The Born Freelancer says goodbye to CBC Radio drama

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.

When this year is reviewed many significant deaths will be noted. None feel more deserving of attention today than the announced termination of all radio drama production on CBC.

It could be argued that the patient had been unwell for years, suffering from a combination of financial malnourishment and upper managerial neglect. Some might even go so far as to say it was a mercy killing, that radio drama had become simply irrelevant and too costly, a product of an era long past. Others may see it as another example of our current federal government’s systemic antipathy towards public broadcasting. I have read that one less controversial CF-35 jet on order would have meant no cuts necessary at the CBC. I will leave it to history to judge which would have been the better investment in our country’s future well-being.

I come not to bury CBC Radio drama but to praise it.

Radio drama helped build this nation culturally as surely as the railway helped unite it physically. Primarily during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s (and to a slowly declining extent well into the 1990s), CBC Radio drama served admirably as this country’s true national theatre. Canadians from coast to coast to coast were able to hear dramatized stories about themselves, told by themselves, at the same time as their fellow countrymen (and women) thousands of miles away. As a result of this uniquely shared experience, I would posit, we became more aware of ourselves as a nation and of our relationship to other nations throughout the world. And with its single-minded desire to provide a forum for this expression, CBC Radio drama became world class without many of its listeners ever really knowing or even appreciating it until it was all gone, cut by cut by cut.

“The Investigator”

CBC Radio One’s The Sunday Edition recently repeated an excellent 2005 documentary by Canadian Media Guild freelance member Sam Levene about CBC Radio drama’s mid-1950s high watermark production of “The Investigator.” (You can hear a brief excerpt from it here.) Using a combination of rarified satire and unparalleled courage, “The Investigator” took on the cancerous scourge of McCarthyism that threatened to totally consume our southern neighbour’s freedoms and liberties. It was a story as relevant to us in Canada as to the U.S. back then and as relevant to all of us again today as it was yesterday. (Sadly, those of us who do not study history seem doomed to repeat it.) An outstanding production, it managed to demonstrate the true nature of McCarthy’s allegations in such a way that few (other than the legendary Edward R. Murrow) had been able to do. It was so uniquely effective that bootleg copies soon made their way into the homes and offices of many influential politicians and media types in America including (it is said) into the White House itself.

What a glorious achievement in our nation’s broadcasting history. It is good to be reminded of such things from time to time. We get so caught up today in the level playing field of the internet, where access to everything is equal to everything else (a highly laudable construct in so many ways), that we occasionally forget what this country accomplished when only very few were able to find a prominent voice on public airwaves — excellence of a kind that helped define us as a nation and as a people.

The role of freelancers

But what has all this to do with this blog? It was freelancers — actors and writers and musicians — who made those radio dramas possible, who were responsible for bringing them to life. So I guess you could say that, in a very real way, freelancers helped build this country culturally into what has been bequeathed into our trust today.

Those pioneering radio drama freelancers also banded together at various points in time — putting aside their professional rivalries and personal differences — to form collective organizations to better the working conditions for freelancers evermore. Every time a freelancer today receives a cheque from the CBC with the minimum conditions and fees negotiated automatically for them by the CMG or another relevant union, we should thank our freelancing predecessors who won such gains after decades of often bitter and hard-fought negotiations.

Certainly the importance of CBC staff producers and staff technicians in the history of CBC Radio drama should never be discounted. It is not my intention to slight such worthy individuals in any way. But I think even they would find it hard to refute the notion that freelancers were always the heart and soul of CBC Radio drama and continued to be right up to the very end. Regarding its relevancy today, I’ve heard it said that over half a million tuned in every week to Afghanada, CBC Radio’s penultimate drama serial that presented the war in Afghanistan to Canadians in a way no other media outlet dared — showing us the horrors and hell of this confusing war on a very personal level. Perhaps it is appropriate that CBC Radio drama ends (more or less) during wartime. It was after all forged and first made truly relevant to Canadians during the Second World War. I hope that someday the CBC will choose to make available more of its radio drama archives to the general public. Only then will the extent of this unique national treasure truly be appreciated and understood.

