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Conspiracy Fiction Audio Dramas

After several years of Magic, poker and science podcasts, I dipped my toes into fiction podcasts – or, as most of their creators prefer to call them, audio dramas – with Welcome to Night Vale and a couple of other podcasts from the Night Vale Presents network (which I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post). But it was just a sideline to the nonfiction podcasts until…

I don’t remember where I heard about The Polybius Conspiracy, a 7-episode documentary about an urban legend surrounding an early-80s video game, which seemed like a great piece of niche investigative journalism. Or at least, I thought it was a documentary, but it turns out it was mostly fiction. Something about it seemed too good to be true, but it was so well done it fooled me. Which left me pretty mad.  But there was a silver lining:

In the form of Wil Williams and her blog. I found her review by searching for information about the Polybius show. Exploring her site and following her Twitter, I found – well, I honestly don’t know which shows I found first through her, but a year(ish) later most of my podcast subscriptions are audio dramas, including several completed ones and some long-running ones I’m catching up on.

So I’m going to survey the ones I’ve listened to in groups, starting with what I think of as “conspiracy fiction” audio dramas: Podcasts which present a conspiracy or urban legend as if it were real. But they’re a lot more enjoyable when you know that they’re fiction.

The biggest risk with podcasts of this genre is that they’ll dance around the edges of the story and not get to a satisfying payoff. That basically happened with Polybius, which kind of petered out at the end. I think of this as “X-Files syndrome”, where an unwillingness or inability to take the story to (or at least towards) a satisfying ending drove me away from that show in its third season. (The fact that The X-Files was running opposite Babylon 5 – while B5 was smoking all the other genre shows with its deliberate storytelling – probably didn’t help.) The journey is enjoyable up to a point, but the payoff is a critical part of stories like this. I don’t think everyone agrees with me on that (evidence: the persistent and baffling popularity of The X-Files), but to me it’s make-or-break: If the writers just want to do weird stuff and don’t have a fairly concrete payoff in mind from the beginning, then I’m probably going to find it more frustrating than enjoyable.

Note that since I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas and catching up on some older ones, some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • TANIS: It seems it’s just about impossible to get into this genre of podcasts and not eventually end up listening to TANIS, from the Public Radio Alliance. Host Nic Silver (an alias of writer/producer Terry Miles) explores the lost city (?) of Tanis starting from a few hazy clues, but quickly going down the rabbit hole of deaths, disappearances, shadowy figures, and corporate espionage. He’s aided by his new friend, the hacker MeerKatnip (MK). The show is in its fourth season, and I’m nearing the end of the first. I definitely worry about X-Files syndrome with TANIS, but so far the ride is enjoyable. The interactions between the out-of-his-depth Silver and the snarky MK are the highlights of the show so far.
  • Rabbits: Another PRA production, which ran for one season (a Kickstarter for a second season failed), and arguably it’s even better than TANIS. Host Carly Parker is searching for her missing friend, and ends up being dragged into the latest iteration of a centuries-old game called Rabbits, which has mostly avoided appearing on the Internet. While the last episode is a little less than I’d hoped for, it does have a satisfying conclusion, and there are a lot of neat cultural Easter eggs along the way to read about on Wikipedia. If they do somehow do a second season, I hope they delve into the mechanics and outcomes of the game some more (even though I’m sure they haven’t really thought about those, but I think they have to in order to keep interest).
  • The Last Movie: Another PRA creation from Nic Silver, this one dropped all six of its episodes at once earlier this year. Nic and MK investigate the rumored “Last Movie” of the 1970s, which supposedly kills everyone who sees it. A pretty good introduction to the PRA style, but it’s not as good as TANIS or Rabbits.
  • Limetown: The first season (back in 2015) concerned a fictional corporate town in Tennessee, all of whose inhabitants disappeared ten years ago. Reporter Lia Haddock investigates what happened to them. I’m not as high on this story as some people are, as I wasn’t wild about the revelations or the conclusion, find them all a bit pedestrian for fantastic fiction. But I enjoyed it well enough to see if they develop it in a more satisfying manner in the upcoming season two. From what I’ve read that this was one of the first of the modern wave of podcasts, so with several years since the first season ended, simply assimilating what others have done in the form in the meantime might make for a more satisfying story.
  • Mermaids of Merrow’s Cove: A public radio reporter goes home to her town in New England to investigate apparent kidnappings and murders of young women who appear on the beach and which locals suspect are mermaids. I’m 3 episodes into this 6-episode series, and it’s pretty good, though I find it not as polished as PRA’s offerings; in particular I find the story and acting to feel a bit contrived. The high points so far have been the reading of the journal by an early inhabitant of the town.

