What I learned in England

Two weeks ago, I made the journey to Herne Bay in the Southeast of England for the United Kingdom International Radio Drama Festival. It was my first trip across the Atlantic and my first international festival. And what a treat it was. Producers from all over Europe attended including some representatives from Switzerland and Serbia that I now consider good friends. I served on the festival jury, charged with selecting which of the over 50 plays presented was deserving of the coveted 'Pig & Radio' trophy.

I have a lot to say about this festival, but I'll begin with a summary of what went on to give you a flavor for the event. It lasted from Monday to Friday the last week in February, each day beginning with coffee and cake at 9am. We met in a four-room flat situated on the 3rd Floor of Pettman House, Herne Bay's senior center. The festival organizers transformed the rooms into a 1940's English seaside flat with period furnishings and decor. Each room was equipped with good speakers and a period-looking radio for effect. Transcripts of every play were provided, a good thing given that over half of them weren't in English. As the plays began, each of us found a chair (all of them were comfortable) and settled in with a cup of tea to listen.

There were three hours of plays in the morning, followed by lunch. Herne Bay is a seaside resort town so there was no shortage of restaurants for lunch and a nice waterfront, complete with historic clock tower, to walk them off in. After lunch, it was back to the flat for another 3-4 hours of listening. Then, we headed straight to a pub called The Four Fathoms for jury duty. This involved a free-formed discussion of each play in turn. Some of the best conversations, and most interesting disagreements, grew out of these sessions. After jury, I usually was free to head back to Canterbury where I was staying, though dinner was offered in Herne Bay. I did take advantage several times, but the morning train required me to rise at 6:30 and dinners seldom got me home before midnight. You can see the problem.

That gives you a sense of the UK festival, but that is not what I actually wanted to write about here. The festival gave me a first-hand glimpse into how radio drama is perceived and produced around the world. The most interesting people I met came from Central and Eastern Europe where state-funded radio is still the norm, and radio drama has been in constant production for decades. Throughout the week I was struck by how different our experiences and priorities were. And I came away feeling that in some ways, I was quite lucky to have found the path I followed. But in other ways I was at a disadvantage.

Three people that I most valued talking to were Tomas from the Czech Republic, Karin from Swiss Radio (the German language service) and Slobodan, a dramaturge for Serbian radio and TV. They have the advantage over me in that they all have careers, regular jobs that pay a living wage to produce radio plays, though I got the impression radio drama was not their only responsibility at their respective networks. This would be the obvious disadvantage for me in that I don't earn a lot of money. But I also got the impression that producing a play in their countries involves the approval of higher ups and the contribution of a lot of other people, including (potentially) government officials. This would undoubtably effect what kinds of stories could be produced. I, on the other hand, am free to produce whatever I want. And although I still count my internet listeners in the mere thousands, I can count them. Tomas, Karin and Slobodan send their work out into the silent void of radio broadcast, unsure anyone has listened or cared, spare the occasional letter of praise or complaint from a listener.

But this was not the thing that most impressed me about the festival. What impressed was the variety of plays, and how many of these plays used sound in creative and challenging ways that mirrored the best of avant-garde theatre. This was very intentional on the part of the festival organizers. Jonathan, the festival's artistic director, explained to me that one purpose of the festival was to expose British listeners to the potential of radio drama. He told me that the UK consumes more radio drama than any country on earth. Over 1 million people listen to something every day. But it is not considered art. The Arts Council does not fund it. I got the impression that British radio drama was mostly soap operas and comedy. And when it was time to hand awards at the end of the festival (an improvised ceremony held around a table overflowing with fish & chips) none of the winning plays were in the English language.

This got me to thinking about my own work and why is sounds the way it does. There were three American plays at the festival including 'Silence' by the Icebox Radio Theater. In most cases, the jury found the American plays old fashioned. They were generally well received, but considered quaint, “Like something out of the 1950's” one juror offered. With 90 minutes of train rides each day, I had plenty of time to think about these comments and what they might mean. From this I realized that modern American radio drama was the result of a gap; a 60-year production gap that lasted from the end of network radio until the rise of digital recording and podcasting.

Following WWII, our radio networks jumped to TV. Successful radio shows were given an opportunity on TV, but most failed. Radio became a very profitable jukebox, making tons of money for record companies. Recordings of the old radio dramas only survived through the efforts of engineers and janitors (most named Gus) who saved transcription discs slated for destruction by the stations that had housed them. By the time digital recording and the internet arrived, inspiring a new generation of producers, our only frame of reference was 'Suspense' and 'Lights Out'. Even later shows such as 'Radio Mystery Theater' and 'NPR Playhouse' kept very close to the production values of the past. There was no real artistic growth in American radio drama. While Europe continued to produce radio drama in creative and experimental ways, we stood still.

Why was this? For one thing, to understand American radio drama you only need to look at its producers. With very few exceptions, audio producers in North America fall into one of two categories: lovers of Old Time Radio and frustrated filmmakers. Some wish to capture the nostalgic feel of the past, others want to tell their stories more affordably. Where are the artists? Where are the people that want to paint pictures with sound? I don't know. I don't even know if I belong in that category, to be honest. I listen to some of the more artistic American podcasts like the series from 'Night Vale Presents' and 'Serendipity' and I feel a disconnect. I think some times they confuse inaccessible with artistic. A story is not automatically good just because the sound design makes it hard to follow.

I do want my own work to reach up toward art, but I also want to engage people in a way that's meaningful. And that may be the greatest artistic legacy of the USA, our surprising way of engaging large audiences with strange and foreign concepts. Don't believe me? Consider that the movie 'Arrival' has made nearly 200 million dollars so far. And that movie introduces some strange and foreign concepts indeed. Perhaps this is our place as American audio producers, to be the bringer of creative sounds to the masses.

I feel like that very thought was worth my trip to Herne Bay. I met new friends, I heard things with new ears, and I considered concepts I hadn't before. There are still tremendous challenges ahead (resources for radio drama are in short supply everywhere) but I feel closer than ever to doing what I really want to do: Tell stories that a lot of people want to hear. You can hear the festival shows at this link, and I encourage you to.