(from the June, 2004 issue of Horizon Air magazine)
by Kim Cooper Findling
The costumes are wonderful: a radiant pink is outfit, complete with a silver-tipped magic wand; a black robe and face paint for a ghoul; a dazzling green, child-size frog tunic. But only members of the audience are wearing them.
The actors are dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Clutching scripts, they stand at the end of the gymnasium that’s been designated “the stage.”
A small pile of objects–including a bell, a balloon and a large sheet of metal–lies to the side.
The people around me chat excitedly as they settle into their seats. What have we all come to see? Well, nothing, technically. Hearing is the emphasized sense this evening. Tonight–for Halloween–Willamette Radio Workshop is presenting A Murder of Crows. We, the audience, will witness a live taping of a theatrical experience intended primarily for the ears.
Sam Mowry, director of the Willamette Radio Workshop, steps forward to one of the dozen microphone stands. “It was a perfect night for a murder of crows,” he says, in a voice so deep and sensuously scary that a chill runs down my spine to my toes. His voice slips from lush and rich to raspy and guttural, his words sliding into and around each other, the vowels trilling, the sounds so taunting and tempting that I am lulled, drawn forward–so enticed that I barely comprehend his words until, finally, this comes through:
“We will be trying to scare you.”
Whether or not I want to be scared is irrelevant at this point. I am hooked. I must keep listening. And it appears that I am not the only one. The 200-person crowd stays entranced–even the youngest, a child of about 5– through Crows and three other quarter-hour-long plays: one about a gargoyle that comes to life; one about a cell phone that slurps up listeners and deposits them in hell; one about a mother who eats her daughter’s boyfriend for dinner.
A Classic Form, Reborn
This is contemporary audio drama. Some people have fond memories of curling up near the radio in a state of tense, rapt attention while listening to a favorite show.Â Others have never heard a radio drama. Now, fans from way-back-when are discovering, to their delight, that audio drama is experiencing a renaissance, while people who were unfamiliar with the genre are becoming a new generation of fans. That’s because the allure of the art form has not changed, although delivery channels and range of subject matter have.
Radio drama was born in the 1920s,shortly after the first commercial radio stations hit the airwaves. For several decades,the medium dominated mainstream American entertainment. In the comfort of their homes, without donning any special attire or paying for a ticket, listeners could turn themselves over to the appeal of a good story. Westerns, mysteries,comedy, horror–no matter the subject,the exchange was simple: Writers and actors, via radio waves, would provide words, a plot and a sound effect or two,and listeners would provide their attention and the power of their imaginations.
But technology continued to march forward. Today, when aficionados contemplate the demise that ultimately befell radio drama, most point to the same culprit: television. Audiences, thrilled to have visual to go with the audio, turned to the TV, and radio dramas all but vanished from the entertainment scene–until recently.
“In the last 10 years, there’s been a real resurgence in audio drama,” says Mowry from Willamette Radio Workshop, one of the numerous West Coast groups producing audio theater. WRW, based in Portland, Oregon, was created three years ago after a writer placed a notice in the Auditions section of The Oregonian inviting people interested in audio theater to meet. Actors, writers and technology junkies all responded, and WRW was born.
Across the country, new audio drama companies are popping up almost monthly. The number of active audio theater companies in the United States is at least 134, and growing, according to radio-theater playwright and enthusiast Erik Deckers, who keeps an updated list on his Website, www.kconline.com/deckers. Some groups consist of a single writer,actor and producer of shows that might air only on the Internet; others are large,professional groups with regular broadcast schedules and CDs for sale.
What’s behind the resurgence? Mowry points to what made radio theater popular in the first place: the voice and the story. “Primal storytelling is at the root of all great entertaining, and that’s what’s at the essence of radio theater–the human voice conveying story and emotion,” he says. “If you’re willing to turn yourself over to it, it’s quite compelling.”
Mowry thinks audio theater is a sort of balm for the flashy nature of other contemporary forms of entertainment. “There’s so much bombardment in popular culture, whereas the human voice has an understated and simple power.”
He also believes that audiences crave interactivity. “Audio theater demands something from the audience. It always asks you to bring something to the table.”
Sue Zizza, executive director of National Audio Theatre Festivals, attributes the resurgence in audio theater to a more practical phenomenon: changing technology. Radio is no longer essential for reaching listeners–which is why the term “radio theater” has largely been replaced by “audio drama” or “audio theater.”
While recordings of various Festivals performances are broadcast on 70 public radio stations, many audio theater companies rarely broadcast on the radio. Instead, they rely on live performances, CDs, cassette tapes or Websites–whose dramas are often downloadable to MP3 players–to reach their audiences. So, ironically, as much as technology contributed to the decline of audio drama, it is now encouraging–and revolutionizing–its return. Not only can producers reach audiences even if a radio station won’t cany their shows, but creating the shows is easier. Recording an audio drama used to require expensive equipment and time-consuming editing. Someone had to slice tape with a razor blade and then splice segments back together. Today, recording equipment is less expensive and of better quality, and professional, relatively easy-to-use audio-editing software can be downloaded from the Web for free.
Production ease and guaranteed means of delivery have not only prompted more people to produce audio dramas,they have promoted creative freedom. Â Individual producers can create what they want, not what a radio station directs them to. And because recording and distribution is easy and inexpensive, audio drama producers feel free to produce a variety of material.
Pagliacci’s Fools, a nonprofit audio drama company in Oakland, California,has produced comedies, mysteries and even erotica. Willamette Radio Workshop’s productions include horror shows and classical-book adaptations–sometimes presented the same night.
