Why Celebrate Audio Drama?
And why celebrate it on October 30th?
In just a few years, we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of audio drama, an artform that began in the early days of radio. But the most famous audio drama of all time is neither a popular podcast nor one of the earliest dramas heard over radio.
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.)
I had the temerity to believe, in late 2012, that 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. Today, it’s an opportunity for all of us to celebrate audio drama, no matter how we came to it, or how we participate…though if you read on, I do want to challenge the celebration to get broader.
I want to also point out that this entire idea, 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 the streaming station, 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.
Now that World Audio Drama Day is on its sixth celebration, I have to say that my favorite thing is something I never expected. It’s 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). I’d love to see that continue, but also expand the mission. Audio drama will only thrive into the 21st century if future generations continue to have opportunities to hear it, and write, produce and perform in their own audio dramas. Among the most crucial places where this happens is in developing countries and rural areas around the world, where broadcast radio is still very important, and where mobile networks are often the most accessible method of getting online. When audio drama is used in this way, it’s called “entertainment-education”. 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.
Your best friend already listens to your favorite podcast, right? If you are already producing new audio drama, I would like to challenge you to make a complete microseries to benefit vulnerable people in your country, state or territory and release it next year – the lucky 7th World Audio Drama Day, 2020. It should be accessible to listeners who have an 8th grade vocabulary, and produced under a Creative Commons license that permits reuse and adaptation. It could be a set of short audio drama podcasts lasting five minutes or less. It could be a set of scripts that can be used and adapted by rural, community, and educational broadcasters. It should be on a topic of wide concern: improving health, preventing illness or suicide, coping with climate change, emergency preparedness. The very best will be featured here on the website in 2020. Use the hashtag #AudioDramaHelps.
I would also like to challenge you to join a regional or international group producing 11th Hour Audio – and if there’s nothing nearby or convenient for you – start planning for next year.
No one has the definitive name for this artform today (fiction podcasts? audio serials? radio drama? full cast audio?) But I’d like to reiterate as well that World Audio Drama Day must always recognize the trailblazing past of “old time radio” – not only the work of Welles, Houseman, Koch, and their cast and crew, but the many brilliant writers, producers, sound designers and actors who kept this art alive long before and until the syndicated podcast was invented. We also owe something to the listeners, of course – those who snuck crystal radio sets and flashlights under the covers, and families huddled in the dark around the eerie light of a cathedral radio. But also to the men and women who saved and carefully tended many radio shows now available online, that would otherwise have disappeared into the ether. Some of those listeners are now in nursing homes and hospitals. Consider, if you can, spending a weekend volunteering – reading out scripts from the Generic Radio Workshop to retired listeners, or producing a kid-friendly script or podcast for hospital stations like Radio Lollipop. When you do, again, I suggest using #AudioDramaHelps.
The late Roger Ebert once said film was the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. There’s an argument there, certainly. But he was also an audio drama fan who enjoyed the retro Red Panda Adventures. 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. May that be a long future filled with great stories and empathy.
Happy World Audio Drama Day! Long live Audio Drama!
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.