drama, a relic from radio's golden age, is experiencing a revival at Vancouver
Co-op Radio and beyond thanks to technological advances and the Internet
Tromp, Vancouver Courier, June 15,
Last March, Canadian
fans of audio drama were shocked. In the federal budget, the Harper government
trimmed the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's funding by 10 per cent, and CBC
management responded by cutting its radio drama completely.
It spelled the end of an 85-year
tradition. The most famous casualty was the long-running CBC radio show Afghanada, which followed the stories of our soldiers
abroad and attracted almost half a million listeners. Dozens of prominent
writers, actors and politicians protested the cut, to no avail. It was a major
setback indeed-but it's not the end of the story, for audio drama still
survives in many other forums in Vancouver and around the world.
"We are in a revolutionary
time for radio drama now," says local audio playwright Jason Logan, author
of the radio play Jack Benny Live at the Vancouver Pantages, which played on
Co-Op Radio. "I am really stoked. When I grew up in Detroit in the late
1940s, radio was my religion. That's why I wanted to bring political comedy to
the Internet, by way of radio webisodes. Today, you can become your own
On live radio, many Vancouverites
keenly listen to classic radio shows every midnight on CKNW, and on Lights Out
on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on Classic Rock 101. Younger artists are creating
whole new styles of drama for podcasts, and far from killing off analogue-age
radio dramas, digital media helps to preserve them by providing thousands of
free downloadable samples on the Internet. This, in turn, is inspiring new
generations of listeners to create more shows like it.
drama or radio play is a dramatized, purely acoustic performance, broadcast on
radio, posted on the Internet, or published on audio media such as CDs. With no
visual component, it depends on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the
listener imagine the characters and story. Because the listener works to
co-recreate the story, it has been called the most personal and intimate
dramatic medium. (It's not to be confused with audio books, read by a single narrator,
which is now a $400-million business.)
In his grad student years, Logan
heard Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan speak in Toronto. In an
eye-dominant world, said McLuhan, the ear is taken for granted and too often
neglected, and that in this age of visual stimulations, listening (in media as
in life) has become almost a lost art, one that needs to be rediscovered and
Audio drama, whether played
through headphones or loudspeakers, is also ideal for times when it's
impracticable to watch TV or hold up a book. It works well for truckers on an
overnight drive, a hotel desk clerk on night shift, people cleaning or cooking,
eating dinner, soaking in a bath, tanning in a beach chair, waiting at a bus
station at night. It can be heard by campers, hikers, cross-country cyclists,
or for anyone travelling by car, ferry, train or plane. Local radio playwright
Dean Hoover listens to old radio plays on CKNW when he works the graveyard
shift at a Vancouver airport warehouse.
In fact, audio drama is a break
for anyone tired of reading text or staring into a computer or TV screen. Some
prefer to dim the lights or close their eyes, which generally works for the
Since their debut in 1922, radio
plays have been generally underrated as a poor cousin of the visual drama-live
stage, film, television-and are seldom reviewed by critics. Yet over the past
century they have been valued by many passionate devotees. There are genres for
every listener: classic novels, detective stories, westerns, comedy, romance,
horror, and science fiction-and thousands of such old-time plays can downloaded
for free at archive.org. (See related story on page 34.)
When playing old radio dramas,
seniors can re-live simpler times, the blind and disabled can imagine a new
world, and immigrants and those with reading difficulties can learn English
classics. For young people, it may be an interesting new experience, serving as
a halfway station between the active labour of
reading and the passivity of watching TV or films. In some ways, too, the
stories suggest the aboriginal tradition of oral history.
It is a diverse medium,
with a play (sometimes enhanced with a short poem or song within it) for every
taste and education level, and ranging from the most politically and
aesthetically conservative to the most anarchic.
Revisiting old time radio plays
is a longtime Vancouver tradition, Rock 101 radio programmer Owen Coppin told
the Courier, and was started by the late Jack Cullen of that station in the
1960s. The most popular shows are The Shadow and The Whistler, and each
Halloween, the station airs Orson Welles' drama War of the Worlds (which in
1938 famously panicked thousands of listeners into believing Earth was being
invaded by Martians).
Coppin gets emails from people
all over the world listening in real time via streaming audio, from Japan,
Australia, the UK, the U.S., and Eastern Canada where they cannot find a
similar show. "It never ceases to amaze me," says Coppin. "It
used to be requests by mail and many phone calls during the show. Then in the
1990s emails started and haven't stopped."
He added that one elementary
school teacher in Vancouver plays shows such as The Shadow for children's quiet
time and found it increased their interest in reading. Several schools reenact
the shows in their acting classes, while an English teacher uses the show as an
alternate to a book report. Some fathers let their kids age 12 and older stay
up on Sundays to listen, either with them or alone, as they did themselves in
the 1960s when they were allowed to take a flashlight to bed and listen under
the covers, an activity almost lost in two generations but making a small
comeback, Coppin says.
I n Canada, the first regular
radio drama series was the CNRV Players show of the Canadian National Railway
Drama Department's (1927-32), produced from Vancouver by Jack Gillmore. During Canadian radio's golden age from 1944 to
1961, about 6,000 ad-free plays-sharp, sophisticated, often politically
risky-were produced in more than 100 CBC series across the country, and more
than half were Canadian originals.
