Original Radio Drama in the 21st Century

This post is defunct (but here for reference). My current thinking on the matter is here: Audio Drama Needs a 21st Century Business Model

What do Britain, Canada, and Ireland have in common? No, it’s not universal health coverage — it’s public radio companies that commission original radio drama for broadcast. They actually think it’s valuable to have written stories recorded and played on the radio for people. What’s crazier, is that they PAY people to do it! What gives?

America has never had public media anything like that commonly found in other countries — there are a variety of economic and political reasons for this, but for the moment let’s take it at face value that public radio is not and will not ever really have the money or incentive to produce original plays. That leaves us with the private markets, such as the major networks, who were responsible for the whole rise of the radio drama in the first place. The gears were going well back in the 40s and 50s — everyone got to hear a push for Goodyear Tires or Blue Coal and got to hear plenty of stories. While not every story was a winner (and with some million words being broadcast a day, we can give CBS and NBC a little slack), there was an active economy to support that original drama. In fact, radio drama was one of the better paying writing careers in its day.

Of course, TV ended all of that, though it was more of a planned assassination of radio drama than a lack of people being interested in it (chicken and egg, or…?). Whether it was people who sold TVs with a vested interest in making everyone watch it, or curiosity that turned to addiction, television took over all of the major serial-type programming that had made radio a viable and sustainable medium in its day. The Golden Era ended, and radio drama trudged through its existence to the modern day (minus a few mini-revivals here and there, local troupes who kept producing… there’s a lot I’m glossing over here to reach a point).

Today’s modern radio drama scene can be characterized as an orphaned medium with a lot of guts but not a lot of polish. There is a hard-core niche audience that keeps producers faithful of a resurgence, and dropping costs of equipment and the interconnectivity of the Internet certainly has allowed for more communication and community-building of this niche than ever before. Podcasting is almost a revolution, and there are blogs aplenty talking about exciting new works being produced all throughout the country. The question is how to get radio drama out of the niche and into the mainstream.

It all comes down to the American consumer. There are days when I’m full of hope and others when a friend of mine says “Who’d want to see a movie without the pictures?” What I think is absolutely necessary for original radio drama to be successful is a keener focus on the stories, and production methods that take advantage of radio drama’s unique properties to really smash those stories into the audience’s head. While we might not compete with the people who are going to spend 8 bucks to watch a bunch of teenagers get slaughtered at the movie house, we can appeal to those who pay for HBO and Showtime and want series’ that push the cutting edge and keep them in wrapt suspense week after week. Radio drama needs to get there to make it in modern America. And somehow we need to get the economic and distribution model to support an industry that good

I think we can note with interest the birthing pains of the online music industry and attempts by Google to digitize the published world and dominate online video. The model proposed by Google and such seems to be a deconstruction of established business models and unprecedented access to material by consumers. The hope is that people will still choose to purchase what they care about, and not that people will turn to rampant levels of piracy. Do we offer our work for free or charge for every download? Is there a subscription or paid advertising method that will work?

At this stage in the game, I think it’s more important to get radio drama into the ears of the unsuspecting audience rather than trying to make a profit on it (either that or get it featured on American Idol). Channels like XM’s Sonic Theater I think are a start, though it’d be amazing if NPR or Pacifica started distributing syndicated radio drama across the nation (or better yet, member stations started producing it themselves). And maybe commercial radio will go down in flames like I suspect it will and we’ll have new broadcasting stations run by robots that love radio drama playing on our commute to work rather than DJs who statistics say people love while everyone you know hates them.

And finally, I think an “all you can eat” subscription based radio drama/audio theater store is apt to be more successful than anything else. Say a dozen or so of us producers opt-in, upload all of our work to a centralized server that distributes the work to all subscribers (or have the ability to offer it to bronze, silver, or gold level memberships). As a subscriber, you can sign up for a variety of levels, which offer tiered levels of programming; say the $10/month subscriber gets 4 of your 30 minute episodes while the $30/month subscriber gets access to your 5-hour epic mini-series. You can offer extras, commentary, and whatnot, and offer some teasers for those with free memberships. Like Audible, you can also order everything on this site ala carte as well. The money gets split up on a democratic, server-controlled manner based on the number of downloads of each respective work. Call it the radio drama co-op store.

These are only ruminations from a kid who’s new at the game, but I think sound enough to generate some discussion. With good marketing, good programming, and a bit of luck, I think original radio drama can generate a firestorm these next years.

Read more about the radio drama articles, hear some modern audio fiction stories, or leave some comments on where you think audio drama is going!

  • Brian Case

    I found this article through Google-ing keywords “radio drama marketing”.

    My question is not so much the need to “get radio drama into the ears of the unsuspecting audience” as much as it is how to do that.

    That is, developing and implementing a specific marketing plan that achieves getting in front of the decision-makers at XM’s Sonic Theater and NPR and/or Pacifica.

    There are quality sources, such as Rasovsky’s treatise at http://www.natf.com and other on the nuts and bolts of radio drama, but very little on marketing.

