The best audio dramas offer an amazing listening experience to anyone who wants a break from the standard of listening to music on the radio. Almost like an episodic audiobook, audio dramas are carefully cultivated stories, enriched by engaging voice acting, and powerful atmospheric sound.
In recent years, the search for the best audio drama has begun to accelerate, as people discover new ways of listening to content on the move. Podcast dramas are becoming increasingly common, with enticing presenters, and themes to suit every interest.
However, the concept of audio drama has actually been around much longer than most people realize. Popular radio dramas first appeared in the 1920s, as radio broadcasters across the globe looked for new ways to capture and entrance their audience.
Today, we’re going to be looking at some of the modern audio dramas available to listen to today, and where you can find the best archives to binge.
The rise of popular radio dramas: Radio dramas and the BBC
Today, the best audio dramas are a mixture of podcasts, digital downloads, online streaming, and radio. However, the term “audio drama” began with the production of theatrical productions, created specifically for radio broadcast.
With no visual component to offer, these dramatic experiences used a combination of dialogue, music, and sound effect to help the readers see the characters in their mind.
Particularly popular in the age before television, radio drama was the most popular form of entertainment in the 1940s, with countless listeners tuning in on a daily basis.
Recordings of “old-time radio” as it’s referred to now, are still archived in the collections of fans, libraries, and museums. You can also find certain radio dramas in the Internet Archive.
By the arrival of the 21st century, radio dramas had lost some of their presence on terrestrial broadcasts in the United States. A lot of American radio dramas were actually re-broadcasted episodes of broadcasts from previous decades.
However, the UK continues to maintain a thriving tradition of radio drama. Today, the BBC broadcasts and products hundreds of new radio plays on Radio 4 and Radio 3 every year.
Though the advent of television had a direct impact on the popularity of radio drama, there are still a number of memorable broadcasts to mention throughout history.
America’s most famous example of the best radio drama is probably The War of the Worlds, by Orson Welles, broadcast in 1938, which convinced a lot of listeners an actual alien invasion was happening.
In the 1930s, America was also home to famous novelists and screen writers like Irwin Shaw and Rod Stirling, who got their start in radio drama. In the UK, radio dramas started as more high-brow, with Shakespeare, Greek drama, and Chekov broadcast on the radio.
However, contemporary writers did appear over the years too.
Famous radio plays and radio drama to listen to today
The easiest way to access genuine radio drama today is to download streams online. The BBC created the “BBC Sounds” app in 2008, which offers access to a wide range of radio dramas, famous radio plays, and podcasts, as well as musical broadcasts.
There’s also the BBC Radio 4 online archive available, with downloadable drama episodes, some great options to listen to include:
Probably the best-known radio drama of all time, particularly within the UK, the Archers has been running on the radio since the 1950s. Today, it continues to deliver new episodes daily, sharing the lives of a huge selection of characters living in a rural setting.
Widely considered by many to be one of the most significant parts of UK radio culture, The Archers is definitely worth listening to if you’re interested in radio drama history.
Life is a Radio in the Dark by Will Eno
Truly beautiful to listen to and brimming with emotion, the play “Life is a Radio in the Dark” was written for Toby Jones by award-winning American playwright, Will Eno.
In the story, the protagonist embarks on a journey of sonic therapy to help restore his memory, so he might be useful in helping to solve a crime. However, the treatment also raises some profound questions about how important memory is to our identity.
Patterdale by Paul Jones
Created by Paul Jones, the winner of the Alfred Bradley Bursary Award, Patterdale follows the story of Tommy Whelan, a ten-year-old boy running away from his foster family.
The story covers Tommy’s life through the streets of Liverpool and provides an insight into his mind through a stream of consciousness.
The dramatic piece provides an emotional insight into the life of a young boy, and what the world can be like for a child on their own.
Song of the Reed: Swallowtail by Steve Waters
Steve Waters delivers a compelling and highly visual insight into the life of two people on a fictional wetlands nature reserve named Fleggwick.
Following the death of the reserve’s founder, Fleggwick is struggling to get by financially. The founder’s daughter, played by Sophie Okonedo, commits to doing whatever it takes to keep the reservation afloat.
Mahabharata Now by Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle
A modern adaption of an ancient Indian poem, Mahabharata now dramatizes the life of a family living in 21st century Mumbai. The series is powered by the rivalries of a complex business empire, and driven by insights into the impact the law, politics, and capitalism play in modern-day India.
