The Ghastly Impermanence: Chopstream

Photo Credit: Free the Image.Licensed CC-BY.
Photo Credit: Free the Image.
Licensed CC-BY.

In a survey of book buyers last year, it turned out that just under half (48%) buy what is classed as mystery/thriller/crime. The second most popular book genre was science fiction with 26%. Romance was fourth with books on the coffee tables of 21% of readers.

Notably, however, was “literature”–presumably that fuzzy non-generic genre–with 24% of readers buying such stupid stuff. I say notably because I am writing about audio drama. Clearly the situation in audio drama is different. Sci-fi/fantasy dominates, along with horror and mystery. But this isn’t just domination. It’s a complete annihilation.

For proof, turn to the “drama” category of the Audio Drama Directory. Ninety plays are listed as drama. But look further. Of these 90, only 12 are not also listed as one of the typical genres, viz., sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, horror, action/adventure. And of those twelve, three of them involve time-travel and one is dedicated to Shakespearean productions. This brings our number to 8.

Compare this to:

  • 125 shows listed under Action/Adventure
  • 119 shows under Science Fiction
  • 78 shows under Fantasy
  • 70 under Horror
  • 59 under Suspense/Thriller
  • 51 under Mystery.

Even if I throw in the 12 shows that are distinctly listed as Comedy, the sum of Comedy and Drama totals 20 shows. This is roughly 4%. Literature, that thing in which apparently 1 out of every 4 readers still indulge, is almost completely absent from audio.

96% of all podcasts listed on the Audio Drama Directory are dedicated to genre pieces. I’ll just let that number sink in.

I don’t rail against genre pieces in audio drama because they’re genre pieces. I have some interest in genre myself. No, I rail against them because they choke the medium. Where the Hollywood argument would suggest that by doing all the substandard, crappy genre flicks, studios could then finance their “serious” prestige films–in the realm of audio drama there is no such argument. There are no prestige pieces. There is no prestige. In the absence of bean counters breathing down their necks about so-called profits, audio drama producers are largely free to make whatever they wish. Most of them are, in the best sense, amateurs–people who do it for love.

And apparently what they love is genre fiction.

Why should this be? Why do people who are otherwise sensible readers of books, capable of handling conversations about Julian Barnes and Vasily Grossman–these same people who will listen to NPR or Al Jazeera or BBC Radio 4–so married to genre fiction when it comes to audio drama?

It’s not the weight of history, I think, but rather the carcass of nostalgia. A reasonable argument is that audio drama producers tend to churn out the same sort of material they grew up listening to in their youth.  Where in the realms of books, people were forced as students into encounters with literature they may not otherwise have read, and learned to think critically about it, they had no such study of audio drama. They simply followed their youthful inclinations and listened to whatever was being broadcast. For the American audio drama producer over the age of 40, this means CBS Mystery Theater, Nightfall, Imagination Theater and/or crummy recorded cassettes of “Ye Olde Tyme Radio” found in the back of the Barnes & Noble catalog.

That’s only a partial argument, however. Many of the new wave of audio drama producers are not over the age of 40. Many of them did not grow up listening to radio at all. They come to audio drama quite differently. Some of them really want to be filmmakers and have no particular allegiance to audio drama. They therefore regurgitate the clich├ęs of cinema (which explains why there is a category on Audio Drama Directory called “action/adventure”).

Photo by WadeB.Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
Photo by WadeB.
Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

In literature, there has certainly been a shaking-up of the old genres. Fantasy has taken from Latin American magical realism and Mervyn Peake to evolve into a genre which can include the New Weird of Jeff VanderMeer as readily as the brute fantasy of George R.R. Martin. Even the often hidebound genre of science fiction has studied the work of Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, William S. Burroughs, and Italo Calvino, to the point where writers like Scarlett Thomas, Tom Bradley and John Kessel can mix their references freely.

This phenomenon in the world of readers has been called “slipstream,” and has helped revive those genres it touches. That it can be done in the often-too-precious world of literature suggests that something similar is possible in audio drama. And why not? Wouldn’t it be nice to enter into a completely new world where 90% of the audio drama were not as predictable as an episode of Two and a Half Men, and every bit as illuminating? Wouldn’t it be nice to find that certain things can be done in audio that can never be done in film? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that not all audio drama has to tend toward generic banality and that, in fact, the medium is really just getting started, and that all the possibilities for the medium are already there in front of you? To be really literary about it, audio drama producers can call their work “chopstream” and confuse everyone even further.

One would think that the younger producers of audio drama are uniquely poised to move in this direction. Not having to compare their own experience with the past, the younger generation are ostensibly freer to invent a way out of the bad old days, when radio tropes were even duller than television, and just as limited. In practical truth, their productions are even more limited than those of the older generations, who may still have some dim memory of Earplay or the work of Bay Area Radio Drama or other dramatic work on the radio. Again, I’m not going to name names. Go onto the Audio Drama Directory yourself and read the descriptions. That oughta learn ya just fine.

The insistence on every audio drama being not only clearly generic but rigid within its appointed genre keeps the entire medium in a muck. The way out has not yet been cleared. It won’t be until there is sufficient will to do so. Producers will have to embrace their medium not as a holdover point on their way to yet another trivial attempt at cinema but as audio. And they will have to have faith that listeners are at least as varied in their habits as readers. That is not the case now. But it should be.

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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