International Radio Drama - Social, Economic and Literary Contexts
by Tim Crook
Please note that this is not an academic essay but an article written during the research for the book 'Radio Drama-Theory and Practice'. The purpose of this article is to express 'journalistic' enthusiasm for research into audio/radio drama. None of the contents of this article are included in the book published by Routledge which can be ordered from the following sites:
"There's no romance in television: it's just the Wal-Mart of the mind. Radio is infinitely sexier" - Garrison Keillor, An American Radio Romance.
Radio drama has probably been the most unappreciated and understated literary form of the twentieth century and I hope the neglect will not continue into the twenty first century. Academics, media theorists and writers in most cultures have in the main failed to realise that the medium of sound has provided an environment in which a new storytelling genre has been born. It has developed with sophistication and explosive energy, and now occupies a significant position in the cultural lives of societies throughout the globe. Huge traditions, styles and movements have been established and remain largely undocumented. Even now, radio drama is regarded as an adjunct of radio production practice.
Creative writing books might devote a minor chapter to the subject because it offers a peripheral opportunity for the professional writer. Scholars of literature and drama do not deign to provide radio drama with much significance. Samuel Beckett's literary value is determined by his stage plays and not by his radio plays. The same can be said for Bertolt Brecht and Tom Stoppard. Yet Stoppard's successful and significant stage play, Indian Ink, was conceived and first produced as the radio play In the Native State. Britain's foremost woman stage playwright is Caryl Churchill. But the majority of her first experiences with professional drama production were as a radio playwright. There were 9 productions with BBC radio drama up until 1973 when her stage work began to be recognised at the Royal Court Theatre. Hanif Kureishi, regarded as one of Britain's leading Asian writers, famous for his film My Beautiful Launderette and his novel The Buddha of Suburbia was first produced in radio. Tom Stoppard's first professional production was in the fifteen minute Just Before Midnight slot on BBC Radio which showcased new dramatists. Joe Orton was discovered by radio drama and first produced in this slot. In 1963 BBC radio director, John Tydeman, advised rewrites and a change of title and The Ruffian On The Stair became Orton's dramatic debut. John Tydeman also read one of his stage scripts, Entertaining Mr Sloane, and suggested he send it to the influential agent Peggy Ramsey who confirmed that he was a writer of outstanding promise, and married the script with theatre producer Michael Codron. The play rapidly snowballed into a West End success. Sue Townsend, Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Plater, Anthony Minghella, Angela Carter, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Louis MacNeice are a few other literary luminaries whose roots were planted in radio drama. Ayckbourn worked with the legendary radio drama director Alfred Bradley in Leeds. Giles Cooper, who is better known for his radio plays, started as a radio actor. Robert Bolt learned the craft of writing by producing scripts for Children's Hour. The radio productions in 1960 of Harold Pinter's two short plays, A Slight Ache and A Night Out, are credited with creating the favourable critical climate for his first major stage success, The Caretaker.
One of the paradoxes of radio drama is that highly accomplished and revered writers who have chosen to specialise in this field remain locked in a cabinet of obscurity. Rhys Adrian died in 1990 having written 32 plays for radio, all of which had been broadcast. Their literary quality is marked by the fact that most were broadcast on the Third Programme and then Radio Three. This is the BBC's cultural channel which is stamped with the kudos of intelligentsia approval. John Tydeman directed 27 of them. Adrian received several awards, yet a writer whose drama 'reflected a questioning mind and a sensitive ear for the agony and laughter of ordinary lives' has no mainstream cultural resonance. The same can be said of Giles Cooper who in the late 1950s and early 60s had a didactic force which parallelled the desire to recognise new voices and directions in British theatre. He cultivated the art of dramatically counterpointing the exterior and the interior of characters who felt themselves 'trapped in the contemporary machinery of modern life and who were unable to escape'. The manner of Giles Cooper's death probably raised more media interest than any of his dramatic output. In 1966 he fell out of a railway carriage near his Surbiton home after a literary dinner in London. The post mortem revealed that the alcohol level in his blood was the equivalent of half a bottle of whisky. Cooper wrote over sixty scripts for BBC Radio. His 1957 play The Disagreeable Oyster, along with the production of Samuel Beckett's All That Fall were fundamental in creating the need for a permanent sound workshop to create aural images based on effects and abstract musical rhythms. The BBC's annual radio drama writing awards were named after him and his radio script Unman, Wittering and Zigo was made into a film starring David Hemmings. Yet he could never be said to be a household name. If you cared to mention his name within earshot of a contemporary cultural crowd, you might be greeted with the withering question "Who?"
Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood remains on the literature curriculum for secondary education in Britain. It is a play for voices and is central to the consideration of Welsh literary achievement in the post-war period. It is probably more famous than any of his poems. But such is the confusion of radio drama's status that it was produced by the BBC's feature department. Creative expression using sound to tell stories has been clumsily compartmentalised into 'features', 'drama-documentaries', 'sound art', 'radio theatre', 'radio drama' , 'sound play' and 'radio soap'. The fact of the matter is that creative expression using sound embraces all of these styles of storytelling, and radio drama is a fitting overall description. As we become more reliant on the CD, cassette player and computer we may become more acquainted with the term 'audio-drama' in the years to come. A more challenging concept in the audio-drama genre is where improvised or scripted live performance interacts with contexts of reality. This type of storytelling has a satirical or entertainment purpose and often involves duping people with impersonations and delivering a hoax frame of narrative for the listener.
John Mortimer in his autobiography Clinging To The Wreckage describes how the BBC radio drama director Nesta Pain repeatedly badgered him into writing his first radio play, Dock Brief. He says the experience was 'to his lasting benefit'. She elicited a rewrite of the language for one of the central characters, and Mortimer realised he 'was able to learn something of lasting value from a director'. Dock Brief became the catalyst for a meeting with theatre producer Michael Codron and launched his career as a playwright. John Mortimer's son Jeremy has been at the heart of the BBC Radio Drama Department over the last two decades and has developed an international reputation as a dramaturge and director. He originated the national young writers' festivals which have ushered in a new generation of writers and opportunities for multi-cultural expression and representation.