Rediscover radio drama

As to the argument that radio drama is outmoded or a thing of the past, I would reply that you’ve been listening to too many old scratchy recordings of The Shadow. Seriously, check out the continuing output of the BBC over in the U.K. where radio drama continues to thrive today amidst heavy competition from all visual forms of satellite and internet-based media. As long as there are new and exciting stories to tell, radio drama will continue to evolve and morph into formats and styles appropriate to its intended contemporary audience. That it is a costly radio format when compared to spinning tunes or endless news/talk there can be no denying. That it manages to reach select audiences using the “theatre of the mind” format infinitely more cheaply than television or film drama is a lesson to be rediscovered by future independent producers of the genre. Also to be rediscovered is radio drama’s ultimate secret: that its relative potential impact far outweighs any of its visual competition. The best radio drama happens in the listener’s mind for we are willingly active collaborators in its creative process. When that happens, emotional engagement and intellectual relevancy can quickly follow.

Go to to explore drama programming on its Radio 3, Radio 4, and Radio 4 Extra, as well as on the BBC World Service.

Contemporary independent radio drama also still exists south of our border, often turning up on various NPR stations. Check with your local NPR station for details. Online options include the prestigious L.A. Theatreworks, which can be heard here, proving that the genre is far from extinct. A few minutes spent with your favourite search engine will turn up a surprising number of other relevant sites. The internet clearly has become audio drama’s best friend.

On an entirely pragmatic note, the death of CBC Radio drama will mean the loss of many freelance gigs — writers, actors, musicians, and so on. With so few stable avenues available for practitioners of the artform, it may well be the end of many enjoyable side careers in this country. The reality is that CBC Radio drama had ceased to be a continuing full-time employment opportunity for most freelancers for decades. Still, it always managed to be a rewarding and inspiring medium for those who tenaciously clung on and managed to produce some incredibly compelling work over the decades despite lack of funding and (or so it would seem) upper managerial appreciation or support.

What I’ve learned from CBC Radio drama

I can say all this without any conflict of interest: I never made a dime writing for CBC Radio drama. I speak as an aficionado of those who did and of their outstanding contributions to this country’s cultural landscape.

And it’s not like I didn’t try. Over the last couple decades I went in a few times to try to sell a drama script. That was another of the great things about CBC Radio drama. If you were serious and not just wasting their time, they had to see you. It was part of their mandate to encourage and develop freelance talent in this country. Although I never made any actual drama script sales, the time I spent with various producers and script editors convinced me of their genuine passion for the medium as well as for producing work worthy of a national audience’s attention. I learned far more about story structure and characterization in one afternoon story conference (during which a very kind, very overworked story editor had to turn down a spec script) than in quadruple the number of hours spent in earlier college classes on the same topics. I also learned a lot about passion and commitment, struggling for what you believe in, and hard work. I feel badly that this irreplaceable training resource will now be denied future freelancers.

So what is in the future?

I wrote a couple posts ago about the constantly evolving nature of radio and the need for freelancers to evolve alongside with it.

Here is my prediction — radio drama is not dead in this country, nor is it necessarily dead on CBC Radio except in its old-fashioned institutionalized construct. It will now pass fully into the hands of entrepreneurial freelancers to take complete control of and do it entirely for themselves. Currently existing independent radio producers will expand their audience base. Newcomers will find their own niche. Perhaps it is the inevitable “coming of age” for the medium. The radio dramatists of the future will not only write and act and produce their own work but will also distribute/sell/market it themselves. Whether this means connecting directly to listeners via the internet or via sales to the CBC as outside independent contractors or by buying time on commercial stations and/or smaller community stations nationwide I cannot say. (All seem to be reasonable options worth pursuing.) But I see this as an enormously exciting opportunity for the rebirth of the unique artform of radio drama as well as the opportunity for freelancers to once again step up to the (aural) plate and resume doing what we do best: telling stories about ourselves, to ourselves. By doing so we will again become world class at it. Not because that is our goal, but because I believe radio drama is programmed into our country’s creative DNA. What other form of theatre can instantaneously transverse this vast nation and reach its geographically scattered audiences so readily, so imaginatively, and so meaningfully?

R. I. P. CBC Radio drama. I am proud to have known you.

But long live Canadian audio drama — on radio, streaming online, via podcasts and/or utilizing platforms currently unknown. Freelancers will definitely be making more Canadian radio drama happen in the future just as we have always done right from its birth.

Are you currently an independent radio drama producer? Or do you plan to become involved in it now that CBC Radio drama is ending? Please leave your comments on what you are doing or plan to do in the future. If your work is available to listen to online or on the air let us know the details.

Posted on April 27, 2012 at 11:45 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

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