The Unlikely Rebirth Of A Once-Dead Art Form
Generations removed from the radio drama's heyday, the internet and cult hits like Night Vale are reviving the tradition.
Video may have once killed the radio star, but the internet is helping relaunch it for a new generation.
In America, beginning in the 1920s, the sky was saturated with transmissions of news broadcasts, quiz shows, comedy programs like The Jack Benny Show, adventure productions like Superman, and pulp dramas like The Shadow (which was voiced at times by Orson Welles). Families would gather around the radio every week, eager to hear stories unfold, each painting a different mental picture of the action carried through the airwaves.
But when television became the dominant form of home entertainment by the late '50s, radio serials slowly began to get crowded out of the atmosphere, kept alive largely by collectors and the reel-to-reel tapes that had captured the broadcasts.
There were small revivals here and there. Throughout the '70s, a few new serials (like CBS Radio Mystery Theater) cropped up and some local public radio stations would host horror theater shows. Joe Frank won awards for his absurd and dark monologues for NPR, and, of course, Garrison Keillor's variety show A Prairie Home Companion became an institution. But largely, while the U.K. continued to produce quality dramas on BBC Radio, the format remained dormant across the pond, save for local stations' late-night broadcasts of old favorites.
Fast-forward slightly to the 1980s, when a young man named Gregg Taylor was growing up in Toronto, listening to Sunday night transmissions of dated noir serials like The Green Hornet and collecting bootleg cassettes from regional conventions, recovered treasures of varying quality. That boyhood interest stayed with him into the late '90s, when he was a veteran regional stage actor who had just about grown sick of the soul-crushing audition process and the sacrifices a struggling performer must make.
"I realized that I never wanted to audition for a shampoo commercial in the first place, so I said, 'What do I want to do? If I could only have one project, what would it be?'" Taylor, who's now the creator of two successful audio programs, remembered in a recent conversation with BuzzFeed.
At the time, audio dramas were experiencing another short-lived rebirth, this time thanks to the first internet boom, with many amateur aural playwrights posting their work with the once-popular RealPlayer format. Taylor gathered a bunch of actor friends and had them perform a miniseries he wrote about a character called the Red Panda. It was a six-part homage to the noir tradition with the titular character essentially being an updated, Canadian version of The Green Hornet, a rich guy who doubled as a masked crime fighter.
The recordings were a fun exercise with little initial payoff — Taylor joked that when he submitted them to radio stations, "They would look at you like you have nine heads, like, 'Are you from 1942, sir?'"
Around that time in the early 2000s, the rise of file sharing and MP3s enabled collectors to transfer years' worth of the old "Golden Age of Radio" classics into digital recordings, and, in the spirit of sharing, many were then made available on archival websites that had cropped up. Thousands of hours of history rest in dusty corners of the internet, relics with lessons and memories to share with any willing ear that stumbles upon them — Taylor's being one of them.
He listened to many of those shows, which, through osmosis, helped him better understand the intricacies of audio storytelling. Taylor initially kept his programs off the internet and left his stories in a quiescent limbo for several years, but when his local theater troupe — the Decoder Ring Theatre — launched its website in 2005, Taylor finally tossed them up on the site. Suddenly, he was getting emails from around the world, sent by people who had stumbled upon Red Panda and wanted more episodes.
Spurred by the sudden encouragement, he got to work writing both rebooted Red Panda adventures and a new series about a gumshoe called Black Jack Justice.
At first, his cast — selected from friends representing various regional theaters — recorded in a makeshift studio in his home, working for creative satisfaction in lieu of a paycheck.
"There was no money," Christopher Mott, a veteran Toronto theater actor who voices Jack Justice and several Red Panda characters, told BuzzFeed before a recording session recently. "We were recording in a basement next to a water heater, all doing it for fun, paid with coffee and donuts."
Both Red Panda and Black Jack Justice's format and old-time dialogue — recited in deep, heroic baritones and wise-guy cadence — are obvious throwbacks, but Taylor and co. have been determined to balance tribute with updating the medium for a more self-aware and socially progressive 21st century.
"A lot of people say it's nostalgia, but I say that the kids who are listening to this can't be nostalgic for things they've never heard," argued Taylor, who has a day job in marketing at a regional theater. "The old dramas have casual racism and the almost complete irrelevance of the women at the story, at best."
Decoder Ring Theatre releases one episode of each series once a month, with each new installment taking in about 10,000 streams and downloads in the 14 days that it sits atop the theater's website; in all, the Red Panda and Black Jack Justice shows have been listened to more than 5 million times. Decoder Ring receives fan art and invitations to conventions, and has an active Facebook page that allows listeners to interact with the cast.
Along with its Facebook page, the theater company has an official fan message board at a site called AudioDramaTalk.com, which hosts forums dedicated to several other micro-popular serials and theater companies as well. It serves as a hangout of sorts for many showrunners, including Grant Baccioco, who co-created the hit kids' program The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd.
