Scripted podcasts are filling the storytelling gap once provided by radio dramas – an all but forgotten art on traditional radio stations.
The first scripted podcast to break out as a mainstream hit was Welcome to Night Vale. This surreal dark comedy is presented as a community radio station bulletin from a fictional town, one that feels like a mix between Twin Peaks and Buffy‘s hometown of Sunnydale. Cecil Baldwin is the presenter, reading announcements, advertisements, and so often hazards to avoid in the desert location – all with a deadpan delivery of a sadistic NPR host.
Welcome to Night Vale.
Night Vale has spawned two books, a spin-off show and will soon be coming to television. The podcast is being adapted for the screen by the producers of Breaking Bad.
Getting started with Night Vale can be daunting; while each episode can stand alone, there are many plot arcs and running jokes that reward long-term listeners. Thankfully, the website has a starter's guide for new listeners, highlighting the episodes that introduce some of the major plot points of the series, as well as recap episodes to fill in the blanks.
Night Vale's format proved a popular one to mimic – with many successful scripted podcasts playing as radio bulletins or documentaries. Limetown is another breakout hit, this time presenting itself as a short-run documentary in the vein of Serial.
Limetown‘s protagonist is Lia Haddock, a journalist researching the disappearance of more than 300 people at a neuroscience research facility in Tennessee. Limetown's six-episode run finished in 2015, but the show has since gathered a cult following, and a second series is in production, scheduled for release this Halloween. Also due out soon is a novel that will act as a prequel to the show.
If you'd prefer something a little more absurd, The Onion's A Very Fatal Murder tells the tale of fictional radio host David Pascall and his search for the perfect murder to produce an award-winning podcast around. Pascall is a self-centred New York journalist with little regard for the victim or the small town residents he interviews. The joke wears thin pretty quickly, but fans of true crime podcasts will find much to cringe over – and the live ad reads for fictional but all too familiar products are beautifully done.
Gimlet Media has also entered the radio drama market, presumably with much higher budgets thanks to the stars on board. Gimlet's first scripted drama, Homecoming, debuted in 2016, with Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer adding Hollywood glamour to the podcast. The psychological thriller tells the story of a damaged soldier and the case worker trying to rehabilitate him back into society. The story is now headed for the small screen, with Julia Roberts starring in the television adaptation.
And earlier this year Gimlet debuted another star-studded podcast, Sandra, a seven-episode series with a fascinating premise. Sandra is a virtual assistant much like Siri, but behind the AI service is a team of real humans, answering the questions and offering advice to users. Here, the unseen human assistants become entangled in the lives of the users.
And they're just some of the biggest names in scripted podcasts. There are many other indie hits to explore in your favourite podcast player.
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