The Top 20 Audio Dramas Of All-Time!
(as picked by some stranger on the internet)
The first audio drama (aka radio drama) I remember hearing was an episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the 70s. While I have no idea what the story was about, I cannot forget the sound of the creaking door, the haunting strings of the theme music, or the voice of E.G. Marshall. My father and I had been listening to the story while driving. Once we had arrived home, we pulled into the driveway and sat in the car until the story was over. From that day on, I understood the power of audio drama.
One of the primary strengths of audio drama is that it is just that. Audio. By removing visuals like photos or video from the equation, we utilize the power of our own imaginations to build the images or scenes in our minds. This can make the emotional connection to the story very strong since we personalize the faces, places, and action.
After listening to thousands and thousands of audio dramas/OTR/podcasts over the decades, I have decided to take on the difficult task of creating a list of my favorites. With a large number of new stories being released regularly, this list could potentially change overnight! So, as of today, I am including twenty different favorites to share. It is my wish that you find at least one new (new to you) audio drama that you love and to introduce a few new listeners to the wonderful world of audio drama! Keep in mind that this list is based on my own interests and experiences. As such, it is highly subjective, so your own mileage may vary.
On to the list!
Nightfall is a horror anthology series produced by the CBC. 100 episodes were aired between 1980 – 1983. My introduction to Nightfall came about when my best friend told me that a local radio station was playing something I might be interested in. Back then, I taped quite a few things from the radio, and this was no different. What I roughly estimate to have transpired that evening – Headphones (with the classic big, coiled cable) went on. I dialed the tuner on my old Realistic brand STA-720 receiver to WSIU 91.9 FM, put a blank TDK D60 cassette tape into the Sharp RT-31, pressed record, turned out the lights, stretched out on my bed, and listened to “Angel’s Kiss” for the first time.
Right out of the gate I knew I was in for something special. The sound effect used for the intro of the show caught me off guard and sucked me right in! If that weren’t enough to seal the deal, Luther Kranst (aka Henry Ramer, host of the show), provided a disclaimer about strong language and forthright situations. His powerful, low, and intense voice made it sound more like a dare than a warning, so I thought “bring it on!” “Angel’s Kiss” is a truly twisted “love” story, sans any love. Chuck, a singles bar-frequenting, womanizing jerk, runs into the woman of his dreams…nightmares to be more specific. By the end, I sincerely had the creeps!
More blank tapes were purchased, and a new, Friday night ritual was put in place! Nightfall became my favorite entertainment of all-time and remains at the top of my list of favorite audio dramas. You can find a smattering of official and unofficial cassette tapes available through Amazon and Ebay. The CBC also released a handful of episodes on CD years back. Unfortunately, the episodes were transfered over in mono for some strange reason. It’s difficult to find many of the episodes in good quality, but you can still listen to them all via archive.org.
If you find yourself completely enamored with Nightfall as I am, feel free to join the Nightfall support group, sorry, the Facebook Nightfall Group I created back in 2009 and join in the conversation! You will find a handful of people that have worked on the show are also in the group as well, so try to be on your best behavior! :)
Also, if you want considerably more in-depth information regarding the show, please check out my friend Neil Marsh’s website The Nightfall Project.
Top 3 Episodes: “The Porch Light,” “The Debt,” & “The Book of Hell”
The same radio station that I heard Nightfall on also aired other audio dramas over the years. One of the most astounding plays I have ever heard is the Karl Schmidt & Marv Nonn production of “A Canticle For Leibowitz.” Adapted for radio by John Reeves for WHA in Wisconsin, this production is a feast for the ears and imagination.
“Set in a Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man’s scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it.”
By the time this aired on WSIU, I was already keeping blank tapes in the cassette deck and pressing record whenever something new came on just in case I would discover a new favorite. This was no exception. Hearing the beginning of the first episode left me perplexed as to what I was in for, but it didn’t take long to get hooked. You can occasionally find a copy of the CDs. The audio quality is excellent and in stereo.
Here is a promo spot to whet your appetite!
Once again, WSIU comes through in flying colors by airing perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor – of which I had never heard of! The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy changed my perspective on life, the universe, and everything in more than one way. I certainly didn’t understand the importance of towels or just how horrible Vogon poetry was until I heard this incredible series.
