Interview with Erik Ohls

 

Interview 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.

Erik Ohls

Erik Ohls

TC: What was the first original radio drama ever produced and broadcast by YLE and what was it about?

EO: 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.

TC: Does Radio Drama have editorial independence?

EO: 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?

TC: How was the YLE Radio Drama formed and when?

EO: 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.)

TC: In history, who are your most famous and best radio playwrights and realisateurs/directors?

EO: 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.

TC: On what channels is YLE Radio Drama broadcast, what lengths, and times of transmission, kinds of genres, e.g. single new plays, serials, series, children's/youth?

EO: 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.

TC: How are your plays made? e.g. in studio, on location, analogue, digital, actors performance first and then post production, binaural, surround sound?

EO: 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.)

TC: How many directors, producers, dramaturgists, sound designers at YLE?

EO: 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.

TC: How many plays now per year? How are they funded? Size of budget? Are your broadcasts more or less than in previous years?

EO: 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.

TC: What is the play you have done which you are most proud of?

EO: 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).

TC: How do you see the future in trends and styles?

EO: 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.

TC: How do you develop new writers and new plays?

EO: 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.

TC: Do you run writers' competitions and workshops? Can you describe them?

EO: 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.

TC: How do you use the Internet and World Wide Web?

EO: 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' time.)

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.

TC: 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.

EO: 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 become untouchable.

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 artists.

 

Swedish Radio Theatre in Finland

 

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