Arrangements in Air: Navigating the World of Audio Drama

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When I was growing up, radio drama–or at least, what was left of radio drama–was on the radio. KZOK, KIXI and KIRO all broadcast various radio series both new and old and since I also had a shortwave radio I could pick up BBC and CBC when the combination of weather, voodoo and pure luck permitted. Broadcast times were standard, programs were diverse, access was simple, listings were in the newspaper. It was easy to be a fan of radio drama, and even easier to become one even if one had never tuned in before.

What was not so easy was finding broadcasts from the week before or from the weeks before that. If I missed a broadcast it was like missing a television episode; I simply had to wait for a repeat broadcast. Only it was worse with radio, because episodes were rarely reprised, much more rarely than television, where repeats were simply a matter of time.

With the decline of radio and the rise of the Internet most audio drama has moved to a base not in broadcast but rather in podcast. Many old and new audio dramas have found their way into various archives around the globe, and repeats are now possible instantaneously. But new problems have arisen. Two are especially notable. First is an old problem in a new context: “How do I find all this stuff?” The second is a problem that arises from solving the first: “How do I sort all this stuff?”

The situation in which a new listener of audio drama finds herself is not unlike that of a new comics reader. When discovering comic books for the first time, one must generally walk into a comic book store to get a hint of the diverse material available. This requires one to bring along at least one bottle of sanitizer and perhaps a vaccine for survival, as well as an extra supply of liquid patience or pepper spray–especially for the new female reader.

Comic book stores are not generally designed for the new reader of alternative comix. On the contrary they are traditionally owned and operated by nerdy, sweaty men with odd stenches (Drew Friedman’s cartoon on the subject will illuminate you) who grew up reading Marvel superhero comics and who assume therefore that anyone else who might read comics, too, is also such a nerd. They belong to a class of person known as “Collectors.” Collectors are not out to preserve things for posterity but rather for themselves. Consequently Collectors arrange things according to personal value rather than values of universal communication. Marvel vs DC vs Image vs Dark Horse, and the rest of the losers who publish material that dares not be four-color superhero antics are hidden farthest away in some dark corner, if indeed the shop has any at all.

This is a slight exaggeration, to be fair, but only a slight one. It is one of the single largest factors preventing an acceptance of alternative comix among lay readers in the United States: comics are treated as an area of arcane lore and secret knowledge with an accompanying Masonic handshake. For those seeking out old broadcasts–say, before the year 2000–the problem is identical. Since the BBC and CBC and Library of Congress have no real system of recording and archiving broadcasts, one is left to consort with Collectors, those individuals who have recorded such things for their own personal benefit.

Even if one can find a Collector who might have what one wishes to hear, and overcome the feeling of a sweaty, nerdy boys’ club–Collectors are almost all male–the journey has only begun. Imagine if you will, walking into a library of 70,000 books trying to find Moby Dick by Herman Melville. But the library has no author information. No publication date system. Not even a title arrangement. Instead books are arranged by color, typeface used on the cover and where the author was when they bought it. Even the bizarre catalogue system of the Cottonian Library seems obvious by comparison.

Yet this is exactly how most often the Collector arranges his material. For a novice, just trying to get interested in audio drama, this kind of “system” is madness unfettered. A novice who heard an interview with Katie Hims or A.R. Gurney and took an interest in the author’s radio work would, in order to deal correctly with the Collector, have to know that it broadcast originally on Woman’s Hour Drama on BBC 4 or Earplay on Minnesota Public Radio, and furthermore would be expected to know the exact date of its first broadcast and whether or not it was subsequently broadcast on a different channel.

Here is an illustration from my own experience.

I spent about six hours editing audio files in my music library last night. Not all of it. In fact, not much of it. I was only fixing radio plays. It wasn’t that they had no ID3 tags. They had plenty. And they were almost completely irrelevant, usually only containing information about the original series of broadcast, the date and sometimes the channel. Six gigabytes of audio plays titled “Afternoon Play 2009 03 24 xxxx” on the album “Afternoon Play” by the artist “BBC4” is enough to induce headaches, vomiting and diarrhea. I had to go to to look up every single one of them by date to find out something simple like who wrote the damned thing.

Because I am a listener and not a nerd, I am primarily interested in art and the art of radio drama stems largely from those who write it with contributions from the actors and sound designers and engineers. In the long run, I couldn’t care less whether something was on Friday Play or Afternoon Play or Nightfall or Earplay or Saturday Night Theatre or RTE Drama on One. I want to be able to find radio plays the same way I find books or plays or other things in any public library or bookstore almost anywhere in the world.