Next time I’ll cover the science fiction genre, which include some of my very favorite audio dramas I’ve discovered to date.

Nonfiction Podcasts

Last time I ran through the gaming-related podcasts I listen to, so here are the other “nonfiction” podcasts in my feed.

Public radio podcasts

Many shows from public radio outlets are also released as podcasts. Some of these include bonus material, but they also come with reruns which may or may not be of interest. This is a great way to listen to shows that aren’t available in your area, or which are broadcast on a schedule that doesn’t match your own.

  • Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!: NPR’s weekly news quiz show, which has been running for over 20 years, hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, with a rotating panel and a weekly guest. Always entertaining, often informative, I probably started listening not long after it started and I’ve never stopped. I still hold out hope that Charlie Pierce will come back someday.
  • Ask Me Another: Hosted by Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, this is a trivia quiz show with one or more weekly guests. Not the laugh-fest that Wait! Wait! is, but a fun diversion.
  • Says You: A long-running panel game show revolving around language and wordplay, I often forgot to catch it because it airs here Sundays at 4 pm, and for a long time you had to pay to get the podcast feed. Now it’s freely available, and it’s very funny. Sometimes the games are fiendishly clever.
  • Serial: A podcast from This American Life which focuses on a single topic each season. I listened to season 2, on Bowe Bergdahl, which I found a bit overlong for its topic. The season 3 teaser just dropped a week or two ago.
  • S-Town: A spin-off from Serial, about a man in a small Alabama town who invites a reporter down to investigate a suspicious death, and then things take a disturbing turn. This 7-episode podcast is complete, and while there is some extraneous material, there’s also a lot going on, and since it’s reporting on true events, not everything gets tied up in a bow. However, I think the central mystery was given a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the end. Atmospheric, creepy, tragic, I found S-Town very compelling, and superior overall to Serial. (For a different opinion, see Wil Williams’ review.)

Scientific American podcasts

I listen to a couple of podcasts from Scientific American, which – along with Wait! Wait! – might be the ones I’ve been listening to the longest:

  • 60-Second Science: Despite the title, these are 2-to-4 minute reports on recent developments in science. Releases every weekday.
  • Science Talk: A longer-form usually-weekly podcast usually focusing on a single topic – an interview, a book, etc. – with special episodes each year when the science Nobel Prizes are announced. Both of these podcasts cover the full range of science, so unless you’re interested in everything in science there are bound to be some that won’t grab you. Nonetheless both are informative and engaging.

Political & legal podcasts

I’m not a big political wonk (my occasional Twitter rant aside), but in the last year I’ve added a couple of new podcasts in this area to my subscriptions:

  • Congress, Two Beers In: From the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. One of the hosts is Matt Glassman, who I discovered through Thinking Poker. What appealed to me about him is that he talks less about politics per se, but about government – how it works, how politics affects it, etc. – which is an angle not often reported on in the mainstream press. This is in this vein, and I find it very informative, especially given the current governmental clusterfuck we’re living with. Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Make No Law: By Ken White of Popehat, who is a popular figure on Twitter. This podcast focuses on developments in first amendment law throughout U.S. history, including Supreme Court rulings and the national scenario and individual actions which led to them. Releases approximately monthly.

Progressive rock podcasts

As you may know, I’m a big fan of progressive rock music. There are several streaming radio stations I’ve listened to, but not many podcasts that I’ve found – or at least not ones that hit my particular style that strongly. But I do listen to two:

  • Progtopia: A bi-weekly podcast that when I discovered it typically had a single interview with an artist or band each episode, including playing a few of their songs. Now it includes one or more shorter interviews, a roundtable with the main host and some other people involved in or covering prog, and an opinion essay. I think I liked the old format better as the newer content doesn’t add much for me.
  • NewEARS Prog Show: This is a radio show by the New England Art Rock Society which airs on WEMF in Boston. Each episode is 2 hours, and it seems to run in seasons, with season 4 having finished earlier this summer. As a radio show it plays a bunch of music and then has two or three interviews. I’ve discovered a few bands through it already, and I only found this show earlier this year. Plus, you can’t beat the Boston accents!

