The Journey to Night Vale: The Foundations of SFF Podcast Fiction

So, you want to hear a story?

Last week, Wired Magazine featured an article entitled “Fiction Podcasts Are Finally a Thing! Thank You, Sci-Fi and Horror.” As I have been both a podcaster and a podcast consumer since 2004, I was anxious to find out what journalist Charley Locke and Wired had to say about Fiction Podcasts. However, I found myself scratching my head the more I read, especially when Locke boldly stated, “Years after Welcome to Night Vale first defined the genre, fictional podcasts have finally arrived.” This echoes a New York Times article from March of this year when Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink said “The whole fiction podcast thing blew up in the past year.”

Don’t get me wrong—I love Welcome to Night Vale. Cecil Baldwin kept me entranced in Episode One, and continues to do so right up to their present season. (“No one does a slice like Big Rico. No one.”) I take pause at Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast that launched in 2012, being deemed as the first to define the genre. That’s akin to saying that Charlene Harris defined the vampire genre with her Sookie Stackhouse novels, or that J.K. Rowling defined the Children’s/Young Adult Fantasy genre with Harry Potter. Night Vale, undeniably, has gone on to become one of the most successful of fiction podcasts, but does its popularity make it genre-defining? Podcasting Fiction is not some “new trend” or literary revolution that occurred overnight. Authors were sharing speculative fiction audio within the first year of podcasting’s inception. Some of these writers are still podcasting fiction today. Some will receive accolades for their hard work at the Eleventh Annual Parsec Awards at Dragon*Con this Labor Day weekend.

Fiction podcasting has been alive and well for over a decade, and some of these storytellers are New York Times bestsellers, Campbell Award winners, Nebula winners, and (not surprisingly) Parsec Award finalists and winners. What defines a genre—in this case, fiction podcasting—are those podcasters that came before, broke ground, and continue to fine tune what they do in order to make their art even better. Here are just of a few within that vanguard that laid the groundwork for the storytellers of today’s most popular fiction podcasts:

Mur Lafferty. When you talk about podcast fiction, John W. Campbell award-winner Mur Lafferty should appear in that conversation. Mur truly set standards for excellence, being the first author to podcast short stories in 2004. Her shorts were syndicated to other science fiction-related podcasts, one of these podcasts being The Dragon Page. Her résumé ranges from serving as editor on Escape Pod, editing and presenting the first anthology podcast in 2006 (Voices: New Media Fiction), and hosting her own writing podcast, I Should Be Writing, now celebrating its tenth anniversary. When it comes to clearing the bar, Mur is not only the podcaster setting it, but continuously resetting it for the rest of us.

Scott Sigler. Another name that should appear in conversations concerning fiction podcasting is #1 New York Times bestseller, Scott Sigler. His first podcast, EARTHCORE, was one of the original three podcast novels to appear on The Dragon Page podcast feed in 2005. From there, Sigler went on to podcast other novels and short stories of science fiction and horror. ANCESTOR was so successful in 2006 that its 2007 print edition broke into Amazon’s overall Top Ten charts. His other podcasts have included INFECTION, CONTAGIOUS, the young adult Galactic Football League series, and his current Generations Trilogy from Del Ray. Sigler still podcasts his fiction every Sunday as he’s done since 2005.

Phil Rossi. While Scott Sigler’s name is synonymous with horror in podcasting, another name worth noting is Phil Rossi. He first appeared on the podcasting scene in 2007 with Crescent, an audio experience best described as Babylon 5 crossed with Event Horizon. As Sigler’s brand of horror specializes in the visceral, Rossi’s delves more into the psychological. This deep dive into humanity’s darkness continued with Eden, and reached an apex with Harvey. If you want podcasts that will assure you falling asleep with the lights on—all of them—listen to Phil Rossi.

