Radio Drama – the past and possibly a future

(Continuing from my last post about CBC Radio shutting down its radio drama department…)

Radio (and audio) drama is a curious medium. Once the defining entertainment of its age where families gathered around to listen to their favourite radio series the way they do TV series today. So widely heard that the 1938 War of the Worlds sci-fi dramatization actually sent gullible listeners panicking into the streets. Indeed, a young Orson Welles blew into Hollywood as basically a pre-established “star”…based in large part on his radio work like a TV actor today who debuts his first motion picture with pre-established expectations from critics and fans. I believe the trailer for his first film deliberately featured Welles in shadow, just his voice addressing the audience…playing upon the fact that the audience would instantly recognize his dulcet tones but would be curious about the face that went with it.

But TV arrived and the flickering pictures soon seduced viewers away from the voice only thrillers and comedies.

But though the medium was dealt a crippling blow, it didn’t die — and outside North America it continued to thrive. (Did you know that before The Ring became the phenomenal motion picture success…it was earlier adapted into a Japanese radio serial?) And in the U.K., radio drama continues to be a vital part of the entertainment spectrum, with recognizable — even big name — actors regularly including radio dramas among their repertoire between TV, movies, and live theatre. I was recently watching an interview with a U.K. actor, discussing a TV role he was performing, and where he casually referred to the different performing needs of TV, theatre…and radio.

Can you imagine, say, American actress Emily Deschanel casually mentioning in an interview some radio drama she was acting in between seasons of Bones? Would she even know what a radio drama was? While I read an interview with British actress Hayley Atwell during the junket for the Hollywood blockbuster Captain America where she blithely referred to acting in a Doctor Who radio drama.

British author Simon Brett writes a series of detective novels about a British actor turned amateur sleuth, Charles Paris…and in the novel The Dead Side of the Mike it’s set in the world of radio drama. Not as a historical, or nostalgic romp, but as just a part of the contemporary actor’s life (and, to bring things full circle, the Charles Paris novels have frequently been adapted to full cast radio serials starring a brilliant Bill Nighy).

Now, obviously — I don’t want to exaggerate or overly romanticize things (particularly as an outsider trying to comment on British culture across the pond). Even in the U.K. radio drama runs a distant second to TV. Radio series have short seasons of sometimes four to six episodes (although, come to think of it, so do some British TV series). And it’s not like they produce enough new shows on a weekly basis to fill up an entire programming schedule. And I’m sure there are plenty of young Britons who might scratch their heads at the mention of this mystical beast called “radio drama”.

But it’s chugging along. It’s still a part of the dramatic landscape in the U.K. You can tune on a radio drama and hear the same voices you’d hear in movies and TV. Peter Davison, known on TV for everything from Dr. Who to Campion to The Last Detective, also counts radio series like Rigor Mortis and, well, Dr. Who again (full cast audio only adventures) among his accomplishments. Funnily, there are British actors who I couldn’t actually put a face to their name, but are familiar to me thanks to radio work (such as the seeming ubiquitous Geoffrey Whitehead).

And maybe that’s why the CBC’s decision to shut down its radio drama department is so…galling. If radio drama was truly dead, or on life support, perhaps it could be forgiven. But clearly in the U.K. it’s still going (I’m not sure of non-English speaking countries, of course — radio dramas not something that can exactly be sub-titled and distributed to a foreign speaking audience). Not a powerhouse, perhaps — but still viable. And though Britain’s Big Finish may be unusual in terms of non-network audio production houses — atypical in its commercial success that is — it’s doing well enough to produce multiple series (albeit, many with a Dr. Who connection!) and with money enough to hire from the same professional talent pool TV and movie producers do!

As well, it’s the CBC itself that claimed that its battlefield drama, Afghanada, was bringing in audience numbers comparable to a TV series (a low-rated TV series…but still: TV style numbers for a radio drama!) Now assuming they weren’t lying about that, does that make sense? Your radio drama department has supposedly proven itself capable of bringing in TV level numbers…and so your response is to shut it down?

Are the inmates running the asylum?

So — is that it then? The lights are out, the doors locked, and nothing more can be done?


But maybe now would be a time for CBC Radio to actually try and re-introduce drama as part of its schedule through…reruns. If the CBC says it can no longer afford to make new dramas given the current economic situation, then maybe now is the opportunity to try and reignite an audience interest in the medium itself.

