me to the inestimable Nick Danger, Third Eye, which I still think about more than is probably healthy.

    “You haven’t seen the last of me, Danger!”
    “No, but the first of you turns my stomach.”

    Rocky Rococo was clearly based on Joel Cairo, the Maltese Falcon character played by Peter Lorre, who got all the good ‘slimy weasel’ roles in Bogie’s films. If you watch the scene when Cairo first comes into Bogart’s office in Maltese Falcon, and then listen to the analogous scene in Nick Danger , the parallels are pretty unmissable.

  65. 65

    @low-tech cyclist: oh, for sure. Those bits work on so many levels, I was finding new jokes in them well into my late twenties. Probably a few left hiding in there.

  66. 66
    Blue mouser says:

    @Litlebritdifrnt: I have to check that one out! Love Gaiman’s works

  67. 67
    Blue mouser says:

    @Roger Moore: I was referencing the radio play that came out in 2013, well after the novel came out. I forgot about the origins of the story, thanks for reminding me about how the story evolved

  68. 68
    NobodySpecial says:

    When I was listening to podcasts, I came at them from a different direction: Actual plays of tabletop role playing games. Yes, many of them run long and are filled with distractions from the stories, but the best of them I find to be amazing works of collaborative fiction, with only one person at the table having the story in front of them whilst also having to fold in details on the spot as players sometimes flail blindly at the outlines. From there I went to podcasts that they recommended for inspiration.

  69. 69
    hotshoe says:

    Archive Of Our Own
    Two Two One Bravo Baker
    read by aranel_parmadil

    WARNING
    this is a disturbing subject, a war crime under investigation in Afghanistan, vividly described,
    AND WARNING
    very explicit sexual conduct between two men begins in the second chapter
    NOT SAFE FOR WORK

    but truly, beyond excellent.
    Highest recommendation!

  70. 70
    otmar says:

    I don’t usually listen to audio books/dramas, but the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is really good.

  71. 71
    karen marie says:

    Thank you for all of this! I love listening to books because my chronic anxiety makes it difficult to sit and read words on a page.

    My go-to source of excellent books read by excellent readers is Librivox. Everything is public domain, and it’s free to listen. You can pay $1 for the app, if you want, but there’s no big push to do so (no push at all, in fact – I fell over it by accident at some point). My two very favorite readers are Mil Nicholson (who does Dickens brilliantly – try her versions even if you think you don’t care for Dickens) and Elizabeth Clett (who reads works by more obscure 19th C authors, some better than others but interesting from a historical standpoint both in terms of seeing 19th C life from a different angle than, say, Dickens and in terms of what was available to and popular with the public at the time).

    It’s a huge collection of works ranging across all genres. If you haven’t looked at Librivox, I recommend it.

    PS Forgot to put in the link: https://archive.org/details/librivoxaudio

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