Written by Radio

Radio Drama

I really like radio drama, although I’ll freely admit that I don’t get to hear enough of it. So the piece in today’s Guardian made for interesting reading.
It highlights the fact that Radio 4 is losing the Friday Play, and the strain in general that radio drama finds itself under.
What can radio drama to become more popular? Here are the things I’d do:

  1. Podcasting. The Guardian piece mentions that something else might happen, but this is the most obvious thing to do. The Archers is podcast but no other drama is, despite the fact that a “play of the week” or something similar would be enormously popular, barely any radio drama is made available to download to an mp3 player. You only have to look at iTunes’ podcasting charts to see how much Radio 4 programming populates the charts. Listening to a play on the way to work would be popular with lots of listeners.
    I believe the BBC is a little nervous about this area as it’s specifically not allowed to podcast audiobooks, which effectively means the Book at Bedtime. But the reality is that unless it’s a major franchise that BBC Worldwide thinks deserves a CD release, such as the Smiley series, once broadcast plays just end up deep in an archive somewhere.
  2. Plays on iTunes. One of the main problems with radio plays being made available to download is music rights. The Archers has little to no incidental music, but other radio play use much more music. This becomes problematic for licencing and it inevitably costs money to licence. Deals also have to be struck with Equity for paying actors. But if plays were made available to buy on iTunes, then both of these problems could be overcome. In the same way that I’m able to buy Doctor Who episodes on iTunes a week after broadcast, the same could be done to radio plays. Listen to them free via the iPlayer for the first week, and thereafter buy them on iTunes, Audible, Amazon or anywhere else.
    The actual costs of running this should be pretty cheap. The digital files already exist – it’s just a bit of admininstration, and ensuring that original contracts take this kind of reuse into account. While I wouldn’t expect too many bestsellers beyond the likely candidates, the long tail effect would certainly occur, and a new revenue stream would be opened up.
    Currently, the only “easy” way to listen to a radio play on an iPod or similar is to record it at time of broadcast using something like a DAB radio with SD recording functionality, “ripping” an iPlayer stream (which involves listening in real-time anyway, thus defeating the purpose to a large extent), or downloading from less-than-legal sources online.
  3. Radio Drama on Radio 1. Once upon a time, Radio 1 did a bit of radio drama. Hard to believe but true! For example, Dirk Maggs – recently responsible for new Hitchhikers’ adaptations – made versions of Superman and Batman that were broadcast on Radio 1 in a short episodic format. And in 1996, Radio 1 broadcast Independence Day UK presented in a style not dissimilar to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. It featured then Radio 1 DJ, Nicky Campbell, and Patrick Moore.
    Of course, today such an obvious promotional film tie-in would be impossible. It’s a little like giving an hour’s free advertising to the film release on Radio 1. But while a few Torchwood spin-off radio plays have aired on Radio 4, it’s not hard to imagine that a version of them, or perhaps something like Being Human, could air on Radio 1. As well as increasing the public service delivery of Radio 1 (I’m not going to get all “commercial radio” on Radio 1 and bemoan the station too much), it would serve as an introduction to new drama listeners. There’s no reason that radio shouldn’t be listened to by the young.
  4. Make Award Winners Available. In the recent Sony Radio Academy Awards, the gold, silver and bronze drama winners were People Snogging in Public Places, The Day That Lehman Died, and The Loop. As it happens, I heard both the silver and bronze winners around the time of broadcast – although neither live. Yet, if you fancy listening to these award winners now, you can’t – with one exception. The Loop was last broadcast in November, and People Snogging in Public Places was broadcast in September.
    The good news is that The Day That Lehman Died is available to listen. That’s because it was commissioned by the BBC World Service, and much of their programming is available well beyond the regular BBC 7-day iPlayer window.
    Unless the BBC repeats them, there is no possibility of hearing two of these award-winning plays – possibly ever again! And this is despite award winners being one of the few times that radio drama gets some publicity.

The growth in popularity of audiobooks shows that radio is still a wonderful medium for telling stories. And it’s only really the BBC that can make or commission dramas (Yes – there was OneWord, although I’m not sure that they ever commissioned drama. Certainly LBC once did – back in the 80s, via their legal correspondent I believe. But aside from a handful of one-offs, that’s about it).
So can we please allow listeners to hear plays in the manner that they’d like to – on their own terms?