The Ghastly Impermanence: Exploring Radio Drama

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For a new radio drama listener the greatest obstacle is the most basic: finding something one enjoys. There is no Scarecrow Video Movie Guide for audio drama. There are no books like Copland’s What to Listen for in Music for radio. Instead the situation is a little like being a person interested in avant-garde and underground film in the 1980s. At that time, virtually all books on the subject were out of print and even if they had been in print the films discussed in the books were almost completely unavailable unless you were an ad agency or an educational institution (not a student).

Radio drama suffers from the same neglect. If Alan Beck’s numbers are right, there is a sum total of about twenty-five books written about radio drama in the ninety years since the BBC began broadcasting. Virtually all of them are out of print. And even if the books were in print, the plays discussed remain almost completely unavailable. In spite of producing around six hundred plays a year, the BBC shows rather little interest in archiving its material. As I write this, listeners using BBC’s new iPlayer Radio have one hundred forty-two episodes available for listening (many of them serials or parts of a series), but approximately two-thirds of them are available for seven days or fewer. Then they disappear into goodness knows where for goodness knows how long. This is a bit like trying to study by flashes of lightning.

For partisans of American radio drama the situation is marginally better. A by-product of American commercialism has been that commercial broadcasters have preserved certain radio shows for future profiteering. Vinyl and acetate recordings of early broadcasts are sometimes available and most recordings of “old time radio” come from sixteen-inch record masters. Many of these were incomplete, edited versions from Armed Forces Radio Services recordings. Later shows recorded on magnetic wire or reel-to-reel tape were often erased completely. Moreover, the great majority of shows were never recorded at all. From 1962 onward, when radio drama became largely the province of public radio and individual stations unconnected to commercial networks, the situation is even worse.

Nevertheless, the writer’s task remains always to salvage the past from obscurity and to preserve the present from glut and ignorance. This challenge in audio drama is strong. The BBC is very little help. American broadcast radio stations, even NPR, are even less helpful. As early as 1934, BBC producer Lance Sieveking was complaining about “the ghastly impermanence of the medium” as a legitimate obstacle to a greater appreciation of radio. The latest wave of digital podcasting has done something to preserve the newest in audio drama but the past remains very much a shambles.

The hope within this column is to create some interest in the audio drama of the past and the present–and the future as well. This requires not only a guide to the quality material but also a guide to where one can find it. When possible, I will include a source for either the script, or a broadcast, or both. The column will range from simple interviews with people involved in audio drama to in-depth analyses of various bodies of work by groups and authors to discussion of play scripts to matters of technical context and so on. Everything is fair game but the ultimate goal is to make you a better listener and a more knowledgeable fan. Listeners face a world of radio plays that has no easy gateway. The goal of this column and its future installments is to open that gate. It is up to the reader to walk through, of course, but gathering up the courage to walk through is easier when armed with a bit of knowledge.

Gird up thy loins, then, and prepare thyself for a highly opinionated, eccentric guide through the world of audio drama. I leave you with the following quote from Sarah Montague that will hint neatly at the next entry.

A history–especially a cultural history–requires continuity, artifact, a critical framework, and the inherited sense on the part of its community that it is a community. Instead, our world of sound is strangely muffled. Tramping through a fragmented field of material, in libraries, books, on the Internet, and the tongues of my colleagues, I was reminded again and again of the parable of the blind philosophers and the elephant: producers, playwrights, journalists, administrators, each defining the form entirely in terms of whatever small segment he or she has encountered or created.

Filed under Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net