Others

  • The Geekbox: A weekly podcast about geek hobbies. This used to be a roundtable with several people who worked in or around the videogame industry, plus the guy who owns the comic shop I go to. Life developments have recently reduced it to just two hosts, which has not grabbed me as much. Plus, the non-videogame content has been reduced, and since I don’t play many videogames – and no console games – that limits its appeal for me. So after listening to it for almost 8 years, I’ve recently dropped it.
  • Retropod: A short several-times-per-week podcast about historical events, especially ones which have been in the news recently, e.g. because some new information about them has come to light. I just started listening recently.
  • Fiat Lex: All about dictionaries and how they work, by two people who have each worked in the business for years. (Did you know dictionaries are a business? They are!) Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Query: A bi-weekly podcast answering tech questions from listeners, with an emphasis on Apple products. Some useful stuff in here that you might not easily find out about unless you obsessively follow the tech press (and really, who has time for that?). Recently had a co-host switch as one of the original hosts was hired by Apple.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber are both hilarious on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, and this is their second stab at a podcast after last year’s Live From the Poundstone Institute. Both shows have struggled a bit to make their conceit feel natural, with the new show being based around interviewing experts in a couple of subjects and then having Paula offer (humorous) advice on what they’ve learned. The first two episodes were really rough, and although it seems they have an audience, it’s not as evident as in the last show. It’s gotten better since then, but it feels like it could use some editing to get down to the best stuff. Releases weekly.

Next time I’ll dive into my latest hobby: Audio dramas.

Gaming Podcasts

I’m breaking up the “nonfiction” podcasts I listen to into two entries: Gaming podcasts, and everything else. As I said in my intro, a few Magic: The Gathering podcasts have been key in keeping me motivated in running. I also listen to a couple of poker podcasts. I’ve listened to several others of each, some of which have ended, some of which I’ve dropped, but the ones included below I’ve been listening to for quite a while.

One common thread in these podcasts is that the hosts clearly put a lot of work into planning out their episodes and staying on topic (presumably through skillful use of editing and post production in some cases), so you know what you’re going to get: A consistent product, and a clear indication when an individual episode is going to be different. I’ve listened to a few podcasts in each category which don’t exhibit this discipline, and they often end up running 90-120 minutes per episode, and/or spend a lot of time in rambling digressions which don’t hold my interest.

So, these really are the cream of the crop that I’ve found for each game, at least as far as what I’m looking for in these podcasts goes. YMMV.

Magic podcasts

  • Limited Resources: Probably the podcast I look forward to the most each week, LR covers the limited (draft & sealed) forms of playing Magic, which are the formats I mostly play these days. Besides being a clinic in playing, LR is also a clinic in producing a professional-grade weekly podcast on its topic, with insight, humor and depth. I discovered LR back in 2012 because I figured there must be a podcast on Magic drafting out there, and this was honestly the only one I could find at the time. It had already been around about 3 years by then, and it was already very solid. Host Marshall Sutcliffe also does commentary on the Magic pro tour. Co-host Luis-Scott Vargas is in the pro tour hall of fame, also does coverage, and brings great analysis and usually-great humor to the show. Both of them show their enthusiasm for and expertise at the game in every episode.
  • Good Luck High Five (formerly Magic the Amateuring): The GLHF hosts have backgrounds in improv comedy and so they’re the rare podcast which is able to dive into off-the-cuff humor and make it work – but I think it’s because they have the discipline to not let it get away from them. They cover all forms of Magic in a friendly and upbeat way, and have both played competitive magic and worked in coverage of competitive events. They’ve recently picked up the proverbial baton of keeping their listeners apprised of developments in the MtG world, which I enjoy even though I’m not strongly plugged in to that side of the scene.
  • Drive to Work: By Mark Rosewater, the head designer of Magic, who records it while – you guessed it – driving to work. He releases 2 episodes each Friday. Rosewater has a great mind for game design and his podcast is worth listening to if you’re interested in Magic design, game design, and to some extent any sort of design.
  • Kitchen Table Magic: An interview podcast about the personalities and histories of the game. Host Sam Tang does a great job bringing out his subjects’ love of the game, and in the cases of long-time players their historical perspectives on the game. For anyone who’s watched the Enter the Battlefield video series, KTM is a more in-depth and regular feature with many similarities. Organized by “seasons”, it comes out weekly with some gaps in the middle and end of each season.
  • Allied Strategies: As a rule I’m not a fan of podcasts in a “friends hanging out” format, but this one makes it work, and I think it’s because they’re very good at knowing when to ad lib and when to rein it in. Two of the friends have been professional Magic players, and all three are entertaining and insightful. Not every episode is deeply interesting to me, as they rotate through a variety of Magic topics, but I listen to most of them. They usually end the episode with an amusing story from a recent event.

