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Radio Drama - Theory & Practice

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BBC Radio Drama - Cold Blood by Simon Bovey Part 1-5

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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.

BBC Radio Drama

The American academic Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach used dramatic scripts in overseas English broadcasts to attack the British position in the war. Twelve scenes were recorded on 5th April and the cast included the British film actor Jack Trevor and other ex-patriots. 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. In May 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 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'. 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.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 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 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. 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 s and s.

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. Campbell's Soups could not resist the temptation to sponsor the programme and they did so with considerable funds and enthusiasm.

Download Radio Drama Theory And Practice

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 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.

Audio Theater Resources: Writing

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.

Audio Drama in Context and Practice

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.

Its two and a half hour length would not have been a discredit to Radio Four, which in 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 and 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 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 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 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.

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 thes, 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. 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. 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. During the s 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. 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 and In France Culture transmitted 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. 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.