Audio Drama has a Diversity Problem

It is safe to say, I’m an audio drama addict (apologies to Dani Cutler who first coined the term). I’ve been listening to radio plays and audio plays and audio books and experimental audio storytelling since I was very young. From my earliest memories, I remember my parents gave me records of Old Time Radio heroes. I grew up listening to the CBC faithfully. To this day, I cannot abide to listen to commercial radio. In my twenties, I emptied every library near to me of both audio books and radio plays on audio cassette and eventually on CD. I listened to every show of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Shadow available to me, second hand, thanks to my  buddy Scott Leslie who belonged to several old time radio appreciation groups. When the Internet arrived, I researched tirelessly for every scrap of audio entertainment I could find. And now for almost fifteen years I’ve hosted a weekly podcast/broadcast that has showcased whatever is available both old and new in the audio story medium. Even now, my iPhone has 129 different subscribed shows I attempt to keep up to date on, with more arriving every week.

In the above paragraph I am attempting to establish my credibility only to present the following concern:

Audio Drama is becoming less diverse. 

This would at first glance seem ridiculous. We have more producers of audio drama; more creators. Therefore, there should be MORE examples of variety and not less. But there are some worrisome trends I would like to comment on.  Please read the disclaimer at the bottom of the page*

  1. Persistent Single Source- Some time ago I identified the Four Sources of Audio Drama Story in The Sonic Society website. I’ve noticed that most of the audio dramas produced today come from the fourth source- the Youtube Confessionals/Public Radio format popularized in such shows as Serial, Welcome to Night Vale, The Black Tapes, and Tanis. When the style first became popular, it was fascinating; a kind of “found tape” style of fake documentary. Unfortunately, it’s become the mainstay of new productions. If you don’t believe me, tell me which audio drama I’m depicting: Host comes on microphone to tell the audience of something strange/unbelievable or unusual. The topic unfolds and the mystery deepens, often in contradictory ways  from previous episodes. The host has a few “helpers” that provide either friendly support or expert testimony as to the nature of the strangeness associated with the topic. The first person narrative style is enhanced with discussion clips of the host with one or more minor characters. The story either ends abruptly in a dark fashion, or spirals into deeper invented lore until- without any real illumination to the mystery- the audience gets bored and unsubscribes. Figured out which podcast I’m relaying? Within the last two years I counted more than a score of new audio dramas with that exact same format.
  2. Geeky Modern Useless Male- I’m a modern geeky male. But, stories that centre around a geeky male whose only skills are his abilities to come up with cosplay references, and cook toaster strudel in his mother’s microwave are overly done. Please consider that most men have a wide variety of capabilities beyond providing only sarcastic Whedonesque banter and running away from danger in fear.
  3. Whendonesque Banter- I can usually identify writers basic age by the way they write dialogue. Joss Whedon mastered his own style of dialogue, a mixture of cleverness and snark and sentence fragment. Modern mimicry  often comes across as stilted and unrealistic. Keep in mind this complaint comes from a man who wrote and produced the fan fiction Firefly: Old Wounds. It’s not an easy prospect.
  4. Awesome Women- This is in strict opposition to the tropes of female characters who were constantly helpless.  What a breath of fresh air it was to hear a different take. Unfortunately, every woman now is much smarter than every man, much more realized, able to achieve more, and able to be involved in any romantic partnership they desire (of either sex). I’ve just listened to three audio dramas in the last month where the Geeky Modern Useless Male is told under no uncertain terms to shape up and lose his patriarchal ways or his girlfriend will leave him for another guy, or maybe that attractive lesbian friend at his workplace. Considering our latest estimates suggest that 8.2% of the populace have engaged in bisexual relations, that’s probably not an accurate depiction of all women. Let alone all “Awesome Women”. By today’s standards Ophelia from Hamlet would be considered an inappropriately weak character. Yet she continually represents one of the most sought after roles. Agency for any character should fit the plot, not the other way around.
  5. Lose the “Isms”– Imagine if you listened to an audio drama and regularly it said, “And that’s why people who hate Capitalism are hurting America!” Unless you’re listening to a dramatization of an Ayn Rand novel, you’re likely to be thrown out of the show. Naked ideologies feel forced. Nobody talks like that. Characters that constantly moralize come across as insufferable. Personally, I love discussing various ideological perspectives in an academic forum and even at a good old fashioned salon. However, if you’re identifying people as misandrists or misogynists, and flinging words around like Patriarchy or Matriarchy– unless in a Dystopian context- it comes across as needlessly didactic. One of the big jobs of a writer is no different than a poker player, keep your tells to a minimum and never show your hand until the last card is played. Virtue Signalling is a real problem in social media, it’s also become prevalent in many modern audio dramas in the last three years.
  6. Producer Time- A lot of audio dramas feel about a third of the size of the podcast. More often lately producers introduce the show, explain the last show, talk about problems with the show, describe the difficulties of making a show (with a request for financial support), break for commercials which pay for the show, almost on a loop. As a listener, I’m beginning to feel that the features are nothing more than a vehicle to showcase the writer/producer and not the other way around.

Solutions:

It’s important to highlight that I have no problem with any of the things I’ve listed above. I love diversity in story. My concern is that the majority of contemporary audio dramas fall into cookie cutter patterns and that makes our medium sound stale and formulaic. There’s no reason to get stuck in a loop. Writers today are as inventive and creative as some of the very best writers of the past. So let’s mix things up!

  • Go back to the Four Sources and try different things out. Be inventive. Draw from past OTR styles, or cinematic scapes, or stage plays. There’s some incredible experimentation going on out there, but it’s rare.
  • Try to escape the modern stereotypes- even ones that are designed to help break old stereotypes. Don’t be afraid to recreate stereotypes to help break the expectation of them. If you’re afraid of being seen as someone who follows old tropes, you’re only going to make new ones. Tell good stories first and foremost. Let the Listener sort it out.
  • Audio Drama has only three key ways you can tell the story on the page- sound effects, music effects, and dialogue. With dialogue being the key. Make sure you develop your own natural style. We can’t all be Elmore Leonard, and most of us shouldn’t attempt to be Joss Whedon.
  • Stop your characters from overtly moralizing. Rod Serling did an excellent job letting the audience decide through the story what was right and wrong. If you tell a good tale, and lead them down the plot they will come to your conclusions anyway.
  • Try to limit your time on microphone. Maybe a little less self promotion and more story? If people love your work, they will find you.

I can’t highlight enough that none of these are reasons I’ll stop listening. I just want to diversity to return to audio drama. I want to listen to all perspectives, ideas, and creative outlets. So, go out there and continue making audio drama!

This was my list. What’s yours?

*Disclaimer. The following is strictly the opinion of the author and should not in any way be seen as the final authority nor the collective opinion of anyone. The author loves diversity and difference in writing and simply wishes to express a return to a wide variety of story telling. Like everyone’s opinion, please read with the appropriate seasoning!

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