The resurgence of audio drama
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This weekend, the second part of John Dryden’s sumptuous adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance (1995) airs on BBC Radio 4. Recorded on location near Mumbai with an Indian cast, its dense collage of street noise, music and fragments of television reports will be keenly followed on iPlayer by a young US producer, Fred Greenhalgh.
A few years ago, Greenhalgh worked alongside Dryden to record another India-set thriller, Severed Threads, and it left a lasting impression. “I was intrigued by how Dryden directed. I thought, ‘You’ve got this BBC budget yet you reject all that studio stuff and get out there and record outside.’ It’s not just the acoustic; it’s the sense of intimacy with the actors. I adore it.”
This US-British encounter resonates all the more these days since, on both sides of the Atlantic, audio drama finds itself in interesting times.
Stateside, the podcast renaissance — crowned by the runaway success of the non-fiction true-crime story Serial — is also seeing a boom in audio drama. Financed by advertising, podcast distributors are seeing record numbers of drama downloads, such as Jonathan Mitchell’s series of quirky standalone vignettes, The Truth.
All of which points to blooming audio health in the US and, indeed, in Britain, where BBC radio dramas still pull in a weekly audience of 6.7m. The challenges faced by both radio cultures seem, however, almost diametrically opposed. As Greenhalgh puts it: “In the US, we have almost no overall organisation; we’re scattered, always looking for backing to get a drama off the ground.” The BBC, on the other hand, as the biggest audio drama producer in the world is facing questions over how to be more flexible with new formats and lengths, and how to stoke the audio appetite among younger listeners. Elsewhere in Europe, other public broadcasters strive to keep the flame of audio drama alive: Ireland’s RTÉ, for example, whose Sunday evening slot showcases new work, or Norway’s NRK, which has a long tradition of well-made, popular detective series. “Our audiences are solid,” says NRK producer Ingvald Garbo, “but younger listeners aren’t tuning in, and we must find new ways to engage them.”
As the search for those new audiences goes on, other publicly produced radio drama has gone under. This was the case for Canada’s CBC, which in 2012 axed its radio-drama budget. Nostalgic Canadian pundits lionise what they see as the enlightened, licence fee-funded BBC model yet, as writer and veteran radio-drama analyst Laurence Raw comments, many creatives now want to produce such drama outside the big public bodies. “The BBC is not the be-all and end-all,” Raw argues. “The independent drama sector is finding alternative modes of creating and producing.”
South of the Canadian border, that is just what is happening. For Johanna Zorn, executive director of Third Coast International Audio Festival, audio storytelling in the US “is in a wild west moment”. Chicago-based Third Coast curates a collection of 15,000 podcasts from all over the English-speaking world. Zorn, a self-proclaimed “podcast evangelist”, talks of her growing excitement at seeing audio culture take off.
“There were these once-dead hours where you were driving or in the kitchen, and now people are filling them, listening to audio stories, fiction or non-fiction,” she says. “Serial only confirmed to a wider public this surge of talent and interest that we’ve seen building.”
To feed that demand, Zorn says, US producers have had to be “scrappy” and entrepreneurial, building up podcast networks such as Radiotopia, funded by advertising. “Once, you used to have to knock at the door of a public radio station but internet and smartphones mean we can leap over them now.”
While Third Coast mainly carries non-fiction material, in New York, teacher and radio producer Ann Heppermann is planning a similar platform for audio drama, to launch in June. The project, centred around an audio fiction award, will be “a revolution”, Heppermann confidently predicts. “Audio fiction is being made all over the US but this project can finally offer one home for all these products.”
Heppermann is also an editorial adviser for The Truth, a series of “short stories” produced and sound designed by Jonathan Mitchell that is, in terms of media coverage, the US drama of the moment. Episodes include a counterfactual version of the Apollo 11 mission crashing into the moon, or the bewilderment of a man trapped in an eternal, phantasmagorical date with a woman.
Other fictions highlighted by Heppermann include the twice-monthly drama podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, which features sinister magic realism in a Lake Wobegon setting, with sand golems and “glow clouds” included matter-of-factly in the fictional desert town’s community updates. Before Serial burst on the scene, Night Vale climbed to second place on the iTunes podcast list, only beaten by This American Life, a weekly public radio show.
Bookended with ads, or pleas for donations, other offbeat US fictions are jostling to make their mark. John Dryden’s colleague, Fred Greenhalgh, meanwhile, is taking a different course. This summer, he is set to launch his own drama series on Audible, Amazon’s audiobooks distributor. Having just started to commission its own audio dramas, explains Greenhalgh, “Audible must have been asking itself, ‘Is this new appetite going to be big?’ ”
Audible is, for Greenhalgh, one solution among others in the US. He extols the variety of lengths and formats, ranging from The Truth to post-zombie survival drama, We’re Alive. “The BBC does great stuff but its 45-minute slots would be a constraint here. Any sense of an overall style to our audio drama has long been broken since the golden age of the 1940s. We’re rediscovering this genre, creating something new.”
In Britain, BBC radio producers are looking at the US audio boom, and some are thinking along similar lines. Noting that only 10 per cent of the BBC radio drama audience is under 35, freelance director Boz Temple-Morris suggests a greater flexibility of drama lengths, or even dramas that bypass broadcast, and go straight to iPlayer, the corporation’s streaming service.
“If Radio 4 wanted to, there is now a fantastic opportunity to reach people in their twenties and thirties,” he says.
A world away from zombies and Night Vale, Radio 4’s drama commissioner Jeremy Howe leads the BBC’s delicate mission to foster left-field dramas on the one hand while maintaining classical styles for more traditional listeners. He acknowledges that Serial and the wider US podcast boom is a game changer. “It’s now up to us to rise to the creative challenge it has thrown down.”
One such challenge is BBC radio drama’s worrying demographic: the average age of a listener is 57. “Radio 4 is seen as stately,” Howe acknowledges, but points to John Dryden’s work, last year’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, new writing by Mike Bartlett, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation of War and Peace, broadcast in its entirety on New Year’s Day, to show that “we’re also quite sexy”.
Wooing younger listeners is not just a question of platform and format but also of authenticity, spontaneity and topicality. At its very best, says Boz Temple-Morris, “radio can get into places that TV can’t”. He has direct experience of such places: while directing radio drama Occupied for the BBC, his cast mingled with protesters at a sit-in at London department store Fortnum & Mason. In a surprise departure from the script, Temple-Morris found himself under arrest and in a police cell.
According to director Nicolas Jackson, winner of the BBC’s Best Use of Sound award for last year’s tense pupil-teacher drama, The Boy at the Back, John Dryden is one director able to attract both older and younger listeners.
Listeners to A Fine Balance this weekend can decide for themselves. His adaptation, set in the tumult of India’s mid-1970s “Emergency”, is exhilaratingly chaotic, teeming with characters, and abrupt cuts between scenes.
“He builds these incredibly complex soundworlds,” Jackson says. “He breaks the rules of radio but, despite the complexity, the audience is not lost.”
Much of A Fine Balance was recorded in the shabby rooms and grounds of a rambling old hotel, to which cast and crew were ferried by boat from Mumbai’s port. It could be an apt analogy for English-language audio drama itself at the moment, as it embarks on a new adventure.
‘A Fine Balance’ is aired on BBC Radio 4 tonight at 9pm, and is then available internationally on BBC iPlayer
Photographs: Ameet Mallapur; John Chillingworth; Getty Images