Outside the United Kingdom, the story of radio drama's literary and dramatic importance is the same. Arthur Miller and David Mamet are two leading American playwrights who have acknowledged the debt they owe to radio drama for influencing and developing their writing abilities. The politically controversial Italian playwright Dario Fo excelled in the radio medium. Wolfgang Bochert and Peter Handke are literary giants in post-war German culture, and their literary reputation stems from their radio output. The director and sound play artist Klaus Schoning has articulated a distinct and original movement in radio drama genre. The foundations of the film directing genius of Orson Welles may well lie in his radio experience as much as in his theatre work. His track record in writing, performing and directing in the sound medium is greater in volume and range than any other media. The most remarkable monument to Orson Welles's achievement in radio drama can now be enjoyed in the multimedia title Theatre of the Imagination published by the Californian company Voyager. This CD-Rom brings together an astonishing array of primary source materials for the scholar and radio drama enthusiast. Fifteen significant archive broadcasts including the Mercury Theatre's production of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities are accompanied by text and essays from actors, directors, musicians and writers who worked with him. There are contributions from the scriptwriter of War Of The Worlds, Howard Koch, and the dramatist / director Norman Corwin. More Mercury Theatre productions have been published in France on CD accompanied by scripts in English and French. They include the productions of Dracula, Treasure Island and War of the Worlds.
Archibald MacLeish, one of America's leading twentieth century poets, wrote radio plays of exceptional literary quality. Norman Corwin developed a contemporary form for radio verse drama and fused it with the contemporary resonance of world events and American history as it was happening. The working class British playwright Jim Cartwright has written powerfully for radio and so has the new Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. McDonagh's first radio plays were produced by Independent Radio Drama Productions at LBC in London and by ABC in Australia. Simon Beaufoy, the scriptwriter of the hit 1997 movie The Full Monty had his first professional radio drama production in 1992 with the play Saddam's Arms. This play won IRDP's national young playwrights' competition sponsored by the Woolwich Building Society (now PLC). The committed sponsorship of this 'blue chip' financial institution over at least 9 years was a record in commercial funding of British radio arts projects.
Media theorists have generally ignored the subject. As I begin to write this book, I do so with a considerable surge of excitement. I believe that I may well be one of the few writers in the process of marshalling a philosophical vocabulary and critical approach to a 'lost world' of literary expression and dramatic communication. The explorers before me are few and far between, but no less eloquent. In Britain, the most recent significant texts on radio drama were last published in English in 1981 and 1982. They were both called Radio Drama. The first was an edited volume of papers by Peter Lewis. The second was a fully authored book by former Listener critic Ian Rodger who had convened a special Radio Literature conference at Durham University in 1977. Mention should also be made of the volume of essays on British Radio Drama edited by John Drakakis in 1981. The leading text book on writing radio drama, The Way To Write Radio Drama by Bill Ash, is thankfully free of academic jargon, and although published in 1985 has been re-issued in a second edition. It is the only English language text concentrating on writing radio plays.
Radio drama has found another age since these publications. In 1997 Peter M. Lewis (my predecessor at Goldsmiths' College) was tenaciously seeking funds and support for a 'Radio Institute'. He, like many radio scholars, writers, directors and performers, has realised that gross neglect of such a valuable subject is not common to all cultures. Germany possesses a rich and diverse critical tradition and celebration of the radio drama form, but the language barrier means that a wealth of texts is inaccessible to the radio drama communities of the English speaking world. It is also ironic that the most prolific, versatile and comprehensively published critical analyst of British radio drama is the German academic Professor Horst Priessnitz. The only substantial English text exploring German Horspiel is the little known German Library volume German Radio Plays edited by New York University's Everett Frost and Margaret Herzfeld-Sander. The book includes some of the translated scripts used for the Voices International SoundPlay Horspiel series distributed by the Pacifica Programme service in 1991. This is an invaluable resource and entry point for the English speaking world into the tradition of German SoundPlay literature. The plays featured are Wolfgang Borchert's The Outsider, Gunter Eich's Dreams and Don't Go To Al-Kuwaid!, Ingeborg Backmann's The Good God of Manhattan, Peter Handke's Radio Play, Jurgen Becker's Houses and Reinhard Lettau's Breakfast In Miami.
There have been one or two further valuable texts published in North America over the last few years. At Columbia University in 1993, Neil Strauss pulled together extracts from a range of archive and contemporary essays on radio which included a few pages from the forgotten book on radio drama by Rudolf Arnheim, which had been translated by Margaret Ludwig and Herbert Read, and published in only one edition in 1936. The edited volume of avant-garde writings Wireless Imagination- Sound Radio and The Avant-Garde compiled by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead for MIT press in 1992 represents a critical appreciation of more experimental and artistic dimensions to radio drama. The Canadian text Radio Rethink emanating from Alberta's Banff Centre for the Arts, edited by Daina Augaitis and Don Lander, placed the Canadian contributions to sound art firmly on the map in 1994. In 1996 Professor Elissa S Guralnick at the University of Colorado published the most recent serious analysis of British radio dramatists in Sight Unseen and Professor Alan Beck at the University of Kent in Britain published a comprehensive guide and analysis of Radio Acting in June 1997. But if this is the sum total of published critical writing on radio drama in the last 18 years, we have no reason to be impressed by it.
Critical coverage in the newspapers is very marginal. A radio play that enjoys an audience of hundreds of thousands is unlikely to be reviewed at all. Stage plays with audiences that would not number more than a few hundred receive column inches of hyperbole and critical review in broadsheet newspapers.
