Every year, lists of the “best of” everything dominate the zeitgeist. Choosing the “best audio drama and fiction podcasts” is painful because the criteria for “best” is subjective and hard to define. Most downloads? Come on. Most social media buzz? Maybe. Biggest budget? Where’s the challenge in that?
Instead, let’s look at some of the standout audio drama and fiction podcasts for 2023, with ideas and innovation to help audiences in the coming year. In no particular order, here are the podcasts that should be in your queue if they’re not already.
Gideon Media surprises audiences again, this time focusing on faith, power, and identity. The stories Mac Rogers, Jordana Williams, and the company create best are about perspective and consequences for those who don’t or can’t interpret the situation from multiple angles.
In Steal The Stars, it was Moss’ form and intention. In Give Me Away, it was why the refugees were imprisoned in the first place. This time, Sean Williams’ Almelem is about religion vs. faith and illusion vs. reality. It’s even more interesting when the people setting up the original illusion are themselves eluded or transformed. You won’t think about the story of Jesus’ last days the same way again.
2. The Boar Knight
This show feels bright and zippy, like an anime from the late 1970s. It’s the kind of thing my brother and I would watch when we were supposed to be doing homework.
Some of that comes from The Boar Knight‘s theme music and some from the quick pacing and fun premise. Fool & Scholar‘s protagonist, Nathaniel, is non-verbal, a knight and boar who suffers from severe weremanism. He communicates in grunts, snarls, and the occasional growl, but everyone understands him. Fool & Scholar are known for The White Vault, Dark Dice, and Don’t Mind: Cruxmont, mysterious thrillers in heightened realities. The Boar Knight is pure cookies & milk fun.
The story’s tone is right on edge between silly for kids and satirical for adults. Especially those who grew up with The Elder Scrolls games. For example, the Mischievous Memory Mining Moles feed themselves with the memories that others tramp down. They will pop up in your head whenever you lose your keys. Cute, satirical, fast-paced, and funny, you’ll want to go with Nathaniel on his quest.
Since the beginning of 2020, we’ve all had to reframe our relationship with death and life. Chaika begins as the purest scientific proposal. One storyline shows a woman coping with grief at life’s end. The other shows a woman dealing with life’s responsibilities at its beginning.
Chaika’s magic is in the perfect environment for recovery. The AI systems, Hygge, Lequ, and Trost, are all endearing, challenging, and determined. They make up a support system as perfect as fairy godmothers, showing how rocky the grieving process is, even in a perfectly stable situation.
Then, when you think Chaika’s found a soft landing, everything changes. The emotions in Chaika’s journey are raw and honest. Karin Heimdahl‘s saga isn’t an easy listen. However, it’s worthwhile listening for what it can do for your coping skills.
“There’s plenty SPACE for great fiction podcasts – amiright?” – Dad in Space (a fiction podcast that never was)
Is ELIZA: A Robot Story about the coming android robot revolution, or is it about domestic violence? As the companion robot Eliza gains sentience, she starts questioning her existence, environment, and Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.
There’s a lot to question in Eliza’s world. Come for Emma Hickman’s thriller about artificial intelligence, fascism, and isolation, starring Arthur Darvill (Doctor Who) and Tanya Roberts (Sex Education). Stay for the subtext from the producers’ partnership with Manchester Women’s Aid, showing how insidious and unexpected domestic violence can be.
Ella Watts (Doctor Who Redacted, Six to Start) directs a dreamlike world of facts, feelings, and impulses that builds to a terrifying conclusion. The bonus Easter Egg is Tom Crowley and his multi-faceted performances as the supporting male cast.
5. The Fause Knight
A Middle Ages horse thief steals a suit of armor from a battle site. Once she puts it on, she quickly learns it’s not the protection she expected. As the armor confers status, it makes her more of a target, both in the mundane world and the supernatural. The Fause Knight‘s excellence in sound design rounds out performances from audio drama veterans like Karim Kronfli and Erika Sanderson.
In the Fause Knight, creator Elliot Somerfield takes a classic tale about curses, good intentions, and consequences and makes a highly accessible, multi-layered immersive audio drama experience.
6. The Goblet Wire
If you enjoyed the echoey distant telepathic fantasy nature of The Dungeon Economic Model, The Goblet Wire is for you.
Imagine playing a tabletop role-playing game via telephone calls to a secret network. Each episode is a singular, surreal microfiction, and the players’ experience depends on what they bring to the remote environment. Is the story in the content of the phone calls or the phone calls’ process? Or both? Either way, you’ll be mystified and enchanted by this surreal, experimental dreamscape.
