with Erik Ohls of the Swedish Radio Theatre at YLE in Finland. Conducted
by e-mail in 1997 with Tim Crook of IRDP. Please bear in mind that
the views expressed and information provided relate to July 1997 and
may have changed subsequently.
What was the first original radio drama ever produced and broadcast
by YLE and what was it about?
I don't know yet. The earliest titles on file are from 1935, but I
have a statistical report showing that YLE broadcast five theatrical
productions as early as 1926 (the year the company was founded). Unfortunately
their title or subject matter are not mentioned. Any one of them may
have been either a live broadcast from a theatre, a radio adaptation
of an existing stage play, a short original radio drama, or even an
educational programme about pig farming in dialogue form. They may
also have been in either Finnish or Swedish. I'll get back to you
when I've found out more about them.
Does Radio Drama have editorial independence?
Yes and no. Up until 1990 our editorial independence was more or less
absolute. We had two weekly slots of our own and we didn't need anybody's
permission to broadcast what we wanted. (All departments within our
company had to have their plans approved by a council consisting of
representatives of all our parliamentary parties, but while they to
a certain degree kept demanding programmes that might interest their
voters, they usually left Radio Drama alone. This council was abolished
in the late '80s. But after the reform of the Swedish Section we lost
our slots and I had to start selling (figuratively) our productions
to four other departments if I wanted to see them broadcast. I suspect
that one of the reasons for the reform was that the man who was my
boss at the time (sometimes quite rightly) disliked a number of productions
that we had made and thought that this would eliminate the plays he
didn't like. It didn't. Outside the drama departments there is nobody
at the company who knows enough about drama productions to manage
that. But all through the '90s I have had to be on the alert against
attempts to control what we decided to produce. From the beginning
of October this year we are going to have a new reform, which means
that my drama unit will lose some status in the hierarchy of the company
(We won't be a "redaktion" any more, just a theatre) but as a compensation
we have been promised greater editorial independence. But who knows?
How was the YLE Radio Drama formed and when?
Gradually. (Again a question I cannot answer without a lot of research.
After the War when both the Finnish Radio Theatre and the whole Swedish
Section of our company was instituted, radio plays in Swedish were
first produced by a large department that was also responsible for
Entertainment and Children's Programmes. Swedish Radio Drama didn't
become an independent unit until the mid '60s as the result of a minor
organisational reform. I'll try to find out more, but unfortunately
almost all the pioneers have been dead for some years.)
In history, who are your most famous and best radio playwrights and
Among the writers one can't bypass Walentin Chorell, who died in the
early 1980s. He was an immensely talented writer, but in retrospect
not a very good one. A psychology teacher and former alcoholic, he
wrote over 80 plays, most of them for radio. Some of his plays have
been translated into some twenty languages and in the '50s and '60s
the Eastern European countries (possibly because he was politically
harmless). Even this year one of his plays has been performed on the
stage in Belgium. Our best radio dramatists with emphasis on 'radio'
are probably some of the young people that have started as script
editors within our department. (Gunilla Hemming is the most prolific
one), but a great number of the best Sveco-Finnish novelists and poets
have written plays for us. For instance Bo Carpelan and Ulla-Lena
Lundberg have both written first class radio texts. Among dramatists
writing in Finish one shouldn't forget Paavi Haavikko, Veijo Meri
and Outi Nyytäjä. Meri and Nyytäjä both worked
as script editors for the Finnish department before gaining fame and
(I hope) fortune. The most talented younger Finnish dramatist may
well be Juha Siltanen, but we have only produced one very short play
by him. Tens of famous stage directors in Finland have at one time
or another directed plays for us. (Ralf Långbacka, Staffan Aspelin,
Bengt Ahlfors, Outi Nyytäjä) but our most interesting directors
at the moment are probably young film-makers doing radio plays while
they are trying to raise funds for their next film (for instance Per-Olof
Strandberg). And, of course, from within the department Solveig Mattsson,
who in many ways has revolutionised radio drama in Finland. In the
'60s and '70s Lisbeth Landefort produced an inordinate number of plays,
many of them very interesting. She is a quite fascinating lady with
a passion for opera and was usually the first in Finland to try out
new technology, even if the conventionality of some of her later plays
was the main reason that my boss in the late '80s disliked what we
did. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many of our best directors
(Mattsson Strandberg) have had no experience at all of straight theatre.