Which gets to what is a recurring theme with me — and kind of makes me odd man out in many cultural discussions. I’m not just concerned about individual productions (the “me, me, me!” thinking that drives much of Canadian entertainment)…but the industry. I suspect as far as the CBC brass was concerned, as long as they had a drama on the air, that was all that was required. But that’s not sustainable (as the decision to shut down the drama department has demonstrated). You can’t cultivate an audience based on people who might like one series…you need an audience who enjoys listening to radio dramas in general. Just as no biologist would suggest a species was healthy as long as there was one specimen…in order to survive, you need a herd.

The problem isn’t simply the CBC shut down its radio drama…it’s that it was hardly producing anything anyway! And you can’t really expect to build up an audience based on half an hour a week — and often not even that!

So now that it’s no longer channelling money into new productions, it can channel a lesser amount into re-airing old series — re-broadcast A Fine Balance and Canadia 2056, bring back the Nero Wolfe series from the 1980s and Midnight Cab. Digitally remaster old radio plays from the 1950s and 1960s. And you know what? Maybe if the CBC isn’t making its own, it could broadcast a few British series, or even vintage American ones. And don’t just offer half an hour a week, but a few times a week. Maybe a show a day. If the audience starts listening to radio dramas as a regular part of their weekly entertainment, maybe in a couple of years they’ll start clamouring for new productions again and there will be the will and the enthusiasm to re-open the recording booths again.

There’s room on the schedule. I mean, let’s face it — the reason a lot of CBC radio shows are so long (Q runs 90 minutes to 2 hrs every day, while Vinyl Tap, Definitely Not the Opera, Saturday Night Blues and others all run 2 hrs and are usually rerun multiple times in a week) is because the CBC is trying to pad its schedule. So maybe some of these shows could be cut from 2 hrs to 90 minutes, and instead of rerun three times a week, just aired twice…opening up whole slots to slip on some old radio drama. And bear in mind — I listen to these shows. I love Vinyl Tap. That’s why I’m citing it, rather than simply picking a show I don’t like and saying: “hey, trim that one!”

Or, given the craze for digital content, maybe the CBC could offer a website where audiences could stream an archive of old radio drama series — similar to the BBC’s Radio 4 Extra. It would require the audience seeking it out, rather than having it conveniently there at the turn of a radio knob, but still, it might be a compromise.

Just get radio drama back out there for the audience to enjoy and that will probably lead to a renewed interest in producing new shows.

Now I remember suggesting rerunning old radio shows years ago and being told that it just wasn’t do-able — it would be too expensive since residuals still had to be paid out.

But, of course, if the CBC is no longer making new shows…that kind of frees up a bit of cash doesn’t it? More to the point — are they effin’ insane?

Are you seriously telling me broadcasters couldn’t come to an arrangement with the creative guilds and unions to negotiate a lower residual payment? I mean, right now, you have writers, actors, directors, etc. who worked on old radio shows that are not being heard by anyone, that are mouldering in a basement archive somewhere, and for which they are being paid no money, period. Don’t you think they’d be willing to renegotiate for smaller returns, so that at least they would get some money, and their old work would get back before the public?

Demanding a 100% of nothing is still nothing. But accepting 50% of something is something.

Of course, that would require CBC executives, and union heads, to actually make time in their oh-so busy schedules to actually have meetings and try and work something out that would actually benefit their members and the broader culture (by getting these things back on the air).

And maybe there would be room for private initiative — an audio company selling programs straight to CD and download ala Big Finish. Or maybe a pre-existing film or TV company (Muse or Insight or whoever) could open up an audio subsidiary. Maybe, using Big Finish’s model, they could start with a few pre-established franchises that have a ready made audience. Maybe Paul Gross and Callum Keith Rennie could be enticed to perform in a Due South audio adventure. Heck, given the cult popularity of the short-lived TV mystery series, Endgame, starring Shawn Doyle…might there be an audience willing to hear Arkady Balagan’s adventures continue in audio plays? Or given audio and “genre” fandom seem to go hand in hand, maybe the cast of Sanctuary, or Andromeda could be reunited in audio. But you’d have to be quick. Big Finish is already casting its net into North American waters (having acquired the license to do StarGate audio stories)!

Heck, maybe a private company could partner with the CBC — making the programs, and the CBC would air them.


Might’ve, could’ve, would’ve.

The CBC brass may have — temporarily — shut down the radio drama department. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely Lights Out!*

* That’s an Old Time Radio reference.


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