Tag: audio drama

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Twelve: The Twenty-First Century

Continued from Part Twelve

The Twenty-first Century has been a boon for audio drama. The software and equipment required to record audio dramas has become far less expensive and easier to use. In addition, it’s possible to record audio dramas with an entirely remote cast using sound mixing software.  The distribution has also become easier. While commercial radio stations remain as reluctant as ever to air audio dramas, there are options, many of which are free, to release audio dramas as podcasts.

We won’t even try to recount all the programs that have emerged on podcasts or produced a CD distributed through Blackstone Audio. There are just too many. But there are a couple of individual productions that merit some discussion.

Twilight Zone Radio Dramas:

The Twilight Zone is one of the most iconic American television programs of all time. Carl Amari and the Falcon Picture Group received a license from CBS and Rod Serling’s estate to bring the series to audio and the series went to air in 2002. The radio series mostly adapted scripts that had been performed on television. Featured actors included some older actors such as Adam West, Beverly Garland, and Stan Freberg, along with some actors who’d appeared on the TV series playing different roles over radio such as Orson Bean and Morgan Brittany. In addition, there were also fairly well-known performers cast such as Jason Alexander, Adam Baldwin, Sean Astin, and John Rhys-Davies who starred in several different episodes of the series.

The scripts would stay faithful to the main thrust of the original stories but tended to add additional details or dialogue to expand on some of the ideas as well as to make them work for radio. At the peak of the series popularity, The Twilight Zone was syndicated on more than 200 radio stations, appeared on BBC Radio 4 extra, and was broadcast on Satellite radio. The last episode was released in 2012 and the website disappeared a few years later. The series continues to be sold on CDs and as digital downloads.

GraphicAudio:

GraphicAudio came into existence in 2004. It has released more than 1,600 releases. Most of their output is a hybrid between traditional audiobooks and audio dramas. Releases tend to feature a narrator and we get to learn characters’ thoughts, but releases feature a full cast to play the characters and immersive sound design.

GraphicAudio is known for the action-packed nature of their releases. They began selling CDs, but are offering more MP3 download and App options. Their original CD plan had a clear target audience. Early CDs reference the presence of the CDs in truck stops and other roadside locations. They tended to sell six CD sets which worked great for long-haul truckers and others who had to be on the road a long time, particularly if they had CD changers. Load the six CD sets in and enjoy non-stop entertainment through a drive, Of course, more and more of their listeners are moving to app and download options which can work the same way while also serving an audience that’s not carrying a CD changer everywhere.

Graphic Audio adapted science fiction, adventure, and western stories among others. In recent years, it’s begun to adapt stories for major comic book publishers, having worked with DC, Marvel, and other comic companies including Dark Horse. With many of their DC adaptations, they adapted novels and even when doing comic book stories, they’d often perform the novel adaptation of the comic book as opposed to try to adapt the comic to the audio medium. While they haven’t done any comic adaptions for “the big two” in a while, they’ve got onto other projects that have a built-in fan base such as the anti-hero series The Boys and Mark Waid’s re-imaging of Archie comics.

GraphicAudio was acquired by RBMedia last year, but that’s not changed direction of the company. It continues to make productions with a very different feel. It’s not just the full-cast audiobook approach. They’re neither nostalgic, nor avante-garde. They’re unabashed action and adventures that offer listeners hours upon hours of escape.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Eleven: The Nineties, Part Two

Continued from Part Ten

Colonial Radio Theater:

Colonial Radio Theater began operating out of Boston in 1995. Of all American radio producers, they may have the greatest range of offerings. I could boil down others to a simple sentence that could boil down what they do. Jim French Productions thrived on producing mysteries. LA Theatre Works operates like a typical playhouse only performing their plays for audio. While these aren’t complete, they give you a gist of what the company does and specializes in.  There are more than hundreds of productions put out by the Colonial Radio Theater and I can’t really boil down their output that neatly. The closest I could come to is saying that they mostly put out period pieces, but that feels more incidental than essential to what they’ve been doing for the past quarter century.

Powder River and Other Original Series:  Powder River is their flagship series. They just released their thirteenth season chock full of half-hour Western adventures. In addition, they’ve also done some feature-length audio “movies.” In addition to that, they’ve also done other original series such as the Revolutionary War era series Ticonderoga. They also produced a series called Beacon Hill. following a wealthy family in Boston in 1898. The series was produced about the time that Downton Abbey was quite popular and played into that sort of story. They also produced comedy series such as The New Dibble Show and The Adventures of Sergeant Billy and Corporal Sam. 

