The Ghastly Impermanence: Return to Center


It’s been awhile. Where have you been?

I would love to say I’ve been busy. The Star has certainly been chugging right along on its way to world domination. Audio drama, however, hasn’t been much of the discussion, falling well behind our writing on civics, sharing, poetry, and performing arts.

Most of that is my fault. Last year at this time I was supposed to have interviews for you with Jessica Dromgoole, Ed Harris, Marcy Kahan, and others. All of them have, for one reason or another, fallen through. At the time I found it all quite disheartening–enough that I stopped writing about audio drama entirely. Call it a kind of bad faith, a kind of helplessness.

I never stopped listening, of course. I have continued to amass a reasonable collection of audio drama from all across the world, some of which I occasionally think I should compile and translate into English à la Bay Area Radio Drama–if only I were still young and foolish. I have continued to attend local productions here of Jim French’s Imagination Theater and Sandbox Radio and the odd production by Feliks Banel and other luminaries in Seattle, and whatever shows up at the conventions.

Nevertheless I felt I had some catching up to do if I was going to start writing seriously about audio drama again. So I spent the last two months delving back into audio drama. I started with the awards. The Prix Italia. The Sonys. P.J. O’Connor. BBC. New York Festivals. Mark Time. And, for reasons of completeness, the Audio Verse Awards.

Having done so, I am lead to make an argument.

I begin with a quote from Damon Knight:

Reputable fiction–meaning fiction that the critics and the librarians like–has many distinguishing characteristics, but two of them appear to be central: It is fiction laid against familiar backgrounds (familiar, at least, to readers of reputable fiction–as far as the reader’s personal experience goes, a Dakota wheat farm may be as exotic as the moons of Mars); and it tries to deal honestly with the tragic and poetic theme of love-and-death.

The disreputable forms, the Western, science fiction, sports story and so on are defined by their backgrounds; but please note that this is a convention. You could define all of fiction in this way, piecemeal–“New York stories,” “Dakota wheat farm stories” and so on, but it isn’t convenient or necessary to do so. What really distinguishes the disreputable forms is their reduction of love and death to perfunctory gestures, formalized almost like ideographs. (In Search of Wonder)

If I read my Publishers Weekly numbers correctly, about 47% of fiction sales are genre fiction–romance, sci-fi, horror, mystery, action/adventure. That’s a high number. But it also means that 53% of fiction is not. There is a kind of balance. There is a sense in the book world at least that a wide variety of stories are worth telling and, more importantly, worth hearing. Surveying American audio drama, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything like a balance. Entering “audio drama” into iTunes, I get one hundred results. Thirty-five are relevant and actually contain audio drama. Twenty-nine of these are dedicated exclusively to generic stories. Of the remaining six podcasts, four of them are anthology series–which themselves contain an awful lot of generic work.

Don’t people get tired of perfunctory gestures? Don’t people actually want to take on that tragic/poetic theme of “love-and-death,” as Knight calls it? Evidence from the world of audio drama suggests no, that basically people want to hear relatively lightweight, mostly brainless stories that do not require too much attention, presumably to be half-listened to while they are typing up the latest interdepartmental memo, or processing boring spreadsheets, or pedaling away on the stationary bike. Escapism is thus an escape from the reality that their work is mostly tedious. Or so the argument might go.

And yet, audiobooks sell in droves, and not all of these are restricted to genre by any means. Of this $1.5B market for audiobooks, the Audio Publishers Association survey list 43% of sales as “general fiction.” Literary fiction is listed at 23%. Drama/plays are listed as 15%.

Why does this not happen in audio drama? The only sensible conclusion is that, in audio drama, only generic stories get told because its producers only care about generic fiction. While there will be plenty who claim they have other interests, their work simply does not show it. This is a great disservice to the medium because, despite what people have been told, popular media excel when they move away from tawdry, vapid spectacle and toward the distinctly personal. At their best they help us to find the personal in the universal and the universal within the personal–not, as Walter Lippmann would have it, to manufacture consent and stereotyped identity, but rather to remind us that despite stereotypes, the variety of life is infinite.

