When I was younger, I had something very specific in mind when it came to podcasts. They were talk shows and news stories, all focused on current events. They were boring, monotonous white guys talking about absolutely nothing. Podcasts were what I was forced to listen to as my dad drove me to school or just what you listened to if you couldn’t sleep. They weren’t funny, or weird; they were all just people listening to themselves talk. It wasn’t until I was exposed to a new genre of podcast, however, that I became interested: Fiction. Now, I recognize that podcasts are so much more.
Fiction podcasts are programs that instead of talking about the news, or some niche interest, create a story for a listener to immerse themselves in. Similar to an audiobook that updates every week or so. These podcasts can be scripted, improv, or both. For someone that spent their childhood obsessing over fantasy novels, it was perfect for me.
The first podcast I ever listened to was The Adventure Zone, a Dungeons and Dragons podcast by the McElroy brothers along with their father, Clint. The McElroy brothers are well-known for their comedy-advice podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and have been incredibly important to the podcast community for almost a decade. The Adventure Zone uploaded its first episode December 4th, 2014. The listener gets to learn about the logistics of D&D along with the McElroy brothers and also laugh at the hilarious banter. What starts off as a goofy game eventually turns into an incredibly immersive story that at times has brought me to tears. While D&D is a strategic game centered around rolling dice, there is also a narrative element that the podcast immediately takes advantage of. Griffin McElroy, who acts as the Dungeon Master, builds an incredibly intricate story. Travis, Justin, and Clint also do a beautiful job of giving dimension to the characters they play within the game. The Adventure Zone tells an amazing story, one that comes from a collaborative way of thinking. It’s immersive, heartfelt, incredibly funny, and overall just a well-done podcast.
Hello, from the Magic Tavern was the next podcast I was hooked on. Hosts Arnie Niekamp, Adal Rifai, and Matt Young transport the listener to a hilarious fictional world with their magical improv skills. The Chicago based actors never break character and manage to emphasize what really makes improv so special. Hello, from the Magic Tavern takes the structure of a common podcast and breaks boundaries. In the story, Niekamp, playing himself, has fallen through a magical rift behind a Burger King and is now stuck in the fantastical land of Foon. Every week he hosts a podcast with Co-hosts Chunt the talking Badger, and Usidore the Wizard. The podcast becomes addictive, with new characters and creatures being introduced every episode. Hello, from the Magic Tavern has good rhythm, and unlike a lot of other podcasts, understands what it’s all about.
Fictional podcasts challenge preconceived notions about what podcasts should be. Whether scripted like Welcome to Nightvale, or completely improvised, fiction has allowed creators to push boundaries and redefine the podcast medium. Listening to podcasts gave me an entirely new perspective on how narrative should function, and it excites me to see people finding different ways to tell their stories.
Illustration by Maria Useche