On what channels is YLE Radio Drama broadcast, what lengths, and times
of transmission, kinds of genres, e.g. single new plays, serials,
At the moment Swedish Radio Drama is broadcast on our main Swedish
Channel (Riskradion). We do not have any slots of our own, but we
broadcast a bit less than one new play every second week, either on
Monday or Wednesday evening, and possibly a Sunday repeat. Normally
the Monday plays should not be over 53 minutes, but it is usually
possible to get more time for longer plays, although a play of more
than 90 minutes would probably be broadcast with an intermission (i.e.
a news break). We have lately produced quite a number of serials with
instalments of 15 to 40 minutes, which have been broadcast at different
times of the day, often every second day, sometimes even two times
a day. Most of the serials have been so costly that we have not been
able to broadcast anything else that same month. About half of the
single plays are commissioned by us, the rest are sometimes adaptations
of classics but usually translations of plays originally produced
by somebody else. We try to produce one 12-15 part serial for children
each year. As to genres, I am willing to produce any kind of play
if it is good enough and if I can find good enough actors for it (which
isn't always easy - the Actors' Union in Finland has about 150 Swedish
speaking members but only two good ones, and one of them died last
winter). Nevertheless, we are most interested in drama as story telling.
During the last ten years we have become quite good at doing realistic
and naturalistic texts, and at the moment we are working on developing
a new kind of radio comedy. (Even the funniest stage comedies are
usually very boring when transposed to the radio.) The number of experimental
plays and plays bordering on Sound Art is noticeably lower than ten
years ago, partly because of economic reasons, but mainly because
it seems to me that most young experimentalists want to repeat the
same experiments that many of us did thirty years ago. We also do
some readings, but only when we run out of money.
How are your plays made? e.g. in studio, on location, analogue, digital,
actors performance first and then post production, binaural, surround
Most of our productions are made in a studio, but 20-30 percent are
made on location. (I've always preferred working on location, not
because of the sound but because I think working in a studio makes
the actors lose their sense of time and consequently their timing.)
About 80 percent of what we do is digitally recorded and about 70
percent is digitally mixed, but we still use analogue equipment for
simpler productions. In a studio production most directors would probably
record the actors first and add the fireworks afterwards, but that
depends on the play and the director. Some years ago we experimented
with ambisonics (and some decades ago with quadrophonics) but as far
as I know we have never used Dolby Surround Sound. (And I think it
is very sad that nobody uses the Kunstopf anymore.)
How many directors, producers, dramaturgists, sound designers at YLE?
At Swedish Radio Drama we have one director/producer (who is extraordinary),
one dramaturgist (who can double as a producer), one production assistant
(who also can double as a producer), and one sound designer. For simpler
productions we can borrow drama engineers from a common pool (although
most of them can't handle our digital equipment). And, of course,
I myself can double as a director/producer/script editor/layout artist/
translator/writer/teacher and funny man. The Finnish Department has
many more in all categories. Of course, most of our plays are produced
by freelance directors.
How many plays now per year? How are they funded? Size of budget?
Are your broadcasts more or less than in previous years?
The number of plays varies, particularly since we started producing
serials. The number of hours is more stable: about 65 per year including
repeats. (A little more than half are new productions) We are funded
mainly through license fees, but also indirectly through advertising.
