Manifesto

Mission Statement:

Audio drama is one of the most intimate and expressive dramatic mediums, rivaling theater and film in poetic, visual, and narrative qualities. Many people are unaware of this - a stigma lingers that "radio drama" is a scratchy, cartoonish thing of the past, as if people thought that cinema ended with silent movies, unaware of all the great films made since that time. In reality, audio and radio drama is the great frontier of modern theater - with subtle, intimate performances and powerful, gripping stories.

My aim is to promote a discussion of the art, sociology, theory, and future of this remarkable artistic form. The current state of audio drama is precarious, but through careful consideration of how content is presented, distributed, and interacted with, I believe that the radio and audio drama community can grow and prosper and reach an even wider audience.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Audio Drama in Cyberspace

These days, the internet is the most essential means of distributing audio drama. And that’s great – it’s cheap and cost effective, it can integrate the audio with text and information providing background and additional context for the production. But something else happens when people distribute audio drama on the internet. They create confusion.

As my earlier post discussed, audio drama is ephemeral. By its very nature it doesn’t have a physical body to inhabit. It’s like a weird alien ghost, roaming the galaxy in search of a mind to take over. So when people present audio drama online, they need to do so in a way that allows that weird alien ghost to beam into people’s brains in the most efficient way possible. And stick.

Here are the big problems that I’ve noticed in regards to web design:

  1. Graphic diarrhea
  2. Lack of context
  3. Lack of related visual imagery
  4. Lack of curator or social component

I’ve already talked about how relating specific visual images to specific radio plays can enhance the social transmissibility of the work (is that even a word?), in the way that album covers do with music, so I won’t rehash that. But let’s take the others one by one.

Graphic Design.

Web designers are sometimes like movie producers. They think that the biggest explosion is more appealing, and the coolest graphics make their work seem better, more cutting edge, and more successful. The more an element of design exists for its own sake, the less useful it is. And, as you can see with movies, the more dated it seems. You can pretty much tell when a movie or TV show was made by what the motion graphics look like. Except for some stuff. The credits in Woody Allen movies, for example, are simple white text on a black background and make it impossible to date his films in this way. And that’s a good thing, for the most part. You want the design to convey information, and then get out of the way. You don’t want the delivery vehicle to detract from the content it is supposed to deliver. If the ice cream truck is better than the ice cream it sells, you have a problem.

When it comes to audio drama, simpler is always better. And the way you list things can impact the way people feel about stuff. For example, a simple text-based, numbered list of radio plays has a way of encouraging an audience to listen to them all, in a certain order. People are natural collectors, especially nerds like me. We want to listen to all the episodes and then geek out about them with other people. Being able to see where all the episodes are, in one place, makes that easier to do.

You’ve probably come across the same problem that I have. You hear a snippet of something on the radio, but miss the whole story. So you go to NPR’s website or wherever, and search for the whole show. You will probably find what you are looking for, but the hunt will include a long trek through various pop-down menus, sidebars, and lots of excess information. What you really need is just a plain list. But like most people, web designers want to impress the people they work for. And the way to impress someone is, as you have probably experienced, not doing something in the most efficient way possible, but making it seem like you exerted a lot of time and effort.

Simplifying the presentation of an audio drama to an uncluttered, sparse layout, and grouping pertinent information in ways that encourage further participation can go a long way to making content more accessible. And don’t forget to link your credit list and descriptions link to other related content. If you are looking at a blurb about a radio play, you should be able to click on the writer’s name and find other stuff by the writer. The same with the actors and producers. That’s called context.

Context

There are some good blogs and web sites and online resources out there for audio drama. But most of them do not provide enough context for deciding whether to listen to something or not. Most people have a finite amount of time, and want to maximize their usage of it to some degree. Therefore, giving people a bit of extra information can help make up their minds. The most important thing besides listing the title of an audio play is listing the author. Radio is a writer’s medium. The writer, more than live theater, has the most primacy when it comes to meaning and intention. So put the writer’s name up on the same line of text as the title of the piece. If it’s a serial with multiple writers, you get a pass. Maybe. But writers are good indicators of quality. If I listen to an audio play by John Fletcher, such as Death and the Tango, then I might want to hear more work by Fletcher. And if I come across another one of his plays, I’m more likely to stop and listen. Good writers, even ones who span genre and style in the way that Fletcher does, are brands. They help signify that something is more likely to be good. And the more brands there are out there with a reputation for excellence, the healthier the audience will be.

Likewise, giving other information about an audio production is helpful. I have to be honest here. Although I am based in the United States, I think a lot of audio drama in the U.S. is just plain terrible. If I have a choice between an amateur audio play from Wisconsin and something that was written and produced for the BBC by professional radio stalwarts, I’m going to choose the BBC play. And if you give the information about who is producing an audio play, where they are from, who is acting in it, etc, that gives me more information to make an educated guess about what to listen to. And what about the genre? I don’t like historical fiction. I love satire. Let me know which audio play is which! There’s a lot of content out there, and I want to listen to the good stuff. So how can I find out what the good stuff is, without information? Someone has to act as a curator.

There are two ways of discerning good content – the elitist route and the populist route. Both are useful, and both need to be implemented in audio drama to help direct people to the best product. The elitist route is when someone hand-picks content that’s good and content that’s bad, and talks about it. They make lists and recommendations; they tell me what to miss, and what not to. They have opinions that I can try out and see if they reflect my own. They are critics and curators. They also might act as interpreter for a work that is complex and that I might not understand. But if someone explains to me what they’re hearing in it, I might appreciate it after all.

The other route is the populist route – what’s more popular? There are different ways of assessing this, but the main thing is that everyone who’s out there listening should be able to weigh in. Rating things like amazon.com or goodreads.com is a great way of aggregating opinions. And those opinions are usually very reliable. They don’t necessarily tell you if you will like something or not, but they will tell you why people generally like or dislike something. Weighing those opinions against your own is a useful tool for making decisions about what to listen to.

Allowing users to rate things goes hand in hand with another important aspect – socializing. If people can rate and write reviews themselves, then they can also comment on other peoples’ reviews and share ratings and spread information and opinions through their social networks. And more than anything else, having a group of friends who listen to audio drama and discuss it is the most critical way of building a healthy community and a prosperous art form. Building socializing opportunities within content-delivering webspace is vital to making the medium more popular. And remember – we want audio drama to be more popular and more visible and prosperous for a very good reason. Because if we can make that happen, we get more content, better content, and a more secure future for a medium that we love. And the world might be better off as well, in some vague hippy-dippy way. Awww.

All of this stuff is pretty basic, but it’s not being applied to audio drama the way it is being applied to music or TV shows. I’ll be talking about several specific examples in the future. To kick-start the discussion, check out Big Finish’s website. They’re the company that does the Doctor Who audio series. And their web site is terrible, it’s like they’re shooting themselves in the foot. In fact, it was so bad that I said so to Jason Haigh-Ellery at a Doctor Who convention. More on that later.

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