Audio dramas are staging a dramatic comeback with the rise and influence of podcasting. The narrative show Serial currently leads all podcasts in popularity, with 250 million downloads and counting.
The move toward audio may seem unexpected, but it’s not surprising. Sound forges a unique bond with an audience. Consequently, by using no visual medium, podcasts can make use of the biggest screen of all—their listeners’ imaginations.
So what’s the story on scripted podcasts? Let’s look at what they are, how they’re developed, and which ones are leading the market.
The Difference between Unscripted and Scripted Podcasts
Traditionally, successful podcasters have avoided scripting their shows word for word. In fact, many of the most popular podcasts are interview shows, such as The Art of Charm and The Joe Rogan Experience. In these productions, the hosts usually rely on notes and prepared questions, but the conversation can vary widely. Part of the charm of these shows lies in their focused-but-flexible format.
Scripted shows, by contrast, follow the classic Hollywood format that most people know from watching films, sitcoms, or dramas. In general, these scripted podcasts cost much more money to develop than unscripted ones. Hernan Lopez, CEO of Wondery, told the researchers at Digiday, “A high-end, scripted show needs to tally around 500,000 downloads per episode to make economic sense.”
How Scripted Podcasts Get Developed
Writing, producing, and editing a scripted show is one of the toughest challenges podcasters can tackle. They break down the process as follows:
- Writing: Audio dramas rely on strong characterization, sound cues, and a logical story arc to make them work. The presence of a narrator in the script can make things easier for the writer, but it tends to slow down the action and create emotional distance for the listener. In general, writing an audio drama is like writing for screen or stage—except that sounds, not visuals, take center stage.
- Producing: If you hire professional actors, producing and editing your podcast will be much simpler. It will also be a lot more expensive. Still, actors who know what they’re doing, dedicated recording space, and a seasoned sound engineer may save you money—and certainly time—in the long run.
- Editing: In the editing phase, you or your editor will clean up tiny mistakes, add music, put in sound effects, and adjust volume levels.
Creating a scripted podcast requires much more labor than putting together an interview show with notes. Still, most of the work happens at the writing table and when hiring the actors. The rest of the production process is not unlike producing an unscripted show.
The 13 Best Scripted Podcasts
And now, in no particular order, here are our picks for the 10 best scripted podcasts available for download:
1. Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin
Business marketing writer Seth Godin launched Akimbo in 2018. In Godin’s signature style, the show follows a scripted narrative format to discuss a study, controversy, or topic relevant to life and business. As a marketer, Godin naturally targets that audience, but his show’s scripts add value to a wide variety of listeners.
2. 36 Questions
Starring Jessie Shelton and Tony-nominated actor Jonathan Groff, 36 Questions explores how an estranged husband and wife saved their marriage by going through the 36 questions designed as a perfect strategy to help couples get to know one another and fall in love. The three-act production bills itself as the world’s first podcast musical.
3. The Amelia Project
This show about a secret agency that fakes its clients’ deaths and then helps them reappear with new identities relies on dark humor and mysterious twists to keep listeners coming back. With more than a million downloads behind it, The Amelia Project seems to have found a winning formula in a narrative filled with secrets and unexpected plot turns.
A podcast built on the world of artificial intelligence, Sandra follows what happens when Helen, who wants to ditch her hometown, goes to work behind the scenes on Sandra, an AI project that doesn’t turn out as Helen expects. This show explores the flaws in the voice behind the virtual assistant.
5. My Favorite Murder
Hosted by American comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, My Favorite Murder discusses a single murder, true crime, historical story, or survivor story. The show receives more than 19 million monthly downloads, and its fans turn out for live events across the country.
6. Wooden Overcoats
In this hilarious production, protagonist Rudyard Funn and his equally miserable sister Antigone manage their family’s funeral home on the Island of Piffling. Though about to go under themselves, Rudyard and Antigone are forced to liven things up when a charming new funeral director comes to town. The humor intensifies as the Funns take increasingly drastic steps to stay solvent.
Fifteen years ago, 326 women, men, and children disappeared from a neuroscience facility with no trace, no witnesses, and no clues left behind. Now, an investigative journalist is trying to find out what happened to them—and she’s just had her first breakthrough. This fictional podcast reached number one on iTunes two months after its initial release in 2015.
8. Side Hustle School
Author, blogger, and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau writes this daily podcast to encourage and inspire those looking to make more money through a side hustle. The episodes are short and bite-sized—generally less than 10 minutes each—and offer case studies of successful real-life hustles as well as lessons and Q&A sessions about side hustling best practices.
Creatively presented through telephone calls, therapy sessions, and overheard conversations, Homecoming looks at the fictional experiences of a caseworker at an experimental facility. The show features the voice talents of Amy Sedaris, David Cross, Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer.
The podcast of The Sarah Awards, which honor the best in audio drama, Serendipity presents a daring anthology of avant-garde stories designed to please the discerning listener’s palate.
Audio dramas may not come to mind first when the topic of podcasts comes up, but with millions of listeners downloading them, narrative shows are demonstrating their ability to make deep inroads into public life. What role they’ll play in the future of podcasting, however, is anyone’s guess.
Created, written, directed, and produced by Tau Zaman, CARAVAN is a story about going through hell with the people you love—literally. Samir, the story’s protagonist, stumbles into a paranormal world in which there’s no escape. Since no one goes it alone, Samir joins Argeaux’s Caravan, a band of vigilante peacekeepers and supernatural bounty hunters.
12. StartUp: A Show About What It’s Really Like to Start a Business
An award-winning, highly popular podcast, StartUp offers a documentary take on entrepreneurial life. The first and second series each focused on a single business over the entire series, but beginning in season three, each episode tells the story of a new entrepreneurial venture. ABC adapted this narrative podcast into a sitcom called “Alex, Inc.”
From GE Podcast Theater and Panoply, Life After enters the fictional world of Ross, a middling FBI employee who spends his days online conversing with his wife Charlie—who is dead. Soon, Ross finds himself in the crosshairs of people involved in a technology that can communicate beyond the grave. The show has been described as “a ‘Her meets Ex Machina’ AI adventure.”
Audio dramas and documentaries may not come to mind first when the topic of podcasts comes up, but with millions of listeners downloading them, narrative shows are demonstrating their ability to make deep inroads into public life. What role they’ll play in the future of podcasting, however, is anyone’s guess.
This article was written by Compose.ly writer Holland Webb.