The incredible cast provide a highly engaging insight into what family life could be like for the people in power when things start to go wrong.
Jazz and Dice by Leanne Allen
A BBC4 commission for Leanne Allen, this radio play follows the life of the play’s protagonist, Dice, as she lives her life as a wheelchair user.
Focusing on modern love and family life, the story presents disability in a modern way, without concentrating too heavily on the concept as a definitive element of the main character.
This is a story about love, confusion, and growing up more than anything else.
Ready Player Marx by Sean Grundy and Cara Jennings
One of the best audio dramas to check out if you’re interested in gaming, Ready Player Marx is an emotional and satirical drama about a group of video game workers trying to unionise in a billion-dollar industry.
The drama is inspired by real events and offers a highly realistic insight into what it can feel like to fight against “the man” in a corrupt environment.
Yellow Lips by Katie Redford
Beautifully written for BBC Radio 4, this radio play comes from an award-winning writer who also stars in the Archers, one of the better known radio dramas in the UK. The story follows a daughter’s memories of her mum, and the battle she had with mental health during the 80s.
This is a story with moments of painful realism and humor, depicted with wonderfully vivid images. Katie Redford stars as the narrator (Jen), and the protagonist.
An Artificially Intelligent Guide to Love
Only recently released in February 2022, an Artificially Intelligent Guide to Love is a unique audio drama insight into the realities of what love is, from the perspective of carious stories and poems.
This unique dramatic experience was actually created in collaboration with a machine learning system for the BBC Radio 4 Drama Sounds collection.
Vital Signs by Ben Musgrave
A radio show aired on BBC radio 4, Vital Signs is a story by Ben Musgrave, about a title character also named Ben. The protagonist has a severe phobia of the heart, blood, and medical interventions.
However, at one point in 2018, his heart stops, and he has to come to terms with this fact, face his fears, and learn how to live within his own body.
It’s an emotional and engaging drama about a man’s quest to take control of his life.
Best audio drama podcasts: Podcast dramas to check out today
Most of the traditional radio drama available to download and stream from the internet comes from the archives of the UK’s radio history, or new creations by the BBC. However, for people across America looking for a little more modern, there’s no shortage of alternative options.
The best podcast drama broadcasts are just as fantastic for offering an insight into how immersive and meaningful a radio drama can be.
Here are some of the best audio drama podcasts to listen to this year…
The Amelia Project
One of the more highly-rated drama podcasts on Apple Podcasts, the Amelia Project tells the tale of a secret agency which fakes its clients’ deaths, then allows them to reappear with new identities. More than just a drama, this is a story with a sense of comedy to it too.
The series starts with a succession of interviews with the clients who want to fake their deaths, and each episode tells a new story.
One of the better known podcast audio dramas on the web right now, We’re Alive consists of a total of 166 episodes across 4 seasons. The post-apocalyptic audio drama follows a group of survivors as they struggle to make their way through a zombie apocalypse.
The drama originally aired on iTunes in 2009 and introduced its last season in 2014. The compiled season version of the show is now available through Wayland Productions.
A highly regarded science fiction and drama podcast, Wolf 359 is an excellent insight into what modern audio dramas have become.
The story follows the life of Doug Eiffel, a communications officer for the U.S.S research station “Hephaestus” as it begins its 448th day of orbit around a red dwarf star.
Wolf 359 chronicles the experiences of Doug, as he struggles to survive in a solitary world.
Welcome to Night Vale
A unique experience and one of the best audio dramas around for the modern age, Welcome to Night Vale is presented a s a radio show for a fictional town. The podcast uses the “radio show” style to report on the strange events happening within Night Vale.
The podcast originally started in 2015, and has gained a massive following, with around 10 seasons to listen to today. Each episode also features a different piece of music as the “weather” produced by an independent artist.
The Black Tapes
A drama podcast produced by the creators of Pacific Northwest Stories, and hosted by Alex Reagan, the Black Tapes is a spin-off drama following a protagonist, Dr Richard Strand.
Richard is on a mission to debunk the crimes of the supernatural, and becomes interested in a selection of unsolved cases, called the “Black Tapes”.
The Podcast eventually becomes an exploration of these cases.
Alice Isn’t Dead
Uniquely presented as a series of audio drivers by a truck driver as she searches throughout America for a wife, she had assumed was dead. During her journey, she encounters everyone from murderers who aren’t entirely human, to towns lost in time.
