As an avid listener (and former creator) of audio drama, I consider We’re Alive to be the gold standard. Kc Wayland’s zombie apocalypse thriller sets a high bar for modern-day fiction podcasts.
When I used to write, direct, and produce radio dramas, I aspired to create what I called “movies for your ears.” Wayland prefers the term “theater for the mind.” Either way, We’re Alive is a near-perfect execution of this ideal
I’d highly recommend the series to anyone who enjoys immersive audio drama. And especially if you’re a fan of zombies or gravitate towards post-apocalyptic stories.
We’re Alive has it all:
- Rich characters – check.
- Great performances – check.
- Gripping action – check.
- Emotional anguish – check.
- Suspense and chills – check.
- Narrative momentum – check.
- Complex worldbuilding – check.
- Full cast production – check.
- “Cinematic” sound design (effects and music) – check.
In the We’re Alive Fanclub Facebook group, I see frequent posts from members who say that they can’t find other audio fiction podcasts to listen to. They say We’re Alive has spoiled them and that nothing else lives up. Many fans listen to the podcast over and over again while they await the next installment in the series.
I understand their frustration, but I don’t share it. That’s because I’ve found plenty of other excellent audio dramas to scratch the itch for more. Most don’t match the ambition, scope, and execution of Kc Wayland’s hallmark series. But these podcasts do offer gripping stories and compelling characters.
Note: We’re Alive has two spin-off series. I was not a fan of the first (the prequel Lockdown), which I found tedious. But I did enjoy the second (the sequel Goldrush), which was lightweight but fun.
Looking for ambitious and absorbing full-cast audio theater podcasts? Below are my recommendations in rough order of preference.
The Bright Sessions (Atypical Universe)
The Bright Sessions is a science fiction podcast that follows a group of therapy patients. But these are not your typical patients – each has a unique supernatural ability. The show documents their struggles and discoveries as well as the motivations of their mysterious therapist, Dr. Bright.Website
- Endearing characters.
- Authentic performances.
- Character-driven story with a novel structure.
- Complex worldbuilding.
- None, as long as you have the patience to let the show evolve and surprise you.
I consider The Bright Sessions to be the cream of the crop and in the same league as We’re Alive. The original 5-season series starts off simple and spare. But the stakes increase and the worldbuilding grows in complexity as the story introduces more characters.
Atypical Artists originally released two sequel series behind the Luminary paywall. But they are now available in the main Bright Sessions podcast feed as Seasons 6 and 7. Both are must-listen for fans of the original.
- The AM Archives – the first sequel features a subset of the characters from The Bright Sessions and continues their story arcs in a thrilling new chapter. Unlike the original, the format is more conventional.
- The College Tapes – the second sequel, also in traditional audio drama format, is entertaining but a bit more uneven than previous entries with a somewhat implausible plot.
Atlantic Flight 702 has disappeared mid-flight between London and New York with 256 passengers on board. Kaitlin Le (Kelly Marie Tran), a college student whose twin brother vanished with the flight, is determined to uncover the truth.Website
- A knockout performance by Kelly Marie Tran in the lead role.
- Intricate plot which keeps you guessing.
- Gripping mystery and suspense.
- Sound design.
The Patron Saints of Suicides
Haven Otomo spends her spare time saving people from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Possessed with unnatural powers of persuasion, she’s always been good at talking people in and out of things. When a rash of suicides hits the city, a detective reaches out for her help on the investigation, and her insight into why people kill themselves. When the crime becomes more complicated, she must question the people she trusts most, and whether they are involved.Website
- Vivid characters.
- Convincing performances.
- Surprising twists and turns.
- Great job of creating San Francisco and Oakland locations via the sound design.
- For my taste, the series relies too much on narration. That said, the narration is highly effective and the engaging performances by the narrators pull you into the story.
Grim and disturbing — not for the squeamish or faint of heart.