By the mid-1950s, audiences began
to shift their interest to television. Quality CBC radio drama continued,
however, ranging from adaptations of short stories by Margaret Atwood, Margaret
Laurence and Alice Munro in the late 1970s, to Vancouverite Mark Leiren-Young's Dim Sum Diaries in 1991, to Afghanada this decade.
"We grew too dependant on CBC," says Logan. While CBC radio theatre
was unique, one can find other outlets for audio drama in Vancouver.
Jay Hamburger, artistic director
of Theatre in the Raw (theatreintheraw.ca ), has
presented 22 radio plays on the Thursday nights 9 p.m. Arts Rational program of
Co-Op Radio (CFRO 102.7 FM), and hopes to continue. (Full disclosure: I took a
VSB acting class with Hamburger years ago.)
Hamburger, who studied radio
drama at UBC's theatre department in the early 1990s, has been trying to set up
a low-cost radio play writing and acting course at the Vancouver School Board's
continuing education program.
"Radio plays are a great
start and a training ground for shy actors, and novice writers and directors,
musicians and technicians," he says, adding that he works for hours with foley (sound effects) technicians for each audio play.
Other activities abound. Over the
years, Co-Op radio has hosted live broadcasts of plays from the Fringe
Festival, the Carnegie Radio Play Project, and Radio Station CafĂ© (a project of the Portland Hotel Society). Recently,
the Performing Arts Lodge on Cardero Street was
transformed into a radio studio by Michael Fera,
co-artistic director of Hoarse Raven Theatre, for a performance of A Christmas
Twitter and iPod generations are
not just putting new dramatic wine in the old bottles, but reinventing the
bottle itself, as they experiment with original ways to create and distribute
their audio stories. In fact, the term "radio play" is being
supplanted by "audio drama" as listeners shift from radio to the
For instance, Not From Space (2003) on XM Satellite Radio was the first
national U.S. radio play recorded exclusively through the Internet in which the
voice actors were all in separate locations. Digital recording is cheaper and
more flexible than analogue, independent radio drama podcasts have no
restrictions on program length or content, and improvisation may become as
popular as scripted drama. Logan foresees the use of graphics to accompany the
audio drama on the play's website.
"Radio Drama is
Re-invented," announced Vancouver's Pi Theatre last April as it presented
Visions of Vancouver-Stories in the Digital Age. This was a series of four
short plays commissioned to celebrate Vancouver's 125th anniversary, performed
live at CBC Studio 700 last October, and recordings can be found on the
theatre's website at pitheatre.com. Of these, Adrienne Wong's Elevate is the
bittersweet story of Sal, a young woman struggling to find community in an
anonymous downtown condo tower, and The Thin Veneer, Kevin Loring's response to
last year's Stanley Cup riot.
"In six months, we had 500
people stream or download the plays from 11 countries," says Pi's artistic
director Richard Wolfe. "I love doing it. We tried to capture flavour of old time radio, so we
did it in a studio, and made a special set for each play."
One of the boldest departures
from the older style is the "podplay" by
Neworld Theatre of Vancouver (neworldtheatre.com). "A podplay is what happens when a radio drama meets a walking
tour," explain the company's artistic producers Marcus Youssef and
Adrienne Wong. "Each of Neworld's podplays is a 15-minute adventure in Vancouver's downtown.
You will hear characters, story and dialogue-just like a radio drama. And you
will hear instructions that will navigate your walk through the city
is the only audio drama noted here that subscribers must pay for, which Neworld says goes to artist fees and royalties for the more
than 50 people who produce it. Many theatrical groups are non-profit charities,
and some receive government funding while others do not, but none have paid
Audio drama is the cheapest form
to produce, and most artists accept that nobody will ever grow rich from the
medium. If enough cheap online subscriptions and CDs cannot be sold, production
funding might still be found through private donors, foundations, or even
advertising. (Wolfe said online subscriptions are problematic because a file
can be improperly copied and shared by a user, and that dramatic CDs are mainly
bought by people over age 50.)
"I don't think the old radio
play format is obsolete," says Wolfe. "And the CBC radio plays were
also posted on their website. It's thriving in England, and there they have a special awards show just for radio acting." Indeed, in
the U.K., the BBC spends $15 million annually to produce 750 new radio plays a
year. Moreover, Sue Zizza, a sound-effects artist who
teaches at New York University, figures there are about 300 "true, quality
audio dramatists" active in the United States.
"Radio drama like Lux
Theatre pulled people together, and the Internet splits the audience,"
says Hoover. As most new media is produced and consumed today, the audio drama
has become more fragmented and individualistic: after recorded and mixed with
the most sophisticated audio technology, it can be effortlessly downloaded to
be heard anytime. Yet some listeners might prefer the simplicity of old-time
radio, when people from coast to coast would gather around the radio, awaiting
the same theatrical event at a set broadcast time.
"When I was in high school I
was glued to the radio every Sunday night to listen to CBC broadcasts of
adapted classics. Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, etc.," Alice Munro wrote
to protest the CBC cuts. "It was my lifeline to a world of nobody I knew.
So-was this elitist? I don't care-it was salvation."