This supernatural horror, mystery, and drama podcast is brimming with unique experiences to explore, and fantastic visuals.
It’s definitely something worth checking out.
A British sitcom-style podcast created by David K. Barnes, Wooden Overcoats is set in a fictional English village, in which various rival funeral directors compete to be the best in the area.
Though often advertised as a drama, this podcast series definitely has its comedic side too.
There’s currently a total of 34 episodes spread across 4 seasons for listeners to enjoy, so it’s great if you’re looking for something to liven up your commutes.
The Bright Sessions
Widely regarded as one of the best fiction and audio drama podcasts created independently, the Bright Sessions is a unique listening experience for the sci-fi world. The podcast follows the sessions of Dr.
Bright, who provides therapeutic sessions for the strange and unusual people of the world. The characters are extremely engaging, and the drama actually ends up growing into something much bigger than you’d imagine.
An audio drama, science fiction, and horror podcast, Archive 81 is a widely regarded and well-rated podcast only just starting to gain attention in the world of audio dramas.
Archive 81 has a total of 49 episodes so far, with 2 episodes released per month.
The experience is designed to make you feel like you’re listening to a man listening to old tapes. There’s a found footage element to this podcast collection which is unlike most of the audio dramas we’ve mentioned so far.
Homecoming ended up being so popular as an audio podcast it was eventually turned into an Amazon Prime Original TV series.
The scripted series from Gimlet Media follows a case worker at an experimental facility, a supervisor, and a soldier looking to rejoin life as a civilian.
All of these characters are depicted in a series of telephone calls, overheard conversations, and therapy sessions, to deliver a unique and immersive audio experience.
Where to find modern radio drama: Sites for audio drama
If you don’t have a particular desire to listen to an audio radio drama from years ago, or discover a new radio play or podcast online, you can always find some excellent radio drama examples by checking out some of the radio streaming services online.
There are a handful of websites which specialize in offering access to great radio drama channels:
1. Old time Radio Downloads
Ideal for those who want to discover the best audio dramas of all time, Old Time Radio Downloads is an archive brimming with radio programs from years gone by. The site hosts dozens of the best radio plays and shows from all over the world, including classics like “A Christmas Carol”.
If you’re interested in radio drama examples from the past, Old Time Radio Downloads has a lot of options to choose from. You can even listen to unforgettable broadcasts, like the War of the Worlds from Orson Welles.
2. Crime Radio UK
For those with a love of drama and crime, the Crime Radio UK online broadcasts specifically showcase audio dramas from this popular genre. There are thousands of episodes to sort through, including classics like “This is Your FBI”, and “The Green Hornet”.
You can check the schedule to see when certain programs are airing, but it’s also great to simply tune into the channel from time to time to see if you can discover something new playing.
3. Bygolly Old Time Radio
Similar to the old time radio website mentioned above, Bygolly Old Time Radio offers an alternative to modern radio dramas by playing classic hits from the “golden” age of radio.
There are a number of different kinds of shows on this channel, including classic drama, mystery, and comedies from the older years of radio.
Unlike some websites for audio dramas, the Bygolly Old Time radio channel plays shows from all around the world, so you can enjoy a diverse selection of different stories.
4. BBC Radio Sounds
As mentioned above, the BBC is well-known for producing some of the best audio dramas around. If you’re looking for amazing podcasts and radio shows, then you can find all of the latest soaps and dramas on the BBC Radio Sounds website.
There are some fantastic older-style radio plays and dramas on Sounds, but it’s a particularly good place to visit if you’re looking for modern stories. New dramas by up-and-coming creators appear on the website on a regular basis.
5. Tune In
On the “Tune In” website, you can find a number of common radio drama streams and radio stations ready to go. The site is one of the best to visit if you want to access UK radio, as you can listen to everything from “The Archers” to the latest drama by BBC 3 and BBC 4 broadcasters.
The “Tune In” website is also home to categories like the “Drama of the week”, and original short works created by artists specifically for radio.
Finding the best audio dramas online
The best radio dramas and audio plays aren’t as common today as they once were, during the “golden age” of radio. However, there are still a lot of listeners who prefer to spend their time listening to these dramatic creations than watching television or reading books.
There are websites which play host to some of the best radio plays of all times, if you feel like you want to dive back into history and listen to some of the best stories ever created.
Alternatively, you can stay firmly planted in “today” and focus on the best modern audio dramas and podcasts.
Good luck finding the audio dramas right for you.
Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.