Radio Dans

Friday, December 15, 2006

Radio drama today

Radio drama remains popular in much of the world. Stations producing radio drama often commission a large number of scripts. The relatively low cost of producing a radio play enables them to take chances with works by unknown writers. Radio can be a good training ground for beginning drama writers as the words written form a much greater part of the finished product; bad lines cannot be obscured with stage business.

On the BBC there are two ongoing radio soap operas: The Archers on BBC Radio Four and Silver Street on the Asian Network. A third soap, Westway on the World Service was cancelled in October 2000 but continues in re-runs on BBC7.

The audio drama format exists side-by-side with books presented on radio, read by actors or by the author. In Britain and other countries there is also a quite a bit of radio comedy (both stand-up and sitcom). Together, these programs provide entertainment where television is either not wanted or would be distracting (such as while driving or operating machinery).

The lack of visuals also enable fantastical settings and effects to be used in radio plays where the cost would be prohibitive for movies or television. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was first produced as radio drama, and was not adapted for television until much later, when its popularity would ensure an appropriate return for the high cost of the futuristic setting.

On occasion television series can be revived as radio series. For example, a long-running but no longer popular television series can be continued as a radio series because the reduced production costs make it cost-effective with a much smaller audience. When an organisation owns both television and radio channels, such as the BBC, the fact that no royalties have to be paid makes this even more attractive. Radio revivals can also use actors reprising their television roles even after decades as they still sound roughly the same. Series that have had this treatment include Doctor Who, Dad's Army, Sapphire & Steel, The Tomorrow People, and Thunderbirds.

Radio dramas can be regularly heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Radio 1), on RTÉ in Ireland, and the BBC's Radio 4, Radio 3 and BBC 7. Radio 4 in particular is noted for its radio drama, broadcasting hundreds of one-off plays per year in strands such as The Afternoon Play, in addition to serials and soap operas. The British commercial station Oneword, though broadcasting mostly book readings, also transmits a number of radio plays in installments.

In the U.S., radio drama can be found on ACB radio produced by the American Council of the Blind and on XM Radio. The networks sometime sell transcripts of their shows on cassette tapes or CDs or make the shows available for listening or downloading over the Internet. Transcription recordings of many pre-television shows have been preserved. They are collected, re-recorded onto audio CDs and/or MP3 files and traded by hobbyists today as old-time radio programs. Meanwhile veterans such as Rasovsky and Lopez have gained new listeners on cassettes, CDs and downloads. In the mid-1980s, the non-profit L.A. Theatre Works launched its radio series recorded before live audience, which continues a tenuous hold in public radio, while marketing its productions on compact disk.

With 21st-century technology, modern radio drama, also known as audio theater, has begun an exciting new movement. Local radio drama groups such as Crazy Dog Audio Theatre (from Ireland), Texas Radio Theatre and FreeQuincy Radio Theater (from Wisconsin) have kept the spirit of radio drama alive. The advent of inexpensive computerized production technology brought an explosion of activity, of varying quality, beginning in the 1990s. Not From Space from Borgus Productions was the first national radio play recorded exclusively through the Internet in which the voice actors were all in separate locations. As the podcasting phenomenon continues to grow, radio drama has found a new lease of life on the Internet with specialist sites such as becoming popular. Podcasting provides a good alternative to mainstream television and radio because it has no restrictions regarding content (as is evidenced by the ever growing Radio Onslaught).

Audio drama released directly to CD or cassette tape rather than being broadcast is a related format to radio drama. Particularly noteworthy are the superb dramatic productions of Focus on the Family and Canada's Children's Group. The advent of Podcasting has also brought a new renaissance in audio dramas. On November 7, 2004, The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd became the first regularly produced audio drama podcast. In July of 2006, Podshow released the audio mystery series Shadow Falls.

Radio drama

Early years
English language radio drama as a whole seems to have started in the United States. "A Rural Line on Education," a brief sketch specifically written for radio, aired on Pittsburgh's KDKA in 1921, according to historian Bill Jaker. Newspaper accounts of the era report on a number of other drama experiments by America's commercial radio stations: KYW broadcast a season of complete operas from Chicago starting in November 1921. In February 1922, entire Broadway musical comedies with the original casts aired from WJZ's Newark studios. Actors Grace George and Herbert Hayes performed an entire play from a San Francisco station in the summer of 1922.