Tracy Hickman. While it is true that many of the creative minds behind fiction podcasting are first time authors (but keep in mind, Lafferty, Sigler, and Fink & Cranor all started here), established authors have also discovered the potential in podcasting. Hickman, known for his New York Times bestselling epic fantasy and his extensive work with Dungeons & Dragons, dove into podcasting head first with The Immortals in 2006. The Immortals was an ambitious and incredible tale set in the year 2020 where the cure for AIDS has mutated into a more powerful disease, and Tracy’s story followed the individuals the United States government deemed as “pre-deceased.” The Immortals went on to win Hickman the 2007 Parsec Award for Best Podcast Novel.

Mercedes Lackey. New York Times bestseller Mercedes Lackey, known for her epic fantasy published with New York houses, has also stepped into fiction podcasting with her own continuing series, The Secret World Chronicle. Created by Lackey, and written with authors Dennis Lee, Cody Martin, Larry Dixon, and Veronica Giguere (who serves as the podcast’s narrator), The Secret World Chronicle launched in 2007 and is still running today. A braided novel series set firmly in the realm of superhero science fiction, a diverse cast of characters struggle to save the world from the threat of the dimension-jumping Thulians. In their nine years of podcasting, Secret World has been a finalist seven times for the Parsec Award for Best Novel. The podcast has also been released in print from Baen Books.

These are only five podcasters who have been sharing their fiction in audio since 2005. I would love to tell you about others like J.C. Hutchins, Christiana Ellis, James Durham, Mike Bennett, Starla Huchton, Lauren B. Harris, Chris Lester, Brand Gamblin, and Jared Axelrod. I would love to tell you about Burn, a novella from James Patrick Kelly that was submitted as a podcast against print novellas for the Nebula Award’s Best Novella of 2006. (The podcast won.) I would love to tell you about Escape Pod, the first short story podcast of 2005 that paid their writers SFWA-scale rates for fiction, and continue to do so today solely from audience donations and paid subscriptions. I would love to tell you about Grant Baciocco & Doug Price, the two comedic geniuses who made history fun to learn through their time traveling, family-friendly podcast The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd that launched in November 2004…

The problem is I don’t have enough space here to do this.

Instead, I offer an infographic put together with some invaluable assistance from award-winning author KT Bryski (currently podcasting Six Stories Told at Night which received its funding from the Ontario Arts Council). We have collected fifty productions spanning the first five years of podcasting, all of them sharing works of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Some of these podcasts have concluded. Some are still ongoing. Many of these titles are waiting for listeners at Podiobooks.com, a website launched in 2005 that continues to offer free fiction in a serialized format to this day.

Click for full infographic (Note: 3MB)

Click for full infographic (Warning: 3MB)

I am fortunate to know a lot of podcasters, and a lot of writers who are podcasting fiction; and I will be the first to say this infographic is hardly comprehensive. It is, however, representative of the amount of fiction that has been distributed through audio files and RSS feeds; and this infographic is merely part of the first five years, not even reaching into the new fiction podcasts launched between 2011 and today.

While it is exciting to see the demand for new podcast fiction in the wake of Welcome to Night Vale’s success, it is equally exciting to see that the demand for fiction podcasting is easily met. From award-winners to New York Times bestsellers to exciting new voices debuting before the world, fresh podcast fiction awaits listeners of all interests. Whether it is an epic Fantasy adventure, an outer-space take on Horatio Hornblower, or short stories of steampunk, fiction podcasting continues to amaze, astound, terrify, and inspire people around the world. For those of us who have been doing this since the beginning, we’re thrilled to see podcast fiction finding new audiences. Seriously—pull up a chair and fire up your mp3 player. We’re happy to get to know you.

So, you want to hear a story?

Tee Morris was the first author to podcast a novel from cover-to-cover. MOREVI: The Chronicles of Rafe & Askana launched in January 2005, and was a finalist for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Podcast Novel. He won the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Audio Drama for his full-cast production of Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword. Tee made the finalist ballot twice in the 2012 Parsec category Best Speculative Fiction Short Story, but lost to his wife. They made up for this awkwardness by winning the Best Anthology Parsec Award in 2013 for Tales from the Archives, a steampunk anthology from The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Tee is also one of the writers behind Podcasting for Dummies, Expert Podcasting Practices for Dummies, and Social Media for Writers.

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