wetware: Will the Internet bring Audio Drama back from the dead?

By Michael O. Powell

From the period of the 1920s into the onslaught of television in the 1950s, radio was the dominant outlet for entertainment and news throughout the Western world. When Pearl Harbor hit, it was through radio that most Americans received news of the attack by Japanese forces on the Hawaiian naval base in 1941. Likewise, dissidents and sympathizers of the Allies within Nazi-occupied territories would listen to BBC broadcasts (as current pope Joseph Ratzinger did with his father and older brother).

During that period, news was not all that radio provided. Radio dramas and comedies flourished. The bulk of Orson Welles can be heard through his radio broadcasts, from the infamous 'War of the Worlds' to the chilling tale of 'The Hitchhiker'. Radio was (and still is) a natural place for the adaptation of literature, allowing it to come alive while still keeping a demand on the imagination and intelligence of the listener.

While the medium was extraordinarily popular in the United States, it pretty much died away after television came to town. All the popular shows, such as 'The Lone Ranger' and 'The Jack Benny Show' were turned into television shows. The medium lived on in Europe, but was left to the memory of senior citizens in the US.

In Great Britain, the medium never went away. While American networks abandoned it, the BBC decided to keep it going. As a result, a lot of great stories came out of that outlet. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Mighty Boosh and Red Dwarf started off on the radio before launching into successful enterprises in other formats. Throughout the last few decades, the BBC has produced thousands of episodes, ranging from adaptations of famous books to the continuation of soap operas like The Archers, which has been broadcast since 1950. Shows for radio are very inexpensive to produce in comparison with television, and can provide a good launching pad for new writers and actors.

As podcasts and web broadcasting have flourished over the last decade, the dead zone of radio drama in the US may start to breathe life again. Whereas non-music radio was relegated previously to AM talk radio hosts and public radio, shows can now be produced by anyone with the gall to do it and distributed to a potential global audience. This gives a better chance of revival in the medium in North America than at any time since the late 1950s. 'If anything's to happen with radio drama in this country, its in the hands of the independents', Frederick Greenhalgh, creator of the podcast Radio Show Revival! said, 'none of whom have time, money or millions of listeners, but the web at least gives us a little more of an ice cube's hope in hell.'

The problem with reaching American audiences lies in the fact that only a few geeks even know what audio drama is. Greenhalgh adds, 'Listeners won't tune in to radio drama because they don't know what it is. Listeners don't know what it is because nobody plays it. And the vicious cycle only continues. With so many bombs and political upheavals in the world, it's only a miniature tragedy, but it's a damn shame nonetheless.'

Audiobooks remain popular, with sites iTunes and selling books online for often the same price as print editions. Greenhalgh adds, 'The best hope of audio drama's revival, in my mind, is to tap into audiences from the audiobook world, and to bring in top, name authors, and maybe even known voices to the productions. Once listeners hear great audio drama, I'm convinced they'll want to hear more.'

We'll see what happens.

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