An important turning point in radio drama came when Schenectady, New York's WGY, after a successful tryout on August 3, 1922, began weekly studio broadcasts of full-length stage plays in September 1922, using music, sound effects and a regular troupe of actors, The WGY Players. Aware of this series, the director of Cincinnati's WLW began regularly broadcasting one-acts (as well as longer works) in November. The success of these projects led to imitators at other stations. By the spring of 1923, original dramatic pieces written especially for radio were airing on stations in Cincinnati (When Love Wakens by WLW's Fred Smith), Philadelphia (The Secret Wave by Clyde A. Criswell) and Los Angeles (At Home over KHJ). By 1923, WLW (in May) and WGY (in September) sponsored scripting contests, inviting listeners to create original plays to be performed by those stations' dramatic troupes.

Listings in the New York Times and other sources for May 1923 reveal at least 20 dramatic offerings were scheduled (including one-acts, excerpts from longer dramas, complete three- and four-act plays, operettas and a Moliére adaptation), either as in-studio productions or by remote broadcast from local theaters and opera houses.

Serious study of American radio drama of the 1920s and early 1930s is, at best, very limited. Unsung pioneers of the art include: WLW's Fred Smith; Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (who popularized the dramatic serial); The Eveready Hour creative team which experimented with combinations of one-act plays and music on its weekly variety program; the various troupes of radio players at stations like WLW, WGY, KGO and a number of others, frequently run by women like Helen Schuster Martin and Wilda Wilson Church; early network continuity writers like Henry Fisk Carlton, William Ford Manley and Don Clark; producers and directors like Clarence Menser and Gerald Stopp; and a long list of others who were credited at the time with any number of innovations but who are largely forgotten or undiscussed today. Elizabeth McLeod's recent book on Gosden and Correll's early work is a major exception, as is Richard J. Hand's 2006 study of horror radio, which examines some programs from the early 1930s.

Another notable early radio drama, one of the first in the UK, was Danger by Richard Hughes, broadcast by the BBC on January 15, 1924.

In 1951, writer and producer Arch Oboler suggested that Wyllis Cooper's Lights Out (1934-47) was the first true radio drama to make use of the unique qualities of radio:

Radio drama (as distinguished from theatre plays boiled down to kilocycle size) began at midnight, in the middle thirties, on one of the upper floors of Chicago's Merchandise Mart. The pappy was a rotund writer by the name of Wyllis Cooper. [1]
Though often remembered solely for its gruesome stories and sound effects, Cooper's scripts for Lights Out were well-written and offered innovations seldom heard in early radio dramas, including stream of consciousness monologues and scripts that contrasted a duplicitious character's internal monologue and his spoken words.

However, the question of who was the first to write stream-of-consciousness drama for radio is a difficult one to answer. A 1940 article in Variety credited a 1932 NBC play, Drink Deep by Don Johnson, as the first stream-of-consciousness play written for American radio. The climax of Lawrence Holcomb's 1931 NBC play Skyscraper also uses a variation on the technique (so that we can hear the final thoughts and relive the memories of a man falling to his death from the title building). But Tyrone Guthrie had already written plays like Matrimonial News (which consists entirely of the thoughts of a shopgirl awaiting a blind date) and The Flowers Are Not for You to Pick (which takes place inside the mind of a drowning man) for the BBC by 1930, and he may have been emulating the work of previous British authors (perhaps the 1927 Shadows, for example). After they were published in 1931, Guthrie's plays aired on the American networks. Around the same time, Guthrie himself also worked for the Canadian National Railway radio network, producing plays written by Merrill Denison that used similar techniques.

Presumably, Wyllis Cooper, who was something of an Anglophile and who had contact with BBC veterans (like Fred Ibbett with whom he worked on NBC's Empire Builders series), was aware of what the British were doing and applied their ideas to his own work on commercial dramas, thus influencing Oboler and others. Aspects of Cooper's style can be found in Guthrie's work, for example. The climactic audio montage in Guthrie's Flowers is similar to the one in Cooper's "In the House Where I Was Born" from Quiet, Please -- both plays mingle lines of dialogue from earlier scenes for a powerful impressionistic effect.

There were probably earlier examples of stream-of-consciousness drama on the radio. For example, in December 1924, actor Paul Robeson, then appearing in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones," performed a scene from the play over New York's WGBS to critical acclaim. Some of the many storytellers and monologists on early 1920s American radio might be able to claim even earlier dates.