Wednesday, December 01, 2010

In the beginning ...

... Tom Stoppard Radio Works.

Somebody should revive radio drama. Maybe somebody already has and I just haven't heard about it.

I notice that one of the performers in the Stoppard plays is Paxton Whitehead, whom I once do a fine turn as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He's also great in Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School. He rook over for Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe. Here he is a Prince Philip:


  1. John Brumfield3:41 PM

    I once encountered Paxton Whitehead in a hotel bar. I was at one end of the room and he was at the other and I could hear every word he said. And he was speaking in a conversational tone of voice. Great projection and roundness of tone. I was glad to be there because he was also very funny.

  2. As a matter of fact, I've been greatly desiring to do this for some time. I wrote several radio scripts, a synopsis list, and everything. Contacted numerous writers to get a sense of what the interest was, and they were hep. Had meetings. The problem is money. And if you think professional writing is a remarkably disregarded and uncompensated trade, radio -- if anything -- is even worse. Imagine the vanity press model spreading its tendrils into the commercial market and that's pretty much what you have. There are amazing talents, jaw-droppingly amazing talents -- and it just angers me that this is the way it is -- who are being broadcast on radio stations RIGHT NOW who cannot even get a paycheck. Yet the NEA and other organizations always give programs like Fresh Air a tremendous grant every year to add to the already considerable bounty. Not unlike the bailouts, now that you mention it. (Never mind that many of us could put on a show for far less.)

    None of this is to be confused with bitterness. I'm happy doing what I do and I accept that there's no way in hell that my program will ever be disseminated on NPR. I have the discussions with callow program directors ("You're show's too intelligent for us") to prove it. This is merely an explanation for why there is no radio drama and few innovative programs in America. (When a genius like Joe Frank can't get aired -- JOE FRANK! -- and a ponderous bore like Garrison Keillor is ubiquitous, you know there's something wrong with the system.)

    But this strays from the point. Give me a small budget to compensate writers and I would kill to do a weekly show in the vein of SUSPENSE, DIMENSION X, QUIET PLEASE, Arch Oboler and all those glorious radio that, amazingly, used to be broadcast commercially and used to offer a small little stipend to keep talented writers alive (both for source material and the adapters). It could happen again. Alas, read Alec Foege's RIGHT OF THE DIAL for a solid explanation for why it won't.

  3. Having done community radio (volunteer programming, producing, and creative work) for many years, I can say that Ed's right about the lack of support in radio for the idea of current radio drama. But Ed's also wrong in his damning of NPR with faint praise; wrong in the sense that blaming an underfunded victim of the political culture wars, which can barely stay alive as it is, for being less daring in its programming than either Ed or I might like is sort of like beating the horse while stabbing it too. BBC does little better than this, even though they have a much more stable budget. The best radio these days seems to be documentary, not drama. That's also a sign of the times.

    Everyone here seems to be forgetting that the great days of radio drama were all before TV took over the role of broadcast entertainment drama. I'm all for reviving radio drama, but the paradigm genie can't really go back into the bottle. It would boutique radio, the same way art books will always be made even if publishing goes primarily digital. Someone will always love it and want it, but it will be commercially viable only in a niche sort of manner, and therefore only produced on a small scale.

    Having said that, in my experience there are several folks out there doing great radio drama. Some of it just comes to us via podcast rather than broadcast.

  4. Art: I know people who work in radio. Occupational hazard when you put out a podcast, I guess. NPR hires vocal coaches to ensure that everybody sounds the same. Jesse Thorn -- the good but fairly tame host of THE SOUND OF YOUNG AMERICA -- is considered "wild and crazy" by present program director standards. Even Michael Silverblatt can't get widely syndicated. Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate are on record multiple times as saying that they merely skim the books for authors who appear on their shows. That's the present public radio climate. And it doesn't have to be this way.

    But you're right on at least a few points. I'm bitching about what's going down on the straight reporting front. NPR should be damned for failing to challenge the listeners, for that spoonfed soporific tone, and so forth. I've attempted to counter this by creating an alternative program. Not really much of a surprise that nobody at NPR is interested.

    But I think we're both in agreement that the best days of radio drama are long gone and won't be salvaged anytime soon. But we can dream, can we?

  5. I've been in community radio since 1980. I've had my own podcast since 2004 or so. Granted, it's not a radio drama podcast, it veers all over the map, there's a lot of experimental music on it, yet it did have a pretty substantial listenership when it was mostly spoken word, those first two or three early years. My late-night radio show in Madison, WI, which I had for 7 years, featured the most difficult avant-garde and challenging music available, and had a Nielsen rating of 11 percent of the total local market.

    So I do agree that people are hungry for quality radio. But I do think that quality radio does already exist. I'd love it if quality radio drama was revived and expanded into new markets, but I don't think it ever really died or totally disappeared.

    For example I broadcast a lot of quality radio drama recordings on my show every week, ranging from Samuel Beckett to John Cage and William S. Burroughs, and they always received a lot of positive calls from the listeners. And my show always exceeded its goal during pledge drives. And I played syndicated radio spoken-word shows regularly like Ken Nordine's "Word Jazz" and the series "New American Radio," which included a fair bit of avant-garde radio drama.

    So I don't see radio as a wasteland, I see it as maybe having a ways to grow. But it's not dead, and neither is radio drama. I agree that I'd like to see more, and I'd be willing to be involved in producing more.

    And I guess maybe I don't hate NPR for not living up to the highest standards that I might wish for them, because I know how hard it is to produce good radio at a rapid rate. My show was a heck of a lot of work; so is my podcast (which is why it sometimes had languished lately while I've been ill). But quality artwork is ALWAYS a lot of hard work to produce, no matter what medium it's at home in.

    As for Terry Gross: Like any other talk show host like Terry Gross does more than skim the books they read! Most don't, because they don't have time to. I give Terry Gross points for being honest about it, instead of lying about having read the books, like many other talk show hosts do.

    And is it more important that the talk show host has read every book they present, or that they know how to get the writer to talk about it effectively? You're a good interviewer, Ed, you know darn well those aren't the same thing. An NPR show out of Wisconsin, "To the Best of Our Knowledge" has two or three interviewers who are really good at those kinds of inviting questions; it makes for great radio.

    I have no knowledge of vocal coaching at NPR. I do know that BBC does coach, not for the sake of conformity but for the sake of universal comprehension: the BBC standard accent exists partly because most British Empire regional accents are not mutually comprehensible. In US TV broadcasting, the same kind of standardization exists; the typical US newscaster accent was once located by linguists as being closest to that of southeastern Michigan.

    Blandness or standardization?

    Glass half-empty, or glass half-full?

    I guess it's somewhat in the eye of the behearer.