Poker podcasts

  • Thinking Poker: Much like Limited Resources, this is a fine example of producing a focused podcast. Co-hosts Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis open with a usually-short intro (a bit longer when they themselves have been playing in major tournaments), then launch into a strategy segment analyzing one or more hands. The rest of the episode is usually an interview with someone from the poker world. Some of the most interesting interviews have been with people who are only tangentially part of the poker world, and the hosts are excellent interviewers. Episode 200 is a good sampler of interviews with several of their best guests.
  • Just Hands: This podcast started off as what its name implies, individual episodes analyzing poker hands and that’s it. It’s been extending a bit into interviews, especially as one of the original hosts has recently left and the other is having a different guest each week. It’s a good listen, though I think their strength is in hand analysis.

Next time I’ll cover the rest of the nonfiction podcasts.

Podcast Person

A few years ago I started running again, and I’m still going. I’ve tried it before and haven’t stuck with it, but what’s kept me going this time, in no small part, is that I listen to podcasts while I do it. They keep my mind occupied by something other than how much running sucks. 😃 And I’ve used my OCD to keep myself going, because if I miss days then I fall behind on my podcasts!

My podcast app of choice is Overcast on my iPhone, using AirPods for listening. I was initially skeptical of AirPods, but their connectivity and convenience has been great; I think I’ve only ever once had one fall out of my ear, and never while running. I understand that they don’t fit all ears naturally, but they work great for me.

I listen to most podcasts at 1.3x-1.5x speed since I’m more interested in consuming the content than the ambience the podcasts provide – although I’m more likely to listen to audio dramas at a slower speed than nonfiction podcasts, since in those the ambience is more important. Some podcasts can be listened to at higher speeds, depending largely on how fast people talk. Once a podcaster I listen to at 1.3x guested on a podcast I listen to at 1.5x, and it was… interesting.

While running I almost exclusively listen to podcasts about Magic: The Gathering. But I listen to lots of other podcasts at other times: While driving by myself or with Debbi, while walking after lunch or in the evening. I don’t often listen to podcasts while doing other things (working, reading, writing), though I have a couple of music-oriented podcasts for which I sometimes make an exception. I’ve listened to some other nonfiction podcasts since about 2010, as well as some “infotainment” shows such as NPR’s Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!

Last year I dove headlong into listening to audio dramas (having previously listened to only a few Night Vale Presents shows), and now they make up the bulk of my listening in the car. I’m only about two months behind in listening to them! There are podcasts I have in my feed whose first episode I haven’t even gotten to yet! Heck, the total running time of podcasts I’m trying to catch up on (at a rate of about 1 episode per week) might be longer than the running time of podcasts actually released during the week. But I should catch up – eventually. Assuming no other great podcasts get started in the next, oh, eight months or so. That’s totally possible, right?

Over the next few posts I’m going to survey many of the podcasts I’ve listened to. Mainly podcasts that I’m still listening to (even if they’ve completed their runs), and ones that I enjoy, although I’ll also touch on some that haven’t worked for me. There are a few “big name” podcasts that haven’t worked for me – but there are also some that hit me just right. Maybe you’ll find a few that appeal to you.