History:  They did a lot of plays based on incidents from history, particularly American history. Notable among them are The Plimoth Adventure, the Alamo, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Little Big Horn. These historic stories were known for their dedication to historical accuracy.

Public Domain Adaptations: The public domain has served Colonial Radio Theater well and vice versa. They’ve adapted productions that have been obvious choices for many radio theaters including Dickens’s The Christmas Carol. L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However, they’ve also gone for some less obvious choices such as adapting Dickens’s other Christmas works, public domain sequels to the Wizard of Oz, as well as adapting a couple of the original Tom Swift novels from the early 20th Century.

Other adapted words included all the Jeeves and Wooster stories that were in the public domain at the time, all the stories in the first two Father Brown books, King Solomon’s Mine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Prince and the Pauper. 

Licensed Adaptations: Colonial has produced work for a many licensed properties including Zorro and Perry Mason.  They’ve also licensed some science fiction programs including Tom Corbett and Logan’s Run.

Perhaps, their most noted adaptations have been of the work of author Ray Bradbury, adapting four different novels. Their five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of the Martian Chronicles is one of their standouts.

Christmas Musical: In 2016, under the Family Audio Theater imprint, they also released Jimmy and the Star Angel, a children’s fantasy musical about two children who recently lost their father and find themselves shrunk down to ornament size and needing to journey to the top of the Christmas tree in order to be restored to normal.

Colonial was on Satellite radio for many years, and several of their productions were featured on Imagination Theater. Currently they feature on a few terrestrial and online radio stations while also selling their productions on CD and digital download through Audible.

Seeing Ear Theater

All the other productions from the 1990s I’ve talked about have carried on in one former or another. Seeing Ear Theater was different, but it was also an important trailblazer.

Seeing Ear Theater was released on the website of the SyFy channel (back when it was the Sci-Fi Channel) and featured original audio Science Fiction dramas. The dramas included obvious classics like Alice in Wonderland and The Time Machine as well as stories based on the work of more recent science fiction authors such as Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Babylon Five creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote an eight-episode serialized story for the series. The series also paid its respects to the golden age of radio with an adaptation of the most popular old-time radio story of all time, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” While a lot of lesser known actors appeared, there were some more notable talent, including Mark Hamill, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bronson Pinchot, Tony Danza, and Stanley Tucci. They even had one comedy episode featuring the stars of Mystery Science Theater  (the eighth-tenth seasons of the show aired on the Sci-Fi Channel.)

The series didn’t seem to have any major commercial agenda despite a few stories being released on audio cassette. It seemed to be an effort out of love for radio drama as well as a desire to promote the Sci-Fi channel website.

I remember being interested in it, but one word summarized my experience with the series…”buffering.” Seeing Ear Theatre released its episodes from 1997-2001, at the peak of dial-up internet popularity, before broadband connections became more common. In that era, a long-form video series on the Internet was impossible, but audio wasn’t much easier. This limited the reach of the series.

Yet, in retrospect, Seeing Ear Theater deserves credit for pointing to the Internet as the home for audio dramas. Since that series’ original release, Internet connections have gotten faster and hard drives have increased storage capacities. This has allowed greater distribution of audio dramas over the Internet. The Internet would become home to many original audio dramas, either downloaded off individual websites or available as podcasts. Few of these would have the star power that Seeing Ear Theater commanded, but these successor Internet audio dramas have the benefit of mobile devices and not having to deal with the headaches of dial-up.

 

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Ten: The Nineties, Part One

Continued from Part Nine

Jim French Returns

The change in format on KVI radio that had brought French’s first run (see part five) of audio dramas to an end back in 1978 that he had a recorded episode of Harry Nile that didn’t make it to air. “Favor a Friend” finally was aired in 1990. The play featured old time radio actors Jerry Hausner and Hans Conreid (who’d passed away during the intervening period.) The play was broadcast over radio station KIRO, which would become the new home of French’s radio dramas.

Harry Nile star Phil Harper was still available and stepped back into the role for three new episodes in 1991. That year, French produced far more new episodes of his anthology series Movies for Your Mind. However, Harry Nile was popular and production of new episodes ramped up. In the course of time, Harry moved from Los Angeles to Seattle where intricate research and knowledge of Seattle history and geography would give the series a unique flavor and feel. While New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco all had radio private eyes during the golden age. Seattle had been left out, and French remedied that. Harry was joined by his secretary (later partner) Murphy (initially played by Jim French’s wife, Pat.)

