scripts and microphones

british radio drama


British Radio Drama- A Cultural Case History

by Tim Crook

Page Six

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Radio as a source of communication has never lost its importance and value. Radio storytelling is in a continual state of creative flux with the invention of new form and content. I think a common story in most cultures is that the development of television offered fame and financial reward for the creative intelligentsia. The stampede from radio to television was often driven by market forces, but television's status as the pre-eminent media form is under threat from Multimedia. Audiences have now been empowered with visual, text and sound interactivity and radio drama sits much more comfortably than film or television in this environment. Radio is much more efficient as a medium of communication. Its audience can continue to physically move and perform transport, recreational and employment tasks. Unlike the visual media radio can laterally shift across the range of human activities as a direct source of media consumption. The mind's eye is a continually playing movie for the imagination while text, video, film and still pictures are scanned stereoscopically in the physical dimension. Experimental one and two minute radio plays can now be accessed on an American web site. Britain's Independent Radio Drama Productions has introduced full length Internet Plays of the Month.

Since 1987 radio drama has found a niche in UK independent radio which has secured state and private sponsorship, the support of audiences and the programme controllers of commercial talk and music formats. Two new writing schemes outside the BBC have been centred in the radio drama genre and provided professional writing opportunities for new writers over a ten year period. The distinguished writer and arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has gone so far as to say that the national young playwrights' scheme for writers in commercial radio has become the most important new writing institution for young people in the country. The other scheme has persuaded the government arts funding body for London to recognise that radio drama has a legitimate place in the state subsidy of artistic and dramatic work. IRDP at LBC have pioneered the use of radio drama to stimulate and determine the content of live phone-in programming. The regular scheduling of five and ten minute drama series and the exploration of the symbiotic transfer of a script's production between radio and theatre are further landmarks of development.

The same period has also seen the maturing of an international spoken word market so that the 'talking book', 'sound drama' or 'sound dramatisation' is fighting for equal space on the shelves with traditional books. Radio drama's ephemeral status as an art form is at an end. The performance of a dramatic script is now no longer existing in the fleeting moment of a live stage event. It is being captured on cassette, compact disc, computer file and other means of storage for replay. Some forms of sound story telling are equal to film videos in their availability and the permanence of access for future consumption. Multimedia and the Internet offer exciting dimensions to sound drama production and storytelling. The radio dramatist has been liberated from the dimension of short-lived terrestrial sound broadcasts.

The Digital Audio medium is set to be the beginning of the first national broadcast competition for BBC radio in the field of radio plays, readings and comedy. The UK Radio Authority awarded DigitalOne the licence for Britain's first DAB multiplex. DigitalOne which is owned by the country's largest radio group GWR was the only applicant. In January 1999 it advertised for interest in tendering for a mono channel to broadcast a predominantly speech based service of serialised plays, books and comedy programmes for 13 hours a day. It has emerged that the mono frequency had the capacity to be changed into stereo.

Britain's status as the world's leading producer of radio drama can now be accounted for with the following conclusions:

1: A monopoly, political stability, and sustained continuity of public funding through the licence fee. and openness; on the other, the BBC's monopoly in nationwide broadcasting as a public-service institution.

2: Independent commercial radio has never been given a level playing field of competition. Through the 70s and early 80s a considerable range of qualitative radio drama projects were initiated and broadcast, but they were restricted to local radio transmission and the inception of right wing Thatcherite Conservative governments meant that independent broadcasting was reformed along market economic lines.

3: Public sector broadcasting principles enshrined in earlier Broadcasting Acts were liquidated. The concept of 'secondary rental' whereby a proportion of station profits were taxed to be invested in training, engineering, and cultural programming was ended in 1990. The considerable development of radio drama by the London station LBC from 1987 was frustrated by poor management of the station, its withdrawal of licence, restriction to Greater London broadcasting, and greater fragmentation of the London radio market.

4: Although the Reithian doctrine of disseminating high culture could be condemned as elitist and patronising, the concentration of public funding in radio drama at the BBC militated towards standards of excellence. The post war commitment to provide popular entertainment as well helped consolidate an international reputation for innovation and imaginative programming.

5: BBC Radio drama was effectively the first national theatre of the air. National BBC radio drama broadcasts could bring the theatre into people's homes. It was a cohesive and cost effective method of guaranteeing democratic access to classical authors such as Shakespeare and Dickens.

6: BBC radio drama also served as a window on the world for international writers and classical authors from alternative cultures. Millions of listeners who had no inclination to visit live theatre had an opportunity of listening to the Greek classical dramatists such as Sophocles and Aeschylus. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe was introduced to Britain through BBC radio dramatisation of his books 'Things Fall Apart' and 'Anthills of Savannah'.

7: Radio drama production is much more cost effective than television, film and theatre and reaches a much higher audience in direct proportion to its costs.

How does the production of Radio Drama in Britain fit into the frame of capitalist production? The guaranteed funding by licence fee at the BBC meant that selection of 'product' was done for primarily aesthetic reasons. The demand of cultural activity is that its material is freely chosen and preferably new. Radio had the luxury of being able to deal with old favourites which had become classics and embedded in examination syllabuses. This means that as a product the BBC had never been compelled to select and discard its radiophonic cultural products when novelty passed and obsolescence intervened. It has the advantage that cultural consumption resists the drive to sell more, lower the price, increase the profit, and introduce efficiencies into the economies of scale. The dynamo of capitalism was adjusted because public service considerations, the broadcasting monopoly and guaranteed licence fee income interrupted the cycle of purchase, obsolescence and replacement.

But since 1995, the formula has changed. The introduction of pseudo-internal markets through producer choice means that economies of scale and the notion of 'marginal profit' are now as important as aesthetic and cultural imperatives. From 1998, Radio Drama's main carrier Radio Four began to concentrate the process of commissioning on the basis of audience figures and research. The raison d'être was the same as in commercial radio. Programming selection depended on sustaining existing audience size, increasing ABC1 listeners, preventing loss of audience through ageing, and where possible achieving audience growth. BBC Radio was conscious of competition between its own networks. Editorial independence and commissioning power was taken away from the producers. All programming slots had to be 'bid for' by a selected panel of approved suppliers. Another important factor in any decision to commission has been the ability of a radio drama production to generate additional income through merchandising in the cassette, book, television, multimedia and video markets. Applying the capitalist dynamo has the effect of keeping innovative production as cheap as possible.

The measured effects of this change in the economic equation of BBC radio drama production is that economies of scale have been reduced by trimediarisation- combining BBC drama production in radio, television and film into one unit. Innovation tends to be in the short form of programming content. Monologues and low cast productions have increased. The proportion of new writing and newly commissioned radio texts has declined vis-à-vis dramatised literature or adaptations of film and theatre scripts. This trend substantially reduces the costs of paying original writers and engaging producers with the dramaturgy of working with writers to develop an original script to completion and suitability for production.

© Tim Crook, 1999


Tim Crook, Shelley Thompson and Aden Gillett




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