Decades a lurker, radio drama comes back as a podcast.
Apr 27 2017
To adapt a famous radio program intro, “Who knows what imagination lurks in the minds of humankind?” Without a shadow of a doubt, the listeners of radio dramas knew. And now, so do podcast listeners. The heyday of radio drama gave way to television drama, but the genre never entirely died. It survived here and there — on radio, records, on-stage and the Internet – till now it has been coming back, in a big way.
Well, bigger. And it’s growing. It’s GROWING! We mean, it’s (SFX: EXPLOSION)…
In the 1960’s there was radio’s Firesign Theater, a comedy troupe delivering sophisticated absurdity on Los Angles radio stations, in an improvisational style but very carefully scripted. By the mid-’70s, Firesign’s four original performers had gone their own ways, but they also stuck together, performing on records and on stage now and then, in various formats, as recently as 2011.
In the early 1980’s, National Public Radio serially broadcast at least two of the first Star Wars stories, with their scripts greatly expanded to suit the extra available time, and in many ways even more vividly imagined. (For example, there was more character development and backstory, while the torture and garbage bin scenes were as gruesome as the listener’s imagination will allow.)
At the same time, Bob and Ray were on the radio, with their own brand of radio “drama” in the form of short skits about the loony family of “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife.” (The title itself was a play on an old radio program about marriage amid the footlights, called “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife.”)
Also about that time, Garrison Keillor was introducing America to Lake Wobegon and other dramatic characters residing on “The Prairie Home Companion.” Keillor has retired, but the program continues to feature radio dramas, complete with live sound effects, using techniques still very much alive in the film industry’s Foley studios.
But we can’t all be Bob, Ray or Garrison, so there’s limited work to be had of that sort on the radio. Right?
That might be changing. You no longer need a giant radio station or clear broadcast channel to become a drama queen or king. This is the podcast era, where audio drama has been growing stronger for years.
Even sponsors are back. GE has been backing podcasts for several years. In 2015, they sponsored a series, produced by Panoply, called “The message.” With 5 million downloads, it topped the iTunes chart. In 2016, the team followed up with an even more popular series, called “LifeAfter” (the plot of which is about a podcaster). And as in Olden Days, the podcast was developed in collaboration with an ad agency (BBDO).
SAG-AFTRA has also gotten into the game. Or rather, is back in the game in a limited way. Since 2009, when actor David Westberg founded a performance group under AFTRA’s Seniors’ Committee, the union has presented more than 40 recreations of old radio scripts. Intended both as a tribute to older actors who worked in the form’s heyday, and as an educational event for younger actors and the audience, it gives new voice actors a chance to learn the art. Audio drama calls for its players to have excellent elasticity and versatility. These productions also include producing and acting with live, Foley-style sound effects.
The bad news is that these SAG-AFTRA productions are heard only by the LA audiences present at the performance. So far, contractual concerns have complicated the union’s desire to record and make them more widely available.
But the skills persist. Here are some places that actors are able to use them.
Notable dramatic podcasts:
- “The Truth” is an early anthology series that debuted in 2012. The acting is naturalistic, but recent storyline is rather surreal.
- “Welcome to Night Vale” is another early entry. It features a narrator rather than dialog, in what’s been called a “bizarre storytelling form.”
- “Limetown” launched in 2015. It’s about a fictional reporter with (equally fictional?) American Public Radio, but it’s a podcast, not a radio program. Reviews have compared it to The Message, and Limetown has been similarly popular at iTunes.
- “LifeAfter” the second series produced by Panoply and GE Podcast Theater, which they launched late in 2016.
- “The Message” is kin to “General Electric Theater” in the golden days of television. Will this someday be referred to as the “golden days of podcasting”? If so, what will have changed or emerged by then?
- “Alice Isn’t Dead” emerged to haunt 2015. Fantastical, but definitely not a comedy.
- “The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air)” features a multi-person cast, and well-known guest stars Tim Robbins and Mandy Patinkin.
- “A Night Called Tomorrow,” available only through Howl, a collection of content for $4.99 a month.
- “Fruit” is also on Howl, but previews and at least some episodes are available elsewhere.
- “Homecoming” is a “psychological thriller” cast with A-list actors. Now you know what voice actors like Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, David Cross, and Amy Sedaris have been doing lately.
- “Serendipity” is called “a preview of audio drama’s future” by the New York Times. It presents audio fiction gathered worldwide.
Eleven Fiction Podcasts Worth a Listen. By Amanda Hess. Nov 11, 2016
LifeAfter: Creators of GE’s New Audio Drama Podcast Talk Reviving a Dead Art. By Joshua Dudley. Nov 29, 2016
Fiction Podcasts Are Trying Too Hard to Be Like Serial. By K.M. McFarland, Wired. October 29, 2015.
SAG-AFTRA Radio Plays.
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