Can Podcasting Speak For Radio Drama?

July 19, 2010

By Dex Trenchcoat

The focus of the Listening Post has always been modern audio drama podcasts. However, podcasts are far from the only delivery method for audio drama. On the internet there are hundreds of streaming radio stations, some of which carry audio drama all the time, (such as Sound Stages Radio) and sometimes streaming stations only feature certain shows or certain time slots for audio drama. For example Living Dead Media Radio, plays the newest episode of “You’ve Dead On You” one day before its made available for podcast. In another example, Voices In The Wind Audio Theater was able to get their production, “Running To Detroit” aired on both broadcast and streaming radio from Country 92.9 just this past Saturday. Even with all these great listening options, finding the time to listen to a show during a particular time slot can make audio drama a challenge in our increasingly “on the go” world. While you can find audio drama in the United States on satellite radio or even on NPR from time to time, exposing the general public to audio drama, just isn’t as easy as it used to be.

The BBC and Broadcast Radio Drama

While broadcast radio drama may be rare as hens teeth in the United States, in other countries it can be quite common and popular. In the UK for example, you can still find actual honest-to-goodness radio drama; often in prime time and sometimes with A-List talent such as Sir Ian McKellen, (of X-Men and Lord of the Rings fame) who starred in an audio adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger which BBC 4 aired earlier this year. One would think in an environment with big name talent and the financial backing of the BBC, it would be easy to to keep radio drama on the air. But sadly, the BBC recently announced plans to drop its Friday Play time slot. The company has stated that radio drama will remain a part of the BBC for some time to come, though one does have to wonder how long it will be before  further cuts are made. In addition to the cut backs it was also announced that the Drama department was being merged with the Documentary department, a move that some feel could potentially destroy radio drama at the BBC, in the long term. On June 20th The Guardian published an article which offered a glimpse into the contributions the BBC has made to radio drama:

Yes, the BBC is still by far the most prolific drama broadcaster in the world, airing 649 hours this year (including readings), with a total of 200 single plays. And yes, the Friday Play represents just 3% of this and was the least popular slot (although many would argue that the quality was more consistent than that of the Afternoon Plays). Nevertheless, it remains a loss for radio drama, not a gain.

While it would be easy to think “This is great, here’s an opportunity for independent podcasters to fill the void and continue to grow“! As long time followers of audio drama can attest, and the Guardian article  goes on to point out, “survival is not the same as growth”. In my opinion, whatever growth podcasters of the medium experienced, it would probably not last long without the type of exposure and growth mainstream radio (broadcast in any country) can give to audio drama.

So is radio drama dying, as Equity warned us? Not yet, not while the BBC still exists. But survival is not the same as growth, and the medium needs to make better use of digital technology. Videos, DVDs and hard-disc recording have fundamentally altered the way people consume television, especially drama. Radio plays remain very difficult to enjoy in the same way. The iPlayer helps a little, but for a limited period“.

The Spotlight on Podcasting

One of the big strengths of the podcasting format is being able to download podcasts to an ultra-portable mp3 player, and listen to shows anytime, just about anywhere. As I understand it, the BBC has begun to podcast “The Archers” a popular audio soap opera, so why not podcast other productions once they’ve aired, as well? The same article went on to point out some new sources of listening material that do use podcasting as their delivery method. Regular readers of The Listening Post will find some very familiar names here:

By far the busiest group of original audio dramatists, however, are the small-scale podcasters. For the most part, this means science fiction, fantasy and mystery stories – try the Pendant Productions website (pendantaudio.com). For a polished zombie drama podcast go to zombiepodcast.com. Mystery stories can be heard at olinemysteries.com and wormwoodshow.com. One well-regarded (and British) ghost story series from 2006 is still available at paranormalists.co.uk. You can find well-packaged guides to what else is out there at audiodramareview.blogspot.com and radiodramarevival.com. And it’s all free.

The Possible Effects

Its great to see so many audio drama groups and people mentioned all at once, the extra publicity should help boost download numbers if nothing else. Reaction to the closure of the Friday Play was so strong that journalists, writers and fans alike began a huge outcry against the move. One such fan is R Frank Wilson who started a Facebook group called “Speak Up For Radio Drama Now!” which is well over one thousand members strong. R Frank Wilson’s group has begun recommending alternatives to the BBC’s well known works. In an encouraging move filled with potential for podcasters, many of Speak Up For Radio Drama Now’s recommendations come from  independent podcasts such as the award winning Icebox Radio Theater and 19 Nocturne Boulevard, among others.

What the ultimate effect of all this will be (assuming the BBC actually goes through with its plans to  merge departments and cut the Friday Play) is difficult for a humble blogger like me to say. After all, I have little knowledge of the BBC or its inner workings. But I think  this is a story that anyone with an interest in audio drama should at least take note of, and not just for the recognition to independent podcasters that has come from from the mainstream press, either.

I am very interested to hear what others have to say about this subject. Where do our readers think all this could be headed?

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4 responses to “Can Podcasting Speak For Radio Drama?

  1. Well, thanks, Dex, for highlighting our group. You rightly indicate the importance of the BBC in anchoring the tradition of radio drama and encouraging the emergence and development of the genre. However, one of the reasons emerging for showcasing podcast audio drama on our page is to draw attention to the fact that where once the BBC led the way (and encouraged such as Orson Welles to set up his Mercury Theatre on the Air) they now orchestrate a catastrophic failure. Witness the Afternoon Play – now reduced to what amounts to ‘educational drama/documentaries’. Check out the preponderance of repeats. (BBC Radio 4 and Radio 7) Where is the new commissioning, where is the dynamic new writing and the acting? Where is the encouragement – not only of NEW talent but the CREATIVE, DYNAMIC AND RISKY? We suggest, by our alternative Friday Plays, in the absence of anything new and original in the slot from the BBC, that it resides in the band of innovators that make up audio drama and audio theatre broadcasting on the internet. Shame that the Corporation does not recognise its roots and the inspiration it continues to provide to the world.

  2. No No… Thank YOU Frank! Thank you for pointing out all the fabulous shows to folks. Some of these shows have been flying under the radar for years. The contributions of the BBC are significant indeed, and I hope that they can find their way again soon. In the end, it can only benefit us all.

  3. Pingback: Is Radio Still The Brass Ring For Audio Drama? « The Listening Post

  4. Thanks for the Article Dex- and for waving the flag Frank!!!! AD LIVES!!!

    ~Bill Hollweg
    BrokenSea Audio Productions
    http://www.brokensea.com