Who Murdered Canadian Radio Drama?

Periodically I’ve mentioned that I want to write more about another passion of mine — radio/audio drama. And I have a bit (see the category links on the right). By radio/audio drama I mean full cast, scripted narratives that includes everything from dramas and thrillers to sitcoms.

So then gearing up to write a bit more about it, specifically its presence on Canadian airwaves (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation being the main radio network practitioner of it left in North America) I was doing a bit of googling…and discovered it’s dead. Shot in the head and put out of its misery,

I came upon some reports from a few months back that announced, as part of some budget cuts at the CBC, it’s radio drama department was being scraped. Not cut back. Not re-structured. But shut down. Period.

So that’s that then.

Of course, the fact that it was apparently shut down months ago and I wasn’t even aware of it probably says all it needs to about the state to which it had been allowed to fall anyway. For the last few years I’d been grumbling (including in posted essays) about how little the CBC was actually producing in that regard…and how hard it was to even find information about productions on their website. You couldn’t just go and look to see what radio dramas were on, up-coming, or in the works…you basically had to know what you were looking for in order to find it, and even then you might not find it.

I remember knowing a radio drama was supposed to be premiering on a certain day…but according to the grid schedule on the CBC’s own website that slot was listed simply as TBA — To Be Announced. Wow! No wonder the PR people get paid the big bucks, eh? And this relates to marketing and distribution in general. Even at the CBC Shop very few radio dramas were offered, and often seemed to fall out of print. And did anyone at the CBC ever try and market programs internationally, or contact someone at BBC Radio and try and interest them in some Canadian series? Monsoon House, Canadia 2056 and others were every bit as good as anything the BBC produces (and the BBC produces some staggeringly good radio dramas).

So, in a sense, who’s to blame? The government for slashing the CBC budget and forcing these cuts? The CBC brass who made the decision to cut the drama department as opposed to something else (or simply trim a bit here and there, but not actually cut it). Or the creative programmers who, arguably, allowed it to reach a point where it could be cut…and it barely makes a ripple in the broader culture?

Now is that fair? After all, the CBC battlefield drama Afghanada had accrued over a hundred episodes and the claim was it was bringing in ratings comparable to a (low-rated) TV series — impressive for a radio series. And as recently as earlier this year the CBC was airing the drama, Trust Inc, about a PR firm (think of it as a low-key version of the U.S. TV series Scandal). But that’s the thing. One half hour a week is hardly the sort of thing to really build a medium upon (and given these series had limited episode runs…there are plenty of weeks, and months, where there’s nothing). Particularly because it means if that particular show isn’t interesting you…there’s nothing else to listen to. You just forget about it (and so might miss when they switch over to another series…which equally might not interest you).

In addition to its half hour dramas, the CBC also used to air hour (or longer) plays on Sundays…but I don’t think they’d done that for a few years.

I mean: maybe they did. But, as I say, I couldn’t find much evidence of it…and I was looking!

The problem with the CBC shutting down its radio drama department is that…there’s no one else out there to pick up the slack in Canada. It’s not even like if CBC TV shut down its TV dramas and we could say that, well, at least there are other TV stations and networks out there. If the CBC isn’t producing radio drama in Canada…then no one is, and there’s no venue for it.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. For example there’s Decoder Ring Theatre which has been going for a few years, and has built up a cult fandom with its tongue-in-cheek adventure series. But it’s definitely a low budget affair, the plays relying on bare minimal casts, and not able to exactly call upon necessarily “name” actors. Certainly I’m not aware of any Canadian equivalent of Britain’s Big Finish, releasing multiple productions per month, lavishly produced and often boasting recognizable actors, or even American companies like Hollywood Theatre of the Ear, Graphic Audio, Colonial Radio Theatre, and others.

So…does it matter? you ask. I mean, isn’t radio drama dead anyway, just something old people reminisce about while slurping soup through their dentures?

The response to that is multi-headed.

Firstly, just in the abstract, the loss of any storytelling medium is a cause for concern. If a newspaper announced the mothballing of the last live theatre venue I suspect even those who don’t regularly attend plays would be aware that would be a devastating blow to entertainment. Both as a severing of a link to our cultural past, and also for pragmatic reasons: there are a lot more venues — slots, if you will — for plays than TV shows or movies. Theatre keeps writers writing, actors acting between movie gigs. And how many movies began life as stage plays, hmmm?

And some of that relates to radio drama in Canada. As everyone knows, Canadian film and TV production is limited, struggling to find windows squeezed inbetween the more high profile Hollywood fair. It’s hard to get things made, it’s hard to get things made that require decent budget, and it’s hard to keep it Canadian if you do have a decent budget (and so are concerned about securing international sales). Which is where radio came in — and where it could’ve come in a lot stronger and more forceful. An active and healthy radio drama industry wouldn’t exactly save the industry, or keep struggling actors from having to take day jobs…but at least it could provide a little more work for actors, writers, directors, sound engineers, composers (not, admittedly, for video editors, cinematographers, make up artists, or set designers). As well, it’s cheap.

