These days, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we’re all home a lot more often — and we’re finding ways to work, connect and entertain ourselves, largely with the help of screens. Whether you’re hopping onto a Zoom happy hour with friends, queueing up another series on Netflix or diving into an Instagram scroll, you’re probably looking at screens way more often than you would if you could get out and explore.
Sure, wearing blue light-filtering glasses, using eye drops and making adjustments to your monitor settings and lighting are all great moves, but nothing does the trick for eye strain and headaches more than taking a screen break. Don’t know how you’ll entertain yourself without a TV? We’ve got you covered — in fact, we’ve delved into quite a few incredible audio drama podcasts that are just as absorbing and immersive as any TV show or movie.
For those who are new to audio dramas, these aren’t your average comedian-with-a-podcast shows. Thanks to incredible voice talent, impeccable sound design and production, and stellar writing, these pods create visceral worlds and memorable characters — and deliver them straight to your headphones. From the surreal or comedic to your next sci-fi or crime thriller obsession, these fiction audio dramas are some of our favorites.
Borrasca | QCode Media
Written by Rebecca Klingel, this horror podcast from QCode started as a multi-part short story that Klingel (a.k.a. CK Walker) posted on Reddit’s r/nosleep community, where it won the subreddit’s award for Scariest Story in 2015. For those who don’t know, every story posted on r/nosleep is considered true, even if it’s fictional, so if you comment on said story, the subreddit’s gimmick is that you play along and stay in character. All of this has led to the rise of a kind of internet-based urban-legend-meets-campfire-horror-story genre. And, let’s just say, it works amazingly well in podcast form.
Relatively new to the scene, QCode’s narrative dramas are often produced, in part, by a big-name star, and Borrasca is no exception. Here, Riverdale‘s Cole Sprouse plays Sam Walker, a man who, after years of personal struggle and keeping things pent up, tells his parole officer, Leah Dixon (Lisa Edelstein), about a disturbing series of events that occurred in his childhood after his family moved to the small town of Drisking, Missouri. Each episode begins and ends with a session between Sam and Leah, but, sandwiched in between, are flashbacks that highlight key moments in Sam’s past.
In the first episode, a young Sam befriends two other Drisking kids, Kyle (Daniel Webber) and Kimber (Sarah Yarkin). While on a bike ride, a horrifying sound known as the “Borrasca Scream” tears through the forest; Kyle and Kimber explain that no one knows the origins of the scream — it’s just something that happens — and, in its aftermath, the older teens in town throw a Borrasca party at a creepy treehouse in the woods. Not unlike the Twin Peaks-like mysteries Borrasca draws its inspiration from, teen girls are going missing, often after these parties, and Sam finds his world upended when his own sister, Whitney (Peyton Kennedy), vanishes one day.
Although his parents choose to believe that Whitney simply ran away, Sam is convinced that something more nefarious is going on. As a high schooler, he tries to understand what, exactly, is happening in Drisking — and how it connects to Borrasca, this place of legend. This one is dark, disturbing and so all-consuming. With just nine episodes, you’ll devour the first season of this show in no time. Definitely listen with headphones: The sound design is unparalleled and only adds to the immersive atmosphere.
Wolf 359 | Kinda Evil Genius Productions
If you’re a fan of space operas, Wolf 359 is for you — and, with over 6 million downloads to date, more than a few listeners can vouch for the excellence of this podcast. Co-produced by creator Gabriel Urbina and star Zach Valenti, Wolf 359 is a radio drama that draws from Golden Age of Radio shows and mixes that tradition with a sci-fi element.
The show takes its name from a star, which the U.S.S. Hephaestus space station — and its rather dysfunctional crew — orbits while on a deep-space survey mission. On the daily, the crew faces life-or-death situations, all in the name of searching for signs of alien life. At first the show feels comedic and lighthearted, with a focus on building out its characters, but, bit by bit, the crew discovers that “there might be more to their mission than they thought,” taking things in a more sci-fi thriller direction. Although it is an ensemble show, the story initially centers on Doug Eiffel (Valenti), who, while scanning for signs of alien life, finds recordings of classical music — and the recordings are too old to have come from Earth. When the crew reaches out to their funders, Goddard Futuristics, it becomes clear that there’s something nefarious afoot.
After 61 episodes, the 18-time Audio Verse Award-winning show came to an end a few years ago, meaning it’s all available if you want to queue up a podcast marathon. And you’ll want to listen all at once — the unraveling of the larger story is completely gripping, and the ensemble cast of characters becomes so very important to you. All of this to say, do yourself a favor and “tune into your home away from home…seven and a half light years away from Earth.”
Alice Isn’t Dead | Night Vale Presents
If you’re familiar with any audio drama podcast, it’s probably Welcome to Night Vale, a strange, absurdist podcast about the odd desert town of Night Vale, which has also made waves on Twitter and spawned several books. But Night Vale Presents, helmed by creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, is the source behind quite a few other boundary-pushing, popular podcasts, from Dreamboy to Alice Isn’t Dead — the one we recommend above all the others in Night Vale’s catalogue. Created and written by Fink, the show tells the story of Keisha (Jasika Nicole), a woman who believes her wife, Alice, disappeared — that is, until she spots Alice on the news.
Eager to reunite with Alice, Keisha becomes a truck driver for the enigmatic Bay and Creek company. The job allows her to travel across the country, which is great for her search, but, look, things take consistently strange and dark turns. There’s the kind of unsettling, empty Americana vibe; Keisha’s rising anxiety; a surreal series of stops and deliveries; and, above all else, the fact that the roads seem to be haunted by a not-quite-human serial killer known only as the Thistleman. Somehow, all of these things — the Thistleman, Bay and Creek, Alice — are connected, and Keisha is determined to unravel the conspiracy at hand.
