The Born Freelancer on Remaking Radio Drama in Canada, Part 1

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something 
to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


As a followup to my previous post about “The Rebirth of Radio Drama in Canada”, freelance writer and former CBC Radio drama and documentaries producer Kathleen Flaherty was kind enough to leave this comment:

Here’s the thing: yes, there is a desire and affection for radio drama; no, there hasn’t been a way to make sure everyone gets paid appropriately for doing it. I think it can be done by online subscription and I truly hope someone makes that happen. There is a huge amount of creativity possible in audio drama, but so far no way to make it pay for itself.

Many thanks to Kathleen for her incisive comments which, IMHO, pretty much sums up the current situation. (And Kathleen should know having spent many years producing exceptional radio drama and documentaries at the CBC. Coincidentally, I was listening to some old off-air recordings recently and rediscovered a most enjoyable CBC Radio drama production which – surprise! – turned out to have been produced by Kathleen.)

So to the burning question – how do we get from here (post-CBC Radio drama) to there (in which independent audio drama production can at least pay for itself)? I believe we have a long, long way to go yet but I would like to offer a step by step guide to one possible pathway for your consideration. If any of you should ever choose to follow it or some modified version of it my efforts will be amply rewarded.


An overview

First, my view of the current situation. I would posit that the current radio drama scene in Canada post-CBC Radio is very much parallel to the punk music scene in the early 1970s. It was/is raw, it was/is passionate, it was/is open to anyone to join in who has the necessary ambition and raw energy to give it a go. Like early punk there are refined skills to be learned, technique to be developed, talents to be honed. And audiences to be found. One day, maybe – just maybe –  if things go well, there will be money to be made. But right now that is all in the future. What radio drama needs right now is a total rebirth from the ground up. It needs rediscovering at the local level by passionate creative freelancers who want to reshape an artform so old it has almost completely disappeared. And yet it can become completely new again in the right hands. They could be yours.

So, I have been asked more than once, how exactly does one begin? Joining a preexisting group like Radio Project X might be one solution but for the truly motivated there is nothing better than doing it all yourself. I know this having followed (more or less) the path I am about to describe several years ago while at college. And yes, I did manage to make money much later using the very skills and experience I learned in the process although sadly never with CBC Radio drama.

The first step for the novice freelance radio dramatist is to undertake considerable research. Relax, this will be one of the most enjoyable forms of research you have ever done. You just need to find out what has been already done for inspiration and so you don’t waste time completely reinventing the wheel.


Step (1): Research

This process will open your mind to the exciting and limitless creative possibilities of radio drama. It is not just TV or films without pictures. The pictures in radio are so much better than anything possible on a visual screen because they happen wholly in the listener’s imagination.

Fortunately, the BBC in the UK still produces radio drama for contemporary audiences of a quality and caliber that can compete with any medium. (Neil Jones of Radio Project X shared some of his favourites with us in my previous post.) Surf on over to the BBC Radio site and check out their exceptional radio drama programming available as podcasts or streaming online offered by their Radio 4, Radio 3, World Service and Radio 4 Extra services. Check their schedules for recent updates. Don’t forget to look at their comedies too, many of which are presented in a dramatized format. I would include such comedy shows under the drama umbrella. Radio 4 Extra also picks out the best from their drama archives and presents classic dramas from the past. Radio 3 dramas tend to be more “serious” and “classical” often bordering on the experimental and provocative. Fantastic stuff!

But there are many other radio drama outlets online to explore.


CBC radio drama

Sadly, the CBC itself has yet to fully tap the potential of its own radio drama archives. However, slowly but surely, some of its radio drama classics leak out. It is my hope that one day the CBC can sit down formally with the appropriate unions and work out a reasonable but mutually beneficial arrangement to officially release more of its back catalogue via the internet and downloads, etc. There is a wealth of material in their audio vaults – wonderful stories told by our leading freelance writers.

I have written previously about the classic mid-1950s CBC Radio drama “The Investigator” which remains a highlight of that era’s output. Written by Canadian freelancer Reuben Ship (himself blackballed in the US by McCarthyism) and produced by the CBC’s most influential radio drama producer Andrew Allan, its satirical denunciation of that era’s McCarthyism remains an imaginative delight and a political reawakening. Its subject matter seems especially relevant again today. It is indeed still worth serious study.

The 1980’s CBC Radio drama series “Nightfall” was a mystery/horror/sf/suspense series well worth investigating. There is even a website devoted to maintaining its memory. The series is memorable for mixing classical stories of horror and suspense (adaptations of Poe, Wells, etc. ) alongside original stories dealing with more contemporary themes.

In the comedy category, one of my favourite CBC Radio shows ever was the marvelous “Great Eastern” out of CBC Newfoundland (1994-1999). A brilliant satire of radio programming, its characters were so vividly drawn and scenarios so cleverly executed that I have no hesitation in including it as another example of exceptional CBC Radio drama output. And – best news of all – there is a site dedicated to it which has archived all of its episodes.

CBC Radio had so many fine dramas over the years that it would be impossible to list them all. Many of them are discussed online and/or have leaked out to the world online via dedicated collectors. An afternoon using your favourite search engine will reward you with multiple options.

There are numerous other independent producers of contemporary radio drama too. Look to your local campus or community radio station for possible examples near by. (We will return to a discussion about them later.) Perhaps one of the most successful is the L. A. Theatreworks, which we will also look at more closely in a future post.


