The Appeal of Audio Drama in 2018

I’m actually getting the dishes done, the floors cleaned, and putting in more miles, thanks to the resurgence of audio dramas as accessible and fun entertainment.

My go-to running buddy is the NPR One app on my smartphone. I really enjoy long, slow runs with the folks from Hidden Brain, TED Talks, and Scriptnotes playing in my ear as I tune out my body and just sort of glide along in a state of physical meditation and mental relaxation. Lately, however, I have been looking to expand my palette into the fiction world of audio after a great recommendation from a friend to listen to the BBC Radio adaptation of Neverwhere.

I’m not particularly a fan of audio books. I appreciate them, and I have gone on long runs listening to some before, but there’s something missing from them. For me, audio books are just another way to consume actual books — not necessarily a particularly unique art form among entertainment media.

Audio dramas are unlike any other type of entertainment we consume today, and I think that’s why they’re becoming more and more popular. I’m not talking about audio books — I’m talking about cinematic, audio-only fiction, commonly referred to as audio drama. Today, audio dramas are making a resurgence as a form of entertainment, wedging themselves between the audio book and podcast listener markets and carving out a niche form of fiction consumption possibilities.

Most people are aware that audio dramas have existed for a long time, but it’s the resurgence of this old art form that fascinates me the most. In a world dominated by visual entertainment and social media, the fact that a lonely art form like audio dramas can be coming back into the mainstream is really inspiring as an “acoustic storyteller” myself. It’s to the point now that A-list actors are being pulled into audio dramas being produced today, the most notable one off the top of my head being Gimlet Media’s Homecoming. This exciting work features a cast you would expect from a show on Neflix or Amazon Hulu — but instead we find it on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud.

Podcasts have been a popular way of consuming stories for a long time, but they have always existed on the fringe of entertainment consumption. You don’t really share snippets of podcasts or memes about podcast content; you can participate in forums and communities about the podcasts, but they don’t really integrate into the visual space of modern social media very well.

That, to me, is why they are so consistently popular, and why production companies are starting to look toward audio dramas as a low-investment-for-high-returns endeavor.

What makes audio dramas so special, and why are there suddenly more and more audio dramas popping up these days?

The appeal of audio drama is one of escape. They’re something you can enjoy with neither the pressure nor opportunity to engage others about via social media. There’s not going to be a meme about an audio drama that you don’t understand, but you will find people saying “you just have to listen.” And that’s what I love about it: to experience it, there are no memes, no youtube videos, no gifs… you just have to listen for yourself.

Just like with podcasts, there’s something intimate about a cultural artifact that is difficult to share on modern social media platforms. I don’t mean that you can’t share links to the audio or a website about the show, I mean that sharing audio art is not the same as sharing visual arts.

With TV shows and movies, we can pull screenshots, make gifs, and even create fan-made versions of the movie or supercuts to make a comedy a tragedy or a tragedy into a comedy.

You just can’t do that with audio drama, and that makes this art form a special one. I use the word “intimate” because audio drama really is an intimate experience. There are no visual or sensory clues other than audio, which means your brain has to come in and provide visual details to accompany the acoustic sensory input. This means that a story takes on infinite number of forms, as each listener paints their own picture of what the story looks like as it unfolds. The use of A-list actors in some of these give listeners a sort of “hint” at what it could look like, which is really the appeal of having celebrities be part of these projects from the get-go. Aside from exposure, listeners hesitant to experience a new form of entertainment might be a little more willing if they recognize someone’s voice from something they’ve seen on their TV.

Have you recently started listening to audio dramas? Have you been listening to them for a long time? What is your experience with the resurgence of audio dramas in 2018?