Ask just about anyone on the street if they listen to “radio drama” and you will most likely get a quizzical response. Something like, “what’s radio drama?”
Outside of the homeschool niche (and, internationally speaking, the BBC radio programs), there are few that listen to audio drama. Indeed, radio drama fell out of popularity in the 1960’s. But over the course of several decades audio drama has emerged. These days some call audio drama by other names, but the point is still the same. There is a difference between radio and audio drama. And that plays a part in why I do not believe audio drama is outdated. To understand this fully, we must clarify the terms.
Radio Drama – Born in the late 1800’s as adaptions of plays, radio drama was in its heyday during the 1920’s. Families would sit around the radio and tune in to their favorite western. Radio drama was not as visceral in sound effects and relied often on narrators. But there is no question that these old time shows were well written in the style of their time and had great actors. (For examples of old time shows, see the Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke radio dramas).
Audio Drama – Also referred to as Audio Adventure, audio drama is not played on the radio – not exclusively, that is. While some predicted internet streaming would bring back the genre, it has not, and there are several legitimate reasons for this which we will go over in a moment. Audio drama makes full use of modern day technology in the fields of sound effects (CGI for the ear) and the contemporary way of storytelling. The primary mark of audio drama is action and adventure that engages listeners and their imagination.
Furthermore, audio drama has only been around a short period of time. Many have ignored the progress that the genre has taken. They predict that audio drama is about to go extinct, once and for all. Here are six reasons why that is not true.
1. Audio drama is adapting to the digital world. Genres don’t disappear – they adapt. Audio drama traces its roots to radio drama, yes, but even radio drama has existed before the Golden Age of Radio. In fact, audio drama has its roots in oral tradition – which has been around for thousands of years. Audio drama is the oldest form of story telling of them all! Change has been true for other mediums as well. Plays were the earliest adaptation of movies. The ancient poem of Beowulf is one of the ancestors to the modern novel.
2. Audio drama is not limited to a small audience. The potential for audio drama is much larger than one might realize. Movies will always have an edge over audio drama because video is attractive and eye-catching. It takes some investment to listen to audio drama, but once you’re invested you’re hooked. But the same goes for audio books, and there are hundreds of thousands of audiobook listeners. Audio books and audio drama are similar and easily cross over.
3. Audio drama is expanding. Not only is the potential there, but more and more are seeing the benefit of audio drama. The audio book marketplace Audible has made several original audio dramas, each several hours long. Through this move we can see that audio book listeners are just as eager to listen to dramatized versions as well.
4. Audio drama is ‘cheap’ to produce. This is an appealing factor for large production companies and small alike. Although the market for audio drama is not as large as movie pictures by far, audio drama has the potential to expand a considerable amount. And because audio drama is based on vocal only, CGI, sets and props (among others) do not have to be paid for. Combine the potential for a large audience plus lower budgets equals happy producers.
5. Good story is not limited by audio-only stories. Good stories strikes an emotional chord in the heart. Whether the audience be readers, listeners, or viewers, good stories impact their lives, whether they realize it or not. By using the advantages of the audio drama genre, and by being aware of and compensating for its limitations, we can weave a story equally powerful as any other movie or book. This brings up the final point.
6. Audio drama enhances story in its own unique way. It does not detract from it. As we have seen earlier, audio drama is not inferior to movies. It is the same in this matter. The challenge in producing audio drama is the same as producing in any other medium – you must use the advantages and unique aspects of the medium to overcome the obstacles the genre presents. Story is a part of human nature. It is the most powerful way of communicating a message. The genre used to tell the story matters because each genre has benefits and limitations. Audio drama genre uses vocals to create a movie in one’s imagination. Books do the same but with the written word. Movies leave no work to the listener, and therefore do not engage the audience mentally. This is both an advantage and a penalty. (For a more very in depth look on the advantages of audio drama as a method of storytelling, I recommend listening to Audio Theatre Central’s recent podcast interview with Bill Heid.)
The aspect that audio drama uses the listener’s imagination is particularly important. It is the reason I love audio drama so much. A special connection is established between the listener and the characters in the audio drama themselves. As mentioned in the ATC podcast, simply hearing the voice of a character establishes a connection that novels cannot have.
As for movies, audio drama uses the listener’s imagination to the extent a movie never could. Audio drama stimulates the brain. This is one of the foremost reasons I believe audio drama is not outdated.
I do not believe we will ever see audio drama disappear; and here’s why. Genres don’t go away – they adapt. Audio drama is finding its home in the digital world. It is reestablishing itself now as the modern form of a long line of past incarnations. The genre is going to change even more throughout the future. Perhaps in fifty or sixty years we will hardly even recognize audio drama as it is today, yet in many aspects it will always be very much same.