I have found the research and writing of this book utterly daunting. This is because I have realised that the famine of research cuts across every discipline. There are only a few isolated examples of published cultural, sociological and literary analysis. One of the most impressive is Radio Voices by Professor Michele Hilmes of the Department of Communications at the University of Wisconsin, published in 1997, but restricted to US radio history between 1922 and 1952. Such is the quality and depth of her book, that I am hoping that its success will attract a substantial momentum of interest from Media Studies theorists throughout the world. Over the last thirty years, film and television have become the more fashionable focus of research and debate. These media have sucked in a whirlpool of grants and properly funded research projects. Radio has remained beached on the margins of knowledge and reference. I suspect that the general academic and cultural perception of radio is that of a retired vaudeville artist dressed in the fashion of bygone years and boring a diminishing audience with anecdotes from a golden age of Bakelite and Woodbines.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Radio audiences are growing compared to those of television and film. 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 at LBC in London is introducing full length Internet Plays of the Month.
It would seem that I am preparing an argument that radio drama is subject to some form of cultural discrimination and prejudice determined by greed, snobbery and intellectual arrogance. To some extent there is validity in this polemical assertion. Radio drama itself is not immune to the forces of arrogance and a false belief in cultural superiority. It is paradoxical that some of Britain's most eloquent and conscientious radio critics and radio drama practitioners have succumbed to these time-honoured human weaknesses. This is particularly so when you analyse the attitude of public broadcasters to their colleagues in the commercial arena. Radio drama produced in the harsh competitive environment of market driven radio funded by advertising is sometimes stigmatised as culturally inferior, or 'second class'. But the false perceptions work in the other direction as well. The 'young Turks' of radio drama sometimes exhibit a tendency to debunk and belittle the significant achievements of established production centres. In a desire to run away with the mantle of innovation and the badge of the avant-garde, the value of tradition and experience is undermined.
In the last ten years radio drama has advanced sociologically, culturally, and technologically. I believe the time is right to explore and reappraise the subject. 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. Erik Ohls and the Swedish Radio Theatre in Finland have been pioneering the use of the Internet for the promotion and more meaningful distribution of radio drama as an art form. Distribution of linear sound narrative can interact with lateral channels of sound, text, animation, photographic and video image on the World Wide Web. The Web is also liberating from the point of view of control and means of production. Sound broadcasting and communication on the Internet is not subject to government licensing and censorship. Transmission is instantly stable in the international dimension. The technology is affordable.
Radio drama expression is very much a reflection of the politico-economic story of the twentieth century. Freedom of expression is fiercely controlled in the totalitarian regimes that have sought to influence and control the thinking and beliefs of citizens. The broadcast environment here is state controlled. Radio drama is utilised for propaganda purposes. Intelligent and cunning dictators realise that propaganda works if it is entertaining and floated within a well told story. Nazi Germany used skilful mixtures of popular music and drama to psychologically intimidate Allied troops and civilian populations. They were sometimes aided by American and British fascists who preferred to fight the war in Berlin, rather than London or New York. The American academic Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach used dramatic scripts in overseas English broadcasts to attack the British position in the war. He translated a radio play by Erwin Barth von Wehrenalp called Lightning Action to celebrate the German victory in Norway. Twelve scenes were recorded on 5th April 1941 and the cast included the British film actor Jack Trevor and other ex-patriots. He also satirised Roosevelt's Lease-Lend Bill with a series of dramatic talks called British Disregard for American Rights.
The German actress Gertrud Hahn presented a series Hot Off The Wire where she played the role of a switchboard operator at the Pittsburgh Tribune reading letters from the paper's Berlin correspondent, 'Joe'. In his letters Joe eulogises Nazi achievements and condemns the newspaper's editors who are given Jewish names: 'Rosenbloom and Finelstein'. He says they 'change his wires round and won't tell the truth about Germany.' Another very influential American-German academic Otto Koischwitz originated a series called Dr Anders and Little Margaret where the character Little Margaret is an American girl who comes to Germany to see her grandmother and finds a delightful daily routine of sumptuous meals, plays, songs and general happiness. In May 1944 Koischwitz wrote a doomsday radio play for the D-Day invasion forces and their families at home which was broadcast by shortwave to the United States. The actress Mildred Gillars played the part of a GI's mother who in a tear-stained monologue predicted disaster and grief.
How did the Allied countries respond to the communication of propaganda through the use of radio drama? There are few examples of British and American radio drama which were made with the primary purpose of challenging the venom of anti-Semitism.
The BBC Radio Drama department under the editorship of Lord John Gielgud's brother Val commissioned and produced In The Shadow Of The Swastika which starred Marius Goring in the role of Adolf Hitler. The plot and production offered a humanist challenge to the prejudice engendered by Nazi ideology. The series' strength lay in its use of irony and avoidance of didactic or propagandist explicitness. The drama explored the fate of a Hitler Youth girl whose life is saved by a Jewish surgeon in Berlin. As she drifts into semi-consciousness during anaesthesia she repeatedly mumbles 'kill the Jews' which is overheard by the Jewish doctor who is the only person capable of keeping her alive. He does not flinch from his Hippocratic oath. The BBC establishment, British Ministry of Information, were very uncomfortable confronting the vista of anti-Semitism and no further broadcasts of this serial were permitted and no more productions like it were ever commissioned during the course of the war. BBC Radio Drama challenged German dramatic propaganda by adopting an approach to classical stories and plays which allegorically and metaphorically symbolised Britain's struggle to win the war and defeat 'the dark forces of evil'. Dorothy L Sayer's dramatisation of the life of Christ, The Man Born To Be King, is an example of this genre. The series, directed and produced by Val Gielgud, echoed the turbulent conflict in which the world was then embroiled.