Douglas Adams also worked on Doctor Who and with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. His sense of humor and fascinating observations about life provided the world with some of the greatest comedy/science fiction ever written.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was so good as an audio drama series that they locked Douglas up and made him write the books. He is quoted as having said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” It must have been true because he wrote five novels in the series spanning thirteen years (1979-1992). Unfortunately, he died at the young age of 49. Fortunately, he left behind a great body of work for all of us to enjoy as well as the answer to life, the universe, and everything. I would provide a synopsis of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but maybe it’s best if you approach it like you would a cliff while wearing a blindfold for the most impact.
Once you’ve listened to the original, you really need to hear the rest of the series. Dirk Maggs has done an incredible job on series 3-5 with a new story currently in the works!
ZBS. Wowie zowie! They have been releasing mind-blowing audio drama since 1972 and Meatball Fulton is still hammering away with new stories regularly! The Fourth Tower of Inverness was my introduction to ZBS productions. It remains a favorite, but when it comes to pioneering works and exceptional stories, Ruby is (inter)stellar!
“On the planet Summa Nulla (the “high point of nothing”) someone is manipulating the media. And Ruby, our hip, tough-talking detective is hired to track down the malefactors. The Android Sisters perform their satirical speak-songs as Ruby, the galactic gumshoe, encounters some pretty weird planetary inhabitants on her quest for truth and the intergalactic way: The Tookah, with four tentacles, three eyes, a blue mustache and red fez, TJ Teru the archaeologist, Chief Molierre of the Mole People, sneaky little Rodant Kapoor, Angel Lips (the femme fatale of androids) and the Slimeys, genetically engineered assassins.”
Ruby is a winner of the Mark Time Award (1982). It was originally broadcast in short, 3-4 minute segments, which was fascinating and frustrating because I always wanted more. Have a listen and see if you don’t get hooked! ZBS fans can now stream the entire catalog for a whopping $5 a month at zbsmedia.com.
John Dryden’s 2000 BBC production of The Handmaid’s Tale is a stunning adaptation with excellent acting and sound design. Being a dystopian, feel-bad hit, you have to be in the right frame of mind to take it on, but it is a rewarding experience.
“In the near future, human fertility rates collapse as a result of sexually transmitted diseases and environmental pollution. With this chaos in place, the totalitarian, Christian theonomic government of “Gilead” establishes rule in the former United States in the aftermath of a civil war. Society is organized by power-hungry leaders along a new, militarized, hierarchical regime of fanaticism and newly created social classes, in which women are brutally subjugated, and by law are not allowed to work, own property, handle money, or read. Worldwide infertility has resulted in the conscription of the few remaining fertile women in Gilead, called “Handmaids”, according to an extremist interpretation of a Biblical account. They are assigned to the homes of the ruling elite, where they must submit to ritualized rape with their male masters in order to become pregnant and bear children for those men and their wives.”
Uplifting, eh? This is easily one of the scariest stories ever, so sit back, put your headphones on, and immerse yourself into one of the finest audio drama productions ever created.
Listen to part one below, brought to you courtesy of Radio Drama Revival.
Matt Watts, the man responsible for Steve the First and Steve the Second, brings us Canadia 2056! It’s Canadian, so you already know it’s funny! In case you are still on the fence, here is a promotional synopsis.
“It is the year 2056. The United States has launched an armada to destroy an alien threat. Canada sends the nation’s only publicly funded spacecraft, The Canadia – a ship with a single purpose. To plunge the Americans’ toilets. Travel with them.”
What more could you want? Spaceships, aliens, Canadian/American jokes, Max Webster music, and toilets, oh my!
I typed out a review of an episode of The Truth once that summed it up by saying “The Truth hurts.” While that may imply some sort of negative connotations, that was not my intention, nor does it make sense out of context of the story I had listened to. The Truth has a way of getting under your skin and making some very strong emotional connections, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing or crying. The writing is quality work. The stories range from quirky comedies to horror. Whatever subject they pick, you can be guaranteed it will entertain you.
Top 3 episodes: “Brain Chemistry,” “Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” & “The Decider.” Who am I kidding? They’re all tops!
Surreal, funny, mysterious, intelligent, stimulating, educational, weird. Where do I sign up? Moon Over Morocco came out in 1974, just a couple of years after ZBS released The Fourth Tower of Inverness. Meatball Fulton has a way of integrating various bits of wisdom gathered from around the world and throwing them into his stories. Planting seeds? Throwing wrenches into the works? Whatever the case, I am glad I found ZBS stories. “What appears to be coming at you is coming from you” and ” …standing in the shadow of our own light.” still resonate with me while other quotes find new meaning as I get older. Moon Over Morocco is loaded with bits ‘n’ bobs that’ll do your head in.