I’ve railed against genre productions before, but my recent study of American audio drama makes me want to ride another rail. But why? Generic productions aren’t going away. Nor, it seems, is the American producer’s complete fetish for them.

Nevertheless, someone has to. It’s simply too ridiculous not to ridicule. Zarathustra reminds us “Error is not blindness; error is cowardice.” To write off the world, the one in which we actually live and love and struggle and die, so completely that virtually nothing remains except escapist fantasy is an act of great cowardice. It is also utterly callous. It admits tacitly that artists have zero interest whatsoever in people as people, since people necessarily live in that world artists have written off. And it smacks of unearned privilege. Escapist musicals in the middle of the Great Depression, sure. In a war zone, sure. In a culture that regularly threatens to implode then explode into sectarian violence, sure. But none of these are America’s problem. Compared to virtually anywhere in Europe, Africa, Asia or South America, Americans in this country are pampered beyond all reasonable belief. Yet they aren’t even capable of dealing with their daily reality. They haven’t earned the right to escape it.

One can offer the bogus argument that these escapist worlds actually are representations of our own. Yet these worlds reflect virtually nothing of Americans’ shared reality. On prime time television 42 percent of characters are involved in law enforcement–100 times as many cops as there are in the real world by actual percentages. After that doctors and lawyers are over-represented approximately 3 to 5 times more often than they actually occur, while blue-collar jobs are about 6 percent of all jobs shown on TV. What is true here of television is also true of radio. Yet millions of Americans listen to NPR and Pacifica with absolutely no struggle and consider themselves to be average citizens. Where is their world represented in American audio drama? Where are the subjects they think about? Where is the country in which they live?

The tropes of television suggest merely that Americans live with constant wish-fulfillment: that cops are all good guys and that all of us are protected equally under their magnanimous service, despite what we have learned from Ferguson, from Florida, from Baltimore, from Cleveland, from Seattle. Different only in direction but not in conceit, the tropes of radio drama suggest that Americans are completely unserious about their lives to the point where they ignore their details almost utterly, obsessed as they are with clichés and clockwork, plots in which people are simply there to be moved around by storytellers for mere effect. So what makes this art? How does this even remotely reflect the world we live in?

In short: it doesn’t. These tropes are in Robert Jay Lifton’s terminology “thought-terminating clichés.” Artists resort to these clichés because they are easy. They allow one to be lazy and unskilled, to create in shorthand–formalized like ideographs, as Knight put it. Is this really good enough? Is this enough to make an argument that American audio drama can rise above its fanboy practice to tell stories as intricate as independent cinema, or cable television mini-series or fiction or theater or a graphic novel–or even radio drama from other countries? For all of American audio drama’s pretensions toward “audio movies” and other such nonsense, is there American audio drama that will stand alongside Moonrise Kingdom, or Boardwalk Empire?

The answer, as far as I’ve found is no. I’m certainly willing to be proven wrong–no one would be happier than I to find something, anything that fairly compares. But I’ve no evidence yet to reject my null hypothesis. Americans are so sensitive to every little minutia of their personal identities, so much they are crying out in blogs, in papers, on screens, looking for validation from everyone for the life-altering importance of their every single decision including whether to live gluten-free. Until it comes to art. Judging from their work, American artists–definitely those in audio drama–could hardly care less about these things. Art remains purely functional as escapist pabulum, a type of pacifier for a nation of intellectual and spiritual infants, all wanting to return to the safe, pre-Internet womb, a world before Sandy Hook, before gay marriage, before 9/11/2001, before a Black president, before a Trump candidacy.

Keep on wanting. It’s not going to happen. If we are to survive as a nation, and probably as a species, citizens are going to have to face up to the new world. And that new world needs to start making an appearance in our art. Our artists are supposed to be the ones providing us with clear visions of the past, the present, the near future. Our artists are supposed to be the unacknowledged legislators for humankind to quote Percy Bysshe Shelley–our artists who work in mass media, even more so. As practitioners within a mass medium, audio dramatists need to start dealing with life in this country, right here, right now. Retreating into bogus nostalgia and escapist OTR categories will be our spiritual death.

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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