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?
Best Fiction Podcasts for 2023
Put together by Lindsay Harris Friel, creator of the Jarnsaxa Rising audio drama series, co-host of the Audio Drama Writers’ Independent Toolkit podcast, and editor of the Fiction Podcast Weekly newsletter.
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.
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.
If You Like That Fiction Podcast, You’ll Love This Fiction Podcast
Comparison doesn’t serve podcasters well when it feeds competition. It’s healthy, however, when we’re trying to narrow down a wide range of options. In the interest of podcast discovery, the statement “if you like this, then you’ll also like that,” can help audiences find shows they’ll care even more about. Let’s give it a try.
Best Fiction Podcasts if You Like We’re Alive
We’re Alive is the show that made a thousand audio enthusiasts say, “I want to do that.” Fortunately, K.C. Wayland is generous with his knowledge. Not only has he made other audio drama podcasts, but he also wrote the educational book, Bombs Always Beep. If you enjoy immersive adventures where intrepid folk battle an indescribable horror in an unforgiving world, here are some others you should try.
The Cleansed: An apocalyptic tale about Maria and Luke, siblings who escape with rebel leader John Prophet to save the world from a second man-made apocalypse.
Primordial Deep: A team of scientists and marine explorers searches for a deep-sea creature too big to imagine. The immersive sound design on this adventure will have your heart racing.
A Scottish Podcast
A Scottish Podcast: Lee, a washed-up former radio DJ, wants to see his show The Terror Files mentioned up there alongside podcasts like The Black Tapes, Limetown, and The Message. And he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it. Aided by his jaded musician pal Dougie, the pair travel the length and breadth of the country in search of Medieval Demon Kings and Lovecraftian Gods of the Sea.
Best Fiction Podcasts if You Like Limetown or The Black Tapes
Both of these stories follow an investigative journalist digging her way through a web of unanswered questions. Whether the enemy is Big Tech or supernatural, the mystery depends on perception and unreliable witnesses. If you enjoy these podcasts, you’ll like:
Arden, in which a journalist and a detective unravel the mysterious disappearance of a Hollywood starlet and the unidentified body in the trunk of her car.
Death by Dying
Death by Dying, where the obituary writer of Crestfall Idaho investigates mysterious deaths, and finds himself tackling more than he can handle.
How i Died
How i Died, where a forensic pathologist relies on a unique advantage; that he can talk to ghosts.
Best Fiction Podcasts if you like Welcome to Night Vale
This late-night radio missive from a surreal desert town inspired a surprising number of fans to dress up as super-powered glowing clouds. The radio host framework isn’t difficult to reproduce. Making that unique is another question. Here are some standout offerings.
Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope
Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope This daily fiction podcast from Atlanta Radio Theatre Company is a different kind of zombie story. What do you do when you’re trapped in a radio station during the zombie apocalypse? You help people. Episodes older than 24 hours are only available through their Patreon page, so when you see this in your feed, listen as soon as you can.
The Earth Moves
The Earth Moves: People tune into Brent Ziff’s radio show to hear him make fun of losers. But tonight’s loser, Leo Short, is calling with a message straight from the bowels of the Earth that’s going to put everything Brent knows on shaky ground. Writer and producer Mac Rogers has been churning out audio drama thrillers (Steal The Stars, Give me Away) for years. Thank goodness there appears to be no stopping him.
Best Fiction Podcasts if You Like Wolf 359
Set on board the U.S.S. Hephaestus space station, the dysfunctional crew deals with daily life-or-death emergencies, while searching for signs of alien life and discovering there might be more to their mission than they thought. Wolf 359 utilizes comedy, character exploration and drama in a way that’s reminiscent of Red Dwarf and Star Trek Deep Space 9.
Oblivity A disgraced war hero is posted to Pluto on her toughest mission yet: to oversee a small, dysfunctional research team. You know all the side characters in space adventures who have to be saved by the Captain Kirks and Starbucks of the galaxy? What if there were finally an adventure where the underdogs save the day? This podcast turns a lot of the expectations of sci-fi adventure stories around to provide a fast-paced and delightful dig into human nature.
Oz9: Sacred cows make the best burgers, and Oz9 is a feast of satire. A disorderly crew in ships better left in a junkyard take the very wealthy and reckless for a space cruise, in the interest of avoiding legal and financial trouble writ large. If you enjoy hearing the rich and powerful taken down a notch or two, this is your show.
Civilized: This improvised dark comedy podcast raises a lot of questions and will always keep you guessing. Humanity’s final hope lies in terraforming a new world. A fleet of engineering ships are sent in advance of the colony ships, sure to follow in their wake. But one lone ship becomes separated from the fleet and crash lands on an alien planet. This podcast includes an interactive audio story, in which you play the alien, Albaska The Under-Appreciated. The choices you make determine how the story proceeds, and what you’ll hear next.