(Our largest commercial TV station pays our company rent for the use
of some of our facilities and equipment, and also a public service
fee for the privilege of broadcasting only what the greatest number
of viewers/listeners want without having to care about smaller groups
of listeners.) In theory Radio Drama could get funding from independent
sponsors (which would have been impossible only five years ago) but
I don't think it would be realistic to expect large amounts of commercial
money that way. Our budget all through the '90s has been about three
million Finnish marks (including the money for the salaries of my
staff and some in-house services, but not the cost of the studio).
The above-the-line budget for a single one-hour play is usually about
FIM 60,000, but our most expensive productions have cost more than
twice as much. In the '80s we had two 90-minute slots a week, which
we did not have to fill completely, i.e. if we broadcast a 45 minute
play the music department would take over the last 45 minutes. At
that time we usually produced 40-45 hours of new drama a year; the
rest of the slots were filled with repeats. In other words, we broadcast
almost twice as much in the '80s as today. On the other hand we were
allowed to keep most of our budget even after the reform of 1990 (an
elegant form of bribery, I think) which meant that we could afford
to do a better job in the early '90s (when everybody else had to cut
their costs). For us, the really hard times didn't come until 1995,
when the depression was over.
What is the play you have done which you are most proud of?
Without hesitation I would answer Fjädern ("The Feather"/"The
Quill", which won the Prix Italia in 1991, but I suppose I'm biased,
as I both wrote and directed the play myself. Since then the play
has been produced in some dozen countries, and that Prix Italia was
the first major international award any of our productions had ever
got. (After that we have been more lucky.) But apart from "The Quill",
I could mention several of Solveig Mattsson's beautiful productions
(including "The Vestal Virgin", which won the Prix Italia two years
ago, and "The Day the Cuckoo Sang by the Seine", which won the Prix
Futura), but I suppose my favourites would be Fribiljett (from 1986,
I think) directed and adapted by the young actor Marcos Groth-- or
possibly Per-Olof Stranberg's production of "The Blue Tower" (Sininen
torni/Blå tornet) by Juha Seppälä. Stylistically both
of these plays were giant steps away from conventional stage-influenced
Radio Drama. When you look at the performance and not just at the
text I don't think any of our plays from before 1985 could compete
with what we are doing today (mainly because they were done too hastily).
How do you see the future in trends and styles?
Now, this is a terrible question to ask, not because it is hard to
answer, but because it is hard to answer briefly. It gives me a feeling
I ought to write a book. On the whole I find contemporary radio drama
quite boring. While the sound, of course, is often much better than
ten or twenty years ago, writers all over Europe still model their
plays on the radio dramas of the '50s (or even on plays written for
the stage), and while they often seem to visualise the scenes in their
plays they seldom seem able to imagine how they will sound. On the
other hand, at the Prix Italia I heard the argument that some of the
plays were more suited for the radio than some of the others because
you couldn't have performed the text on stage. This is nonsense, of
course. The problem is not how to tell a story differently than on
the stage; it is how to tell a story as effectively as possible utilising
"all" the necessary tricks of the trade: theatrical, filmatic or purely
radiophonic. And although we have seen a tremendous change in acting
styles, most radio actors still lack presence (particularly when compared
to some of our best older actors or, for instance the young Orson
Welles.) Even if the acting is more naturalistic and less theatrical
radio drama is still often familiar cadences lulling the audience
to sleep from somewhere inside two little boxes. Possibly, most actors
(being trained for the stage) need the interaction of a live audience
to keep fully awake. The lack of an audience and the artificiality
of the surroundings in a radio studio are probably an open invitation
to indulge in what we in Swedish call "rostbajs" (voice-crapping).
