Podcasts are on fire. Not literally on fire — I mean they’re hot. Not Snapchat hot but definitely craft beer hot or eyebrow threading hot. There’s still no economics here (although there are mattress ads and some subscription stuff) but you can’t dispute that audio is evolving faster than ever and that more people — inventive amateurs and mega-corporations — are playing than at any time since the whole thing began. And whenever things are evolving fast you see new forms and new ways of presenting the old ones and it all gets very exciting.

So here’s a trend. Swipe through the subscriptions on your phone. You’ll find that categories are shifting. And specifically, fact and fiction are getting mixed up. Documentary podcasts are playing with made-up stories and fiction producers are borrowing methods from the feature makers and sometimes you can’t tell the difference. Here are four examples (all American — and that’s another issue), of this new kind of storytelling.

Theory of Everything

To be clear, Ben Walker has been making things up for years. When I encountered his long-running WFMU show Too Much Information, like a rube, I thought it was all true. It wasn’t till I met him at a thing in London years later that I learnt that these hip, outsider features, usually on conspiracy/fringe themes, were usually at least partly fictional. And this was a shock, for a radio nut like me, brought up listening in the BBC/Public Radio feature-making tradition (where the drama’s over here and the documentaries are over there).

But now this playful, provocative approach feels less like an alt media game and more like an emerging mainstream practice. His Theory of Everything, which he makes as part of the Radiotopia collective (proud supporter here), mixes up hard reporting on urgent themes (listen to his series about the way Airbnb is hollowing out New York) with clever, and often hilarious, fiction. This ep is fully in the latter category: future Ben gets into a fight with two self-driving cars.

Trumpcast

I’ve been listening to Slate’s Trumpcast (open-mouthed) since it launched in March. It’s the dead centre of liberal America’s Trump-critical media. Jacob Weisberg (who runs the whole Slate group) makes no pretence of objectivity. He’s as amazed as we all are by the Trump phenom. In an earlier ep he says (paraphrasing) that Trumpcast has become a kind of curse and that he’ll be glad when he doesn’t have to spend part of his working week in Trump’s weird, malignant world.

It’s pretty blunt, first-amendment stuff, never afraid to pin the kind of accusations on Trump that would produce a libel writ in London in about ten seconds — from business failure to racism to tax evasion to the whole, dark and weird Putin thing.

Trumpcast is the best of Slate’s pretty good fleet of downloads and, recently, they’ve tied up with Chicago comedy group Second City to put on a live, touring show about Trump. I don’t know what the show is like but this is exactly the kind of creative opening-up of the platform that will keep audio alive and interesting.

And this ep is brilliant — an entirely fictional telephone conversation between Trump and his recently-fired campaign head Corey Lewandowski. Trump is played by John Di Domenico who voices Trump’s tweets for the podcast in a spookily authentic way. It’s weirdly touching.

Hollywood Handbook

I actually have no idea how much of this one is made-up and how much is cast iron truth — it’s not from my world. My friend Dale put me onto Hollywood Handbook, which at least pretends to be a guide to how to make it in tinseltown but is really a kind of comic-surreal stream-of-consciousness riff on vanity, envy, celebrity, superficiality.

Double-act Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements play hideous wannabe Hollywood bigshots and their guests are real actors and writers that I’ve never heard of (there’s a Saturday Night Live/Daily Show vibe). It’s cruel, bitter, hilarious — definitely the funniest thing in my podcast app. This is very much a native podcast, not radio comedy uploaded — self-referential Internet media for actual Millennials. And the highly-integrated ads (for brave advertisers like Five Four Clothing) are cheeky and often as funny as the material itself.

Flash Forward

Rose Eveleth’s excellent podcast about the future began life as part of the Gizmodo network. I don’t even want to think about what happened there but she managed to escape a few months ago and now her podcast has a new name but roughly the same model. Each ep begins with a beautifully-told fictional scenario about the future — all the big human concerns are here: food production, sex, ageing, climate, automation, natural disasters — and then goes into a more conventional documentary segment, with experts and questions and a conclusion.

There’s no blurring of fact and fiction here but there’s clever use of fiction to make the fact bit more engaging. This is the kind of creativity that makes a podcast stand out but also it’s going to help us explain that podcasts are special. That podcasting is an independent media form that has its own creative logic, its own niche in the content ecology, its own commercial model (eventually) and — most important of all — an audience.

I’m a trustee at the amazing Poppy Academy Trust, a social media editor in radio, a poet and a volunteer at Watford Refugees.

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