Podcasting: a return to radio drama

An iPhone with headphones playing the last episode of the Serial NPR podcast. (Casey Fiesler/Flickr)

It’s hard to imagine how people were able to drive long distances in the time before iTunes. Driving across the state with family during the holidays is one thing, but staring down the highway for two endless hours with nothing but the static signal of a low budget radio station for company must have been maddening.

Our increasing intolerance for boredom has led to an explosion of professional podcasting as a medium. Newscasts, personality driven infotainment and pop culture roundtables are staples of the genre, but there’s a podcast for every niche interest you can imagine, from learning Cantonese to reliving your latest World of Warcraft raid.

It was inevitable, really, that narrative driven podcasts like “Serial” and “Lore” would eventually make their way back onto the airwaves.

I say “back” because audio storytelling, as anyone who’s seen the classic film “A Christmas Story” could tell you, has been around since radio dramas like the 15-minute serial “Little Orphan Annie” started pushing Ovaltine on unsuspecting kids in the 1930s. In fact, the first radio drama is believed to have premiered in France in 1881, with “A Rural Line on Education,” the first English-language drama, airing 40 years later in Pittsburgh, USA.

Oral history and storytelling have been a part of human culture since before there was written language, so it is no surprise that podcasting has become such an effective method of communication. “Serial,” a 12-episode investigation of a high school student’s decade old murder, managed to capture audience’s attention despite the glut of true crime dramas on TV, in part because it left so much to the imagination. Rather than showing Adnan Syed - the man convicted of killing his then 18-year-old girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in high school - the radio drama format allows each audience member to fill in the blanks themselves.

If you think Syed did it, during his interviews you see a charismatic man turned haggard by his time behind bars hiding a guilty heart. If you think he’s innocent, a victim of anti-muslim sentiment and an ailing defense lawyer at the tail end of her career, then he’s a young man with warm eyes who’s managed to stay strong despite years of incarceration.

“Lore,” an indulgently melodramatic podcast that delves into real life accounts of ethereal fairy folk and occult murders across history, also takes advantage of this ambiguity. While most every incident of paranormal activity on “Lore” is eventually unveiled as a trick of the mind, the Aaron Mahnke’s haunting narration allows listeners to see his axe murderers and possessed dolls as their own personal nightmares. Unlike a good horror movie, which feeds on the audience’s personal demons by keeping the monster in the shadows, “Lore” never has a big reveal, making the stories that much more poignant.

Podcasts may not be perfect for everything, data heavier shows like “Freakonomics” and “Stuff You Should Know” could probably benefit from some charts and images, but they do provide an unparalleled ability to put you into someone else’s shoes no matter where you are.


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.