Radio Drama: Beyond Nostalgia and Nerddom

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The BBC has such a grip on radio drama in Britain that it’s easy to forget about the alternatives. By far the busiest group of original audio dramatists are the small-scale podcasters. For the most part, this means science fiction, fantasy and mystery stories. — Leo Benedictus

Just as everything bad about Hollywood was bad about Broadway before it, everything bad about television was bad about radio. Virtually every generic trope of television stems from American broadcast having its roots in radio. Soap operas, cop shows, situation comedies, sci-fi space opera, the Playhouse of the Week–all these come from radio. But where television has, in all its mind-crushing inanity, run these genres into the ground, it has at least attempted variations on the themes and has over the past couple decades begun to devise new tropes far removed from radio.

By comparison, contemporary audio drama in America remains hidebound by the past.  Radio drama in America currently relies upon audio nerddom for its growth and preservation. These nerds tend to fall into two major groups. The “Old Time Radio” faction and its members are the nerds of nostalgia. Their interest in radio tends to be as a museum piece or as a warm, comfortable reminder of how great it was to be young, when radio was still great. They tend to be largely conservative if not reactionary in their radio aesthetics and, like the eyes in “The Mysterious World of Reagan’s Brain,” they seem intent only on looking backward through a rose-colored mist. An example of this faction’s view on the present and future of audio drama is this post from a well-known “OTR” forum:

I do tend towards “They Don’t Really Make Them Like They Used To.” Of course there is still great radio drama and comedy being made, but it seems to me there is also a lot of terrible stuff being churned out. One particular type of drama which I find I have to dodge increasingly often is the worthy, topical and “thought provoking” kind which some BBC producers seem to revel in (of course the reveling is of a repressed and depressed nature).

The other major faction in contemporary audio drama is what Leo Benedictus calls the “small-scale podcasters.” These are almost exclusively amateurs. I mean that in the purest sense of the word: they are “ones who love” their audio drama and what they do they do for love without much fantasy of remuneration for their time. But they too are often afflicted with the disease of nostalgia as well as plain ignorance. Their range can be shockingly narrow. As Mr. Benedictus also notes, their interest tends to be in generic audio: speculative fiction, horror, mystery–all genres that hearken back to “OTR” and the wistful old days of radio before television came along and ruined everything.

Trotting out old, familiar genres and tropes is not a cure for what ails contemporary audio drama. Science fiction appeals necessarily to a limited audience, just as do horror and mystery. Beyond their limited appeal, the problem arises of what Arthur Koestler called “the boredom of fantasy.” At their most average, they tend away from broad literature toward narrow indulgence: away from art, toward cheap thrills.

Swift’s Gulliver, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, are great works of literature because in them the gadgets of the future and the oddities of alien worlds serve merely as a background or pretext for a social message. In other words, they are literature precisely to the extent they are not science fiction, to which they are works of disciplined imagination and not of unlimited fantasy. A similar rule holds for the detective story. Georges Simenon is probably the greatest master in that field, yet his novels become works of art precisely at the point where character and atmosphere become more important than the plot, where imagination triumphs over invention.

Now before one gets all defensive à la mode de Damon Knight about Koestler’s statement, he is not suggesting that nothing can be done within these genres. What he is pointing out, however, is that the odds are stacked against. Thoughtless adherence to genre creates clichés. Clichés do not ameliorate writing; they ruin it. Even Damon Knight will concede this. Knight’s exception to Koestler’s rule rested on one thing: whether or not “the writer has genius.” Amateurs by definition rarely have such genius. They simply work in the land of the conventional, of the stale. At the point they leave that land, they are likely to leave amateurism as well.

The rise in amateur podcasts stems directly from the spread of technical equipment. The outlets for contemporary audio drama and their means of production are numerous and far more accessible than the days when broadcast dominated. But along with accessibility comes glut. What gets lost in the glut is that which falls outside of the direct interests of audio nerddom–which is to say, virtually everything that is not generic. The glut also perpetuates itself.

