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On Exploring New Media
  • Art
  • Culture
  • Literature
Reyna Johnson

We all need stories. Perhaps you enjoy piling on the couch with half a dozen friends to rewatch episodes of your favorite sitcom, or perhaps you prefer sitting in a darkened theater surrounded by sound and the smell of popcorn as you experience the latest blockbuster. Or maybe you just want a comfy chair in front of a window with a cup of tea and a dense novel. Some of us even find our favorite stories in musical theater, or graphic novels, or video games. While we might argue for the preeminence of one of these media over another, the reality is that the varied  affordances of these forms enable us to experience stories in different ways. The sheer amount of hours spent reading a novel enables a sustained identification with a character that a two-hour film could never hope to match, while the fact that the entire world is built on a collaboration between the author’s deliberately chosen words and the reader’s interpretation also facilitates a singular exercise in imaginative creation. At the same time, a novel can achieve neither the emotional resonance of song in a musical, nor the impact of watching a live performance shoulder to shoulder with fellow theatergoers. Change the medium and you change the story. If for no other reason than this, we ought to cultivate appreciation for storytelling in its manifold guises, seeking to learn what each medium can reveal to us about the stories of the human experience. Go ahead: watch a black and white film, attend an opera, listen to an audiobook. Consider how the opportunities and constraints of each art form mold our perception of the story. 

Or perhaps, as someone who loves storytelling in all forms, might I suggest another medium to explore: fiction podcasts. The contemporary descendants of the radio dramas of old, fiction podcasts use dialogue, narrative, music, and soundscapes to immerse listeners in longform stories that unfold serially, one episode at a time. Like films, audio dramas can use the affordances of music and sound to craft the emotional heart of a scene; like novels, their lack of visuals invites the audience to imaginatively shape the world of the story, demanding creative engagement rather than accepting passive absorption. If you haven’t yet had the chance to explore the world of fiction podcasts, allow me to introduce you to some of my favorites:

The Amelia Project
Audience: Adults, Older Teens

The Amelia Project bills itself as a “dark comedy podcast about a secret agency offering a very special service: Faking its clients' deaths and bringing them back with a new identity!” If this premise sounds strange, don’t worry: the actual show is even stranger. Each episode is a recording of the Interviewer meeting with a potential client. But who is the Interviewer? Who is behind the Amelia Project? And how does Dr. Kazlowski know so much about plastic surgery? I suppose the only way to find out is to listen. A little weird and oddly cozy, this is a podcast for anyone who has a soft spot for mystery, humor, and overpriced Parisian hot cocoa.

The Bright Sessions
Audience: Adults, Older Teens

The Bright Sessions are the recordings of Dr. Bright’s perfectly normal therapy sessions with her perfectly normal clients. Well, mostly normal clients: while they experience all the usual challenges of young adulthood, each client happens to be a bit. . . atypical. If watching the X-Men or Spider-Man risk their lives to save the world from yet another awful threat makes you wonder if these young heroes have all the emotional and psychological support they need, then this is the show for you.

Live from Mount Olympus
Audience: Adults, Teens, Tweens

This family-friendly and imaginative adaptation of the myth of Perseus appeals to anyone who loves Greek myths and adventure. In this podcast, the messenger god Hermes (voiced by André De Shields, who won a Tony for his portrayal of this same god in the Broadway musical hit Hadestown) regales us with a cheeky, fourth wall-breaking narrative of Perseus’s quest—while Perseus is trying to focus on killing a Gorgon or two to save his mother (and could really do without the distractions, Hermes!).

Audience: Adults

How can I describe this absurdist satire based on a twentieth-century Czech science fiction novel about a species of newts that becomes a world superpower? Darkly hilarious, wildly off-beat, and borderline incomprehensible, this alternate history chronicles Europe’s discovery and exploitation of, and ultimately surrender to, concerningly intelligent amphibians. Oh, did I mention it’s a surf rock musical? If you found this summary intriguing rather than terrifying, this might be the audio drama for you.

Stellar Firma
Audience: Adults

A good long while ago, human beings made earth utterly uninhabitable and now survive only as citizen employees of Stellar Firma Ltd., living on its corporate space station and gently shepherded by the artificial intelligence program I.M.O.G.E.N (who surely only has our best interests in mind). Enter Trexel Geistman, a bumblingly incompetent planetary architect who attempts to design bespoke planets with the help of his hapless clone assistant David 7. Created by, and starring, brothers Tim Meredith and Ben Meredith, this improvised science fiction comedy is one of the funniest stories I have encountered in any medium.

Audience: Adults, Teens

This steampunk alternate history is set in an Even Greater London ruled by a monarch who has been assassinated eleven times—but don’t worry, the royal doctors keep successfully patching her back together with increasing amounts of clockwork and mechanisms. With sufficient philosophical caveats, they could even argue that this being of cogs and gears is still Queen Victoria. Not that Inspector Archibald Fleet or young journalist Clara Entwhistle have time to ponder such conundrums: they’re too busy dodging overzealous Tower Guards and suspiciously helpful clockwork automata while investigating an impossible murder that just might bring the whole City to its knees.

Wooden Overcoats
Audience: Adults, Teens

Rudyard Funn and his sister Antigone run the only funeral home in the town of Piffling Vale, on the Island of Piffling, in the middle of the English Channel where they fulfill every conceivable expectation for funerary services: they get the body in the coffin in the ground on time. Everything is misery as usual until the suave and successful Eric Chapman moves to the island and opens his own funeral home. With only the help of Georgie, their overworked assistant, and Madeleine, the mouse who lives in the walls of the funeral home, the Funn siblings must take drastic steps to keep their business from collapsing. Yes, this is an emphatically British sitcom about feuding funeral directors. It’s also narrated by a mouse. It’s weirder than it sounds and utterly charming.