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.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Afternoon Play or Afternoon Drama?

The BBC recently changed the names of their radio drama time slots. Instead of Afternoon Play, the name will be Afternoon Drama, and so on. They have replaced “play” with “drama” across the board.

This presents a conundrum at the Audio Drama Wiki. Early on, we decided that every parcel of drama would be referred to as a “play,” in the same way that an album and a song are both considered “music” - we needed a name to cover all of these similar things. For an encyclopedia, this is particularly necessary. Half the battle is classification. In the way information is organized lies the philosophy and intention behind the effort.

The theatrical origins of radio drama bequeath to us the terminology of the theatre. I don't mind this because the theatre also gives us the primacy of the playwright. Radio drama shares this emphasis. From the perspective of the wiki, “play” is an appropriate term. But I wonder perhaps if “drama” would have been better.

The BBC has a different problem. They have to brand their products. Branding is, after all, about definition and identity. It's an aspect of marketing that taps into very powerful aspects of human nature. We are trained fundamentally to build associations over time, and these associations do not merely influence us, they literally create the reality we perceive. BBC radio can benefit from aggressive branding, because engaging in it is essentially an exercise in self-examination and definition. I'm happy that they want to have “drama” be a pillar of their brand. Narrative is the key strength of British media output. It's what American radio particularly struggles to deliver to mass audiences.

Jeremy Howe suggests that the name change is partly an effort distance BBC radio from the theatre. This is understandable, as live theatre broadcast on the radio is typically unsatisfying and confusing for listeners. Live performance is simply a different medium now. Even live radio plays, I would argue, are inherently primitive forms, almost unrecognizable to modern ears. The popularity of live radio play stagings is a detriment to the art, because it perpetuates myths and misconceptions of the nature of the modern product.

The word “play” does indicate a linear, narrative form. Perhaps using “drama” instead can allow more experimental works to live within the timeslots more comfortably. I hesitate to call “Cries from Casement” a “play” in the normal sense – sure, it's written by a playwright, but the word “play” seems inadequate somehow. It is a word that seems locked in a very specific context for the general population.

People don't like change. I myself am not fond of the new time slot names, simply because I am used to the old ones. But I think the BBC may be right to make such a move. Of course, such rebranding efforts also need to incorporate promotional efforts that are mindful of the socialization of radio drama consumers. But getting their ducks in a row internally is an important aspect of that. Having “drama producers” producing “dramas” instead of “plays” can be a good way to make sure the parts of the machinery hum in harmony.


  1. I've nothing much to say about the name change but, as somebody else said, Woman's Hour is still called Woman's Hour with Woman's Hour Drama now titled 15 minute Drama.
    This means that Woman's Hour is actually now only 45 minutes long.