America's radio dramatic response to having to go to war was a production which probably commanded the highest audience for any play broadcast in the history of radio. Norman Corwin's We Hold These Truths was commissioned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Bill of Rights. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 created an extraordinary and powerful focus on this production, because its theme represented the central democratic and libertarian principles of United States nationhood, and reflected its political and cultural identity. Corwin assembled a cast of the country's most famous actors in Hollywood. The voices of James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Brennan, Bob Burns, Walter Huston, Elliott Lewis, Marjorie Main, Edward G Robinson, Rudy Vallee, Orson Welles, and many more were transmitted over the combined networks of CBS, NBC-Red NBC-Blue (later to become ABC) and MBS eight days after the Japanese attack. The audience was also boosted by the national address from President Franklin D Roosevelt after the hour long programme. The audience was at least sixty million. Many of the dramas and drama-documentaries produced by Corwin throughout the war were preoccupied with themes that promoted the Allied cause and challenged the morality of the Axis powers. They included America At War, The Enemy, Concerning Axis Propaganda and the ten part series produced in 1942, An American In England.
In liberal democracies with capitalist economies, radio drama exists if it is a means to profit. This accounts for the huge success of 'soap operas' in American and Australian radio during the 1930s and 1940s. The genre has been given little artistic credence, yet it represented mass communication and popular expression for new writing on an enormous scale. Dramatisations of literature and significant original plays had their place when the profit led radio corporations saw an advantage in prestigious productions impressing commercial sponsors. Sometimes a minority cultural programme such as Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre On The Air pulled off a publicity stunt such as the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. Campbell's Soups could not resist the temptation to sponsor the programme and they did so with considerable funds and enthusiasm.
But spending profits for prestige is not a recipe for stability and growth in the arts. If the capitalist, corporate moguls of the twentieth century became the equivalent of patron princes from the Renaissance Age, they certainly knew how to apply the Machiavellian-style ruthlessness of those princes. As princes they were not immune to impulsive and impetuous decisions that could disable the artist's future. In 1941 Norman Corwin at CBS could find his entire creative culture of radio drama programming destroyed with a one sentence decision taken by an executive who wished to maximise profits by a fraction of a percentage. Corwin's impressive and proven talents had proved too expensive for CBS. After all the awards, all the plaudits and the public praise, his original movement in radio drama had been invalidated on the grounds of cost. CBS executive Douglas Coulter had no words of admiration. He insisted on remaining standing as he said that CBS placed a priority on being more competitive in terms of profit so the expense of producing sustaining drama could not be justified. Commercial subsidy in this area was wholly expedient.
Democracy offers the opportunity for the artistic frisson of dissent, the satirising of authority and the cultivation of a rich field of didactic and iconoclastic writing. Many writers and philosophers assert that this is how you can define the health of a democracy. Whereas the capitalist jungle of commercial radio cannot guarantee a platform for the new play and promote the innovative or subversive art form in radio, public taxation can come to the rescue and underwrite a national cultural identity. Publicly funded national radio networks have been the cultural umbrellas and coaching inns for most of the original radio drama produced in the world and the sound dramatisation of prose and poetry. However, the financial relationship between radio drama production centres and their state funded national radio networks is often clouded by the potential for political compromise and economic expediency.
Economic instability and the political pressure to reduce public expenditure presents hazards of boom and bust fluctuations in investment and production. The radio drama production environment becomes insecure and inconsistent. The pre-requisite for public funding is sometimes predicated on how well state funded radio drama performs in comparison with the audience surveys of its commercial counterparts. BBC Radio Drama has been a casualty of these socio-economic dynamics. The play form for Radio Four has now been limited to one hour. The Script Unit has been abolished, the status of new writing downgraded, and bold and 'dangerous' plays have been ghettoised onto Radio Three which caters for the minority intelligentsia. John Tydeman's outstanding direction and production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in 1993 was placed on Radio Three. Its two and a half hour length would not have been a discredit to Radio Four, which in 1995 studded its Sunday schedule with eight half hour sequences of a surround sound dramatisation of Len Deighton's novel Bomber. Impressive productions of Shakespeare's plays are rarely scheduled on Radio Four and now seem condemned to a form of elitist cloistering on the successor to the Third Programme.
The pressures which liquidated the new dramatist's television studio play in favour of filmed series and serials have been visited on Radio Drama. Economic ideology imported by the current Director-General, John Birt, and multi-million pound surveys produced by outside management consultants have marginalised talented and experienced editors and producers such as John Tydeman, Martin Jenkins, Sean McLaughlin, Jane Morgan and Nigel Bryant. Children's drama, or young story telling sequences have been liquidated. The first Radio Five Network between 1989 and 1994 pioneered a 'young in mind and young at heart' approach to radio drama production. Editor Caroline Raphael introduced new writing and performing voices. The network became an alternative production base for writers and actors, but was then sacrificed on the altar of BBC programming politics. The network made way for a more successful twenty four hour news and sport channel. Caroline Raphael became the Radio Drama Department's first woman editor and she has been followed by the award-winning and innovative Manchester director Kate Rowland.
However, children's drama has not survived. A minority half hour Radio Four slot on Sunday evenings has not been preserved in the new controller's scheduling changes which took effect in April 1998. The death of children's drama on BBC radio is an astonishing failure of public broadcasting philosophy and is in marked contrast to the experience in the USA where independent production companies maintain successful series and broadcast projects on a wide range of station formats. Eva Stenman-Rotstein at the publicly funded Swedish Radio Broadcasting Corporation has steered a series of evolutionary changes to young people's radio drama that has captured a new generation of listeners. Story-telling for children and young people has reinvented itself and 'delivered' audiences.
A further development at the BBC in 1997 saw the Radio Drama Department losing its editorial independence and become a production server to network controllers and commissioning editors whose decisions depend on the expectation of audience building and satisfaction. BBC World Service radio drama has lost its brilliant autonomous production culture. The devaluing of the licence fee has reduced the budgets and consequently the scope for diversity and scale of production. The suffocating market bureaucracy of 'Producer Choice' has meant that the BBC's radio drama directors / producers have to show due consideration for paying for the cost of even one editing razor blade. The same amount of paper work is expended in the ordering of an item of equipment costing one pound as commissioning an established writer to produce a script for five thousand pounds.