(One of the script editors at Pekka's department used to say that
when he had heard two lines of a radio drama on air, he not only knew
that he was listening to radio drama but also which kind of radio
drama and, on the whole, how the play was going to end. The acting
style was a guarantee that he would not be unpleasantly surprised
for the next hour.) For the last ten years we have been fighting this
kind of stagnation, but when one looks to Europe as a whole, I don't
really see any trends away from it. The trends one can discern have
been short time phenomena: an inordinate number of plays involving
telephones in the mid eighties, and about AIDS a few years later,
and lots of experimental pieces bordering on music when the drama
departments first got their sexy digital equipment. And after the
fall of Communism one could notice that while the subject matter of
Eastern European plays became more varied and more interesting, their
technical and dramaturgical standard in many cases showed a decline.
The drama departments got less money, I suppose. And this seems to
be the most consistent trend all over Europe: the drama departments
have got their budgets cut. And this leads to a vicious circle. Our
most important competitors are not to be found within the radio, commercial
or state financed; they are to be found within the film industry.
We cannot compete with multi-million dollar spectacles, but we could
compete with some of the trash that has made our former become television
addicts. But we can't if we don't have the money, and if we can't
we will get even less money. And so on. Don't I, then, believe that
there is a future for broadcast Radio Drama? No I don't. (In spite
of the fact that the best radio dramas I have heard over the years
are comparable to anything produced by any other art form both as
art and as entertainment.) But then I don't really believe in a future
for broadcasting as we know it. And herein lies our salvation. It
has to do with the question of the Internet.
How do you develop new writers and new plays?
By talking to the writers and by writing the plays ourselves. The
talking is mainly done by our script editor (dramaturge), sometimes
by the director and sometimes by me. Apart from trying to analyse
what a writer is writing and afterwards talking to him about what
he might have done more effectively there isn't much one can do, is
there? (It's more difficult to give advice to writers with obvious
talent than to less talented ones, particularly when they draw heavily
on their subconscious, and it is impossible to make some established
writers change anything, but we try to do it anyway. After all, writing
is a craft.
Do you run writers' competitions and workshops? Can you describe them?
We haven't had a writers' competition for the last twenty years (since
before I was head of drama), because direct interaction with a writer
that you have chosen yourself seems much more effective if one really
wants to get a usable text. I have organised one workshop, however,
but in-house, for the producer and script editor at my department.
As neither of them at the time had any practical experience of writing
for either conventional theatre or film (apart from studying theatre
and literature at the university) it seemed to me that they needed
a short seminar in order to be able to talk to professional writers.
And what did we do? We closed down the department for six weeks (which
my boss didn't approve of at all), drank wine, listened to some good
radio plays, watched a lot of horror movies, and tried to structure
a gothic play of our own, which we could never produce. In a few months
time, however, the seminar resulted in two plays that we did produce,
one of which won the Prix Italia, and the other the Prix Futura. I
chose horror as the theme of the seminar, because I felt that while
we should stick to a popular genre, we should chose one that could
also be psychologically and symbolically different. Apart from that
I have lectured at a number of writers' workshops run by different
organisations. It has always been very enjoyable, but they have also
strengthened my belief in education as a perverse modern fad -- if
it isn't self education. If somebody wants to learn the craft of playwriting,
he should read plays, see plays, try to write plays, and get some
twenty books about American film dramaturgy. Or why not Aristotle?
(And he might come to work for us for some months.) The main reason
that I'm not interested in writers' competitions is probably that
the last time I was on a jury at a competition organised by someone
else all the main prizes went to established (albeit young) writers
who did not need discovering. Although I have my doubts about the
value of workshops open to amateur writers, for instance Solveig Mattsson
has wanted us to organise one for several years - possibly because
our experience of workshops for actors has been entirely positive
and possibly because she herself learnt something at the in-house
seminar I told you about.
How do you use the Internet and World Wide Web?
We have used it for gathering information but otherwise not very effectively.
I have used the Internet to answer your questions. We got our first
www-page a little more than two years ago, and at the moment we have
about 150 pages in three languages on the Net (i.e. about 50 pages
per language). Their main content is scheduling information about
part of our repertory, excerpts from a number of plays, and some background
data about a few of them and also about some of our writers and directors.
