Is there a way to make radio drama economically successful in the modern day? If so, what form will the messenger take?
By Frederick Greenhalgh
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.