The Erosion of Radio Drama
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Credit: Alessandro Cerino
BBC R4 Woman's Hour presenter, Emma Barnett, recently announced with great gusto, the extension of her programme by the network by 15 minutes, effective from 17th May 2021.
Up in arms
Many have bemoaned this current state of affairs, including long time radio critic Gillian Reynolds, last week on Front Row as well as the writer, Martin Jameson.
On his excellent Ninja Marmoset blog, Jameson points out that these cuts signal ‘the loss of over 250 fifteen minute dramas – equivalent to sixty-four hours of commissioning – mainly of original work, which have been incorporated into the programme since 1998…(meaning) work now lost for hundreds of actors, technicians, producers, directors.’
A launchpad for many
Both Jameson and Reynolds highlight the role of local radio as a traditional entry point for brand new talent. Many of us cut our teeth on local radio. With the commercial sector centralising much of their output over recent years, closing down local radio stations one by one, it seems the opportunities for emerging talent have drastically reduced. Jameson also reminds us that BBC radio drama has long been upheld as the ‘gold standard’ of the art form and calls the erosion of radio drama today as ‘critical’.
Here today, gone tomorrow
So are we set to lose the genre for good? There is much fanfare around today’s golden age of audio, and some critics argue that radio drama is falling by the wayside. Others believe audience tastes are, in fact, changing. Today’s listeners no longer want the radio dramas of old and are turning to other, more exciting forms of audio, such as podcasts.
We asked Dr Lance Dann, Senior Lecturer in Audio and Digital Media at Brighton University and multi-awarding winning radio drama and podcast producer, what he thinks of the ongoing debate:
Lance, you've been involved in UK radio drama for a long time. Tell us how the landscape has changed?
Internationally, the field of audio drama has really opened up in the last decade and is in a period of rapid growth. In America, you have an indie podcast drama (or Audio Fiction) scene of creators making works for themselves and finding ways to fund projects through interactions with their audiences. In the last two years, the appearance of a number of West Coast-based audio drama companies have been producing high budget works drawing in star names and large audiences. Finally, the Americans understand that audio drama is a 'thing', realising that it's a fantastic way to create stories and engage audiences without the budgets involved in TV and cinema.
What do you think of the BBC's announcement to extend Woman's Hour, cutting Afternoon Drama by 15 mins?
The BBC have had their budgets cut - radio drama is expensive compared to other forms of audio content (i.e. two people sat in front of mics chatting), and so they're pruning back the slots in the radio 4 schedule - just at the time when the field is growing. It's terrible timing. The space for new talent to be tested, for audiences to be engaged, and for drama to have a chance to breathe is being reduced when they should proudly be building on their reputation and expanding.
What are the wider implications for the industry?
In the UK, the Indie scene is growing but is more influenced by the BBC, who have monopolised radio drama for nearly a century. They have defined its form, what it sounds like, and who the audience is. In America, you have these very young, very diverse, and very vibrant productions aimed at younger audiences, whilst in the UK, there is an association with Radio 4 and their older audiences (whom they are extremely good at serving). The BBC is not picking up on the talent out there in the UK's audio fiction scene - people who understand the medium, understand its requirements and have also learned their craft.
What's happening to audiences? Does the form no longer turn us on?
The producers and writers of shows like Wooden Overcoats, The Magnus Archives, or Victoriocity have created hundreds of hours of content - they've done their Gladwellian 10,000 hours – and have garnered huge audiences in exactly the demographics BBC Sounds should be trying to attract, and they aren't being given shows. If you look at the background of hugely successful radio comedies like On The Hour, League of Gentlemen, Flight of the Conchords etc., they were given shows young, established themselves (often in Fringe Comedy) and became hugely successful. The fringe of audio is not to be found in theatre or comedy so much these days - it's in the Indie podcast scene, which the BBC is ignoring.
Can new writing and opportunities for up-and-coming talent only be serviced by the BBC? What about podcasts and other networks?
The problem is less about where up and coming talent can learn their craft and gain opportunities - because there are so many outlets and means to produce work - but more about where they go after they've established themselves. The networks, the BBC, and the big producers are conservative and risk-averse, calling on established talent (often from other media). Twenty years ago, the problem with audio drama was that there was the BBC and no means for people to learn their craft (like having West End theatre but no Fringe). Now things are reversed, there is a burgeoning fringe scene, but opportunities to properly fund projects are extremely limited.
Do you think creatives will find a way to keep radio drama alive if the BBC continues to slash its radio drama output? How?
There are new models of funding audio drama opening up, and the launch of easily accessible subscription services on Apple could help pay for work. Producing a show that manages to be fiscally sustainable takes a huge amount of talent, hard work, and a fair old slice of luck - but people are doing it. People will be producing work, and audio drama will continue to grow and evolve. Maybe the BBC will be less important. It did its work between 1945 and 2010, keeping the form alive. Perhaps it needs to recognise its strengths and appreciate what it's good at (i.e. producing full-cast dramas for older demographics) whilst also finding ways to support the exciting generation of creators bursting with ideas and vision.
What do you think? Want more BBC radio drama slots or happy to see it reduced and listen to bigger budget podcasts? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for chit chat.