Perhaps your average idea of a podcast is a public radio news program, with longform journalism uncovering a hidden area of everyday life. Maybe it’s an interview show, where hosts dig into the personal and professional lives of experts in any number of fields. Your favorite might even be a show where a handful of people talk about their favorite bits of pop culture — of which IndieWire has a few! — every week.
Beyond those podcasting subgenres is an emerging world of quality audio fiction, scripted programming that follows a carefully crafted story arc. Sometimes these shows are episodic, stretching over years’ worth of episodes. Others are less straightforward spins on a theatrical premise. There are enough shows out there to flood your queue, but for now, here are 10 quality podcasts worth subscribing to (if you haven’t already).
Some scripted podcasts use a lush production design to approximate a particular time and place. But with a country-spanning story of business, crime and love, “Bronzeville” has the added, lived-in feel of history that many other shows strive for. Between the writing and a bevy of talented actors (Laurence Fishburne, Wood Harris, Tika Sumpter, Lance Reddick and Larenz Tate, just to name a few), the ongoing, state-hopping narrative taps into the specific language of rhythms of running an underground, off-the-books lottery. Add in some evocative narration and “Bronzeville” really feels tied to the theatrical spirit of a vintage radio drama.
“Dead Pilots Society” is one of the few scripted shows that gets to have it both ways. The show, which allows writers to revive TV pilots that went unproduced or weren’t ordered to series, has attracted some high-profile performers to help bring these scripts to life. It combines the loose nature of a regional theater production with the refined writing abilities of some top-notch premises that inexplicably were never given a chance to find a proper TV audience. The best part for lucky L.A. residents: the show continues to tape these live, with most performances at the Largo Theater.
Listen to “Dead Pilots Society” here.
Gimlet’s first foray into audio fiction came like a bolt out of the blue late last fall. Another show with an enigmatic premise that slowly revealed itself over the course of its six episode run, the story of a soldier rehabilitation program became an impressive showcase for what a talented writer and cast can evoke just with fictional audio recordings. With some unsurprisingly great turns from Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and a never-better David Schwimmer, it laid the foundation for a show that thankfully will be enjoying a second season later this summer. Another chance to explore the slippery nature of memory and the dangers of repressing past traumas? We’re subscribed and ready.
GE and Panoply’s initial foray into scripted podcasts is still the best recreation of the public radio style. From Nicky Tomalin’s investigative host cadence to the varied sound quality in different fictional locales, it’ll make you second-guess whether or not they discovered these tapes in a secure vault somewhere. Annapurna Sriram is fantastic as Nicky, and see if you can pick out Broadway favorite Gideon Glick from the ensemble. Mac Rogers, who wrote the series, also teamed up for an in-spirit follow up, last year’s “Life/After.”
Maybe this pick is a bit of a stretch, since the writing that populates this live show is mostly from diaries and first-hand accounts from when the storytellers were younger. But in a way, aren’t diary entries just our own personal history is that we fashion for ourselves? Some of the stories are harrowing, but most of them deliver a playful insight into the preoccupations and concerns that in our youth seem so immense but are almost comical when viewed through the lens of maturity. Whether part of an ongoing theme or a memorable one-off, these episodes always help to put the anxieties of the past in a fresh, entertaining context.
Part of the appeal of “Reading Aloud” comes from the spontaneous conversations about a shared love for literature and the desire to share that enthusiasm with a wide audience. But, in sticking to the theme of this list, host Nate Corddry also found a way to use his fellow comedy world denizens to whip up some of the most entertaining performances of literary fiction you’ll find this side of The New Yorker. A stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence, Timothy Simons reading classic McSweeneys entries and Corddry himself tackling everything from Tim O’Brien to his guest’s own poetry make this show as informative as it is entertaining.
Backroom deals. Potential treason. Questionable relationships with the press. “Terms” is a White House-set drama that unexpectedly became an eerie shadow of the ongoing American political landscape. Yet, this show has an added layer of popcorn soap-opera self-awareness, the sort that fuels some of the best fictional presidency stories of TV and film. After detours through the various skeletons hidden in the closets of the politicians who populate this version of the government, “Terms” earns a spot on this list for sheer gusto. The end of Season 1 aims as high as any fictional version of D.C. has gone, setting the stage for a second batch of episodes that could arrive in a much different America.
Jonathan Mitchell and company have tackled any number of subjects for this Radiotopia fiction anthology, from the transitory nature of love to the metaphysical trickiness of voice acting. Even though some of the best episodes mine their power from an existential dread, the show also makes time for lighter fare as well. For every episode set in a dystopian mall, there’s an episode of the Songonauts, a serial adventure story about a ragtag band of musicians facing off against inter-dimensional threats.
The show may have switched venues slightly in its ongoing second season, but the youngster team-up element of should delight fans looking for a “Stranger Things” fix before Season 2 rolls around. It’s one of the rare scripted shows that all ages can enjoy comfortably, with some A+ child protagonists, including Mars himself and his trusted group of cohorts. Extra kudos for a ongoing series of bonus episodes that invite kids to interact with the show in a more direct way rather than passively absorbing the story. It’s a mystery investigation with just the right dash of whimsy and a healthy dose of scientific curiosity baked into it.
Listen to “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel” here.
One of the most bewitching storytelling experiments the podcast world has heard, “Within the Wires” is as surreptitious as its enigmatic narrator. Voiced and co-written by Janina Matthewson, this series of discovered audio cassettes begins as a series of straightforward relaxation tapes. Gradually, these tapes evolve to encompass a richly detailed and carefully defined world of emotional memory and institutional control. Before too long, you’ll be so caught up in the tiny hints at this ethereal other-worldly tale that you won’t even realize that you’re subconsciously responding to the breathing exercises in between.