It would be wrong to mark the recent changes at the BBC as the start of a snowballing decline of BBC radio drama and the potential extinction of a great tradition. On the 27th of January 1997, BBC Radio Four transmitted a rather simple monologue by Lee Hall performed by the young actress Becky Simpson. The single voiced narrative was interspersed with the simple adroitness of operatic extracts sung by Maria Callas. Spoonface Steinberg was part of a series called God's Country, but the charming, moving and truthful expression of a 7 year old character who was affectionately known as 'Spoonface' because of the shape of her face touched every adult's protective parental instinct and resonated the cruelty of death through the injustice of the child's agony. Spoonface is seven years old, Jewish, autistic, very bright - and terminally ill with cancer. The character presents a dimension of natural courage which we would all wish to find and the depiction of the heroic role in a character so young is in itself a brave step in the genre of dramatic writing. It is the doctor who introduces Spoonface to the passion of opera and she is able to apply her homespun philosophy to the divas who complete their performances with spectacular stage deaths.
It was a rare event indeed for a BBC radio production to stimulate the receipt of hundreds of letters and phone-calls. The one hour production was immediately introduced in bookshops as part of the BBC's Radio cassette Collection and has become a bestseller. The marketing of the anonymous quotation: 'This was the most poignant piece of radio I have heard for years. I am a truck driver and was in tears' may be apocryphal, but the response of Gillian Reynolds in the Daily Telegraph: 'Hall's writing is funny, intense and poetic', Paul Donovan in the Sunday Times 'Inevitably harrowing but also blackly funny' and Sue Arnold in the Observer 'Magnificently performed by 10 year old Becky Simpson' were real enough. It is most unusual for the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, to find a commercial benefit from marketing an original play by a relatively obscure new writer.
The tycoons of capitalist corporate America realised that without the advertisement they would not have been able to conquer US radio. They were able to do so because money was power in a democracy and the money god guaranteed influence in democratic institutions which were content to allow University and educational radio to wither on a rapidly undernourished vine of reduced signal power and biased licence allocation. It cannot be argued that the money god was not generous to radio, but money is a promiscuous phenomenon, particularly when a more attractive and popular electronic medium such as television arrives to seduce and entertain media consumers.
It is intriguing that in the harsher climate of a more competitive advertising market radio did not lose its overall audience. But it did lose a substantial slice of income. Popular radio drama serials have not survived the reduction in economies of scale. Although they are only preserved on publicly funded networks, some have continued to command large popular audiences. But the irony here is that where state radio is only funded by licence fee or direct legislative grant, increasing popularity does not increase income as a performance value. This means that unlike 'hit theatre' productions, successful radio drama cannot attract financial investment through artistic, critical and audience success.
Original radio drama thrived in Canada because the government had decided to support public radio through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Canadian radio drama experienced a golden age of literary and dramatic expression in the1940s, 50s and 60s. In the USA it began to die. It has been revived with a certain amount of artistic and entrepreneurial panache and isolated examples of high audience commercial success. But the seedbed of funding has shifted from the multi-million pound advertising budgets of soap, wine and tobacco companies to listener subscriptions, charitable foundations and grants from Congress administered through National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. Meanwhile Canadian radio drama has been re-inventing itself in the public and private sectors. CBC has maintained an imaginative and flexible approach to international co-production. Director James Roy helped originate the 1996 co-produced series Searching Paradise between CBC in Toronto, ABC in Perth and BBC Wales in Cardiff. He also pioneered the introduction of The Diamond Lane, a lively modern soap drama sitting comfortably with CBC's peak time morning format. Live performances of actors as commuters travelling to work using a freeway lane reserved for vehicles containing three or more passengers interacts with the on air presenters in the studio. The CBC drama editor Damiano Pietropaolo has energised and modernised the content and style of Canadian radio drama to reflect the country's increasing multi-cultural identity. He had been an academic who had been turned down for a place on a radio production workshop hosted in Toronto by the visiting deputy head of BBC radio drama. Somebody whom the BBC did not recognise, was recruited and cherished by the CBC. Canadian cultural identity benefited when he questioned the use of Canadian public funding to acquire and broadcast British radio plays. His tactics have achieved a fair and fruitful exchange of radio plays between English speaking cultures. This means that the radio listener in Britain has the opportunity of hearing the award-winning CBC production Mourning Dove as well as plays from New Zealand, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Australia and South Africa. He has been a leading figure in the development of the English Speaking Radio Drama Association.
During the 1980s musician and commercial production director Jeff Green pioneered an original science fiction approach to popular radio drama production for music format radio in Ottawa. It would not be wrong to compare his Spaxter series to the style and imaginative mystery of the hit television series The X Files. His willingness to embrace and experiment with new technology means his work has a powerful presence on the Internet. His track record shows that radio drama in Canada is not the qualitative preserve of the public broadcasters. His award-winning production Somebody Talking To You was also broadcast on London's LBC radio in 1990.
Elsewhere in the world the story is equally dramatic. In France radio drama has not been threatened by political or economic ideology and continues to embrace innovation as well as the celebration of French literary culture. The number of hours devoted to 'fiction radiophonique' by Radio France remained stable in the ten year period between 1987 and 1996. In 1996 France Culture transmitted 358 hours of radio drama production including tales for children, single plays and serials, radio production of new contemporary theatre plays and narrated short stories.
Swedish public radio has discovered new story telling forms to find the new generation of radio drama listeners. The dramaturges at Swedish Radio have cleverly propelled radio drama into the mainstream of artistic and cultural debate by creating a five minute soap opera which is transmitted within the peak listening morning slot between 7.50 and 8 a.m.
At this point it is necessary to acknowledge that up until now I have probably only scratched the surface in my review of the overall context of world radio drama. I have omitted the work of Asian, African and Latin American cultures.
It would appear that this failure is present in all radio drama research and criticism of the subject in the English speaking world. I intend to do my best to redress these omissions.
