Judging audio plays by their covers.
I can judge a book by it's cover. You've probably done it, too. It can be a surprisingly accurate judgement. What we don't do often enough is judge radio plays the same way.
One of my passions is collecting vinyl records. Not for the sake of the vinyl, which, let me add, is not a superior medium for sound reproduction, despite what the hipsters say. I love the covers, the poster-sized photos and paintings, the fonts, the track lists, the worn spines, the tactile sensory experience. The covers of LPs suggest worlds that I want to immerse myself in, emotions I want to feel, messages I want to receive. They are invitations. Like the dust jackets and covers of books, album covers allow us to “see” content that in fact cannot be experienced by seeing.
How can we make the same judgements about audio drama? We cannot. But I believe we should be able to. Otherwise, any time you click “play” or tune the dial, you are embarking on a blind taste test. Or a blind date. Sometimes that can be exciting. But mostly, I find it frustrating. The more amateur internet-based audio dramas there are, the harder it becomes to make informed decisions about what to listen to. I'm a busy guy, and I don't have a lot of free time to invest in listening to a play that I might not like. It takes a while to figure out if it's good or not - you have to actually begin consuming the product. But what if the rest of the play is brilliant, and only the opening scene is weak? I could have written off a wonderful play unjustly.
The solution to this problem is twofold. I need someone to help me make decisions, someone who has listened to the play and whose taste I trust. I need a curator. There are many curators of audio drama on the internet, but often these curators neglect to provide essential data, and sometimes I think they aren't discriminating enough. People are reluctant to say that a radio play isn't good. Maybe we should be a little more candid with appraisals. At the very least, we can provide more information.
Aside from personal taste, a good curator must always include the title, author, and origin. By “origin” I mean the who, where, and when of a production. An amateur audio production from Beaver River, NY does not carry the same weight as a BBC 4 Classic Serial. It doesn't mean one is better than the other. It's just a factor, and providing context allows people to digest the content better. It's less of a blind date. You might not know the girl, but you know where she's from and how old she is.
Another way to alleviate the Blind Date Problem is to provide greater context via cover art. Here's why:
Cover art provides useful information to a potential audience.
It attracts attention more easily than a play button icon.
Images are easier to spread and locate online.
Cover art makes the whole experience more fun.
Many different types of media use a single, static image (often a combination of text and graphic) to represent specific cultural artifacts. Movies, albums, TV shows, books, and even magazines do this. The cover art or movie poster or logo tries to attract attention and convince a potential audience to become an actual audience.
To reach a broader range of listeners, to make it easier to “transmit” radio plays socially, and to help convince skeptics to listen, audio drama producers should be more aggressive in creating and distributing “cover art” for each radio play. By “cover art” I do not mean illustration of scenes from the play. That's not the same thing. I mean a graphic representation of the entire play itself, distilled into one parcel. What would the poster be? That's the cover art, and it can be a powerful ambassador for audio drama, spreading forth out of the audio realm and establishing a presence in mediums that are predominantly visual, such as the internet.
Good cover art should be able to tell you many things. It should indicate something about the content, about the tone, emotion, genre, and style of a radio play. It also provides a dynamic delivery for the two most important pieces of information – the title and the author. A good title can leap off the page. “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” is an interesting title. “The Clerks” is not that interesting. But when I saw this:
I realized that the play was by Rhys Adrian. And it was a BBC production. And that shadowy hand, the texture, the black and white image – it became tantalizing. I wanted to know what it was about. And I knew that, because Rhys Adrian was such a brilliant playwright, that I could give it a chance. Likewise, if a play is written by John Fletcher or Wally K. Daly, or Andrew Rissik, I am much more likely to listen. If it's by William Trevor...not as much. Don't get me wrong, Trevor is an acclaimed radio playwright for good reason. I just don't particularly care for his style, and the stories he tells don't speak to me.
The playwright is the most important author of an audio play. Most of the meaning comes from the writer. So the writer must be prominently identified, in a way that a movie poster or a TV show advertisement does not require. Identifying the author gives us an opportunity to care more. When we hear something we like, we usually want to hear more things like it. And fans come to feel an emotional attachment to authors they like, at least in terms of appreciating their work and the themes they explore. Humans naturally form kinships from the slightest of stimuli – the purr of a cat is a perfect example. Knowing someone's name is similar. We feel connected to peoples' names. I can't be a fan if I don't know who wrote it.
Despite all I have just written, I have a deeper motivation to see more radio play cover art. I stand by the claims I have made, and I believe them to be true. But beyond these reasons, I just really like cover art. I think it's fun. Covers are part of the package, another opportunity to care about the product. They are collectable and enjoyable in and of themselves.
Some of my favorite children's novels written by a man named John Bellairs. The covers were all drawn by Edward Gorey. I love the books and the characters and the stories, but the cover art, with Gorey's macabre pen and ink hatch marks, are what hooked me. Some of the books aren't so great. But the covers are all exciting. They prompt questions and mysteries, they hint at a world within the pages teaming with magic and wonder. All these years later, I find them irresistible.
Every radio play deserves to be represented by an irresistible image.