Best Fiction Podcasts if You Like Homecoming
Homecoming centers on a caseworker at an experimental facility, her ambitious supervisor, and a soldier eager to rejoin civilian life — presented in an enigmatic collage of telephone calls, therapy sessions, and overheard conversations.
This podcast made a huge splash when it was first released, not only for its high-profile celebrity cast, but also for for its compelling story and immersive style. If you’re interested in a psychological thriller that uses metaphor to make us examine our politics, why not try:
Terms: Do we really need an electoral college? Why? What would happen without it? If The West Wing kept Sorkin’s tension, but dropped its optimism, you’d have this political thriller.
Quid Pro Euro
Quid Pro Euro: In 1995, a number of videotapes were made for employees of the European Union. Through the course of the series, they learned what they could expect to happen in the twenty-first century. The audio from these tapes is released now as a podcast. Felix Trench’s satire experiments with audio degradation to show the idealism of The European Union, eroded by misunderstanding.
Dashing Onions’ When We Were Two
Dashing Onions’ When We Were Two: This story seems like a Twilight Zone version of a Harold Pinter play, on its surface. They say everyone has a double, but what if you literally did? What if your double had your home, money, job, clothes? Who would you ask to take you in? This story about a family forced to care for each other with suddenly limited resources, in unexpectedly close quarters, for reasons they can’t understand, shines a light not only on Brexit, but also on the recent pandemic.
Best Fiction Podcasts if You Like Princess of South Beach
Princess of South Beach is rocketing up the Spotify charts, and with good reason. Not only does it feature a stellar cast, it’s available in English and Spanish. Twin sisters María del Carmen and Gloria are separated at birth and raised in dramatically different ways – one in a convent and the other in the lap of luxury.
When a freak accident kills Gloria, María del Carmen assumes her identity and uncovers that Gloria’s rich family isn’t as picture perfect as they seem. If you’re interested in stories made by Latinx artists, for Latinx audiences, you should definitely check out these indie tales.
Timestorm: When the Ventura twins are yanked into another dimension, they meet a distant cousin who gives them an extraordinary mission: travel through time to witness their culture’s true history. This compelling, fun time travel adventure teaches and celebrates Puerto Rican history and heritage.
Ochenta Stories’ Mija
Ochenta Stories’ Mija: Mija is a young Latina growing up in New York City. She is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, and this is her story. At a time when immigrant voices aren’t heard, Mija aims to share their stories to celebrate immigrants and their contributions on an international platform.
Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services
Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services: If you like stories about minority witches in modern-day working-class neighborhoods, meddling love goddesses, and morally ambiguous spellcraft, this is the tale for you. Creator Lisette Alvarez describes herself as “a queer Latinx creator who wanted more stories that reflected their reality.” Add a little sparkle to your audio drama listening experience.
Best Fiction Podcasts if You Like Aaron Mahnke’s 13 Days of Halloween
Every October, the world suddenly re-discovers audio fiction. There’s something about cooler temperatures, brilliant leaves, and fire pit gatherings that make people want to hear a spooky story. Aaron Mahnke took Lore from indie story podcast to streaming service juggernaut through sheer determination.
In 2020, his production, 13 Days of Halloween takes what indie podcasts do well (immersive, multi-layered stereo storytelling) and cast Keegan-Michael Key as the Caretaker. Despite their claim that it’s the first 3D audio fiction project, this is far from the truth. if you want a spatial audio fiction experience that’ll get your heart racing and have you jumping at every shadow this October, these indie fiction podcasts should fill the bill nicely.
The Owl Fields 3D Escape Room
The Owl Field’s 3D Escape Room: I made the mistake of starting to listen to this at about 9 pm on a weeknight, and had to stay up all night until I’d solved every puzzle and heard every bit of the story. The story is scary, the puzzles are challenging, and the binaural sound design is so realistic that it’ll make you jump out of your skin. Escape Room: Frequency is an interactive 3D audio escape room where you must find and solve all the puzzles within 60 minutes. This full-cast audio drama’s audio-based puzzles provide a fresh challenge for even the most seasoned escape room enthusiast.
Campfire Radio Theater
Campfire Radio Theater: This horror anthology podcast has been scaring the heck out of the Internet for over TEN YEARS. That’s right. John Ballantine’s first episode premiered in December of 2011. This show has more tenure than Serial. With so many episodes, there’s something to scare everyone, and you can hear voice acting talent who star in other indie podcasts. If you want, “of course I listen to podcasts” credibility, you have to listen to Campfire Radio Theater.
11th Hour Audio Productions
11th Hour Audio Productions: Similarly, 11th Hour Audio has something to scare everyone, because of its huge and varied community of creators. More than just a horror anthology podcast, it’s a chance for producers and talent to collaborate, locally or with folks from around the world. The talent ranges from folks who are new to their craft to seasoned veterans. This global and diverse community of creators gather for one month a year to delight your ears with fantastic tales and immersive worlds, and celebrate horror, Halloween, and Audio Drama Day.
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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