When that launched in 2004, Baccioco said his short, kooky broadcasts reached just a handful of listeners; the popular embrace of podcasts — and smart phones that could easily download and play them — lifted the series north of 85,000 downloads per month at the peak of its run, which wrapped up in 2011. Along the way, there were several talent agents that took the show's creators on a tour of Hollywood in search of a television deal, but nothing came of that year-long quest. Now Baccioco runs another kids' audio show, the popular Deputy Guppy, which, yes, is about a cowboy fish.
Since 2006, Fred Greenhalgh has helped bring some attention to the new wave of emerging serial artists, using the medium itself to promote his own audio dramas, including works from his FinalRune Theater that include The Cleansed and other programs that he enjoys.
"It was hard to get people to hear them, because, at the time, there was no real channel for hearing a diverse selection of material," the writer-performer told BuzzFeed. "So I founded the podcast Radio Drama Revival with the idea of spreading the word about my own material when I had it, and then, featuring other people."
In the last several years, the central clearinghouse of iTunes and the sensational debuts of several new programs have helped significantly expand the audience for podcasts and, to a lesser degree, audio dramas. Welcome to Night Vale has defied the odds to become a new gold standard for instant success in this fledgling world. The program — an endearingly creepy show presented in the format of public radio notices from the fictional desert town of Night Vale — launched in 2011 and has amassed a very devoted following in the span of 35 episodes.
The series is an outgrowth of the collaboration between Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, two participants in the East Village's Neo-Futurist Theater, which pushes the boundaries of live storytelling. And Night Vale has served the same purpose. Like Greenhalgh — who said, "There's a fandom of the old-time radio era, but I see it as, like, a Civil War reenactment" — Cranor and Fink had little intention of playing with traditional tropes like noir or adventure.
The premise of Night Vale is that the fictional town is a twilight zone of a municipality, ground zero for just about every conspiracy theory and urban legend that have bounced around in whispers across America. Cranor grew up in Texas, with friends working at the local public access station during high school, and it is that era, more than anything else, to which Night Vale owes its inspiration.
"It's not complicated or expensive, and there's still a chance to do something new with [the medium]," Fink said. "It's hard to do something new with TV, even harder with books, but podcasts are so young. The goal with Night Vale when I originally created it was to come up with something that no one was doing."
Following the traditions of half-baked conspiracy theorists, many of the storylines are given vague details and seemingly shifting realities, with mysterious characters making bizarre decisions, so interpreting the oddities has become half the fun of listening to Night Vale. Cranor and Fink don't release listener numbers, but the show has become an obvious cult hit, with nearly 90,000 fans on Facebook and a gigantic following on Tumblr.
And yet, despite that vast and very active appreciation that listeners continue to shower upon their program, neither Fink nor Cranor spend much time looking at Tumblr or concerning themselves with complaints or requests for clarity or specific direction; nor do they concern themselves with placing the show on a traditional narrative track, which makes it different from many audio dramas.
"The thing about Night Vale that I think sometimes leads to frustration on listeners' part is that it is very much an ongoing story of this town," Cranor explained. "It's not like a TV series or book, it's not a narrative leading to a specific ending. While we do have plans ahead probably for six or seven months, and we have ideas of where things are going, it's definitely not designed to be a narrative arc leading to somewhere."
We're Alive, which launched a year before The Walking Dead took AMC by storm, has won an obsessive following — 26,000-plus likes on Facebook — for the 55 three-part chapters of its post-apocalyptic saga. It mixes precise military terminology (the lead character is a former army reserve member) and human relationship drama in the unfolding tale of a small group struggling for survival in a newly ravaged world. Using only dialogue, first-person narration, and a few sound effects, the show expertly weaves political themes in with more intimate character studies.
"It was actually a really slow start," Kc Wayland, an engineer at California's Chapman University and We're Alive's creator and writer, told BuzzFeed. "The first couple episodes only had 30 to 40 subscribers. Our numbers were pretty dismal. But the way I approached it was: If you build it, they will come. It's just been a marathon, really. Making sure you always hit the deadlines with the episodes, being communicative through social media, letting people know what's happening."
Now, We're Alive, which releases three episodes per month, averages 100,000 streams per show and is tipping toward 20 million total downloads.
Wayland runs a sizable operation, with a cast and crew tipping over into the double digits. While Decoder Ring shows can be enjoyed without much context, as characters develop slowly and most episodes offer an open-and-shut case, We're Alive constantly pushes the narrative forward; the contrast is much like that of a network procedural vs. a cable drama.
Earlier this year, We're Alive joined Chris Hardwick's Nerdist podcast network, which provides the dual service of selling advertisements and partnerships for the show, and offering it a substantial boost in exposure and a stamp of approval to fans of the zombie genre since Hardwick hosts AMC's The Walking Dead recap show, Talking Dead.
It is exceedingly cheap to launch an audio show these days; with all the free recording and hosting software now readily available, time and patience are the only absolutely required expenses. The internet has democratized artistic production, and, in the case of serial aural storytelling, it has facilitated a rush of newcomers, usually aspirants new to the medium.
