Radio heads

Audio 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

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.

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"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 broadcaster."

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.

A udio 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 developed.

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 best effect.

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, CKNW 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, CKNW 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 Café (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 Carol.

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 Internet.

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 the

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 streets."

This podplay 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 advertising.

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."

stromp@telus.net

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