Audio Drama Day 2021 is coming… sooner than we realize
While 2020 has been a difficult or horrible year for so many of us around the world, soon 2020 will become 2021. That year brings us that much closer to the 100th anniversary of audio drama. Since this artform first began in the early days of radio, looking back – even when things are so fractious and scary – does give us some perspective.
And how about your plans for 2020?
Ideally 2020 would have been the year to expand the original mission of Audio Drama Day, and promote audio drama initiatives that change lives in the Global South. In rural areas around the world, broadcast radio is still very important. Mobile networks are often the most accessible method of getting online, and there are opportunities to share short form audio drama and other serials over mobile.
This is called “entertainment-education”, spearheaded by the pioneering Mexican writer/producer Miguel Sabido, who was in turn inspired by Albert Bandura’s ideas about the way our psychology is influenced by the people around us. There is a history of audio drama, as well as other media formats like television, being used to educate on sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDs, improving food sanitation and agricultural practices, domestic violence, and more. “The Archers” is only the most famous and long-running audio drama to use this approach.
So the 2020 Audio Drama Day was going to be a moment to encourage existing creators and newbies both, to look at making a microseries or other project that could benefit vulnerable people. And then the coronavirus pandemic started, and we all became vulnerable.
Normally, I spend several months promoting audio drama in the summer and fall. But I also had to take a step back when my father became terminally ill. In his long-term care facility, which limited even family visits to prevent further spread of the virus, it was impossible to even get his beloved Pandora feed up, so he could listen to music – let alone radio or spoken word. During his childhood, his favorite audio drama was “Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy” – a plucky boy with a can-do attitude. With this sustained pandemic, it’s difficult for many of us to keep going, even if we didn’t lose a loved one or a job. But we need to try and channel some of Jack Armstrong’s spirit. With that spirit, audio drama becomes not only an escape, or perhaps a return to what was once “normal,” but also another way of imagining the possible – as it did for so many people during the Great Depression.
Putting seniors and teachers first
The people most at risk during this pandemic include those who were young kids in the 1930s and 1940s. They snuck crystal radio sets and flashlights under the covers, or huddled in the dark around the eerie light of a cathedral radio with the rest of the family, in a time before TV. Let’s figure out how we can help them – especially those who are now isolated from visits by friends and family. I can tell you – firsthand – that their mental and physical health will improve, if we can find solutions for them. Psychological research suggests that it’s really not our imagination – we can develop an affection for our favorite media characters, like Captain Kirk or Lucy Ricardo, as if they were real people. In the same way, audio drama media can be a comfort to many people who can’t see their family or friends in person.
We can also consider how to help the teachers in our midst. Many of them here in Texas are at a crisis point, having been told, even if they have an underlying condition, that they must teach face-to-face. In practice, this often means teaching an in person group of students while also teaching at-home students over Zoom – often at the same time.
Audio drama is one free or low-cost way to engage students in a collaborative activity – making their own audio dramas using Audacity (free download), recording special effects. Many teachers know what “readers theatre” is – a very bare-bones kind of audio drama. If you’re a writer, you might consider making a “readers theatre” script available. If you’re a parent, you can suggest audio drama as an activity that gets students engaged. And it doesn’t just have to be on October 30th – these strategies are available all year round. Audio dramas that are “old time radio” are also a great way to access 20th century history.
The late Roger Ebert once said film was the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. But he also loved audio drama, and the power of those stories too. Audio drama can’t solve all the world’s problems, but it’s not just an escape from the mundane (no matter what William Conrad used to tell us)… it’s also a practice in imagining, even recasting, the future. We just have to give it a little “push” to get us through, and into 2021.
Happy World Audio Drama Day! Long live Audio Drama!
Why Do We Celebrate Audio Drama on October 30th?
For those of you who still haven’t heard the news – really, the first “fake” news controversy of note – on October 30th, 1938, the Mercury Theater on the Air, a sustained radio show airing on the Columbia Radio network, and piloted by Orson Welles and John Houseman, broadcast Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”, a Victorian novel about the invasion of Britain, then the entire planet, by Martians. The rest is pop culture history… and now World Audio Drama Day history.
Surprisingly, UNESCO – the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – almost chose to celebrate World Radio Day on October 30th. It was a date that was very popular with some decision-makers within the international organization, but others were concerned about such a pivotal day being connected with a “hoax” or “trick”. (Others were concerned that this might be a too Western-centric date – a good point, considering that pivotal radio moments happen every day happening in rural locations and in developing countries. Regional broadcasters in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe may not have the cachet of Clear Channel, National Public Radio or the BBC World Service, but their audio dramas can actually change lives for the better.)And still, the most famous audio drama of all time is not a popular podcast nor one of the earliest dramas heard over radio.
How did Audio Drama Day happen?
I can’t even remember the first audio drama I fell in love with, though “War of the Worlds” had to be one of the next one or two. I’ve been advocating for audio drama since. In late 2012, I believed the 75th anniversary of this broadcast – October 30, 2013 – was a good time to announce a national day to celebrate the artform of audio drama. Not just “old time radio” or “fiction podcasts”. All audio drama – whether it was broadcast on radio, streamed over the web, performed live on stage or in a classroom, or listened to as a podcast on a smartphone. At the Parsec Awards held in Atlanta that Labor Day, hosts Scott Sigler and Veronica Belmont generously took a moment to mention that October 30th would be the first Audio Drama Day. (Thank you so much, both of you.) Today, it’s an opportunity for all of us to celebrate audio drama, no matter how we came to it, or when.
I want to also point out that this entire idea of announcing a regular date for audio drama enjoyment and history, in hindsight, seems pretty crazy. The Friends of Old Time Radio, a terrific organization that held large get-togethers each year in the Newark area, had closed shop in 2011. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had, under the Stephen Harper regime, slashed drama in 2009, and then completely cut it – all funding, all production – in 2012. Other than Sound Stages Radio, which I co-owned with my husband until 2017, and had purchased from long-time producer Jeff Adams (Icebox Radio), in 2013 I knew of no other station in North America still running a modern audio drama format. And I often tell people about a top NGO media strategist I spoke to at South by Southwest in 2015, who told me that she thought podcasts were “dead” – which made me feel a little less pompous about moderating one of two audio drama panels at the festivals. And yet – audio drama not only endures, but is in the midst of a Bronze age renaissance of creativity. There are literally hundreds of excellent audio dramas to choose from today.
My favorite aspect of Audio Drama Day is seeing people on social media sharing the works by others that they enjoy most – not just the ones they produced or worked on, but that give them joy (or more appropriately for Halloween, shivers).
P.S. One of these years we’ll have to celebrate at real-life Grovers Mill, New Jersey. RSVP me, 2022. Maybe we’ll even have company.