There’s a lot to love here. Again, if you’re a fan of the strange (i.e. anything directed by David Lynch), you’re looking for a compelling depiction of mental health and anxiety or you love a good scare, Alice Isn’t Dead is for you. The story is narrated by Keisha, who speaks into her truck’s hand radio, which means, much like an audiobook, Nicole has to do a lot of heavy lifting. Without a doubt, she more than pulls it off — Keisha is such a vivid character, one whom you won’t want to leave your life after the podcast’s three incredible seasons.
Caravan | The Whisperforge
The Whisperforge is the collective behind some of the best narrative podcasts out there, including their flagship audio drama ars Paradoxica (more on that later!). Without a doubt, one of the collective’s most enthralling works is Caravan. Created by writer, director, producer and voice actor Tau Zaman, the show is a “weird-west audio drama about getting through hell with people you love.”
When Caravan debuted, it won six Audio Verse Awards, including Best New Audio Play Production. It tells the story of Samir (Sushant Adlakha), who falls into a canyon while camping. And this canyon? It’s, well, uncanny — to say the least. It’s also the way into a world populated by demons and banshees and cowboys and the echoes of people. In blending westerns with the supernatural, the world of Caravan is unlike anything else you’ve experienced. According to the podcast’s Twitter, the official recipe for the show is: “½ cup Red Dead Redemption 2, 1 cup True Blood, 1 cup Torchwood, 2 heaping tablespoons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1 Bastion soundtrack guitar and 1 Pyre wagon” — oh, and add “gay [social justice warrior] s— to taste.”
Why do we love it? A) the incredible world-building, and B) how deeply intimate and personal everything feels. In an interview with Wil Williams, Zaman noted that the podcast pulls from their own experiences, be it Samir’s code-switching, or the character’s navigation of clinical depression. Before Samir falls into the strange canyon, our protagonist says, “I’m always going to be a little bit sad about things even when I’m happy for you. When I say things it’s like talking through a screen.” Zaman noted that this dialogue was lifted from their own life, and while having others act out one’s own “vulnerabilities and anxieties” might seem a little terrifying at first, it’s that same voice-driven vulnerability that lends to Caravan‘s brilliance. Bonus: If you love audiobooks, this podcast has that vibe — and a ton of lovely imagery to boot.
The Left Right Game | QCode Media
We’re putting another QCode podcast on our list because we just can’t resist. Also, it’s not our fault that the media collective has recently released a handful of incredible audio dramas, from the Cynthia Erivo-helmed Carrier, which tells the dark and twisting story of a truck driver toting unusual cargo, to Dirty Diana, which stars Demi Moore as a woman who runs an erotic website where people reveal their sexual fantasies. But today we’re here to talk about The Left Right Game, which was written by Jack Anderson, produced by its star Tessa Thompson and, like Borrasca, based off of a story post on Reddit’s r/nosleep.
The podcast centers on two different, but interrelated, stories. In one thread, a man named Tom (Aml Ameen) is searching for a journalist named Alice Sharman (Thompson); no one seems to believe that she exists — and Tom is the only one who seems to remember her. In fact, when he plays Alice’s audio tapes, everyone else, from Tom’s therapist to his mom, hears nothing. Creepy, right? Meanwhile, seemingly a little while before the start of Tom’s story, Alice heads to the U.S. to investigate a strange phenomenon called The Left Right Game. The game, which simply involves going for a drive and taking a left turn and then a right turn and then a left and so on, takes a paranormal turn. There’s something unsettling about it all — some folks believe the game can lead to another reality. So, like any good journalist, Alice joins a convoy of paranormal investigators led by a man named Rob (W. Earl Brown) to investigate.
Look, we don’t want to say too much more. It’s best to just experience all the twists and turns (pun intended) for yourself. The first season has just 10 episodes, so it’s easy to listen to the whole story in a day. As with Borrasca, we recommend listening with headphones, since The Left Right Game uses the technique of audio panning to create an incredibly immersive surround sound experience.
To be honest, we wish we had the room to spotlight twice as many audio drama podcasts. There are just so many worth listening to, and they span some of our favorite genres. Here are just a few more — and one really well-made audiobook
Subscribe to these ASAP:
- Limetown | Two-Up Productions: Lia Haddock (Annie Sage Whitehurst), a public radio reporter, investigates what happened to the 300 people who disappeared from a research facility in small-town Limetown, Tennessee, a decade ago. Fans of Serial and The X-Files will love this one.
- ars Paradoxica | The Whisperforge: In the collective’s flagship podcast, an experiment goes awry, leaving Dr. Sally Grissom (Kristen DiMercurio) stranded in the past. This journey through space-time — and the Cold War — is a captivating “love letter to physics.”
- Within the Wires | Night Vale Presents: This one is self-described as “an immersive fiction podcast using found audio from an alternate universe.” That is, it’s bold and unafraid to play with the form. For example, season one’s benign-to-deeply-personal story is told over the course of relaxation cassettes created by the nebulous “Institute,” whereas season two uses a museum audio tour to unravel the disappearance of a famed artist.
- The Far Meridian | The Whisperforge: Infused with magical realism, this audio drama tells the story of Peri (creator Eli Barraza), a woman who lives in a lighthouse. One morning, the lighthouse is…somewhere different, leading Peri to wander mysterious vistas while confronting her fears and searching for her missing brother.
- I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick: This YA thriller, which is set over the course of a summer in the Hamptons, is told from several points of view and via a true crime podcast spearheaded by one of the characters. All of this means that, unlike your traditional audiobook, this one features an ensemble cast, making it feel like the perfect blend between book and audio drama. Check out the audiobook today!