radiodrama_FEATURED

Modern Radio Drama

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

About
Jonathan Mitchell

Jonathan Mitchell is the creator and producer of The Truth, a podcast that makes short films without pictures. He's contributed a wide range of pieces -- documentaries, fictional stories, non-narrated sound collages, and original music -- to all sorts of public radio programs, including Radiolab, Studio 360, This American Life, Snap Judgment, and PBS's Nova. He studied music composition at University of Illinois and Mills College, and lives in New York City.

More by Jonathan Mitchell

Comments

  • JulieH

    2.14.11

    There is a thriving community of volunteer producers of podcast audio dramas on the internet. We range from pure “for the love of it” amateurs to people who are absolutely dedicated to forwarding and perfecting our art form.

    So… when radio drama (on the radio) starts to make a comeback, it will already have a battalion of trained minions just slobbering for a chance to reach an unsuspecting public.
    :)

  • Jens Hewerer

    2.15.11

    Jonathan,

    Modern radio drama should not be thought of as radio drama but audio drama! For audio drama the radio will only be one channel, a much less important one whether public or private.

  • Jonathan Mitchell

    2.15.11

    Jens,

    Yeah, I agree with you that “audio” may be more accurate, especially long term. I think the reason I gravitate towards “radio” is because it implies a certain functionality in people’s lives, and I think that it helps put the goal a little more into focus for me. But “audio drama” works too. I kind of hope people won’t care what it’s called if they like it, you know? Or maybe they’ll give it a name like Crunk or Glitch got names. Maybe it could happen the same way, like a name will just emerge like that. That would be cool.

    Jonathan

  • Anne Cadigan

    2.15.11

    I’m super happy to see this being discussed – whether we call it radio drama, audio drama, or some shortened hyper cool nickname, I think it’s definitely time for a comeback.

  • JulieH

    2.15.11

    I will admit, those of us producing out here whose works have not actually been made for “radio broadcast” tend to use audio drama, because if you call yourself “radio drama”, the first question anyone asks is “what station are you on?”

    On the other hand, there is a certain aura of legitimacy to anything that DOES make it onto the real airwaves. Perhaps it’s because it has to be programmed (and presumably commissioned and paid for) instead of being lumped in with the vast sea of vanity press that is the internet.

  • Glen Clifford

    2.15.11

    Some great points above… ‘Audio drama’ is better… And has been used for a long time.
    INTERNET
    Don’t worry about being compared to all the ‘vanity hobby’ media being produced for online delivery … The great thing about the internet is that true talent/interesting content has a way of shining through (just look at YouTube or specific blogs). And is it not also a bit isolationist to not want to perform against a slightly amateurish supporting act? After all, they will only make you look better! Just like free-to-air TV, radio programs need contrast. On the internet, there is simply a wider variety of ‘good stuff’, ‘bad stuff’ and occasionally ‘brilliant stuff’. As for your fear of losing status because it’s on the web, rather than airwaves… No worries, welcome to 2011… The web, although forever different to all previous media, has long lost that early YahooGeocities stereotype, where everybody thought user-generated content was rubbish. That began with Web 2.0, when it went from ‘participatory’ (personal home pages and BBS) to ‘interactive’ (blogs, facebook)… It meant that it became a lot easier for people to give instant feedback on untruths, propaganda, advertising and rubbish. There’s so much involved in this issue… Let me take it one step further: With HDMI, people now have the net connected to TV more (and better) than ever before. When it comes to this type of merging technology, people tend to (dangerously or not dangerously?) not distinguish much between what has originated from the internet, or free-to-air. But again, so far, we’ve always seen the good bits come to the surface. Yes, many good bits sit beside crap, but I seldom hear complaints that good material is actually being submerged by crap. People talk – and other people hear about what’s good, funny, entertaining, brilliant etc.

    PERSONAL PRODUCTION VALUES
    On to another issue… Nowadays, when people listen to audio drama, they expect similar acting, modern technology, mixing, atmospheres etc — to what they hear from TV drama. Anything less, and people (as you say) do think you are doing a H. G. Wells, with primitive technology… Sad fact, but true… People are now extra-critical and will compare to the best they have heard on TV audio (think X-Files music and SFX, brilliant) What is perceived as ‘good’ drama on radio, is really expensive for public radio to do. Anything less will appeal to a minority audience, who do not mind ‘poor production’ (being perceptions of what is ‘poor’ – assessed against TV, the dominant form)… ‘Minority audience’ again brings up the ‘audience v funding v effort’ issue we all face, regardless of what the (radio) content is. Just to clarify, the expense mainly comes from massive post production time consumption to sound ‘real’ (for the expectations of a modern critical audience), rather than the expense of buying SFX libraries or recording actors. End of the day, it’s about audience – and how many you want of them.