The series featured mostly local Seattle talent, although there were a few notable guest stars such as Russell Johnson (Gilligan’s Island) and Harry Anderson (Night Court and Dave’s World.) Harry Nile episodes were not told in strict chronological order. An episode might be told from the mid-1950s followed by one from the late 1940s. Episodes could be set after Harry has been settled in Seattle for several years or they could be set back when he was in Los Angeles with his office over a tailor’s shop.

175 of the 271 Harry Nile episodes French recorded from 1991 on were done before a live studio audience. Generally these live recording would include Harry Nile and an episode of another series.

While Harry Nile would become French’s flagship show, it would be far from his only one. In 1996, Jim French productions launched Kincaid the Strange Keeper about an investigative journalist that uncovers supernatural goings on. In 1998, French launched a Sherlock Holmes series with The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (not to be confused with the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name.) The series initially starred John Gilbert as Holmes, but he was replaced with John Patrick Lowrie in 2000. French would then produce The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes beginning in 2005 and eventually would cover ever story in the Holmes canon.

French also launched Imagination Theater. He  successfully syndicated the series across the United States. It would become an hour-long program that would not only serve as a vehicle for French’s programs (both old and new) but also works by other producers of audio drama, including Louie L’Amour and Colonial Radio Theatre.

In 2003, Harper passed away at age 64 and Larry Albert, who played Watson in Sherlock Holmes, took over as the second voice of Harry Nile after 156 episodes. In Albert’s run as Nile, there was a separate series of adventures called War Comes to Harry Nile. In Harper’s run, Pearl Harbor had been touched on, and then there had been two non-War related episodes during World War II. II. War Comes to Harry Nile did a lot to fill out what happened to Harry during those crucial war years.

At the same time, French continued to launch new programs in the mid-2000s. Raffles, the Gentlemen Thief followed the famous criminal character A.J. Raffles on his escapades. There was also The Hillary Caine Mysteries focusing on a “girl detective” working for a magazine in the 1930s and Kerides the Thinker, focusing on a young philosopher who finds himself drawn into all kinds of mysteries in Third Century BC Greece. French’s audience thrilled to new historic detective stories, but modern tales tended to be shorter-lived. (The exception to this was Kincaid the Strangeseeker.) Most of these series were produced at an episode or two per year. There were nineteen episodes of Raffles released over twelve years, twenty-two Hillary Caine episodes released over twelve years, and eighteen Kerides episodes released over ten years. Over the course of a couple different specials, it was established that all Jim French series existed in a shared universe.

Of course, French didn’t do this all by himself. He built up a solid group of talented actors, directors, and other creative professionals to bring the series together. British writer M.J. Elliott, and Larry Albert and Pat French, who could direct in addition to writing were among those who helped maintain the creative output.

In 2012, Pat French retired from the role of Murphy and passed away in February 2017 and Jim French productions closed its doors in March with the last Imagination Theater released in February 2017 with an implied huge shift in the relationship between Harry and his long-time comrade in, “Harry and Murphy,” the 294th episode of Harry Nile. French himself died in December 2017. His family gave old time radio seller Radio Spirits the rights to produce CDs and audiobooks of his books and episodes of Harry Nile began to appear on Radio Classics.

Yet, that wasn’t quite the end of the road for French’s creations. John Patrick Lowrie had an idea and was able to persuade Larry Albert and others to revive Harry Nile. With the blessing of the French family estate, Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes returned to the air with new adventures produced by a new company called Audio Visions LLC. Harry Nile returned in October of 2017 with the episode, “Once More with Feeling.” The first episode of 2018, “A Guy Named Jim” paid Tribute to the show’s creator.

Since then Audio Visions LLC has produced new episodes of both Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes. There have now been more than 320 Harry Nile episodes released. They’ve also created their own modern series featuring an adult mother-daughter detective duo in Murder and the Murdochs. While they enjoy a much more limited syndication than Imagination Theater did at its heyday, Audio Visions continues the tradition Mr. French began of producing beloved audio dramas from the Pacific Northwest.

LA Theatre Works

L.A. Theatre Works has actually been in existence since 1974 but began as a conventional theatre. However, in the 1990s, it moved towards producing audio plays and has continued to operate in that way for the last quarter of a century.