“Old time radio” drama

Online there is also a genre of audio shows best known as “old time radio” or “vintage radio drama”. These are the (predominantly) American radio dramas that were the staple of mainstream broadcasting in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and even into the 1960s. They covered every known sub genre and entertained millions in those pre-TV years. Use your favourite search engine to locate sites offering “old time radio” and you will spend possibly weeks just sorting through the myriad of possibilities.

Wary of doubtful downloads, I have discovered one such site of continuously streaming shows, AM 1710 Antioch which also provides a schedule of upcoming shows.

Caveat: Don’t drop any cash to buy any of these old shows on other sites unless you really want to do so. Ownership of a vast number of these old shows is in a grey area legally. Most shows appear to be in public domain and available online for free if you look hard enough. Of course in cases where ownership is indisputably established you should choose to support the rightful owners.

The corniest shows from the past do not hold up well today. They do evoke great nostalgia of course and indeed enormous affection even from those too young to have heard them first hand. The parodies that contemporary groups like Radio Project X do of the old school detective mysteries are usually paying homage to (or making understandable fun of) these “old time radio” shows. Nevertheless, they are worthy of study to hear how the best of them told stories of their time so memorably.


“The war of the worlds”

Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” remains perhaps the most infamous radio drama ever in history. Millions of its listeners, unaware that it was an adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic novel, literally panicked in the streets throughout the USA under the assumption that a Martian invasion was actually underway. The innovative use of radio newscasts to portray the unfolding invasion culminated in what was arguably the 20th century’s biggest media story. It remains part of North American pop culture folklore. Who hasn’t heard about the infamous Hallowe’en show that scared a nation? Aside from its social impact, the drama itself is a well constructed adaptation of a novel. If you can withstand the crackle of the electrical transcriptions available it will reward your study with a greater appreciation for both the medium and its legendary participants. (You’ll find other fine Mercury shows there too. Welles’ abilities as an outstanding director of radio drama have been significantly under-appreciated so far by posterity.) The script which was actually penned not by Welles but by writer Howard Koch is well worth reading and is available online too. There has been a revisionist belief in recent years that the broadcast really had very little impact and that the subsequent stories of a panicked nation were wildly exaggerated. I would refer such revisionists to Professor Hadley Cantril’s scholarly Princeton University text, “The Invasion From Mars – A Study In The Psychology of Panic” (1940) for the historical truth. Howard Koch’s own entertaining study of the event, “The Panic Broadcast” (Avon Books, 1970) provides ample additional first hand evidence of the broadcast’s true impact.

Other such “OTR” shows I would point to as still-excellent examples of radio drama are “X Minus One”, “Suspense”, and “Escape”. All three are readily found online. All three are anthology series, that is, complete half hour plays within themselves and not a part of any continuing storyline. “X Minus One” I think is still particularly effective, coming as it did towards the end of the “Golden Days of Radio” in the late 1950s. It utilizes the science fiction sub genre which seems ideally suited to the imaginative qualities of the audio drama.

I would also seek out any dramas written by Norman Corwin, another cherished name from radio drama’s past, and considered by many America’s radio master dramatist.

The shows are old and sometimes scratchy but good storytelling is good storytelling. The best old shows still tell us stories worth hearing. There is much to learn from them.


Go on a treasure hunt!

I would also try your local library and used book stores. In the “old days” they actually published radio scripts! In one used book store I discovered “Ways of Mankind” (Beacon Press, 1954). It is a collection of CBC Radio drama scripts broadcast in the anthology series of the same name which attempted to illustrate and understand basic human behaviour throughout history. It was another high point in that era’s radio drama output broadcast throughout the USA as well as Canada. The writing is superb if a bit old fashioned by today’s standards (by which I mean you need more than the attention of a fruit fly to follow it) but a close study will reveal much of the radio dramatist’s technique. The legendary Canadian freelance writers included were Lister Sinclair, Len Peterson, Eugene S. Hallman and George Salverson, and it was edited by academic Walter Goldschmidt.

Another worthy book I strongly recommend that I found during one of my second hand book store excavations was “Image in the Mind – CBC Radio Drama 1944-1954” by former CBC Radio drama script editor N. Alice Frick (Canadian Stage & Arts Publications, Toronto, 1987). This is an excellent history of the period as seen by an important insider with many relevant script excerpts throughout its pages. I find it both very encouraging and very aggravating to read. You see, once upon a time here in Canada we produced radio drama as good as or better than anyone else anywhere else in the world. And here we are, just a few decades later, and the CBC has thrown it all away. What great and glorious future Canadian stories will now never get told? What talented future freelancers will now never get to develop their skills here at home? It is almost enough to make you weep if you care about such things. However, it is my sincere hope that such rediscovery of our radio drama legacy will provide inspiration and motivation for a new generation of freelancers ready to (re)claim Canada’s place in the medium.


The takeaway 

So – there you have the barest outline of your first step towards becoming a player in the remaking of radio drama in this country – research. There is online a great deal of stimulating radio drama to discover. You will notice techniques, styles, methods and hitherto unimaginable ideas fully enacted. You will soon determine exactly what works and doesn’t work for you. But what I truly hope you will discover during this research process is your own passion for the genre coupled with a burning desire to make some of it for yourself.

Which leads us to the next step – writing your first radio drama script. Which we will cover in a future post. Later posts will cover my thoughts on casting, production, distribution and finally, making it pay. In the meantime, please share with us via the comments feature below your favourite radio plays, audio sources online and/or relevant books.


Posted on August 9, 2013 at 9:03 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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