  • Jonathan Mitchell

    2.16.11

    Glen,

    I don’t think it’s the least bit isolationist if someone chooses not to perform against even a slightly amateurish act. It’s a matter of who you think your audience is and what you think they will expect/tolerate, and doing what you can to make sure people are getting what they want out of it. Some people enjoy the rawness. Others can’t stand it. I find that radio/audio drama is particularly unforgiving in this way. Unlike mediocre documentary pieces, which people generally tolerate, when radio/audio drama is bad, people turn it off.

    But then, I’m sure that the way people access radio-type programming will continue to change as a result of the internet, there’s no doubt. Podcasting offers clear advantages in terms of listener choice. But still, today’s best podcasts are mostly shows that come from broadcast.

    I absolutely disagree with you that “what is perceived as ‘good’ drama on radio is really expensive for public radio to do.” I believe that “good” radio drama is a sensibility more than anything. It’s about developing one’s skills at telling a good story, and using the resources at hand to do that as well as we can. And I think an audience deserves to hear a story that is as good as it possibly can be (knowing of course that ‘good’ is a subjective term, and different audiences are looking for different things).

  • Julia Barton

    2.16.11

    Jonathan, I really hope this project gets picked up. There’s certainly a place for this. People don’t always want to consume a crunchy non-fiction diet, but that’s almost all we give them on pub radio. The popularity of “A Prairie Home Companion” speaks to our fiction urges, I think, but like you say, it’s presented in a throw-back, nostalgic way.

    This all makes me think of two things–first, how at the BBC they have a dedicated crew of radio drama producers, often doing spin-offs of popular TV shows with the same actors (i.e., http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/torchwood/download). The whole radio drama thing never died in most of the world, but for some reason it did here. Radio soap operas are employed by NGOs in many places, especially Africa, as a means of doing health education. (http://www.bookrags.com/tandf/radio-and-television-drama-tf/)

    Secondly, voice acting for animation is a huge business in Hollywood. If audio drama ever turned out to be a money-making proposition, it would be out of public radio’s hands in an instant. Something to think about, but not that I’d worry about it any time soon. Still, good luck!

  • Jens Hewerer

    2.16.11

    Great discussion!

    To be clear, my major was not the naming: Radio drama or audio drama, but rather the distribution, radio should only be part of it. The online possibilities and success of iPods are the biggest chance for audio drama in a long time! And why rely on public radio? Private radio probably pays better?

    One caveat, also I understand that one name will eventually “win”: Audio drama, audio theater, etc. I hope that day will come soon and it will become a proper subcategory in online stores.

    Personally, I like audio drama but call my Billy Brown series audio adventures, first. For kids, it just sounds cooler!

  • Jonathan Mitchell

    2.16.11

    Julia,

    Thanks for your encouragement!

    I disagree with you on one point:
    you said, “…voice acting for animation is a huge business in Hollywood. If audio drama ever turned out to be a money-making proposition, it would be out of public radio‚Äôs hands in an instant.”

    I think that making successful radio drama is not just about the level of voice talent. It’s about understanding how to use those voices to tell a good story on the radio, which is a specific kind of thing that takes most professional radio-makers years to develop. To be honest, I don’t think there are many people who could just jump over to radio and be instantly successful, although there may be some notable exceptions out there. Most of the best radio people probably spent years making mistakes first.

    Although, if people were to respond positively in large numbers to radio drama, it would certainly provide an incentive for new people to give it a try, and that would hopefully result in better stories. But I think telling better stories will always be hard no matter what.

    J.

  • Glen Clifford

    2.16.11

    Jonathan Mitchell says: “It’s a matter of who you think your audience is and what you think they will expect/tolerate” …. Glen says: That sounds rather isolationist to me. On the internet, you cannot easily separate your content from the crap, or audience expectations from the great. Jonathan Mitchell says: “knowing of course that ‘good’ is a subjective term, and different audiences are looking for different things”…. Glen says: For goodness sake, that’s why I used the word “perceived”. It’s all about audience perception. But what would I know; been working in professional radio since the age of 19, and have a MA in New Media… Let’s put it this way – I was making professional radio when the Berlin Wall came down. But I guess I am not as ‘objective’ as you about audience… I invite you to take a look at your words 20 years later.