It can therefore be argued that the most substantial failure in the scholarly and practical approach to the art of audio-drama has not necessarily been the academic and cultural neglect of the subject. The problem lies in the perpetuation of a cultural apartheid based, I believe, on a subconscious and explicit belief in national or racial superiority. I have no doubt that there is a Western imperialist dominance of the subject and the way it has been represented in English speaking countries and to a lesser extent at international festivals. The literary and dramatic traditions of African, Arabic and Asian countries are virtually unknown in Europe, North America and other English speaking countries. I also find it fundamentally disturbing that gestures at mounting 'Asian' and 'African' seasons of radio plays are controlled and culturally determined by people distant from and unfamiliar with these cultures.
'Multi-culturalism' has become a somewhat fashionable cachet in the context of artistic celebration, but history is not being rewritten and reappraised by those whose work has been ignored and patronised. The filtering of representation is almost as unacceptable as the absence of any representation at all.
The cultural racism inherent in the practice and study of radio drama is also the product of racist structures of education, imperialist history and contemporary stereotyping of other countries' political, industrial, social and cultural values. There is an extraordinary delusion that western industrialised countries have a function to export the education of a media practice which goes beyond the sharing of technology and involves the distortion and editing of artistic content.
It is intriguing that in the early 1990s the Television and Radio Writers' Association of Japan set up and ran an international award called the 'Morishige Audio Drama Contest'. Over a period of four years productions were entered from all parts of the world and were given equal treatment. The representation in this competition revealed a thriving and comprehensive infrastructure of radio drama practice and tradition from African and Asian countries which had never been as well represented in European dominated international competitions and festivals.
The Television and Radio Writers' Association has around 900 freelance writer / members and set up the award to stimulate the support of radio drama within the domestic and international radio industry. It also sought to make 'a contribution to cultural exchange'. The Morishige Award succeeded in its second objective. The first objective foundered on the lack of funds to continue the contest. The Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union also seeks to encourage cultural celebration and exchange.
In 1993 the Morishige selection committee were in the position to consider three plays entered by the State broadcasting system NHK, based in Tokyo and Nagoya, and further entries from Kyushi Asahi Broadcasting Company, Tokyo-FM Broadcasting Company, the Tokyo Broadcasting system, and Nippon Cultural Broadcasting Inc. These plays demonstrated a fertile and competitive field of audio play production in both publicly funded and commercial sectors of the industry. In my opinion the quality of writing, performance and production was more than equal to any sample of plays I have attempted to select from BBC and commercial producers in the UK produced at this time. The narrative ideas underpinning Japanese plays were rooted in the imaginative power of the sound dimension in story telling.
Nippon Cultural Broadcasting's All Blossoms Are Showering Upon You by Michiko Takamura featured the young grandson of an old landlady who lives in an apartment building dominated by the high-rise blocks of the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. The boy's melancholic attitude to school is highlighted by his tendency to play computer game all day. Having had an inspiring meeting with a retired veteran of radio who regales him with nostalgic stories of radio programmes from the past, the boy finds an old radio in the second floor apartment and when switching it on finds himself sucked into a time travelling adventure which places him in the days after World War Two and the childhood of his parents.
The NHK, Tokyo production of 'Mr Colman' by Ryuth Tachihara investigates the problem of how to live one's old age in a society where more and more people are reaching old age and staying alive for longer. The central characters are a 90 year old mother and her 60 year old daughter, performed with delicacy and pathos. Both mother and daughter are widowed and the play begins with their excitement at inviting to dinner an old actor who resembles the late Ronald Colman.
Kyushi Asahi Broadcasting produced an allegorical story called Walk Into The Woods using extracts from a published essay by the writer Aya Koda who celebrates a love of trees. The play, written by Kazue Morisaki depicts the everyday life of a professional working couple with a son too young to go to school. It is layered with memories of the wife's late father who used to work in the forestry business. The play serves to communicate awe and respect for trees as a natural and spiritual phenomenon, misgivings about the destruction of the forest, and hope for a symbiosis of man and trees.
The Morishige jurors appeared to demonstrate a greater severity of criticism of the plays submitted by broadcast organisations from their own country. They highlighted the problem of 'contrived endings', a script which 'seemed rather monotonous and lacking in impact', another script 'with serious faults in the structure' and they made the observation in relation to another production that 'too much attention has been given to technical excellence at the expense of revelations about the main character's inner struggle' This observation, in my opinion, could be applied to many modern plays produced throughout the world.
There were two productions submitted in 1993 which were rooted in Japanese contemporary and historical culture. D.Q. by Yuhko Takagishi and produced by NHK in Nagoya explored the theme of loneliness and solitude in the modern urban environment which spawns a method of telephone companionship unique to Japan. The plot centres on the disappearance of a young man who has left a message on his brother's answer machine. His brother tries to track him down and discovers that he was a regular caller on the Dial Q2 Party line, a system which allows subscribers to talk to several people at the same time. The brother joins the party line service himself and becomes drawn into a strange community of young people dominated by the mysterious voice of a young woman who only reads stories while everyone is engaged in conversation.
Cherry Blossom Fantasy by Yshiko Iwasaki and Hideo Takeuchi and produced by the Tokyo-FM Broadcasting Company is an exciting allegory which appears to explore the social history of Japan at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. The writers use the fifteenth century period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and surrealistic fantasy to dramatise the agony of a society which closed itself to the rest of the world and in the throes of fin de siècle decadence created a breeding ground for tyranny. The central character is a middle aged actor drifting into inebriated subconsciousness during a cherry blossom viewing. In his dream, he finds himself in the uniform of a medieval Japanese warrior in the defeated Southern Dynasty army. He finds a mountain where the cherry blossoms are in full bloom and decides that this is a suitable place to lay down his life. But suddenly a fantastic paradise opens up before him. The inhabitants of this Arcadian world make him their 'chief' because he is in possession of a clock brought into Japan by the early European traders. His newly found tribe have become weary of their pleasure-filled existence. His determination to enforce a strict concept of time in this hedonistic community develops into tyranny. Rebellion and starvation lead to the destruction of their society. The play ends with the corpses of the warrior and his subjects lying on the slopes of the mountain.