“It’s very liberating to be able to do so many different things,” says WRW’s Mowry. “The audience can go from 14th century France to the present day in an hour. A gargoyle and a 20-year-old rock star can both be played by the same actor–who’s actually a 62-year-old bus driver.”
Because of the variety of the delivery media, determining total listener numbers is difficult, but various producers cite growing audiences.
National Audio Theatre Festivals, which receives an average of $10,000 a year from the National Endowment for the Arts,began in 1999 with one week-long festival in Missouri that attracted 200 audience members. Now the organization presents performances all over the country, all yearlong, attracting about 10,000 people to its shows.
Mowry notes that not only is a local radio station broadcasting WRW’s work,but corporate sponsors such as hotel-and-pub owner McMenamins Inc. are paying WRW to present shows. Vini Beachem, who directs Pagliacci’s Fools,points to an average of 1,200 hits a month on the company’s Website,www.foolsradio.com.
While Erik Deckers estimates that radio theater currently makes up 1 percent or less of the billion-dollar audio book market, he says that over the next five to 10 years the industry hopes to cap-ture 10 percent of the market.
The audio theater segment of the market is distinct from other audio products because it consists of works written specifically for audio presentation, or books fully adapted for audio theater, with actors performing parts, and music and sound effects fleshing out the presentations, according to the website www.audiotheater.com.
Mary Beth Roche, president of the audio Publishers Association, says the association does not break out sales for radio dramas, but the market for audio books as a whole has been growing more than 11 percent a year since 1997. A 2002 nationwide study by the Consumer electronics Association determined that approximately 42 million U.S. adults listen to audio books, with 33.5 million of lose adults able to receive audio presentations online.
Customer demand led XM Radio–subscription-based satellite-radio system that is available for at-home or in-car use and offers 100 stations of music, news,talk, traffic reports and entertainment–to add two audio theater channels. Sonic heater and Radio Classics, in 2002. While the company doesn’t release specific listener numbers. Alien Goldberg, XM director of corporate affairs, says audio theater is popular. “These are well-listened-to channels,” he says. “They’re favorites of families, commuters and truckers.”
Building a Fan Base
Another audience settles into chairs, this time at the Kirkland Performance Center in a suburb just east of Seattle. The crowd is mature and conservatively dressed. Â Conversation about the characters who will soon be on stage is quiet but eager. Two shows will be taped tonight: one episode each of The Adventures of Harry Nile, Private Detective and The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Both series were created by Jim French,owner and president of Seattle-based Jim French Productions Inc., whose audio dramas are broadcast nationwide. French steps onto the stage to enthusiastic cheering. He acknowledges the applause and then notes that “editing is easier these days, but human foible hasn’t been eliminated.”
“We may pause if something goes wrong,” he says. “But we won’t have to rewind to tape something over–we have miles and miles of digital tape.”
By things “going wrong,” French apparently means actor slips of tongue and audience gaffes. “We’re not trying to suppress your natural reactions,” he says,”unless they are vulgar or loud.”
The audience laughs and then quiets. The actors take their places on simple folding chairs behind a row of mikes.
French, who created the title “Movies for Your Mind” to describe some of his works, is a pioneer of contemporary audio theater. He was among the first to recognize that there was still potential for audio entertainment, and his productions have been on the air for more than 30 years. They are now broadcast coast to coast on 130 radio stations and on XM Radio.
Many of French’s fans have been fol-lowing Harry Nile since the character first aired in 1976. That series, along with Kincaid The Strangeseeker, Sherlock Holmes and Call Simon Walker, is produced for Imagination Theater, which is syndicated by San Francisco-based TransMedia.
French, long a popular Seattle radio personality, began his career as a radio announcer and talk-show host in 1946,and so has witnessed the changes in radio theater from a front row seat.
He agrees that technology and the nature of modern life have both contributed to the resurgence of audio theater. “Portable CD players make listening to radio drama an option anytime, any-where,” he says. “And more and more people are stuck in their cars and would like something to divert them.”
Interestingly, French believes that radio drama never really disappeared,but instead morphed into commercially viable genres in response to the pressures of television. “We never lost the genre,”he says. “Most radio ads are little tiny radio dramas.”
He has done his part to nudge audio drama back into traditional, and profitable,formats. He syndicated his shows in 1996, and XM Radio began daily broadcasts of Imagination Theater soon after XM added audio theater to its lineup. The exposure is an audio theater producer’s dream: While anyone can enter the industry for the price of a Website, more airtime means more opportunity to be heard, and more potential to attract listeners.
“We want Jim French Productions to be on as many stations as possible and, of course, also have a good Website,” French says. “I think that as long as we can keep reaching people, radio drama as a genre will continue to increase. ”
Just Like It” Used to Be–With a Techno Twist
For my final audio theater experience, my home is the auditorium. I am the only person in the audience; the time is 6:30A.M.; and I am wearing pajamas. The creators of the piece I will enjoy work in San Francisco, California. I am in Bend, Oregon.
I have located the Pagliacci’s Fools Website and downloaded the requisite(and free) audio software. A box pops upon my screen, telling me the title of my selected show–The Gentleman Caller–and the duration: 36:33 minutes. I am restless for a moment, fidgeting in my chair until, over the whiny tone of a violin playing a Renaissance tune, I hear a strong and clear voice: “The unicorn opens the door. …”
The story is grand. There is romance,intrigue, tragedy. There is spectacular dancing. There are flapping, colorful skirts. There are flaming swords. There are mystical beasts.
Of course, all of it’s only in my mind.
Kim Cooper Findling is a new audio theater fan.