Why You Should Be Listening to Audio Drama

Audio Drama is the ultimate ‘on the go’ entertainment. Films, TV, and books can be great, but often times you need your eyes for other things. Things like driving, or gardening, or cleaning the bathroom. You don’t need your eyes to be completely and utterly immersed in a brilliant story. That’s why you should be listening to Audio Drama, and it isn’t what you might think…

Almost everyone has a story about how they listened to some sort of audio fiction as a kid. In a sense, I often wonder if that’s part of the problem. Audio storytelling is something that’s regarded as “serving a purpose” for a while, but then you “grow out of it”.

Photo Courtesy of the Hadron Gospel Hour

It’s a bit like wearing a nappy (or “diaper”, as my American cousins would call it). I wore one as a kid. So did you. The nappy served a great purpose back in the day, but it’s unlikely that I’m about to put one on and give it another shot. At least not for the next 50 years, hopefully.

I think instead, it’s important to draw a line between the records or cassette tapes you listened to as a kid, and the Audio Drama that’s available to download and listen to today.
I remember a few years ago, when a friend – knowing I was a podcast listener – recommended I checked out We’re Alive, a zombie apocalypse serial.

“It’s like a Radio Drama!” he said, as I immediately feared the worst.

I’m not sure why I always imagined Radio Drama – a purely audio medium – to be played out in black and white. On hindsight, it’s probably all the negative or out-dated connotations that come along with it.
I don’t wish to tar every single traditional Radio Drama with the same brush, but let’s throw out a couple of massive generalisations.

In the US, many are guilty of stiff, wooden, hokey, unrealistic dialogue that sounds more like a parody or caricature with each year that passes.

And in the UK, there are only so many banal conversations, as dull as the water in the kitchen sink the two characters are standing over, that I can physically handle.

Photo Courtesy of Fake Radio.

I’m not trying to kill any sacred cows here. Modern Audio Drama wouldn’t exist without all the old shows that came before it. And I have a great respect for anyone creating any form of audio fiction, even if it isn’t to my own taste. But I can’t be alone in having these prejudices about Radio Drama, and therefore Audio Drama.

If you’ve never listened to Audio Drama before, maybe it’s thoughts like these that are preventing you from giving it a go. I certainly held these reservations.

I’m not going to say I fell in love with We’re Alive in the first minutes, or even the first couple of episodes. I think your brain has a bit of adjusting to do before you can really find the groove of listening to an Audio Drama.

Regardless of the one or two tapes you might’ve listened to as a kid, we live in such a visual culture. Film and TV take up most of the population’s attention in the evenings, whilst during the day, the minute your eyes don’t have something you warrant interesting enough to look at, you reach into your pocket for your phone. Usually the outcome of that is scrolling past pictures of people’s dinners, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Where to Start: How to Listen to Audio Drama
If you’re like most people nowadays, listening to Audio Drama has to be a solitary thing. I know we see the pictures from the 1930s of a family gathered round an old wireless, tuned in to the latest serial. Well if you tried that now it would just be weird. Unless of course you’ve been doing it for years, in which case, you don’t need me to tell you how to listen to Audio Drama anyway.

You’ve probably got a smartphone, and you’ve probably got headphones. So equipment-wise, you’re pretty much sorted. The key is finding the regular tasks that you do, that’ll best allow your brain to re-tune itself to start playing out these stories in your mind.

I say tasks, and not ‘moments’, because I couldn’t imagine just sitting on the couch, or at a computer, and listening to Audio Drama. Many can (and do) enjoy listening in these ways, but, in my opinion, it’s the wrong place to start.

I’m not a scientist (I’ve genuinely never had to give that disclaimer before) but I believe the brain experiences maximal stimulus and enjoyment from an audio story when you’ve occupied part of it with a task that you’re so familiar with you almost do it in autopilot. These might include things like…

  • Washing the dishes
  • Tidying the house
  • Driving (you still need to think extensively whilst driving, incidentally, so don’t go suing me if you crash)
  • Working in the garden
  • Painting a wall or fence
  • Washing the car

You get the picture, basically most forms of manual labour that don’t require the immediate and constant attention of your hearing. These are the situations you should be in when you begin to introduce Audio Drama to ears and your brain. If you put one on, sit on the couch, pull out your phone and start scrolling through Facebook, then you’ll hate it. Don’t do that.

Cast of The Jack Benny Show

So how is Audio Drama different from Radio Drama?
Many could argue that the terms are actually interchangeable, and they’d maybe have a point. But for ease of argument let’s call the new stuff, created as modern online content ‘Audio Drama’, and the old stuff (that I’ve heavily stereotyped) ‘Radio Drama’.

Many Modern Audio Dramas have a real cinematic feel. You can experience intergalactic battles between worlds, a lone survivor on the rooftop of a building, surrounded by zombies as far as the eye can see, you can visualise 10,000 orcs storming an ancient mountain fortress. It can do the big, sweeping, epic stuff very well. In fact, the images the sounds begin to formulate in your head reach far beyond what any director can create for you on screen.

But it isn’t all about the big stuff. An Audio Drama can be stripped down into a raw exploration of human psyche and emotion. The real beauty actually lies in the infinite possibilities of the forms stories can take in this medium. The execution is a million miles away from the Old Time Radio Drama that still turns many people off before they’ve even given it a chance. It’s a bit like refusing to watch films because you once saw part of one from 1952 and you thought it was pretty lame.

Photo Courtesy of Fake Radio.

Where do I start?
I’m not by far the best-qualified person to advise you on this, but I’ve come this far, so I’ll continue. There are great podcasts, such as Radio Drama Revival and The Sonic Society, as well as like streaming stations like Sound Stages Radio, which feature all sorts of Audio Drama on a regular basis. The selections are pretty eclectic however, so you might love the featured show on one episode, and absolutely hate the next one. That’s the nature of the beast though. Again, you probably don’t like every film you watch, or every book you read.

Essentially, everyone has different tastes, and it really comes down to which genre of story you prefer.
Audio Drama does have a very strong sci-fi, fantasy, and horror game. I really like that sort of stuff. If you do too, you can try dipping your toe with one of these…

  • We’re Alive – Completely free, four seasons worth of zombie apocalypse survival horror. This show has had over 40 million downloads. Forty Million!
  • Neverwhere – A Neil Gaiman novel, adapted for audio. You’ll need to buy this on Audible, but it genuinely is a superb production with an all-star cast (James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Dormer, Christopher Lee, and many more). If you don’t love this, then I’ll admit, Audio Drama probably isn’t for you.
  • Locke & Key – Brand new, and completely free on Audible until early November 2015, but even once it’s not, this 13 ½ hour epic will be well worth the small amount you’ll be able to buy it for.
  • The Truth – If you’re not really into sci-fi, or fantasy, then The Truth would be an excellent place to start. These folks have created some of the most powerful, thought provoking, and clever short stories this medium has ever produced. A truly brilliant anthology-style show.

I can list so many more, but the above is certainly enough to get you started. Download one of them; listen to it properly (take the opportunity to clean that kitchen drawer out, or paint the shed, or do some other mundane task that’s been on your to-do list for months now) and then let me know how you got on. What’s the worst that can happen?

Matthew McLean is the co-presenter & producer of the Audio Drama Production Podcast – Once you like this stuff, they’ll help you make your own.