Humans must live underground and make impossible sacrifices after the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Can they trust government leaders to make the right choices?Podchaser Listing
- Natural performances from an all-star cast (including Logan Browning, Carla Gugino, Giancarlo Esposito, and Constance Zimmer).
- Sterling script (one of the best-written audio dramas I’ve heard).
- Top-notch sound design.
- Somewhat depressing.
Ross, a low level employee at the FBI, spends his days conversing online with his wife Charlie – who died eight months ago. But the technology behind this digital resurrection leads Ross down a dangerous path that threatens his job, his own life, and maybe even the world.Podchaser Listing
- Exceptionally clever speculative fiction storyline.
- Satisfying ending.
- Compelling characters.
- None — as long as you don’t expect it to continue the storyline from The Message (see note below).
LifeAfter is in the same feed as The Message and billed as its sequel. However, I couldn’t detect any direct connection between the two stories except for sharing the same producers. I seem to remember liking The Message well enough, but I don’t have vivid memories of it.
The White Vault
Follow the collected records of a repair team sent to a remote arctic outpost and unravel what lies waiting in the ice below. The White Vault is a horror fiction audio drama podcast that features languages and voices from around the globe. It often showcases the found footage format, accurate depictions of modern archaeology, and isolation horror, brought to life by a full cast and detailed soundscape.Website
- Effective “found audio” format.
- Diverse characters and international cast.
- Immersive sound design.
- Frequent special episodes with behind-the-scenes updates and interviews.
- I found the storytelling a tiny bit repetitive and slow-going during the first two seasons, but the pace picks up in Season 3.
The fifth and final season is scheduled for October 2021.
Marsfall follows some of the earliest colonists to settle on Mars in the year 2047, and each episode continues the story from a different character’s perspective. Led by their fearless commander Jacki O’Rania, and assisted by the artificial intelligence unit ANDI, they strive to make a home on the Red Planet while exploring its deeper mysteries.Website
- Imaginative story filled with intrigue and mystery.
- Vivid human characters.
- Memorable AI character.
- The storytelling is sometimes disjointed and confusing (but maybe deliberately so).
I have not yet listened to the third season.
Girl In Space
Abandoned on a dying ship in the farthest reaches of known space, a young scientist fights for survival (and patience with the on-board A.I.). Who is she? No one knows. But a lot of dangerous entities really want to find out.Website
- Sophisticated character development, plotting, and worldbuilding.
Like the Atypical Universe podcasts, Girl in Space starts off deceptively simple and spare. But it adds characters and layers of complexity as it progresses. Rest assured that it’s a full-cast production.
The Edge of Sleep
When a night watchman finishes his shift at work, he is terrified to discover that everyone in the world who went to sleep the previous night has died. Now he and a band of survivors must stay awake and uncover the secret of this global epidemic, before they fall asleep.Website
- Harrowing premise.
- Economical storytelling.
- Nothing that I can recall.
A tight post-apocalypse drama that plays out over just a few days.
A famed lost spaceship, the USS HOPE, returns to Earth after vanishing thirty-five years prior. The lone survivor disembarks mysteriously looking the exact same age as when he left. Following the ensuing media chaos, he finally reunites with his formerly identical twin brother (now an old man) for a one-on-one meeting. But what starts as a joyful reconciliation soon leads to dark revelations that threaten their relationship — and the future of humanity.Website
- Classic sci-fi premise.
- Effective thriller.
- Lead performance by Brian Cox adds gravity.
- Sound design.
- Nothing that I recall.
Set on board the U.S.S. Hephaestus space station, the dysfunctional crew deals with daily life-or-death emergencies, while searching for signs of alien life and discovering there might be more to their mission than they thought.Website
- Endearing characters.
- Cast chemistry.
- Deep character development.
- Creative storyline.
- Slow storytelling pace sometimes breaks the narrative momentum.
- Took me a while to acclimate to the tone and humor.