The Korean Broadcasting System's entry for the 1993 Morishige Prize was The Angel's Curse written by Choi Jae-Do, a superbly directed play by Cho Won-Suk - KBS's Chief Producer of radio drama and an accomplished stage dramatist in his own right. The plot was magical and made full use of the imaginative resonance of the medium. A young man returns from military service and receives a visit from a strange boy one winter's night. The boy starts talking about his love for an angel-like girl, and this stirs the memory for the young man of a secret love he had cherished for fifteen years. But the focus of his passion had gone away to get married and his life had been full of despair since then. The young man and the strange boy enthusiastically talk about the unrequited love of their lives until the young man realises that the boy in front of him is as he was fifteen years before. The idea of meeting oneself across time is brilliant and the production values outstanding. The director Cho Won-Suk also directed Judgment which won the Grand Prix in the Asian Broadcasting Union Awards of 1996. Like Japan, Korea has a thriving broadcast dramatists' association with five hundred members who are also established poets, novelists and stage playwrights. Korean radio drama can draw upon a profession of four hundred actors. KBS produces two hundred or more single plays every year. New writers for radio are continually being brought on through special competitions and the commercial broadcasting corporations produce 30 new radio dramatists every year in this way. KBS is using the Internet to transmit radio plays.
There is also an important tradition of radio drama production and broadcast in China. Director Zheng Shuqin produces work of note at the People's Broadcasting station in Harbin, and Kong Xiangyu has a centre of production in Shanghai. Director B. Baatar produces radio drama for Mongolian Radio and one of the leading All India Radio directors is Kamal Dutt. There are production centres in Hong Kong where radio plays are broadcast in Chinese and English.
Other centres with a long tradition of radio drama production include SABC in South Africa, Middle East Radio in Cairo, Egypt, Radio Uganda in Kampala, and the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC's African Service, based at Bush House in London has been responsible for commissioning and producing a wealth of African poets, novelists, story tellers and dramatists and its track record going back decades has been devoid of any critical appreciation.
In recent years it is possible to identify two further revolutionary developments in the basic approach and philosophy of audio or radio drama conception, creation and presentation. The Pacifica radio station in New York, WBAI, has been the arena for an extraordinary development in the art of the live community radio play. The key figure in this new movement is a veritable Orson Welles of the 1990s. Anthony J Sloan, WBAI's Arts Director Emeritus, is a name that does not resonate in the corridors of international radio drama conferences or festivals. It is time that it did. The critical neglect which he appears to take in his stride may have a lot to do with the residual racism that Afro-Americans have had to contend with in their own history and the continued marginalisation of Asian and African literature, oral tradition and story telling culture in Western societies.
Anthony Sloan initiated and developed WBAI's tradition of live radio drama from 1986. He explained: 'Most people did taped drama because it's safer. BBC does radio drama every day, but it's canned. I like live radio drama because the adrenalin flows for the actors. They know that not only is this live, but guess what, it's only one-time. You get some incredible performances'.
But the innovation of this driven, highly educated and resourceful cultural programme maker is much more extensive. Anthony Sloan has covered powerful themes.He has marshalled the power of America's outstanding actors, writers, and musicians to create a series of media pageants which have occupied the streets of New York, the studios of WBAI, the satellite frequency of Pacifica Network programming and the World Wide Web with orchestras of musical, dramatic, and acoustic artistic expression fused by captivating, bold narratives. The productions are not short half hour or one hour sequences. They span five and a half hours of air-time. Philosophically challenging, politically controversial, intellectually stimulating, emotionally enervating dimensions of communication combine with complex sound production techniques and live, physically moving performances on the sidewalks of the Lower East Side, and other landmarks in the urban geography of New York City.
I have not found any audio drama practitioner in the world who has been able to match this standard of artistic courage, creative originality and dramatic accomplishment. The excitement of Anthony Sloan's experiments at WBAI, which he is taking to Central and South America and then on to Africa in a personal odyssey of cultural evangelism, confirms that radio drama has an assured future. I attended a weekly workshop in the lower East Side in June 1994 where Anthony Sloan encouraged an open access of writers, poets, and performers to present and exchange their work. A live, weekly soap opera was workshopped and rehearsed. Participants were encouraged to introduce and perform new parts. The grassroots dimension of his work is a significant indicator of how radio drama can strengthen its identity and cultural value with its audience. There needs to be an exchange of energy and ideas and this cannot be achieved by remaining in the studio, editing and producing commissioned manuscripts.
The WBAI radio drama repertoire has not been restricted to promoting African-American writing, although The Leaving(s) Project transmitted on the night of January 26th 1996 effectively served this purpose. The five and a half hour project comprised of two story telling events. Both were live. The first consisted of Larry Neal's seminal play The Glorious Monster In The Bell of The Horn presented before a live audience at the New Knitting Factory in the Tribeca section of Manhattan. The play was structured in the style of the epic opera of the Brothers Grimm's Peter And The Wolf where characters are identified by musical instruments. Then the multimedia event blossomed into 'a journey piece' from different locations of the New York metropolitan area. There were six different groups of characters leaving New York for various reasons who were forced to deal with personal crises on their way to an Amtrak train at New York's Penn Station. Their interweaving storylines highlighted current social, political, spiritual and artistic issues. All the disparate journeys were acted out live to moving microphones on location and culminated in a dramatic finale at Penn station. The realistic acoustic and geographical context of the event is indicated by the fact that the fictional characters intended to board the 3.45 am 'Amtrak red-eye' service leaving New York which was actually waiting to leave one of the platforms at the end of the broadcast. There is no evidence that any other broadcaster in the world has attempted such a wide-ranging experiment in traditional and futuristic live audio drama production. The event which began at 10 pm on the Friday night continued until 3.45 the following morning. It could be heard in stereo on WBAI 99.5 FM, was distributed by satellite to 360 community radio stations and could be heard nationally and internationally on the World Wide Web.
