Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Resurrection of the Radio Drama

Many forget that television was not the first medium that broadcast pre-recorded dramas to an audience of millions, without the need to leave the comfort of one's home. That honour goes to the oft-neglected medium of the radio drama.

For decades, there existed a family tradition to recline by the fire, with the wireless transistor radio blaring out an episode of programmes such as 'Little Orphan Annie', or mystery fare such as 'The Shadow' or 'The Green Hornet'. The beauty of the radio drama is that the adventure is created entirely with sounds. The atmosphere is created not by sweeping visuals and (quite often, anyway) not with descriptive narratives, but rather with the feel and energy created by the dialogue. Traditionally, this often led to unintentionally comedic instances where characters would have to describe exactly what was happening, resulting in increasingly ridiculous dialogue (“You've picked up that gun! And now you're pointing it at me! And now you've shot me! Aargh!). Usually however, this just enhanced the enjoyment of the experience.

In the decades that followed the invention of this unique concept however, televisual media began to advance and accelerate to the point where television sets were commonplace in middle-class American homes by the mid-1950s. After only thirty-odd years of prominence, the realm of the radio drama had rapidly delined and had become little more than an occasional hobby or plaything of cultural auteurs such as the BBC (who continued creating a steady stream of dramas based on literary works as well as their various franchises such as Doctor Who and even comic book fare like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man right up to the present day).

With the birth of the internet, every aspiring storyteller was given a voice and a platform with which they could express themselves. Seeing as how the creation of high-quality visual productions by the average Joe Soap was unlikely given the budgetary requirements, it seemed only natural that these creative pioneers would lean to more malleable media. Thus, the rebirth of the radio drama.

Many are responsible for this renaissance. One such individual is Gregg Taylor of Toronto, Ontario. A struggling actor and head of an amateur theatre group, Taylor grew tired of “the greasepaint and the empty seats” and instead embraced radio dramas as a medium with which he could reach thousands of people for little cost. Taylor had been a lifelong fan of the old dramas as well as the general style and atmosphere of the old 'mystery men' of the 1930s (the masked, fedora-wearing vigilantes who paved the way for characters such as Batman). With the help of his fiancee and some close friend, Taylor created 'Decoder Ring Theatre' dedicated to creating new radio shows in podcast form, celebrating the style of old. Taylor's most famous creation 'The Red Panda' (an superhero adventure series similar to 'The Shadow', with an overarching story set during the Second World War) attracts thousands of listeners who download the monthly podcasts which then entices advertisers to fund Taylor's exploits. The success of the Panda has led to prose novels written by Taylor as well as other successful radio shows (the 'hard-boiled detective show' Black Jack Justice).

The revitalisation of the radio drama online has resulted in dozens of other similar websites (check out Pendant Productions as well). Decoder Ring Theatre's programmes are unique and highly recommended, released on the 1st and the 15th of every month. Alas, while they do get a bit of money from advertising, almost all of it goes back into producing more shows. The majority of their production capital comes from audience donations and paid memberships (in exchange for exclusive material and high-quality versions of episodes). They're always looking for members to help fund their ongoing shows, so if you like what you hear, be sure to buy one of the excellent Red Panda novels, or pay a donation of any amount. See you in the funny pages.

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