The company has produced a wide variety of different plays. These have ranged from well-known plays by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, and Noel Coward to adaptations of great works such as Dochotevsky’s The Idiot and The Brothers Karmazov to more modern plays and even some works designed for younger audiences. They also adapted plays from the legendary golden age of radio writer Norman Corwin including a new take on his play The Undecided Molecule as well as works he wrote for the stage.

Over the years, they’ve worked with well-known actors such as Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Calista Flockheart, Carolyn Seymour, Annette Benning, and Michael York. They’ve released more than 500 different plays as audio drama, available through audible.com as well as for free listening through libraries that use the Hoopla app.

They also do weekly broadcasts that are syndicated to fifty different public radio stations in the United States and Internationally. They continue to operate to this day, producing a typical mix of plays for their virtual audience.

 

Audio Drama Review: The Patrick Scott Smokin’ Mysteries

To enjoy the Patrick Scott Smokin’ Mysteries, set the right expectations. These are not typical half-hour or hour-long mysteries. Rather, they’re about 4-6 minutes in length and meant to be enjoyed in short bursts, preferably with family. They are more about puzzles, brain teasers, and trivia than whodunits. Think more Encyclopedia Brown than Hercule Poirot.

In one episode, a series of clues were used as two police officers were engaged in trying to find where a suspect was heading and the police officer would intercept with the key being the listener’s ability to guess which street they were heading to. Of course, real police officers have a knowledge of a city’s street set up, so there’s no mystery in real life. The set up reminds me of detective-themed riddle books.

However, once you understand the set up, these are enjoyable diversions. Each episode follows Lieutenant Patrick Scott, Jr. (Scott Brick), his father, retired Captain Patrick Scott, Sr. (Patrick Fraley), or another family member or police officer as they try to solve a puzzle generally involving a crime. The set up will generally be a single scene (or two) where clues are gathered and then the listener is given about a minute of “mystery-solving music” to think about it and/or discuss the case with others who are listening before the solution is revealed.

The mysteries are decent brain teasers. There’s some humor that’s amusing, if not laugh out loud hilarious. The stories  are all fairly clean at a G or PG rating level. The mystery-solving music is pleasant, usually a bit of soft jazz, though they do mix it up a bit, particularly in three episodes that feature an Irish informant who makes the police solve his riddle in order to get clues.

Scott and Fraley are both old pros at the voice acting game and have recorded hundreds of audiobooks. Fraley (who also wrote the production) did a lot of voices for animation, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. From my childhood, he was the voice of Wildcat on Talespin and many characters on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon including Krang the Conquerer and Baxter Stockman. Fraley was a regular fixture as an animation character actor as so many of his credits are for “additional voices.” All that to say, both are top people in the voice acting profession and delivered the performances you’d expect. Brick’s Patrick Scott, Jr. sounds exactly like the ex-Private Eye he’s supposed to be and the narration is flawless. Meanwhile, Fraley’s Senior is endearingly irascible and fun to listen to.

Beyond the leads, this is very much an ensemble production with actors having to switch from one role to another frequently and without making your characters sound all the same and everyone did a good job of that. There was only one character that seemed off, but given the sheer number of mini-mysteries in this set, that’s a good average.

The last twenty minutes or so of the disk feature a Q&A session with Frank Muller, a pioneer in the audiobook world who’d recorded books for many authors including Stephen King. Muller had just recently passed away and this was offered as a tribute to him. To me, it was an interesting insight into how good audiobook narrators ply their trade. If that doesn’t excite you, then you may not get much out of that portion.

Overall, this is an interesting release. It’s well-acted with good sound, although minimalistic, and is good for short diversions. It’s best to listen to one or two mysteries at a time when travelling with kids and looking for something to do in the car. With that approach, the more than two and a half hours of puzzle mysteries will last a good while.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice, Season Nine

Season Nine of Black Jack Justice sees Jack (Christopher Mott) and Trixie Dixon (Andrea Lyons) back for six more investigations. The ninth season continues the same high standard. It offers everything you come to expect: The opening monologue that introduces a well-worn aphorism as a basis for the case, the clever banter, and the solid mystery stories you come to expect.