  • Jonathan Mitchell

    2.17.11

    Glen,

    1) in that first quote, I was thinking more in terms of within a particular show or podcast, or grouping of shows. Sort of like, if you’re a music promoter and you’re putting on a concert, you’d want to make sure the acts you programmed together might appeal to the same audience. My point was that I don’t have a problem with anyone making curatorial choices, it seems like a logical & useful thing to me.

    2) it that second quote, I was just trying to qualify my own statement. The section that you quoted was in no way meaning to imply that you’re not “objective,” or that I have any special powers of objectivity. But I do stand by what I was meaning to say: quality dramatic fiction should not be prohibitively expensive for public radio.

    And I’m really happy that we share an enthusiasm for more audio drama in the world!

  • Susan M Soesbe

    2.23.11

    I am teaching a Creative Writing course to homeschooled teenagers over here in New Jersey. I plan to do a four week module on Radio Drama (now, thanks to the suggestion of Jens, above, to be referred to as Audio Drama). I have been looking for some works of a more recent vintage than Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”. I was so happy to find The Truth! I am still looking for more examples to show the kids and spark their imaginations. I’d also like to acquire the scripts and use them to show the students how to format their own works for audio.

    I love Selected Shorts, but it’s still, as Jonathan points out above,a show that showcases material that’s repurposed from another medium. I want to show my students what can be done with unassisted sound effects and dialogue.

    I am looking for more examples which can be purchased on CD or in digital form so I can present it in the classroom. I do not have a computer on site! Does anyone have any leads?

    FYI, we’re going to watch the East Lynne Theater Company present “Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, as it says on their website, “in the style of a vintage radio broadcast, complete with live sound effects and commercials, just like the Sherlock Holmes radio series on NBC that premiered on Oct. 20, 1930.” Isn’t that something?

  • Jens Hewerer

    2.23.11

    Susan,

    Check out Tony Palermo’s website for your project:

    http://www.ruyasonic.com/

    Good luck and have fun!

  • Susan M Soesbe

    3.12.11

    Excellent resource! Thanks, Jens.

  • Randy

    6.02.11

    Susan,

    Try Borgus: Not From Space which is a modern version of War of the Worlds in that it’s performed as if a live news broadcast. It’s available on iTunes and is on XM Radio ocassionally.

  • Krishna Rao

    6.13.11

    I offer to you, Jonathan and fellow audio drama fans, my own modest stab at audio storytelling: Never Been There — The Nearly Grown-Up Adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. http://www.neverbeentherepodcast.com.

  • Randy Riddle

    7.25.12

    Just ran into your post and I think you make some good points. However, I think that public radio isn’t the place to revive an interest in and invigorate radio drama. It needs a larger popular audience to make the form viable again.

    I think that radio drama could be revived by, first all, breaking away from broadcast completely to allow for more adult language, content and themes. Second, it needs to be fairly short – five or ten minutes at most – to take on the same cachet you might find from a hit pop song, something a listener doesn’t have to devote a great of time to enjoy. Especially if done as a series or an intended “album”, a listener can get “hooked” by a short piece and seek out more.

    Near the end of the Old Time Radio era, NBC took the approach of taking their long-running shows, like “Fibber McGee and Molly”, and continuing production on them as short features used in a longer block of “magazine” type programming. And CBS changed “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” from a weekly half-hour program to one that ran five days a week, telling a serialized story over the week, in short ten minute installments.

    I think they were on to something – we devote less time to entertainment unless it’s more of an “event” like watching a movie or a favorite tv show, both “sit down” commitments. Audio is something you listen to in the car on a drive, on an mp3 player when you’re working out or jogging, or to take a short break when working on the computer.

    Long form programming, such as public radio’s talk and news blocks, or talk radio, are the kind of thing that listeners keep on for most of the day and drift in and out of when something catches their ear.

    The only thing I’ve seen that approaches the kind of thing I’m talking about is R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” series of songs and music videos. Think about it – “Trapped in the Closet” is really just a continuing serial audio drama told through a series of pop songs.

    What if R. Kelly had used only voices and sound effects to do the same thing?

  • Brian Creath

    1.15.13

    Hello all. I am currently studying (with a group of investors) the potential viability of syndicating radio drama/mystery. Our initial direction is guided by anchors such as CBS Radio Mystery Theater and (though another medium) The Twilight Zone. I would love to share our direction and gain perspective from folks who are interested in pursuing partnerships in writing, production, etc. If interested, please contact me at: Brian Creath, bcreath@cohesionagency.com, c/o of Cohesion: http://cohesioncompany.com.