    What do you think?

  • Brian,

    Thanks for the comments — I’m certainly as interested as you are as getting the movers behind XM, NPR and Pacifica excited about radio drama! As far as the nuts and bolts of marketings, well, that’s an area outside of my experience, know-how, or general expertise. Though I do have some ideas.

    There are a couple of things holding back radio drama from being on the radio again. Most audio drama being produced is simply too long for most radio stations to be interested in picking it up. It’s also, quite honestly, not all broadcast quality.

    I think in reality, the best bet is to move towards getting audiobook publishers interested in audio drama, and drawing in people used to single-voice narrator stories to the allure of full dramatizations. This is a more wide-open form and audio drama excels with digital formats you can hear on your personal music player of choice.

    How to garner that interest? Choose good stories and produce them really, really well. And come up with a business model that gets publishing house’s attention. I think at the moment, it’s just a chicken and egg thing.

    And for the radio? Well, there’s always the possibility of a really great host sharing radio drama every week (ala Ira Glass or Selected Shorts). I’m no Ira, but do check out Radio Drama Revival! (www.radiodramarevival.com)

    Thanks again for the comments!

  • When I moved from the UK to the US I was very surprised to find that there was no drama on the radio. It seems that drama on NPR would be an ideal combination – lets face it, I’m sure there’s the odd show there we wouldn’t miss! Personally I don’t think audio drama will ever be a mass media, but I’m sure there would be a market on NPR. BBC radio figures(unfortunately I can only find figures for online listening) suggest a small but loyal listenership for BBC R7 (drama and comedy) and the top ‘listen again’ program is a radio soap which has been running for decades. Maybe some of these numbers would help convincing radio executives…

    Actually I was thinking along similar lines to you in terms of an audio drama store. As a listener it would be great to have somewhere to go with a comprehensive directory with reviews where you can download/podcast/buy audio dramas. Dramapod has the potential to do some of this, but I think it would be valuable to have a site which crossed the line between free podcasts and bought audio drama. There are lots of possible pricing strategies, and I like the idea of subscriptions though I don’t know how it would work in practice. I think it is important however to have free episodes available in order to attract new customers.

    Just some of my ideas!

  • BodyLove is radio drama that’s good for you. Developed by factuly and staff at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Pubic Health, it has revieved front page coverage in the LA Times, Baltimore Sun, Kaiser Health Disparities Report and more — yet we still can’t get it on mainstream radio. We have not tried pubic radio yet because we are not sure it reaches our demographic. We have 83 15-minute episodes produced to date that air on local radio stations in AL, GA, MS and FL. You can read learn more at http://www.bodyLove.org and lean alot more at http://www.m-mc.org and see BodyLove in the spotlight.

  • Google and Yahoo make it possible for advertisers to spend very little, experiment with budgets and prove sales. As the advertiser of a new product, I’d be happy to create ad copy and pay for time sponsoring audio dramas if I could start with a minimal investment and use profits to pay higher rates and schedule more frequent spots.
    Deliver an audience, deliver sales, and begin with realistic ad rates (something newspapers abandoned years ago), and I believe audio drama can be commercially funded.

  • Jody,

    Thanks for comment. PPC is a great way to get clicks, but how do you convince the visitor that what you’ve got is worth the risk to pay? And how many people are actually interested in paying?

    For an independent producer like myself, it’s hard to compete with the insane amount of free stuff out there — some of it being junk, but some of it being remarkably good. I think it’s hard to actually sell this without some star power — pulling in published authors or developing a reputation for putting out good work… ZBS for example.

    I still think getting crossover from audiobook buyers is the key to getting commercial viability in audio drama and hey, maybe advertising on search networks will help reach that goal. But the content being put out needs to be there too.

    Thanks again, and interested to hear any other thoughts you have.


  • I think the best way would be to offer a product tailored to the needs of morning and evening drive-time radio “zoo” programs. I’d suggest a 3-5 minute soap opera with racy content that is stripped five-a-week, with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode and a mega-cliffhanger at the end of the week. Stations can have the first two weeks free and see if the audience is hooked by it.

    Pitch is that it would fit into both talk-heavy and music-heavy commuter radio since it’s the length of a song and has the potential to keep people tuned in day after day to hear what happens next.

    If you’re thinking of regular 30 minute radio drama or comedy as it was back in the 40s, I think you have to make this work first – and then build up to 30 minute drive time shows.

    The problem of course is production costs and talent – as it always is.

  • writerightnow

    Netflix seems to have a pretty good business model that maintains control over copyrighted materials. I’d like to learn their fee & royalty’s structure.

  • finalrune

    Thanks for writing and for the comments! I agree, since writing this, the “Netflix” model is very much what I think could work for radio drama – a platform that captures interested listeners, and then has quality material and keeps people engaged. People would sign up for an ‘all you can eat’ subscription and then based on listening stats the platform would compensate artists appropriately.

    – Fred