7. Maxine Miles
Since they released The Bright Sessions in 2015, Atypical Artists has led the pack for audio drama podcasts about young people with old problems. Now, they’re innovating with a format where the audience has to solve the mystery and choose the ending.
Maxine Miles is about the disappearance of a young person from Hastings, an idyllic small town in New Hampshire. Max investigates with her friend Ross and discovers the currents of deception and betrayal underneath Hastings’ polished surface.
This show is intended for audiences of any age. It’s suitable for fans of Riverdale, Sabrina, or any story with a town where everything seems fine, but the kids are onto something. Season One found its ending earlier this year; audiences can experience the end selected as the springboard for Season 2, as well as the two other opinions.
8. Silly Old Bear
Silly Old Bear is the perfect comfort-listening podcast. Not only because it’s a series based on A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories but also because of how it’s made.
The entire confection – voices, music, sound design, and cadence – work together into a warm, gentle, and uplifting experience. No matter how many times you hear these stories, there’s no question whether Pooh will get the honey or Eeyore will eventually find joy. What matters is that this podcast is a pleasant respite from the world.
9. Small Victories
Marisol, a recovering drug addict, tries to start her life over again, but “life has other plans.” This deceptively simple premise makes up Small Victories‘ spine.
What pushes this audio drama podcast above the average cautionary tale are the direction and sound design, coupled with Morgan McKynzie’s performance as Marisol. The audience accompanies her inside her mind and out of it as she rationalizes, schemes, makes promises, breaks them, and tries to start over again. Truth and reality are a given in With Good Company‘s story. What’s at stake is Marisol’s relationship with truth and reality.
An addict’s biggest challenge is sympathy, and McKynzie balances the audience’s emotions, even when Marisol is about to lose everything again. Small Victories is a harrowing experience but worthwhile. This podcast is necessary listening for anyone who ever needed to understand why people are self-destructive.
10. Audio Drama and Fiction Podcast Bonus Content
Bonus content never gets enough praise. These extras happen when the audience wants more and/or the company has extra resources to share. By the time a podcast producer makes a bonus episode, everyone involved knows the show so well that variations on the theme and what-if speculations are exciting experiments. Most of these happen outside a podcast’s regular feed, so they’re a reward for the dedicated audio drama fan.
Farewell, Piffling Vale
Wooden Overcoats concluded its series in 2022 with farewell episodes published via their usual feed and performed live at King’s Place a week later. The cast, crew, and writers of Wooden Overcoats gave their audience so much in four seasons that the farewell episodes felt like going above and beyond.
For me, the shining moment of what makes bonus content a true gift to contemporary audio fiction is in the bonus episode of Rudyard Ruins Hallowe’en. At one point, Eric Chapman finally admits that not only is he a vampire but also that his survival has been because of his enormous sun hat, which he has always worn. They haven’t discussed it before.
Bandcamp’s Variations on a Theme
Tin Can Audio and Longcat Media have always excelled at using Bandcamp for monetization. Both companies emphasize musical quality in their audio drama podcasts, so having albums available for sale is a no-brainer. What’s more exciting is when they expand on the original content, such as Tin Can Audio’s Chill Beats To Build Profitable Dungeons To, or Laurence Owen’s Genre Fiction.
Crowdfunding Minisodes with Dr. Bell
Victoriocity‘s For Whom Dr. Bell Toils is a delightful series of short messages from the side of a coroner’s operating table. A piratical map composed of tattoos illustrates the adventure, sound-designed and acted in such a way that you’ll lean in to make sure you fully understand every detail in this comic mystery. Produced alongside their Season 3 crowdfunding campaign, Chris and Jen Sugden’s mini-series shows that crowdfunding benefits all listeners, not only the ones who can donate.
But you should always donate to audio drama crowdfunding campaigns if you enjoy the show; that’s how it is.
Want More of the Best Audio Drama and Fiction Podcasts In Your Life?
These podcasts should get you through any challenges 2023 brings. Waiting rooms, long bus rides, cleaning out basements, working out, all of these will be a snap. Plus, any of these can lead you to more good audio drama and fiction podcasts. Most of the world is downsizing. But there aren’t limits to the imaginative escapes audio drama and fiction podcasts provide. There are enough exciting audio drama and fiction podcasts in the world that any sane person could cancel their television and movie streaming services and stay happily entertained for perpetuity.
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