Audio drama is by nature an ephemeral medium. Radio broadcasts are even moreso. Because of a lack of physical presence in peoples’ lives, it is difficult to share it with others. One of the greatest mistakes that audio drama producers have made over the years is underestimating the importance of the way in which people socialize with audio drama. It’s an individual experience. That’s not a bad thing, in fact, it’s something that makes the medium so special. It is very intimate and individualized. But it’s hard to transmit that to other people. And it’s difficult to see audio drama. Not in the sense that it’s difficult to look at. I mean in the sense that it is difficult to see that audio drama is happening in the world.
Every other art form is tied in some way to a physical object or a visual image. Whether a book, a DVD, a CD, a painting, or even the face of an actor staring out into a darkened theater. These things embody the medium they represent with physical presence. They make themselves known in ways that are particularly memorable and easy to access and transmit. You can pass that book on to another person, lend somebody your CD, or talk about a painting or a theater play while conjuring up the mental image of the experience. It’s an essential way of reminding yourself about it or focusing your thoughts. Try talking about an audio play. You can do it, but it’s harder. Try sharing a scene from an audio play – it’s difficult. Out of context, it’s almost impossible. If it’s a radio broadcast, it’s physically impossible.
If you wanted to show somebody a favorite scene from a movie, for example, you can pop in the DVD and search the chapter headings. You don’t even need to recall where the scene occurs in the movie. Or, better yet, just search youtube and you’ll probably find the clip you are looking for, along with a bunch of user comments. And if you want to engage in a discussion about it, or express your approval or disapproval, youtube can accommodate that as well. And you can share it with every person out there on the internet.
So what do we do?
Well, to start, we can pay attention to how people interact with audio drama more carefully. We can provide information and context to help people know who is producing the content, who is writing, who is acting, etc – and in so doing, can allow people to develop their likes and dislikes. We can engage the social aspects of sharing media more aggressively. That’s the big one. More on that later.
There are also opportunities to make audio drama more visible, more physically present. I don’t mean we should start illustrating audio plays. That would be terrible. But we could use visual images to help present the plays to people. It would probably be best to use non-literal images, so as to not encroach on the author’s intention or on the visual imagery that the individual creates for themselves. But basic graphic images can do wonders. Judging books by their covers is actually an extraordinarily effective way of choosing literature. A book cover provides one with all sorts of useful information, even though most books are not, by their nature, creatures of vision. An audio play could benefit greatly from having a graphic image that is akin to a book or album cover. This would do two things: 1) it would be easier to market the product and 2) it would be easier to talk about. Those visual cues are very useful when remembering things, and if it’s easy to remember, it’s easier to discuss with others, and therefore easier to spread amongst people you talk to.
Theater plays have a similar type of problem. They also exist in an ephemeral way. You can go to a play and consume it. But you can’t take a piece of it home in your pocket. And you can’t even buy a copy of the play. You can probably purchase a script at some point, or maybe even a video of the event. But neither one of those things are the actual play itself, because the play is exclusively the thing that happens live in a theater before the eyes of an audience. And yet, when one goes to New York for example, plays are visually present everywhere. All of the big Broadway productions have arresting graphic icons that proclaim their presence. Like the mask from Phantom of the Opera, the eyes of Cats, or that Betty Boop girl from Les Miserables. It’s easy to see that plays are happening in the world, even if we can’t actually see or experience the play at that particular moment. Broadway plays often have merchandise that people can buy and give to people. They even have a Playbill that you can keep as a souvenir without buying anything.
But it’s not enough to make audio drama visually present in physical space. It is essential, if not even more important, to make audio drama visual in cyberspace, too. The way that audio is presented online is abysmal. I’m sorry, but it just plain sucks.
To be continued!