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Although fiction podcasts might seem like a fresh and novel concept, their history dates back almost a century—to the golden age of old-time radio.
In a recent article, we discussed how the unexpected success of Serial led to massive interest in the podcasting medium. Over the last few years, thousands of podcasts have been created across a huge range of genres and formats—there are podcasts about entrepreneurship, health and wellness, psychology, economics, crime, sports. There are even podcasts about podcasts, and the list goes on.
But there’s one genre in particular that storytellers and listeners alike have flocked to in recent years: fiction podcasts (also known as audio dramas). Some shows even feature well-known television actors—Gimlet Media’s Homecoming features Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, Amy Sedaris and David Cross. People made a big deal when big name actors migrated from movies to television—the move to radio seems like an even bigger jump.
Although fiction podcasts might seem like a fresh and novel concept, their history dates back almost a century—to the golden age of old-time radio. In this article, we’ll look at the history of drama on the radio, and explore how one of the oldest forms of entertainment has come full circle.
It was during radio’s golden age—which began in the 1920s and went on through the 1960s—that audio dramas were developed, broadcasted and eagerly consumed around the world. The Shadow was a collection of serialized dramas based on a superhero-like character from a pulp magazine. The Lone Ranger told the story of a Texas Ranger who fought outlaws in the American Old West. The BBC also produced a number of successful shows—Dick Barton, Mrs. Dale’s Diary and Front Line Family—to name a few. And then there was The Mercury Theater on the Air, which produced one of the most infamous audio drama episodes of that era, War of the Worlds. (If you don’t know the crazy story behind the original broadcast, read about it on Wikipedia—it’s well worth your time).
By the 1940s, audio dramas were the leading form of popular entertainment. They introduced an innovative form of media consumption that allowed listeners immerse themselves into gripping stories week after week. But just as quickly as they rose, they fell.
Who (or what) is to blame for the downfall of audio drama? Television. In one fell swoop, television seemingly sucked the American population away from audio drama and froze it in time. And while several audio dramas were revived through both short and long form television, the radio episodes from whence they came eventually met their demise.
No matter their turbulent past, audio dramas are really having a moment right now. Since (and even before) the 2014 release of Serial, determined storytellers have been experimenting with an array of fiction podcasts. First came Welcome to Night Vale, a series presented as a radio show that reports on strange events that occur in the fictional town of Night Vale. Then came Limetown, a series that follows the story of a radio reporter who sets out to solve a mysterious disappearance of 300 people in a Tennessee town. Then came Homecoming, a scripted series that tells the story of veterans who return from their service and attend a somewhat-sinister government program. There were so many other podcasts in between, and so many that have followed. All of which have brilliantly married fictional storytelling with theatrical audio elements.
Welcome to Night Vale, which was originally released in 2012, has spawned into a novel and has recently announced plans for TV adaptation. Homecoming, originally released in 2015, has recently begun production on their TV series. Gimlet Media, the makers of Homecoming, have already released a second scripted audio drama starring Kristen Wiig and Alia Shawkat titled Sandra.
And there’s no doubt that other podcasts will make their way to the screen. Is history repeating itself again? After all, The Lone Ranger started on radio—but most folks only know the TV show and movies. It looks like the same technology that froze audio dramas in time is now getting ready to air them.