Admittedly, that can be its curse — which is why there are a lot of amateur radio productions on the internet. It doesn’t cost a whole lot to mount a radio play. But it does cost a bit more to mount a well done professional play, with professional actors and sound designers. But still — a fraction of what a TV series or movie would cost.

It’s hard to imagine the battlefield drama, Afghanada, about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, ever having been mounted as a TV production. Or if it was it would doubtless require being an international co-production, requiring a certain muting of its Canadianness, making it an international squad, and dropping anything too idiosyncratically Canadian (good bye, the character with the Newfoundland brogue). And it would’ve been at the mercy of the international marketplace. The TV series, Combat Hospital, which covered similar ground (albeit because of budget, it was set in one location, as opposed to about characters in the field) was cancelled after a dozen episodes despite hit ratings in Canada…because the plug was pulled by its American co-producer. Whereas Afghanada ended up running for years and over a hundred episodes on CBC radio. (And to be up front: I wasn’t a big fan of Afghanada…but we’re not taking about what I personally like or don’t like, not yet).

Indeed, I felt CBC radio dramas like Trust Inc and The Backbencher could be too modest in their ambitions, coming across as, well, as low-budget TV shows. When radio could be the place for writers to let their imagination run wild because you don’t have to worry about sets and special effects. Series like Afghanada, the sci-fi grandeur of the comedic Canadia 2056 and Steve the First, or the internationally flavoured adaptation of A Fine Balance (set in 1970s India…even though the actors were in a Vancouver recording booth circa 2000). Even the hilarious sitcom Monsoon House probably pushed past the budgets of most TV sitcoms, with the action straying from city to city across Canada…and even as far away as Mumbai, India! And with a helicopter scene!

One of my favourite radio productions is the BBC’s 1981 epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings…I’d argue it’s better than the Peter Jackson movies! And with that in mind, I long wondered if the CBC Radio could ever mount an adaptation of, say, Canadian Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Finovra Tapestry (in fantasy circles, a seminal work of the last couple of decades). As a filmed production it would be impossible for Canadian filmmakers to mount with anything like an appropriate budget…but on radio?

Radio could be the place for Canadian writers, actors and directors to really go to town, to unleash their inner creativity, to mount the productions that wouldn’t make it past an initial pitch to a TV or film executive because it would just be to ambitious or expensive. And where they didn’t have to be scared of being too Canadian…because the main goal wasn’t to secure an American distribution deal. Often on Canadian TV, even when series admit they are set in Canada, the actors practically choke on Canadian references (in the TV series Primeval: The New World, an entire episode took place in a Canadian Tire store…but the actors are still coached, rather distractingly, to use the American pronunciation of the word “lieutenant”). While radio series are far more comfortably, unapologetically rooted in their time and place (whether it be Canada or, as mentioned, the India of A Fine Balance).

By shutting down the radio drama department (and by having starved it with neglect over the last few years) they cut off both a place for creators to express themselves without the restrictions of budget concerns, and a place just to hone skills, and to keep the talent working. When there are only a handful of Canadian TV series on the air in any given season, a few radio series provide a few more places for writers to shop scripts, for actors to land roles…and an incentive for talent to stay home as opposed to drifting south.

You could also make the case for radio drama serving a public service. The blind, or simply people getting older, whose eyes aren’t what they once were, can enjoy radio drama with an appreciation maybe not fully understood by the young and sighted. In fact, what’s funny is that the whole genre/medium of talking books/audio books — that is, actors simply reading novels — has blossomed in the last few years. I mean, I’m sure it was always around, but I don’t recall as a kid it being quite as prevalent as it is today, where most bookstores today carry audio book sections, and where it’s not unusual to hear people discuss listening to an audio version of a novel as often as the printed version. That might be because we are becoming a busier culture, people spending more time on the go and having less time to sit in a comfy arm chair with a good book. Maybe technology means there’s more opportunity to listen (while jogging or driving a car) than there used to be. And maybe it is as I suggested at first, simply an aging population who find comfort in closing their eyes and listening as opposed to watching (particularly with an increase in movies with their eye-straining CGI effects).

Indeed, given the popularity of talking books…I’m kind of amazed radio drama hasn’t made a bigger comeback than it has. Particularly as I tend to favour full cast dramas over simply a reading (I’ve enjoyed some talking books…but others kind of put me to sleep).

My interest in radio drama dates back to a childhood discovering radio stations playing late night classic re-runs of Jack Benny and The Shadow. Once coming upon my brother and I laughing before the radio, my mother asked what we were listening to, and we asked her — in all innocence — if she had ever heard of some guy named Jack Benny! (To understand the irony, imagine if your kids came up to you, just having “discovered” a comedian…and asking if you had ever heard of a fellow called Bill Cosby). Anyway, given my personal history, I was amused coming on some reviews of a radio drama (at Amazon or some similar place) where the commentator said they liked it…but initially found it “weird”, since they were more accustomed to single voice audio books!