‘Jack Flanders arrives in Tangier on a search for sites that lie along “ley lines”, undercurrents of mystical energy described in ancient texts. He meets Kasbah Kelly, an expatriate bar owner, and Kelly’s assistant Mojo Sam and befriends one of the bar’s customers, Sunny Skies. He also visits the Comtese Zazeenia, an expatriate holdover from Morocco’s French colonial days and an old enemy of Kelly’s.
Strange events begin to occur: Jack is pursued by owls, his hotel room crumbles away as the hotel disintegrates around him and a mysterious woman named Layla Oolupi warns him to leave Morocco immediately. Refusing to heed her warning, Jack instead travels to a music festival in Marrakech with Kelly and Sunny. Caught up in a traditional dance, Jack begins to disappear into an invisible world straight out of Moroccan legend. This first night, Kelly tackles him and prevents his disappearance, but the next night, Jack succeeds in completing the transition into the land of legend. Kelly’s intervention causes Jack to (seemingly) split into two rival figures in this alternate world, a usurper Emperor (Hassan Bizel) and an upstart claimant to the throne, known as the Son of El Kabah.
Kelly, Mojo and Sunny search for Jack in our world, while the two Jacks confront one another after the “Son of el Kabah” completes a long journey through the Sahara desert, accompanied by Little Flossic (revisiting the “Little Frieda” role of The Fourth Tower of Inverness).’
Head on over to ZBS and check it out! Be sure to buckle up, because you’re going for a ride!
I picked up a copy of this WUHN 106.9 FM, Peoria, Illinois Halloween special quite a few years ago at an Old Time Radio convention. The quality is poor, but the content is legendary! Keep in mind that this was in the early 70s and broadcast on a Midwestern radio station. Also, consider what kind of reaction they must have received at the time! I would have lost my mind, which is probably the desired effect they were looking for. It is believed to have been broadcast in 1972, which also explains some of the groovy music and news headlines used in the show. The first time I heard this, I was thrown so hard and fast back into the 70s that it blew my mind!
“The Peoria Plague is an audio dramatization of a zombie outbreak presented through a series of fictional news casts. Very similar in style to War of the Worlds, The Peoria Plague is possibly the oldest surviving zombie audio drama.” – YouTube (for what it’s worth)
This may trigger feelings of nostalgia or nausea, depending upon the listener. It is NOT kid-friendly as it does get a bit gruesome. Enjoy!
Hadron Gospel Hour! I almost skipped the click because the name confused me, which doesn’t take much. I am so glad I pressed ▶! Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Red Dwarf, movie/music trivia, and 70s Saturday Morning television programming will find Hadron Gospel Hour to be right up their alley. I’ve never heard anything quite like HGH despite having listened to an estimated 12,000+ audio drama episodes over the decades. Aside from the impressive acting, intelligent writing, beautiful sound design, kooky music, and lovely artwork, Hadron Gospel Hour will actually make you laugh.
Here’s the elevator pitch directly from the fine folks located in the Hadron bunker.
“Two guys. A sassy artificial intelligence. And a rift in the fabric of the multiverse. Hilarity ensues.”
…and for those who need a bit more to go on…
“Hadron Gospel Hour follows the adventures of tormented scientist Dr. Francis “Oppenheimer” Valdini (Series creator and co-writer Richard Wentworth). While trying to find a way to weaponize the ‘Hadron Effect’ and create the most destructive force ever known to mankind, Oppenheimer unwittingly tears a rift in the fabric of spacetime, remaking our world, and the parallel timelines of the multiverse, into an infinite succession of horrors! Trapped outside of spacetime in his sentient lab A.S.H. LE (Lisa McQuilkin) and desperate for human companionship, Oppenheimer kidnaps IT guy and part-time indie filmmaker Mike Wilkinson (Series co-creator and writer Michael McQuilkin). Oppenheimer convinces Mike to join him in his quest to heal the rift and restore order to the multiverse.”
IKR? Go on! Click the button and begin the adventure of a lifetime, but keep in mind…your timeline is doomed!
Neil Gaiman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Christopher Lee, and many other vastly talented actors star in this impressive Dirk Maggs production of a Neil Gaiman story!
“Beneath the streets of London there is another London. A subterranean labyrinth of sewers and abandoned tube stations. A somewhere that is Neverwhere.
An act of kindness sees Richard Mayhew catapulted from his ordinary life into a subterranean world under the streets of London. Stopping to help an injured girl on a London street, Richard is thrust from his workaday existence into the strange world of London Below.