I needed two tries to get into this series. Stick with it to the end of Season 1 if you’re thinking of bailing after the early episodes.
Rami Malek stars in this apocalyptic thriller as a small-town radio DJ, Simon Itani, fighting to protect his family and community after the power grid goes down nationwide, upending modern civilization.Website
- Mystery elements and conspiracy themes.
- Worldbuilding expands in Season 2.
- Sound design.
- Derivative storyline, reminiscent of Revolution (NBC) and, in some ways, The Handmaid’s Tale.
I preferred Season 2 over Season 1.
A veteran detective (Jeanne Tripplehorn) must face the errors of a past case when the woman she convicted of murder is exonerated after 10 years in prison. Our heroine struggles to keep the trust of her department as a series of grisly murders rock her decaying South Carolina town, which puts her at odds with her ambitious partner (Ray McKinnon) and the department at large.Podchaser Listing
- Rich characters.
- Natural performances.
- Jeanne Tripplehorn in the lead role.
- Murder mystery.
- I preferred Season 1 over Season 2 which had too many characters to keep track of, especially for an audio drama.
Law and order is not my favorite genre (in any medium), but I enjoyed this one a surprising amount.
Five years ago, Molly Weaver, Bryan Anderson, and Nathan Howell started a podcast focused on the local legend of a monster called The Blackwood Bugman. Quickly, the investigation grew out of their control, as they discovered that, not only are the legends seemingly true, many people in Blackwood have turned up dead or disappeared without a trace. Worse, there may be a reason why no one has ever uncovered the truth before. Someone is watching them, willing to do whatever it takes to keep the secret. Their recordings have finally been released.Website
- “Found audio” format works well for the story.
- Natural performances.
- Sound design.
- The story does not fully resolve. The end is satisfying enough but it sets up a second season which never happened.
When a long extinct sea creature washes up on the shores of Coney Island, marine biologist Dr. Marella Morgan is contacted by a secret organization to investigate the origins of the creature’s sudden and unnatural resurgence. Soon, she and a team of explorers find themselves living on the research station The Tiamat, traveling along the abyssal plains as they search for answers far below the waves. But there are dangers in these ancient waters.Website
- Rousing underwater sci-fi adventure that gets better (and creepier) as it goes along.
- Initially, the acting felt a little wobbly to me, but the performances improved and the cast won me over.
The Left Right Game
Tessa Thompson stars as an idealistic young journalist trying to make a name for herself by following a group of paranormal explorers, obsessed with a seemingly harmless pastime known as the Left/Right Game. The journey takes her into a supernatural world that she and the other members of the expedition can neither handle nor survive.Website
- Disturbing existentialism.
- For me, the ending was unsatisfying. Your mileage may vary.
Ten years ago, over three hundred men, women and children disappeared from a small town in Tennessee, never to be heard from again. American Public Radio reporter Lia Haddock asks the question once more, “What happened to the people of Limetown?”Website
- Season 1 weaves an intriguing mystery via a novel storytelling format.
- Season 2 changed the format and was a letdown.
When a supernatural threat drives mankind to the point of extinction, survivors around the globe struggle to endure in a world with just three rules: Do not look outside. Do not look at the sky. Do not make noise.Website
- Great popcorn entertainment.
- Absorbing story.
- Sound design.
- Variable performances (ranging from adequate to good).
- Superficial characters.
- Loose ends and under-developed plot strands.
Season 4 coming in fall 2021.
If a well-known audio drama title is missing from my list, it could mean that I didn’t like it — or, more likely, that I haven’t heard it. As I listen to more fiction podcasts, I’ll update this post with new recommendations.
I’m always looking for new audio fiction to binge. If you have any favorites that you’d like to recommend to me or fans of We’re Alive, please comment below.
(Note: I moderate all comments so you may experience a delay before your comment appears on the post. For any SPAMMERS out there, don’t waste your time submitting as I will reject your comment.)