The Austrian state broadcasting service ORF has recently established an interactivity relationship with listeners on the Internet. The four minute avant-garde sitcom series, Familie Aver (The Aver Family) has a home page where listeners can suggest new plots. Some radio drama producers are experimenting with listeners using the Internet to write and develop the plots of series and serials.
The Glorious Monster In The Bell of The Horn play and Leaving(s) project have been amongst eleven live radio drama events presented at WBAI. They have included The Night Racism Ended by the Creative Unity Collective in 1986, Richard Wright's The Long Dream and Mary Hyman's The People Who Killed King in 1988 and live sound dramatisations of twentieth century classics such as George Orwell's Animal Farm in 1991, Carlo Colodi's Pinocchio in 1993 and Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass in 1992. The socio-economic significance of this track record is that the projects have been funded in a completely different context to traditional state radio drama departments and commercial networks. WBAI is one of the Pacifica network stations which depends on listener subscription and federal, state and charitable foundation grants for its financial existence. The WBAI live radio drama genre has attracted awards from the US National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York State Council on the Arts and the Paul Robeson Fund. But the primary source of income is the democratic financial support from the station's listeners which is advanced in a voluntary process during 'pledge weeks' when the station staff appeal for membership fees and donations.
Another significant movement in audio-dramatic presentation has been the continuing experimentation with improvised performance which is both live and pre-recorded. Directors leading these experiments have been seeking to liberate the existence of radio drama communication from pre-determined text on the page. There is a desire to capture the spontaneous realism, and truth of human surprise that can be stimulated by improvisation. When the context has been well researched, this developing method of radio drama expression can achieve a refreshing style of production and generate an immediacy of emotional experience on the part of the actor and the listener.
Radio Suisse Romande La Première has established success with 'Bergamote', an improvised radio drama series transmitted on Sunday mornings since the beginning of 1996. The producer / director Claude Blanc sets up a framework and plot for each programme so that the actors are aware of their backgrounds, and their objectives in each scene. The dialogues are never written out fully as text. The central characters Monique and Roger share the improvised and apparently spontaneous experience of their lives with the listeners in the fitness gym, in the bedroom, unemployment office or hospital.
The production team underlines the search for realism by recording on location. Increasing and sustained listening figures demonstrate that the concept works. It represents a modern form of radio fiction. The episode transmitted on the 23rd February 1997 served to stimulate public debate over organ donation. It was recorded in the intensive care unit of the Vaudio Hospital Centre in Lausanne. Actors Claude-Inga Barbey and Patrick Lapp begin with a traditional 'couple's row'. The character Monique accuses her husband Roger of having an affair. She wants him to leave, which he does in a fury. Scene two cuts to the intensive care unit of the hospital. Monique has discovered that after a road traffic accident, Roger is in a deep coma and he cannot respond to sight, sound or touch. In scene three, a doctor, played by Daniel Rausis, breaks the news that Roger is brain dead. He wants her agreement to use some of her husband's organs for transplant. The drama unfolds over twenty minutes. The performances are convincing. The dramatic values of the play are achieved through the cadences and rhythm of improvised dialogue rather than performance derived from heightened text.
The success of this work is corroborated by the fact that the recording is now used in the training of medical students.
Yves Ferry's audio drama Getting It Over With for Radio France represents a story told with greater depth and on a larger canvas using improvised performance. It was recorded like a film, entirely on location. The production, directed by Claude Guerre, was a very brave attempt to breathe new life into radio fiction. But unlike a film production there was no screenplay. Yves Ferry had defined the characters, the action, and situation. The plot was centred around an actress, Albertine, who is separated from the father of her child, Marcel. Marcel is directing her in a classical theatre production while in her private life she travels through ironic and destructive relationships.
Claude Guerre defined the direction, but the cast created the dialogue using their own intellectual and emotional resources. The language of the characters has an idiomatic and realistic attitude which is generally lacking in text-based drama. Filmic and location style recording techniques in sound drama are now becoming rather fashionable. It can be argued that the realistic physical environment helps to psychologically root the actors in a truthful mental ambience. However, this production, broadcast on November 9th 1996, is burdened by a lack of narrative focus.
The lack of clarity, in my opinion, cannot be rescued by the courage and creativity of the conceptual author, sound designer, director and actors. The sophistication of this production points to an intensity of artistic commitment and experimentation by a distinguished public broadcaster. Some might classify this attempt as an heroic failure. But it is more than likely that further experimentation will produce a narrative that works for listeners, and the drama department at Radio France headed by Christine Bernard-Sugy should be recognised for their skill and boldness in supporting this style of production.
Further experimentation in radio in recent years has been achieved on the borderlands of illusion and reality, fiction and non fiction. It is somewhat intriguing that the work has been carried out on popular, entertainment channels by people who would not be recognised as 'dramaturges' or 'audio drama auteurs'. This work is characterised by exploiting the high wire tension of psychological manipulation. We are now in the realms of spoof, hoax, and live comedy blurring the boundaries of good taste and decency, and generating confusion for an audience which thought it could confidently define the integrity of a communication.
In the safer confines of pre-produced radio drama we can find an exhilarating experiment which attacks and transposes the frontier dividing drama and documentary. Lance Dann's Ho, Ho, The Clown Is Dead, broadcast by BBC Radio Three in 1995, juggled circus style the documentary definition of the lives of real clowns with the fictional narrative and feelings of a dramatic character brought to life by the actor, Ken Cameron. The deceit is creative and rather charming. The listener can be persuaded that documentary interviews about clowns that had died do refer to the fictional narrative voice. Similarly the listener can also be persuaded that the central character is commenting on and responding to the attitudes, platitudes and emotions of the interviewees. Does it matter that the listener is not directed on the dividing line between reality and illusion? We can begin to find answers to this question when we seek to analyse further the psychological power of radio communication and narrative.
Tim's book, RADIO DRAMA, is published by Routledge. The content of this web page is copyright but is free for educational use, provided the source is properly credited. This web page is an article which Tim wrote while researching the book and is not included in the book itself.