I'd like to add some articles about aesthetic and dramaturgical matters,
and why not gossip, sex and eschatology too, but so far I haven't
found time to do it. (I'm the only computer addict at my department,
which means that so far I have had to write, translate, code and update
everything myself.) We have given our audio director and sound designer
Niko Ingman space for his own pages, which he has tried to turn into
what he calls an "interactive studio". A year and a half ago I decided
that we should be the first in the world to put a traditional radio
play on the Net, and as far as I know we really were the first, when
we broadcast "A Gentleman to See the Dean" in May last year. (This
was a true broadcast: you could listen to it on the Internet, but
only simultaneously with the conventional radio broadcast.) After
that we have continuously had one play on our server as audio on demand,
and later a documentary too. We first used both Streamworks on RealAudio
2 for data streaming, and later Real Audio 3. (Streamworks was excellent,
but the listener needed a very good phone line, or ISDN; RealAudio
2 was terrible but your connection wasn't that important. RealAudio
is quite good and requires less space on the server for the files
than Streamworks.) For the last seven months we have been ready to
put all our serials on the Net and also to produce a small interactive
drama (with some visual effects) but so far our company's copyright
lawyers have not been able to reach an agreement with the writers'
and actors' unions, so we are still biding our time. Which is infuriating;
we were the first within our company to get any sound at all onto
the Net, and we were ready for the next step half a year before anybody
else - and today all kinds of journalistic programmes are put on the
Net as a matter of routine, while we just have to wait. And although
we don't have formal agreements with the unions, both actors and writers
would gladly let us put anything we want on the Net today. They just
want the same money they would get for a normal repeat, which some
people within our company think is too much-- because the potential
audience according to them is still too small. I get some comfort,
though, from the fact that these difficulties are quite trivial compared
to the problems that confront one when one tries to put recorded music
on the Internet-- as the composers and musicians have all sold their
souls to the record companies. In spite of what I have written earlier
I cannot promise you deliverance through the Internet. I am, however,
more certain about its implications for broadcasting and particularly
for the broadcasting companies. As the invention of the telephone
didn't mean the end of the postal services, the Internet need not
mean the end of broadcasting. For some time the elderly will insist
on having broadcast radio and it will remain very useful when you
are driving a car. But its importance will diminish.
a) The main point
is that the Internet is primarily a distribution channel-- for information,
for entertainment, for whatever you can imagine. Compared to radio
it is very cheap and democratic. And within perhaps two years' time
the quality of sound transmitted over the Internet will be noticeably
better than the quality of sound transmitted over the various DAB
networks that radio companies all over the world are pouring billions
into. (Although that depends to a certain degree on how the companies
are going to use the bandwidth that DAB will give them. For the Internet
bandwidth will probably be a problem only as long as most connections
even in part use analogue phone lines, which they won't in a few years'
b) What's more,
while multicast(ing) may save bandwidth on the World Wide Web, the
Net remains well suited for distribution 'on demand': audio on demand,
television on demand, news on demand, any kind of information on demand,
interactive games. At the moment the listeners have to organise their
lives according to our whims to be able to listen to one of our plays.
Wouldn't you hate to? To hell with slots and scheduling!
c) When broadcasting
in most parts of Europe ceased to be a state monopoly, it did not
cease to be monopolistic. It just turned into a sort of distributed
monopoly. The broadcasting companies, old and new, controlled the
distribution of programmes. Producers at YLE, for instance, tend to
see their employer as a production company (and of course broadcasters
have to produce programmes in order to fill their channels with something)
but what makes a broadcasting company important-- any broadcasting
company-- is the fact that it controls distribution, and as a matter
of fact some of the directors of our company have discussed the possibilities
of some day buying all programmes from independent producers.
d) But soon the
independent producers (if any there be) won't need them as a distribution
channel any more. They may need them for financing, but for how long?
e) So if the broadcasting
companies wish to remain in business they have to embrace new technologies
like the Internet. And very soon they will have to put the emphasis
on being production companies rather than broadcasters.
f) The competition
from newly formed radio companies in Finland has in many ways been
good for the quality of some programmes, or at least more beneficial
than most of my colleagues would like to admit, but it has also strengthened
some negative attitudes within the radio, to wit the drug pusher syndrome.