This dependence on nerddom and its underlying sense of nostalgia promotes mediocre genre stories by rescuing them from the maelstrom of Internet glut and by selection grants them a special status that a less-easily-classifiable audio drama does not have. Yet if there is to be any serious growth in the audio drama world, producers and writers must create works of art in more than a few limited genres. They must create works that go beyond narrow ideas of genre itself. Radio drama cannot and will not grow by simply recycling. It must branch out more widely into the realm of literature.

The strength of BBC and CBC radio drama is that the British and the Canadians take for granted the link between theater and radio. Where American radio drama nestled comfortably into its ethos quite independently of American theater and generated its own formulas, the BBC have regularly used radio as a ring fence medium for new playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Lee Hall and others who became stage playwrights largely because of their work in radio. The CBC under Andrew Allan, according to Howard Fink, became Canada’s national theater as a matter of policy. The strong ties between theater and radio in both countries has ensured a steady stream of writers who have consistently pushed beyond the narrow range of genre stories. German radio drama is even more experimental, as are Swedish radio drama, Norwegian, Estonian, Finnish…

Sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/crime, and horror/thriller shows have their backpatting societies and awards. They also feature regularly at nerddom-dominated “pop culture” conventions like Steamcon, ZomBCon and the like. Rarely is there an award for a straight, non-generic story and even more rarely do such things feature at a convention of any sort. Even in the allegedly more sophisticated Great Britain until this year there were no awards specifically honoring audio drama. The Society for Authors had their own Imison Award. The Writers’ Guild had their Tinniswood Award. The Radio Academy has had the Sony Awards for thirty years but they only tangentially feature audio drama as such. If it took the BBC ninety years before their first audio drama awards, how long will it take the US to have similar awards? Since there is no network investment in such things, the answer is probably never. Closest are the Audie awards and like the Sonys they are only tangentially related to the body of radio drama in the country.

BBC simply defines radio drama as a “programme consisting of a prose or verse composition, one telling a story, written for or as if for performance by actors, puppets. Example: Soap opera, Shakespeare play, Monty Python, radio play. Not: documentary or informational programme whose subject is drama.” They do not break things down further on their calendar into neat and narrow genres like fantasy. The implication is clear: radio can tell any story, not just sci-fi, horror or mystery. Yet the BBC Afternoon Play still garners 900,000 listeners.

I hold no illusions that any American audio drama will ever garner that sort of audience. Nevertheless it might as well try. Will it ever compete with television and video games and cinema and comic books? I think not. I also think it should not try. The only reason for a medium to exist at all is to give people something they cannot get any other way. There are plenty of boring sci-fi/fantasy/horror/crime shows on television. What television rarely has is non-generic writing. This is where radio and audio drama can take root and grow. As David Edgar, the head of the British Writer’s Guild notes:

Radio drama’s ultimate justification lies in doing things that television can’t do, or isn’t prepared to. So it’s good that radio broadcasts versions of stage plays, does classic adaptations television wouldn’t touch (such as Brian Sibley’s nominated adaptation of Titus Groan), and ringfences slots for innovative work and writers new to radio: one of its great achievements has been launching the careers of writers, from Tom Stoppard via Lee Hall to Mike Bartlett…. It should bother less about pretending to compete, and concentrate on one of the things it does best – encouraging people to write things for it that they can’t write for anyone else.

Contemporary audio drama will grow not by telling the same old generic stories of OTR with new technology but rather by reflecting a wider array of contemporary life. What small-scale podcasters in America need is to do what television and cinema cannot. This means to explore the connections between theater and audio drama, and between cinema and audio drama as well but without mimicking them. Broadcasters are unlikely to lead the way in this regard. They are too deeply invested in their current formulas. Audio drama needs more interesting writing. The degree to which such writing is broadly interesting is the degree to which it is free of cliché and convention. Amateur small-scale podcasters are largely afraid to break with convention–or they simply are not interested. They need not be. The field needs more amateurs who love the medium, but even more it needs artists.

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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