Since returning from the UK International Radio Drama festival last month, two things have become abundantly clear to me. First, I have yet to even begin to scratch the potential of theatre through sound at my company, Radio Icebox. Listening to festival offerings from all over the world impressed upon me that radio (or audio) drama not only has the potential to tell great stories, it can move and incite an audience with the same intensity as theatre on a stage or a screen.
The second thing I realized at the festival was a bit more inflammatory, or at least I hope so. At the risk of sounding like a petulant youth full of hubris in the face of indifferent superiors, I believe that National Public Radio, America’s national, tax-funded news and cultural radio network, needs to start backing radio drama production in the United States right now.
They must make air time and administrative support available. They must reach out to artists working in podcasting at the local, state and national levels. And they must do it all not only for the good of radio in United States, but for their own survival.
And I’ve come up with five reasons why.
Reason 1) Radio drama fulfills the cultural part of NPR's mission better than anything else.
Take a look at a section of NPR's mission statement:
To accomplish our mission, we produce, acquire, and distribute programming that meets the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression;
There are plenty of NPR programs that offer cultural expression, but do they represent the 'highest standards'? That which is not news follows known and safe patterns like music variety (Prairie Home Companion) or quiz shows starring comedians (Wait, Wait, Don't tell Me). Drama can engage an audience emotionally, challenge people in a way that leads to real debate and conversation. If the people in charge of NPR hold poets, writers and dramatists to be important to a society, then they owe it to those artists to provide a platform for their work. Their own mission statement says so.
Reason 2) The 'Bang for the Buck' in radio drama has never been better.
American public broadcasting, both radio and TV, does not produce much drama. Radio's offerings are in the past and TV's dramatic content comes from Britain with a few exceptions such as the recently canceled 'Mercy Street'. On the TV side, PBS executives excuse their network's tiny output by citing financial concerns and by pointing out that commercial TV, especially cable networks, is doing a fine job of creating new American drama. But in radio, neither excuse applies.
There is no cable or Netflix for radio drama. There may be great shows out there in podcasting, but they're hard to find in the ever-growing tidal wave of new offerings. And as for expense, radio drama need only be expensive if you insist on producing with outdated methods. Few shows in podcasting work in professional studios. There's no need with the cost of equipment dropping every year and the engineer's work desk replaced by a moderately tricked-out laptop. And many producers such as Fred Greenhalge of 'Final Rune Productions' have replaced the studio altogether. Fred takes his cast and crew on-location, working with film recording equipment while letting the environment provide a rich and realistic background. Because podcasters are used to working with so little they may well be available to public radio for little expense. For most groups, airtime, web hosting, administrative help and access to funders would be payment enough.
Reason 3) Radio drama could lower the average age of NPR's listener-ship considerably
In 2016, Edison Research Group identified adults ages 18-34 as the largest group of podcast listeners in the country. Thirty-eight percent of the listeners fell into that range while the next group in line (ages 35-54) made up 34%. And drama is enjoyed by these groups as much as any other podcast form. Meanwhile, NPR looks warily at an audience that is shrinking in every age category but 65+. What could the network do to attract new listeners? How about adding programming those listeners are already listening too? And younger generations seem less inclined to accept traditional news coverage, (NPR's standard fare) as a legitimate source of information. They prefer a smart, engaging entertainer who reflects their values while commenting on the news of the day. More and more, the talking head newscaster is seen as a figure at the head of a corporate agenda, while the court jester-type (such as Jon Stewart) is viewed as more truthful. Drama, such as satire, could draw many younger adults back to their radios and to NPR websites.
Reason 4) Drama will help NPR's case for government funding by presenting a more diverse soundscape
It's no secret that NPR has a rocky relationship with conservative politicians in Washington. And though its doubtful the network could do anything to improve those relations before midterm elections, it would be good to consider the effect of a more diverse soundscape on the red state crowd. If NPR were presenting drama, a type of programming not available anywhere else on the public's airwaves, it might help certain congressmen and presidents see the cultural significance of the network. However impartial NPR's news coverage actually is, it is still viewed as biased by conservatives who readily point out that other biased news sources such as Fox and CNN do not receive government funding. This isn't fair, but it is a public relations problem that NPR will have to deal with so long as conservatives can get elected to congress. Why not combat it by presenting a greater variety of offerings? Don't forget, a recent effort to de-fund the TV side of public broadcasting ran up on the rocks when people realized Big Bird would be impacted. Does NPR have the equivalent of a beloved eight foot muppet? Drama could be that. And if some of the new drama can be drawn out of red states, telling stories conservative voters can relate too, who's to say they might not grow more supportive of NPR overall?
Reason 5) Radio drama will give NPR unprecedented influence over arts and culture
Diversity. That is the brass ring of public radio in the United States. Much time and treasure has been applied to the question of how to make NPR sound - sorry to be blunt - a little less white. But news coverage should be delivered neutrally and cultural programming is difficult to achieve if the goal is total representation. How do you give this country a network as diverse as its people? By focusing on the one thing that ALL cultures have in common: Stories. A single program dedicated to showcasing the best in new drama could reach out and support plays from every corner and every group in the country.
And beyond that, NPR has the potential to help shape and improve the entirety of podcasting. If podcasting were an ecosystem, it would be in distress. The lack of any check or balance against massive growth means that it is getting more and more difficult for the audience to find quality shows. A simple web search does little to differentiate the good from the bad. Where do you go to find 'The good stuff'? NPR is in a natural position to serve as curator. The best could be celebrated and cultures that are under-represented in the media could be sought out and their stories brought to a larger audience.
Those are my five points. I hope they will spur a conversation that might make certain powerful people stop and think. I think NPR’s leadership has failed to recognize the potential of drama because to everyone in American radio, drama belongs to a bygone era. The very name conjures images of silly sound effects men, actors who look nothing like they sound, and other comedy tropes employed by movies and TV aiming to spoof the ‘ridiculous’ idea of telling stories without pictures. But now, as the internet shrinks the world and BBC-4 Extra is just as available to my ears as the station down on the street, people all over America are hearing what audio drama can be. And dozens of groups are rising up in response. It's time our national radio network take advantage of this fact, for the good of its audience and itself.