Jack’s status as a newly married man has a small impact on the series. Had there been romantic tension between the two lead characters, it would have been much more major. However, unlike in most detective fiction, where statements of contempt hide passionate love, the statements of contempt between Jack and Trixie reflected that they didn’t much like each other personally but had a good working relationship. However, Jack’s mood is less dour than in past seasons as he’s enjoying conjugal bliss. One episode, “Home for the Holidays” saw Jack getting involved in solving a crime in a small town so Jack could get home to his wife.

The series had limited appearances from the recurring guest cast. Jack’s wife is seen and not heard after appearing in the previous two seasons. King the office dog and Freddy the Finger are far less present than in previous seasons.

The episodes are all good. I particularly liked the contrast between the last two episodes of the season. In “The Big Time,” Jack and Trixie get an unexpected opportunity to take on a big case for an insurance company with a big payoff. This is followed by, “The Learner’s Permit” where they agree to help a writer do research for his new detective story, and then bungle their way into a murder investigation where they should be able to tell the police everything needed to solve the case and provide photographic evidence, but instead have bungled it so badly that someone else has to step in and solve the case. Creating a contrast between a high water mark and one of their most embarrassing moments business is a clever take by writer Gregg Taylor.

While I did miss some of the recurring characters, this was still a fun listen. If you enjoyed any of the past Black Jack Justice seasons, Season 9 is well-worth listening to.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Black Jack Justice Season 9 is available to listen to for free at Decoder Ring Theatre.

Audio Drama Review: The Crogan Adventures

In 2013, Decoder Ring Theatre, best known for producing Black Jack Justice and the Red Panda Adventures released the Crogan Adventures, an audio drama based on Chris Schweitzer’s graphic novel series following the adventures of the Crogan family throughout  history.  

Each of the six episodes has the framing device of the modern Crogan children doing something that sets their father into telling a story from the rich history of the Crogan family.

The Crogan Adventures are set in a variety of times and places. The interesting historical settings include South Africa during the booming diamond mining era, a foreign legion camp, and two boats out at sea. The productions have a strong repertory company feel with different casts outside of the framing scenes each week, so actors who were regulars in Decoder Ring Theatre’s regulator productions get an opportunity to play different parts. Each episode offers a nice combination of mystery, drama, and humor that’s relatively family friendly.

If I had one complaint, it was that the framing scenes did seem a bit cheesy, but that almost feels like the point.

Overall, if you like exciting adventure stories spread throughout history with amazing locations and outlandish protagonists, the Crogan Adventures are definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

The Crogan Adventures can be listened to here.

Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda, Season Eight

The Eight Season of the Red Panda Adventures is its third World War II season and sees another shift in the series’ dynamics. The Red Panda (Gregg Taylor) is back in Canada after his wife Kit (played by Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor) (aka The Flying Squirrel) held down the fort for a long time believing him to be dead while he was in Europe.

Now their focus is on winning the war as the series marches on towards D-Day. Also with our heroes newly parents, there’s a focus on laying the groundwork for their retirement… if they survive the war. As a noted loner, the Red Panda is forced a new role as leader of a patriotic superteam of young heroes known as the Danger Federation.  At the same time, he and the Flying Squirrel battle a mix of foreign and domestic threats.

I enjoyed this series quite a bit. It may be my favorite war series so far. It managed to have a great balance of different types of stories, while still having ongoing threads. I enjoyed them all. Three were the best. “The Honored Dead” finds the World War II-era Red Panda and Flying Squirrel travelling back in time to the 1930s and meeting their old comrades. It’s a nicely done piece with a lot of emotion. In “The Lab Rats” the Red Panda has to use his scientific skills to thwart a Nazi weapon in a team up with the former Supervillain the Genie, and his old ally Doctor Chronopolis. The season finale, “The End of the Beginning” features the Red Panda teaming up with another hero and leaving the Flying Squirrel behind as he travels to Occupied Europe just before D-Day to stop a Nazi super man.

The writing and acting remain strong throughout. Probably my biggest issue with the season is some interesting ideas didn’t get the exploration they could have.  The Danger Federation could have been the focus of more stories. I also thought exploring our heroes as parents would be interesting. Instead, the baby is a plot point that sets up their desire for retirement.

The sound design does continue to be primitive, which is usually not a big deal. But in, “The End of the Beginning,” the climatic fight scene is great, but it suffers from weak sound design. If they ever decide to remaster the series with better sound effects, this is the first episode that should be done.

Overall, this was one a strong season of wartime action that moves our heroes closer to the end of the war.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Red Panda Adventures Season 8 can be listened to for free here.