But motivations for starting an audio drama vary widely, from wanting to revive and pastiche history to the desire for room to play with a re-born format; others see it as the best outlet for a story they want to tell, and still others just see it as a stepping stone.
"There have been a lot of groups that have come and gone," Taylor said. "They put out six episodes, didn't get the television deal they expected, and stopped. I think they were more interested in being rescued by a white knight with a bag of cash. That was never our goal. "
Even with the low barrier to entry, the fundamental weakness that forced radio drama into near-extinction still hangs over the medium: It's hard to make money doing it.
The audiobook industry has become massively profitable — it took in $1.2 billion in 2012 — but unlike the case with radio, consumers were never accustomed to getting books for free (outside of libraries, of course). We're Alive's producers sell complete seasons of the show after each season has aired in its entirety, but that's a rare success story. As Greenhalgh recalled, trying to charge even a few bucks for his work dropped the number of downloads from thousands per episode all the way down to just a handful at a time. He quickly removed his paywall, and for the most part, all audio dramas are made available for free download.
Instead of subscriptions or per-show fees, some dramatists have presented fans the option of voluntarily subsidizing the programming, through one-time or monthly PayPal donations. Jonathan Mitchell, a veteran writer and radio producer who has appeared on This American Life, raised $30,000 last summer to fund his theater group The Truth, and now he's working on the effort full time. His group has a more labor-intensive process, recording its programs "on location," functioning like a television show that only captures the audio of the performances. (Greenhalgh's FinalRune goes through a similar process.) The Truth nets about 50,000 downloads per release, a number that continues to rise.
Greenhalgh also solicits donations from loyal listeners and Decoder Ring's small-but-fervent fan base has been able to provide stipends to the actors, as well as cover much of the theater's production costs. The troupe's also expanded into other mediums, spinning off stories into for-profit ventures. Listener persistence convinced Taylor to write four Red Panda novels, and then a comic book series, which is being released as a trade paperback in February.
Another avenue for monetization has been, in some cases, merchandising. We're Alive sells books as well as clothing, while Night Vale's rabid fanbase buys so many shirts and other branded items — buttons, patches, and mugs, among other tchotchkes — that Fink and Cranor had to turn to a professional service to print and sell them.
And the Dr. Floyd creators launched their own "Imagination Nation Rangers" fan club, which sent branded toy packages annually to members.
Still, these options, which are already limited in their profitability, are not available to most audio drama creators; as with TV and film, it takes the right mix of characters, fanatical listeners, and merchandise-ready elements to even make attempting such a venture feasible. For "radio" serials to have any legitimate chance at becoming a semi-mainstream form of entertainment, they have to become more lucrative, and for them to become more lucrative, those already in the community think that the shows must do two things: boast some star power, and be more easily accessible.
Again, audiobooks have an advantage here, as many authors, including Ender's Game lightning rod Orson Scott Card, are being commissioned to translate their novels into audio forms, or even write new, podcast-only stories. There is even a cottage industry for well-known audiobook readers. But now, serial dramas are beginning to catch up.
Earlier this year, the BBC, which has long produced audio plays even as the form went radio silent in America, put together a big name cast for its adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, led by James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Christopher Lee. The six-part series was a smash hit with both critics and listeners, but each episode expired after a week.
"In my opinion, the BBC did everything possible to not make it go viral," said Greenhalgh, who thought the show might draw listeners into the larger audio drama world. "They had huge attention; they had the right cast and content. Neil Gaiman was excited. I'm sure they got a couple million hits on the iPlayer website, but then, they pulled it, because that's what the BBC does. Then, a few months later, it goes up on a different pay website. It lost the fireball of attention that it had."
BBC will broadcast the show again around Christmas.
The iTunes store has certainly created a central station of sorts for many of these shows, but there is little guidance available for those unfamiliar with the names and theaters that produce them. The quality of programming, like in any other medium, varies widely, and a large portion of the iTunes store is devoted to the more popular comedy and conversation podcasts, anyway.
There is no doubt in participants' minds that the ease of downloading a show — and the fact that their programs can provide compelling stories in situations where watching a TV or computer screen is unfeasible (commutes, in the office, even while doing house chores) — provides an opportunity to capture an eager audience. It's just a matter of getting the product to the listener.
Greenhalgh is working on developing an application that would serve as a sort of Netflix-meets-Pandora for audio programs, providing recommendations based on curated genres and listeners' preferences. It would require an expert to populate the system with worthy shows at first, but ultimately, the best and most popular series would rise to the top through algorithms and user interaction.
Wayland, who said his ultimate goal is to get We're Alive adapted into a television series, is optimistic about the form, but also less bullish on its chances of reaching the mainstream heights of television and film.
"I think they're always going to be catching up," Wayland said of the audio serial world. "As human beings, we connect with people visually. We're always going to play catch up with audio drama form."
Either way, as Taylor reasoned, the opportunity to revive a medium and create even a small community around a shared passion has made all the hours of work worthwhile.
"With the response from listeners, it really is satisfying to make something in the style you love, without compromising, and to get it out in an environment that you can reach people," he said. "The people that you reach are really genuinely affected by it."