But no. This does not enter the mind of the Collector. The Collector of audio drama is primarily interested in his own nostalgia. His personal investment in preserving audio drama has value for him only insofar as it recreates the original conditions of his experience–“oh, I remember when I first heard that”–which explains an obsession with dates. The Collector arranges all material according to the series in which it was broadcast, as though the series itself is much more important than the people responsible for it. While I might accept this argument for serials in which there is a continuity of characters from episode to episode like The Archers, when applied to an anthology series like The Wire or the SyFy channel’s Seeing Ear Theatre or Radio 4’s Friday Drama it is a patent absurdity. Fans of Neil Gaiman or Harold Pinter don’t particularly care that it was a particular series that aired a play written by Mr. Gaiman or Mr. Pinter; they care that Mr. Pinter or Mr. Gaiman wrote a play that they may not have heard. Such listeners are likely only to be confused when they run across some listing like “1994-05-08 (r4)” or something equally intractable. After sifting through terabytes of such runic lucubrations anyone researching audio drama with an ear simply to hear something will cry for a better system, something that actually addresses their needs as listeners and not simply as future nerds.

Such are the problems with the Internetses. Failing to content itself with destroying the ability to search for material by relevance, Internetsing has wrecked the idea of a universal classification system for media. Finding radio drama before the days of podcast and internet radio can be a little like cleaning the Augean Stables.

This problem also faces contemporary audio drama. Having moved away from the airwaves to the domain of obscure IP addresses on the Internet, one is as likely to find the exact podcast or audio drama that appeals to one’s own taste as one is to find a similarly appealing webcomic. Readers of the Seattle Star have already heard my view on that subject.

One might assume that the iTunes store or some similar directory might solve this problem. To an extent it might, but one cannot assume that every audio drama will even make it to the iTunes store, or Podcast Alley, or anywhere else. Some will show up as not even being podcasts and will find their way onto Soundcloud or Bandcamp or a music service without so much as an ironic note.

One can argue of course that buying audio dramas online ameliorates this problem. But similarly to buying comics online, very rarely can one actually browse through the material–not the titles and descriptions but the material itself–online, it does not solve the larger problem which is the same problem that faces comics as equally as it faces audio drama: “How do I find all this stuff, especially the stuff I want but don’t know exists?”

As with webcomics, there are some acceptable directories for audio drama. Primary among them is The Audio Drama Directory which is quite neutral. It has a long way to go before it’s truly useful but, as the sailor says in Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, “any port in a storm.” Public Radio Exchange is also useful for finding things currently available for public radio but its scope is quite narrow by design. For speakers of German, the Hörspieldatenbank, aka HörDat is phenomenal. There is nothing like it in the English language, unfortunately, but there should be. For a more curatorial approach, one may generally trust the folks at Radio Drama Revival, The Sonic Society or KCNR’s New Radio Theater to provide a sympathetic ear. All three shows have generally good taste and a much broader range than most fans of audio drama who tend to be locked into very narrow genres.

With radio drama of the past, in some rather more scholarly projects there is hope. The BBC have always been dismal at cataloguing their broadcast but that may change in the next few years as they work on and complete (one hopes) the massive BBC Genome Project that promises full scans of the past eight decades of Radio Times listing all BBC shows broadcast since September of 1923. The CBC have another scholarly project to scan all the scripts that were broadcast by CBC on Wednesday Night or CBC Stage between 1944 and 1969–about 600 plays, or 36,000 pages if you like large numbers. Both projects offer at least a sound basis for individual research on English-language radio drama and intend to remove the keys to the kingdom from the hands of unintentional gatekeepers and make everything available to all, operating on the premise as the BBC states that “full or near-full public access to archives is both achievable and the right ultimate goal.” I could hardly agree more.

I will wait a long time, I fear, before someone in the United States sets about so thorough project with American broadcast. Commercial broadcasters in the United States rarely show any interest in preserving their history, much less promoting it, and this is particularly true of their forays into radio. Nevertheless private researchers are setting new foundations, such as the folks at the Old Time Radio Researchers Library who have made a sizable amount of their well-researched audio drama freely available at the Internet Archive, including some shows from Australia and Canada as well. This is one area in which The Collector can contribute greatly, if The Collector can overcome that typical sense of entitlement and ownership while resting securely in knowledge that making his precious collection available to others does not diminish his importance but rather increases it.

This is a chance to illuminate the history of broadcast for everyone. After all, if contemporary audio drama has one major flaw it is a near-complete dissociation from the history of the medium.

Categories 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

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