Classic Audio Drama and Flash Fiction Shine in “Earbud Theater”

Earbud Theater is a flash fiction radio theater podcast that has been around since 2012, a venerable veteran of the podcasting community. The show debuted just around when Radiotopia’s The Truth started. While I’d heard of The Truth plenty, I hadn’t heard about Earbud Theater until recently, and I’m so disappointed in myself for not having found it sooner. While The Truth never appealed to me much, each episode of Earbud Theater I listened to was interesting, exciting, and new, while still playing on some of the stylings of classic radio theater.

Radio theater is, in my opinion, a better way to think about the show than the current trend of audio drama. The show has the feeling of The Gray Area more than something like Welcome to Night Vale (a show that feels episodic but quickly turns into a serial), but without a throughline of mystery, which helps free up the content from any restraints. While Earbud Theater is currently producing a serialized arc–“After the Haunting,” a horror story just in time for the Halloween season–most episodes are one-off pieces of flash fiction. Unlike a standard audio drama, there isn’t time to establish an arc and slowly unveil character; instead, each episode has to deliver a riveting plot and interesting characters in just one episode, something that I think is even more difficult than the slower build of serialized stories.

Similarly, the focus on traditional radio theater gives the show’s production a different feel than most audio dramas. Instead of trying to feel organic and realistic, Earbud Theater does feel more scripted and produced; however, in this show’s case, I think the style works well. It took some getting used to for me to embrace the shiny veneer of the production, but once I remembered what actual, classic radio theater sounded like, the production style felt worlds more natural.

Still, I can see this being a stocking point for many listeners on an initial listen. I can also see listeners being so used to starting a serialized story from the beginning that they feel compelled to begin at the start of the show’s archive, which sounds incredibly daunting. It would be handy if the show, like many of its contemporaries, had some sort of “Best Of” or “Start Here” guide on its website.

The structure also leads to some episodes feeling much more memorable than others. Some episodes are prone to have plots or tones that are catered to specific tastes, and some are more adventurous than others. The show is experimental, which has a classically high risk, high reward model with fiction. Some episodes are going to be more successful than others, but because the show doesn’t have ongoing characters or story to pad those that fall flat.

Still, I think Earbud Theater is a bit of an unsung hero in podcasting. It started before podcasts got any sort of favorable media attention–especially in fiction–and has honed its craft to produce countless interesting, different, and new stories each episode. The show makes for a nice escape from the looming dread of long-running shows like Wolf 359 or The Bright Sessions without feeling to twee or whimsical, like the shows I usually turn to if I want to cut some suspense. There’s something incredibly relieving about a story wrapped up in each episode, and I’m excited to hear how the podcast handles its first long-form storytelling endeavor with its “After the Haunting” arc. If their show to this point has been any indication, I’m sure Earbud Theater will handle it with the finesse this podcast has established over the years.

You can find Earbud Theater on Apple Podcasts. The show does have some problems with its stream on some non-Apple Podcast apps right now, but can be streamed from their site or from Podbay.

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