Is a New Golden Age of Audio Dramas Coming

As we hunker down during the global pandemic, those with more leisure time have binged a whole lot of television and been able to find distraction in new episodes of their favorite programs.

Many live late night programs have continued with the host at home and guests also at home. While this can work to an extent for Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert, it raises a point.

How is this going to work for scripted dramas? There are so many logistical issues with filming a TV show or movie. The sheer number required to be working together on the set, the close proximity that actors have to get to each other, etc. If some form of social distancing continues to be enforced, any TV shows and movies produced during this time are going to look quite odd. That’s if they can be produced at all.

While it’d be an interesting idea to do more animation of popular TV shows, the truth be told, there’s not going to be time before the Fall Season to produce high quality animation to continue beloved shows.

The answer may be for the shows to re-embrace the audio medium they abandoned nearly sixty years ago and work to release new programs over radio. British Audio Drama company Big Finish announced on March 17th that it was suspending recording due to the COVID-19 virus and therefore would not be in studio. However, 9 days later, they were back in production having discovered that most of their stars could work from home and the direction could also be done remotely.

Dramatic podcasts around the world have been doing the same thing for years, as producers using affordable software have been able to mix and blend voices from thousands of miles away to tell stories via audio that sound just like they were recorded with all actors in the studio together.

While it might be tempting for any audio content to go to a premium provider like Audible, there’s going to be a larger audience for radio and a good potential to earn advertising revenue during a time when filming’s going to be difficult. The added listeners might also help radio stations who have seen their listening numbers decline with less people on the roads.

Several types of radio programs could work over radio during this period:

  1. Exploring Continuity Gaps:

A lot of dramatic television is highly serialized today. In an earlier era of television where continuity was light, it’d be easy if you made one-off radio episodes that told previously untold one-off adventures. That’s harder today because so many episodes are interconnected. TV shows also won’t want to continue their ongoing planned storylines over radio because we hope that television will eventually return to normal and they don’t want to mess up their reruns and resyndication plans by having audio episodes you have to listen to in order to understand what’s going on. They would have to re-record the audio shows for TV and I assume they won’t want to do that.

Some series could return and explore gaps in the continuity. For example, months often pass in-world between the end of one season and the start of another. If a TV series has already shot its season finale and knows that it wants to start the next season by jumping forward several months, it might do a radio series that explores what happens in those intervening months.

It might also explore past gaps in continuity. For example, the third season of the CW Series The Flash ended with the hero being imprisoned in the otherworldly Speed Force. The fourth season began after his friends had protected the city for six months in his absence. In the premier episode, they bring him back from the Speed Force. CW could commission a radio series based on what happened during that six-month period.

2. Spin Offs

Many programs have had popular guest characters and this might be a great time to explore whether their stories might be worth exploring in their own right. Creating Spin Offs will once again spare the main series from having to mess with its continuity. If the radio spin off works well, then a TV spin off may make sense once all returns to normal.

3. Return of the Cancelled Shows

Some shows continue to be popular even though they’ve gone into reruns. A new Golden Age of Radio could see them return for a limited run. There are two approaches that could be taken. First, is the continuity gap solution listed above. Secondly, you could set a show after its finale.

Monk would be a fun program to bring back by either approach. Attempts at making a Monk movie over the last 11 years have been stymied, but a series of radio dramas could hit the spot in these difficult times.

4. Original Programming

The networks have a whole host of ideas for concepts for new TV programs. Many of these could be adapted to radio, as well as bringing programs especially created for radio to light. Radio could provide a low-cost way to test the market for shows that would have high production values on TV.

5. Movie Adaptations

During the Golden Age of Radio, the Lux Radio Theater, Screen Guild Theater, and Screen Director’s Playhouse were dedicated to adapting movies to an audio format and recreated great big screen moments over the radio.

In the 1980s, George Lucas sold rights to adapt the Star Wars Trilogy to NPR for $1 per film and NPR produced adaptations of each of the first three films in the trilogy.

Adaptations of other popular films to radio with some of the original cast would be worth exploring. The Star Wars adaptations were popular even though fans could now watch the original films on VHS or TV.

Star Wars has a devoted fan base, which was key to the success of the audio dramas. Any successful adaptation of film to radio would have to be of a film which features equally devoted fans.

Overall, a new golden age of audio dramas would offer the entertainment industry a chance to bring something positive out of the awful events of the last few months, and I hope they avail themselves of the opportunity.

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