So begins a curious and mysterious adventure deep beneath the streets of London, a London of shadows where the tube cry of ‘Mind the Gap’ takes on new meaning; for the inhabitants of this murky domain are those who have fallen through the gaps in society, the dispossessed, the homeless. Here Richard meets the Earl of Earl’s Court, Old Bailey and Hammersmith, faces a life-threatening ordeal at the hands of the Black Friars, comes face to face with Great Beast of London, and encounters an Angel. Called Islington.
Joining the mysterious girl named Door and her companions, the Marquis de Carabas and the bodyguard, Hunter, Richard embarks on an extraordinary quest to escape from the clutches of the fiendish assassins Croup and Vandemar and to discover who ordered them to murder her family. All the while trying to work out how to get back to his old life in London Above.”
Dirk Maggs is one of the greatest audio drama producers alive and Neverwhere is nothing less than brilliant. Don’t take my word for it.
Do you prefer your award-winning audio drama selections to come with a healthy dose of intellectual weirdness? Jeff Green’s Soundings is the pill you need to take. The sound design on Soundings is exceptional!
My favorite episode is called “Somebody Talking To You.”
‘Somebody Talking To You pits a multi-talented media consultant against an inexplicable invasion of his world by some kind of addictive cassettes, marked with only the simple phrase “Somebody Talking To You”. Everyone except him apparently hears something perfectly personally compelling, and eventually they disappear completely. When their cassette is then played their voice can be heard, “talking to you”. In the end he is the only one left, uncertain as to what has occurred.’
Coming in at lucky number 13 is Campfire Radio Theater. In the interest of full disclosure, I have been working on Campfire Radio Theater since 2014, so I am biased. But, before I began composing music for CRT, I was a big fan of the show. In fact, I loved it so much that I contacted John Ballentine to see about working together. Fortunately for me, he agreed! John is also about my age and a fellow Nightfall fan. What episode was it that pushed me over the edge and into fandom?
Twilight Road – “A young woman, pronounced dead hours earlier, springs to life on the embalming table. Haunted by disembodied voices and recollections of a shadowy afterlife, Cerina is desperate to escape the ghoulish confines of the city morgue. Might she suffer delusions due to her accident or is something far more grisly amiss?”
As if that weren’t enough, John had contacted Bill Gray to adapt his classic story “The Dentist” which originally aired on Nightfall.
To this day, I can still recall walking up the street leading to the movie theater, sitting inside of the theater, and watching Star Wars when it came out in 1977. It was absolutely magical for a ten-year-old kid! Roughly four years later, my mind was blown again when NPR aired a thirteen-part audio drama series! There is a lot of additional content to soak up with heaps of stunning sound design to immerse yourself into! If you haven’t heard it and you are a Star Wars fan, I highly recommend it! It’s great fun and features some of the members of the original cast as well.
There is probably no need to mention this, but… “The Imperial Forces — under orders from cruel Darth Vader hold Princess Leia hostage, in their efforts to quell the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon, work together with the companionable droid duo R2-D2 and C-3PO to rescue the beautiful princess, help the Rebel Alliance, and restore freedom and justice to the Galaxy.”
Zombies! Man, I love ’em! I know what you are thinking. Yes, the entertainment industry is saturated with zombies, but this story is worth it! Wayland Productions delivers an intelligent and interesting twist on it all. A word of caution though. The recordings have extremely wide dynamic range, so you may be pressing your headphones to your ears one minute, and throwing them off the next. It is designed that way intentionally and really brings out the drama and intensity of the story. My preferred method of listening to audio drama is at bedtime, but this one is right out for the aforementioned reasons. Don’t let that stop you from checking it out though. There’s a good reason why the show has over 60 MILLION downloads!
‘For Army Reserve Soldier Michael Cross, the world as he knew it ended in an instant. One minute, he’s in college, and in the next, rioters are roaming the highway around him, breaking into cars, and literally tearing people apart. This is the day the dead walk. This is the world of We’re Alive.
… Join our survivors as they band together, struggle to fortify a safe haven known as the Tower, and discovers that zombies are far from the worst thing in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where the rules of human decency no longer apply. Little food. Little water. Little hope. Who is lucky enough to say “We’re Alive?”’
Listen to the entire series. Binge it all in one sitting. I dare you! It’s only 50+ hours long! After all, you’ve already caught up on Stranger Things 2, so what else is there to do?
