For the past forty years, Jim French has been a leading creator and advocate for audio drama. He’s produced around 1,000 episodes between all the programs Jim French productions has made. This Sunday will mark the 1,093rd and final weekly broadcast of Imagination Theater, and the final episode of the long-running Seattle based Detective series Harry Nile.
Yet, the end of French’s distinguished career doesn’t mean an end of audio drama in the United States. Far from it. There are many companies that are emerging, and of course, there are existing companies in the United States such as the Colonial Radio Theatre as well as the Twilight Zone Radio series which airs on 200 radio stations across America as well as several faith-based series like Adventures in Odyssey and Unshackled. In addition, there are great companies from Great Britain such as Big Finish and the production house of BBC radio 4.
Yet audio drama is shrouded in obscurity. To most Americans, it’s something that ended with the Golden Age of Radio. This belief is shared by many who would be an audience for it. Our twenty-first century world of high storage capacity, and streaming of wireless and data make audio drama attractive entertainment for life on the go. What’s required to make audio drama successful in the United States in the twenty-first century? There are several things that producers and fans can do to make this happen.
In this article I’ll focus on producers and next week I’ll focus on fans. My suggestions come from more of a “fan’s eye” view of how successful radio dramas work. The best audio producers I’ve mentioned are doing most most of these already, so I’m talking about the best practices I’ve observed. Hopefully new producers will join their ranks and provide a quality product that listeners will enjoy.
1) Focus on a Great Listener Experience:
Audio Drama is some of the least expensive media to produce compared to television and movies. However, a successful radio drama does require good script writing and good acting. The quality of the voice becomes more critical as there’s little that can be done if the acting is not right. It’s critical to think about the experience of the listener. I once purchased an audio drama where it turned out to be a recording of a stage play. It mostly worked, but I got lost as to what was going on at times due to physical actions that weren’t communicated for the audio. In such adaptations, adding linking narration in post-production can help keep listeners from getting lost.
2) Build a Great Community of Cast and Crew
One of the most striking things about the best audio dramas is how often the same names are repeated in the credits. Whether it’s Lincoln Clark at Colonial Radio Theater or John Dorney at Big Finish, great companies tend to use and develop talented actors, writers, and production staff.
3) Be Transparent About Content Issues
Not all audio dramas are for the whole family. However, many people may assume audio dramas will be relatively family friendly. Some will have heard old time radio and assume it would be like that. Audio producers may assume that anything goes since they’re telling a serious modern story without having to deal with FCC standards. Just because a story has a heavy topic doesn’t mean it requires strong language or graphic sex portrayals and it’s not wise to assume listeners will magically predict what producers will do. It’s advisable to include content warnings if your productions contain material that would get a film rated PG-13 or worse. Creators aren’t required by law or anyone else to post these notices, but if they don’t, they need to be prepared to get reviews from irate parents who decided to play their audio drama on a long car trip and their children were exposed to a torrent of F-bombs.
4) Make Programs Accessible and Affordable
It’s critical for producers to give the public a chance to get hooked on their productions. There are many ways to do this. For example, some audio drama producers make many of their older dramas available on Spotify, or they make them available through digital content distribution companies who provide them to libraries. Others will put full episodes of their series on Soundcloud or be featured in a broadcast like Imagination Theater. These may bring in small royalty checks or provide no income, but they allow listeners a risk free chance to discover what a company produces. Once the public discovers them, it’s important that companies find a way to balance the need for profit with the ability to keep their offerings affordable for the general public.
5) Keep Constantly Improving
Audio Drama producers should be constantly innovating and improving in every aspect of their business from cover art to music and sound design. With good companies like Big Finish or Colonial, you can tell their earliest productions from their later ones because they’ve stepped up their production values in every way.
A new company can start out doing productions with minimal sound effects and decent music. If they have good scripts and actors, it can still be entertaining provided they don’t try to produce a massive epic that can’t be done well with a 5,000 sound effects CD. As long as their reach doesn’t exceed their grasp, they can be in a good place. But it’s important to avoid complacency. The top-of-the-line audio productions sound much better than those that were made just ten years ago, and smart producers will work to reach that level.
There’s a great opportunity for innovative people to join those already making great audio drama. Talent and a dedication to quality are the keys to success.
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