It is today even more important than before to get as many people
as possible, preferably the whole population, 'hooked' on radio. Apart
from the fact that I have never been very interested in an audience
of addicts, one negative result of this attitude is that the public
has got some better programmes but possibly less choice today than
in the golden days when we were a monopoly company. They have a greater
number of channels to choose between, but also a greater number of
programmes that sound the same.
g) And as a listener
I do not want the choice between a lot of similar programmes with
popular appeal-- in spite of being a strong defender of popular culture.
I want as many totally different programmes as possible. I want the
'possibility' of choosing a programme that I will never actually choose.
For many listeners radio drama means that possibility. For a few some
radio drama is the most important choice. (And for our company it
is the 'public service' in public service broadcasting which justifies
that we are license financed. And that of course is one of the reasons
that we are still kicking.)
h) Audio on demand
gives the listener a double choice: he can choose when to listen,
and he can choose to listen to something that only appeals to a small
group of people. But this is a truism, isn't it?
j) More importantly,
a programme on the net does naturally have to get enough listeners
to justify the production costs, 'but it does not have to get them
at the same time'. It can collect them gradually during many months.
The problem I fear a lot of radio drama producers and writers are
saddled with is predilection to self deception. I am also very guilty
of this. I commit myself to paroxysms of obsessional devotion to radio/sound
productions, spend months on analysing and assessing script content,
huge budgets on fine actors, have my casts killing themselves on location,
use years of post production in surround sound suites, agonise over
the minutiae of sound effects and sound design only to study audience
habits and responses and discover that something simple is missing,
or my enthusiasm for a play has created a production unsuitable for
the particular format of radio station or network. Or the reality
is that the play has worked and the audience is happy, but who is
going to confirm that? Do you, like me, follow your own instinct and
belief in quality from the point of view of what is a good play, what
is a good performance, a good story or a good sound design? Of course
we can define it with our own vocabulary, but we know when we hear
it, do we not? Orson knew instinctively and he wasn't deceiving himself.
I think you hit the nail on the head here, but actually the problem
is even more complex.
a) First we have
the fact that drama producers within many older drama departments
through the years have been immune to criticism from within their
companies or from the public. After all, the drama producers are the
experts in their field, while the amateur critics are philistines
or at least don't know what they are talking about.
b) Then, no one
(not even a drama producer) does a bad job on purpose. Consequently
a director will always tend to think (or hope, anyway) that his latest
production is a success at least artistically. And as there is nobody
to tell him differently, except the philistines, he has in a sense
c) On the other
hand, most people do fail at times. But how is our poor director to
know that he has failed? The only other experts are his colleagues,
who, of course, are notorious for their envy. And, besides, the more
sensible among them realised years ago that not only God is by definition
good. Radio Drama too is in itself, by definition, a very good thing.
d) Here we have
then the perfect alibi in case of failure: if you don't like my play,
it must be because you are insensitive and culturally underdeveloped.
e) But the terrible
thing is that this may be entirely true. Letting the philistines decide
what is good is no solution: most people really are terribly insensitive
and some of our best productions are quite elitist, and must be allowed
to be so.
f) The problem,
however, is even more complicated. Knowing how to make a certain segment
of the public happy is central to our craft. But that's not what gives
us great drama. I really think you are quite right to 'follow your
instinct and belief in quality from the point of view of what is a
good play, what is a good performance, a good story or a good sound
design?' Good plays are not produced by the audience (if not sometimes
indirectly). They are produced by the subconscious minds of a few
Radio Theatre in Finland