Undone is a wonderful comedy series by Ben Moor. There are three series in total, comprised of 17 episodes, produced between 2006 and 2010. Buckets full of English humour abound in this absurdly amuzing and strange tale.
“Would-be journalist Edna Turner comes to London to work on the listings magazine Get Out!, a parody of Time Out. She encounters Tankerton Slopes who works in a parallel version of London called Undone. They have something in common, in that they both work for the same boss, Carlo Jones, although Tankerton’s boss is a parallel version of Edna’s. Tankerton recruits Edna to help find residents of Undone who have crossed to London. Tankerton is somewhat taken with the fact that Edna comes from the town of Towcester, as its name is pronounced in the same way as the common kitchen appliance. Naturally he buys her a toaster from Undone as a gift.”
Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater comes from the pen of Steven Thomas Oney. Oney has a knack for being able to tell you a quality story, not to mention educating you at the same time without you even realizing it. Maybe it’s just me. Nonetheless, his stories are filled with wonderful details that make them all the more enthralling. I’ve never been much of a mystery fan, but this series is an exception! If you love Sherlock Holmes, you may enjoy his Captain Underhill tales as much as I have. There are plenty of mysteries, comedy, and horror to entertain you.
Top 3 Episodes: “The Buoy,” “Five Fathom Rip,” and “Hugo’s Night To Remember.”
You can find out more about CCRMT at their home page. Steven has some wonderful posts about the making of the series that you should read as well.
Fans of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Spaced should find “The Sofa of Time” quite entertaining! While it does star Nick Frost and Matt King, Simon Pegg is also a part of this comedy/fantasy story. Peter Serafinowicz is crackin’ good as the evil emperor Raamen Bod. That alone is worth the price of admission!
‘Milford and Parker get sacked from their jobs in a soft furnishings factory in Crouch End. As they are clearing out their lockers, they fall into the magical world of Gravia. Frost described Gravia as a “Tolkien-esque world with supermarkets and banks”.
There they meet Marmite the Dwarf, who believes that Milford is “the chosen one” and has come at last to save the people from the evil emperor warlock Raamen Bod, who plans to find the Sofa of Time, the most magical and powerful item of furniture in the entire universe, and use it for evil purposes.’
WTF’ery ensues! The only disappointment for me is that they were offered a sequel, but Matt King had moved back to Australia, and it didn’t work out. Have a listen!
Along with many ZBS productions, the original Star Wars trilogy, Nightfall, Midnight, X Minus One, Dimension X, A Canticle For Leibowitz, and many other great audio dramas, WSIU in Carbondale, Illinois, also aired Bradbury 13. The first novel I remember reading was “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” When I heard the opening of Bradbury 13, I was over the moon with excitement! Ray Bradbury is probably most famous for having written “Fahrenheit 451,” the legendary dystopian story about book burning.
Bradbury 13, a Peabody Award winning series, features a handful of delicious stories such as “Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed,” “The Veldt,” and “The Screaming Woman.” The legendary Paul Frees can be heard announcing the stories with an introduction by Ray Bradbury himself.
Top 3 Episodes: “The Wind,” “A Sound Of Thunder,” and “Night Call, Collect.”
In wrapping things up, I have included a two-fer of The Hobbit & Lord Of The Rings from The Mind’s Eye. I realize that this choice may be somewhat controversial as the BBC has produced some fantastic adaptations of both! There are three primary reasons why I have picked the Mind’s Eye productions.
1. They are the first versions I heard.
2. The emphasis of dialogue over description is delightful.
3. Tom Bombadil. :D
The Lord Of The Rings
Once again, I do hope that you have discovered something new you can enjoy! If you are new to audio drama/podcasts, there is an entire lifetime supply of great entertainment out there for you to enjoy!
If you are ready to take the plunge into the seemingly endless pool of modern audio dramas, but you aren’t sure where to start, here are a couple of links for you to check out.
Audio-Drama.com has a staggering database of over 3,600 audio drama links!
Audiotainment News has the latest and greatest news on what’s happening now in the world of audio drama.
You can also peruse the Apple Podcasts site as well. It can be overwhelming and difficult to cull something of interest, but don’t give up. The good stuff is out there!
If you feel yourself compelled to begin producing/writing/acting/scoring/sound designing your own audio drama, then I highly recommend you check out the Audio Drama Production Podcast and their Facebook ADPP group that is filled with producers, actors, sound designers, musicians, and fans.
Another great resource for the budding audio drama producer is KC Wayland’s new book “Bombs Always Beep.” This is an in-depth, how-to manual for those wanting to produce audio drama.