Modern Radio Drama – by Jonathan Mitchell
I love radio drama, and believe deeply in its future. But the fact of the matter is, radio drama is almost non-existent on public radio. And this is a little odd when you consider how good radio is at telling stories.
I believe that the reason we don’t hear more radio drama is because it turns off most listeners. One thing that draws people to public radio is its authenticity, emotional honesty, and meaningful interactions between people. And drama, as a form, depends on the construction of authenticity. That makes it all the more challenging; if two actors are clearly pretending, it can be distracting, distancing, and even corny.
These days, if people think of radio drama at all, they think of something that existed a long, long time ago. It’s performed live, often in front of an audience. There’s an announcer cupping his ear, a live sound effects guy slamming doors and tapping shoes, and the actors are all wearing fedoras. And for a lot of contemporary radio drama, even if its makers aren’t directly quoting a style that’s 75 years old, the notion of radio drama as a theatrical art is still a big influence on how it’s produced.
This can be really fun; a good story is a good story. But radio drama is capable of being so much more than a nostalgia act. And I think understanding this is one of the keys to making it work on public radio.
It’s certainly not that people don’t like fiction. Fictional film is arguably the most dominant form of entertainment in our culture. And on television, many of the most popular programs show that there’s an audience for intelligent and creative fiction. Contemporary audiences were raised on film and television, and they have a sophisticated perception of its grammar and vocabulary. Our radio drama stories can acknowledge and incorporate this more often. There’s no reason we can’t, for example, record on location, and hear more real sounds in real spaces. Radio drama can feel as visceral and immediate as any film; it doesn’t have to sound like a recording studio.
Another thing we could do that film and television does all the time is incorporate improvisation. Joe Frank has been doing this on the radio for thirty years, and others have picked up on it, too: Jonathan Goldstein (Wiretap), Benjamen Walker (Too Much Information), and Nick van der Kolk (Love + Radio) all present fictional conversations that are edited from improvisation. Commonly, they’re presented as phone calls that lead in an unexpected direction, but this method could be applied to any setting or circumstance. Our fiction doesn’t need to feel staged; it can talk to us like we really talk.
I believe the best radio drama takes advantage of radio’s unique strengths as a medium. For example, sound’s ability to be edited seamlessly: combine that with radio’s reliance on the listener’s imagination, and you have remarkable flexibility in the shaping of performances. But in the United States, the fiction-based shows with the widest distribution on public radio are Selected Shorts and L.A. Theatre Works. These are both programs showcasing material that’s repurposed from another medium, which makes it difficult or impossible to take advantage of radio’s strengths.
I’ve spent the last year working with American Public Media to develop a new public radio program called The Truth. There’s a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that goes: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” In other words, there’s a whole experience of “the truth” which can only be expressed through fiction. Our idea is to create a program for fiction that works on public radio.
Our inaugural piece is called Moon Graffiti, and you can hear it on PRX. It’s based on an actual speech written for Richard Nixon in 1969, titled “In the Event of Moon Disaster.” Our story imagines what might have happened if the Apollo 11 mission had gone horribly wrong, and it’s conveyed entirely from the perspective of the astronauts, as if we are overhearing their final conversation. It was made using techniques that are closer to film than to live theatre, mostly in the way it handles the actors’ performances. Much of the dialogue was created by editing improvisations, using the recording studio as part of the writing process. I think it helps lend a sense of authenticity to a story that can only exist as fiction.
Moon Graffiti has been featured in a number of places like Very Short List, The Unobserved, and The Guardian (UK) podcast, and on the NPR program Snap Judgment. But outside of a few pockets here and there, a place for this kind of work is difficult to find on public radio.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we succeed in connecting on a visceral level with a contemporary audience, then radio drama will be perceived as a viable and relevant medium for self-expression. And if people with the talent and ambition to achieve this are given the opportunity, encouragement, and incentive to develop and grow, then radio drama will have the opportunity to develop an audience, be critiqued by discerning listeners, and be constantly challenged to be more meaningful and relevant.
I believe that radio drama is deserving of the same respect we give fiction on television and film. It’s a complex and sophisticated art form that is capable of so much, yet difficult to master and worthy of lifelong pursuit. And I believe that there’s still great radio drama yet to be made by talented people with a deep love and understanding of the medium. And when you hear it, you might love radio drama, too.
Jonathan Mitchell has contributed a wide range of work—documentaries, fictional stories, non-narrated sound collages, and original music— to many public radio programs, including Radiolab, Studio 360, This American Life, Fair Game, The Next Big Thing, Marketplace, and All Things Considered. He lives in New York City.