So, just to recap: radio drama is a link to the past. Radio drama can serve as a training ground for writers and the like, and a testing ground for scripts that might later morph into movie or TV productions. Radio drama can provide work, filling in the gaps for creative types between the end of their play and while they are waiting for news about that TV gig. Radio can act as a venue for telling stories that just wouldn’t be feasible in a visual medium, requiring too much money — or that might be too “Canadian”. And radio drama can serve a genuine social service, providing entertainment for the blind or simply those with tired eyes.

And above all…radio drama can be great. Oh, sure, as with anything, it can be mediocre, poorly done, ill-conceived…or just plain boring.

But it can be just as good, just as compelling, as any movie or TV show…more so, in a way, since there’s less to remind you of the artifice of it. No cheesy backdrops or poor make up to break the illusion.

Even I, a long time fan and listener of radio drama, can kind of find myself stopping, momentarily amazed at the magic the medium can create. Listening to a radio drama and without any conscious intent vividly picturing the characters, the rooms they inhabit, the horse drawn waggons clip-clopping in the background (in a historical drama) or the starships cruising through deepspace in a sci-fi adventure…only to remind myself that, hey, I’m just listening to a bunch of actors standing before a microphone, scripts in hand, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, probably unshaven, hair uncombed. And then the momentary realization fades and I’m right back in the scene, picturing the world being dramatized in my ears.

I wasn’t kidding or being hyperbolic when I wrote that the 1981 BBC Radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was better, to my mind, than the Hollywood movies. And if I were to make a list of great sitcoms, I’d have no qualm about including things like the BBC’s Cabin Pressure or the CBC’s Monsoon House in that company, as being every bit as funny as the funniest TV comedy on the air. And the Doctor Who full cast audio range has easily produced stories, not just better than the best of the old, creaky TV series…but better than the current, hit TV series, too.

And maybe that’s the strangest — and frustrating — thing about radio drama. Because it’s far from being dead. It flies below the radar of many — many people have probably never listened to a radio drama in their life and barely understand what it is. Yet, equally, it still forms a regular part of other people’s entertainment diet. I’ve sometimes recommended a particular radio series to someone, prepared to explain just what a “radio play” is…only to learn they were already a fan, maybe for longer than I was!

So we’ll continue this next time, looking back, and possibly looking forward…

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3 Responses to Who Murdered Canadian Radio Drama?

  1. Kel says:

    In radio there can be no excuse that Canada does not have the budget to compete with other countries when it comes to the imagination–however, there is not very much in Canada’s radio history when it comes to the type of programs that the US or UK produced regularly (excluding that WW2 era propaganda I mentioned in another post). There was a horror anthology show in the late 70s-early 80s that sounded like it was promising(until it was cancelled if I remember correctly).

    • Administrator says:

      Although modern Canadian radio drama was never as robust as it should’ve been and, as I acknowledged, was certainly prone to “small” productions, there were others that did exploit the limitlessness of the medium, some I alluded to in my post. Plus there were pulpier thing — like the horror series you mentioned (Nightfall, Vanishing Point), detective series (Midnight Cab, Flynn, a Nero Wolfe series, and others). I keep meaning to write a post about Canadia 2056, a sci-fi comedy about a space ship that I would stick my neck out and say was possibly better than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! (And that’s ignoring the 1950s when the CBC would do things like Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness). But , yeah, the earnest tended to dominate over the fun.

  2. Chris Cutress says:

    CBC Radio Drama received the “death of a thousand cuts”. Since the late 1990’s it slowly suffered through constant budget cuts, ever changing leadership, and finally a multi-year consultation project that resulted in production by committee that tore relevance from the schedule. It could no longer be timely with dramas written at the moment, rather than six months in advance to submit to the panel. It became more political than entertaining. Staffing was constantly cut. At CBC Vancouver I can remember being called into the Regional Directors office and being told that we were producing too many hours of drama out of the Vancouver studio for our production and technical staffing levels. We were producing at a level equal to 80% of the Toronto production levels with a staff 25% of the size. When I left the CBC in 2009 a staff of two full time drama producers, three part time drama producers, one associate producer, one full time and two substitute recording engineers, three sound effects – foley artists, and one production secretary were reduced to two part time drama producers and one full time recording engineer and sound effect-foley artist. The latter was me and I was also doing a great deal of music recording and editing as the Vancouver drama assignments had fallen due to lack of staffing and constant re-allocation of funds to save the variety department that seemed always to be over budget. The producers had been re-allocated to other assignments as well. News and current affairs became the darlings of radio while arts, music and variety programming were downsized or pushed to the side. After a multi-multi-multi million dollar re-building and renovation of the CBC Vancouver plant it seems that the lowest rated newscast in BC is coming out of the CBC Vancouver TV plant while the studio and office spaces have the proverbial, “For Rent or Lease”, signs attached to them. CBC has become more about space rental than artistic production. The concept of entertaining while informing and educating has gone away in favour of 30 second news sound bites. TV has become an embarrassment that should be closed down and replaced with a fully restored radio system that budgets dramatic, variety and music programming to pre-cutback levels which would cost less than 40% of the current CBC budget. CBC should be forced to get out of the space rental business and be mandated to do what it was originally created to be with long term, guaranteed federal funding not fiscally dictated by the whims of whichever political party is currently in power.