'Playing by ear'

Section 2

Radio drama in the Academy in 2001


2.1 Radio drama in the Academy

Radio drama is taught in about a dozen departments: in drama departments in Hull, Aberystwyth, Swansea, Glamorgan, Manchester Metropolitan University (Crewe Alsager Faculty), Bolton Institute, Sheffield (within the English faculty), Salford, Luton, East Anglia and Kent, and in media studies departments such as the M.A. at Goldsmiths (the largest course), Thames Valley University and Huddersfield. There are also about a dozen creative writing courses (in Drama, English, media studies) which include radio drama options but with no practical work.

So the first problem is that radio drama teachers and researchers are not in the same playing field, and suffer from that false division of labour between humanities and the social sciences. Fortunately, the faithful among us meet up at the now yearly Radio Drama Conference, at Goldsmiths, which I co-founded with Tim Crook. (See Crook, 1999, 4.) The January 2001 Conference will be hosted by the B.B.C. Radio Drama Department in Broadcasting House, in the famous Studio 6A, with actors from the 'Rep'. Honours for the first ever conference go to Peter Lewis and Durham University (Lewis 1977). As a teacher in a drama department, I feel confident that it has long been shown that radio drama is a stakeholder. I suppose radio plays come under 'various polymorphous performances', as Patrice Pavis describes the expansion of theatre studies' remit (Pavis, 2000, 68, 71).

A second problem is the practical – the resources and budget needed to equip a radio drama production suite. The studio needs to be up to six metres long, to allow approaches to, and moves off the microphone, it has to be sound-baffled, and with moveable screens (alternatively hard and sound-absorbent sides). A window looks into the production room ('cubicle' in old B.B.C.-speak). (See Beck, 1997, 8-33.) A talks studio will not do. There has been a great reduction in costs recently with the move into digital production and the PC/Mac route, and after all, drama departments need lots of sound production for live performance, never mind multi-media courses. So sound software (Cool-Edit Pro seems a favourite) and mini-disk machines (now becoming the radio industry standard at around £80-£140 per unit and about £80 for a stereo mike) are shared across courses, making production-on-location a crucial addition. But the big capital cost is the sound-proof studio. There are commercial kits for smaller studios but the best advice is to bring in a local builder. Another factor is the staff training required for teacher and technician. (I have been able to help with this myself and have welcomed visitors sitting in.)

The training of students cannot be confined to radio as the professional world is tri-media now: radio, TV/film and the Internet. Jobs in independent production companies demand this range from graduating students.


2.2 Research publications

There is good news on research. Admittedly, there was a fallow time after the ground-breakers (Drakakis 1981; Lewis 1981; Rodger 1982; Ash 1985; the monumental Crisell 1986, revised 1994). Now we have a flurry of books on sound, stage speech and culture, making essential connections. Here are a sample. Martin Shingler's finely-written On Air (Shingler and Wieringa 1998) is a masterly summary of key topics on radio and sound, and radio drama. Tim Crook's Radio Drama goes into independent production and wide, new directions in theorising, with fresh and often innovative views (Crook 1999). Bruce Smith's The Acoustic World of Early Modern Drama is extraordinary, and opens our ears to the 'key note sounds' and 'acoustemology' of English Renaissance drama (Smith 1999). Close Listening. Poetry and the Performed Word (Bernstein 1998) explores the sound and performance of poetry, but further, into 'work with sound as material' (4). Sounding Out the City. Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life (Bull 2000) concerns the 'auditory in everyday life', technology and further reaches of reception and apparatus theory, and subject positioning. Vimala Herman’s Dramatic Discourse. Dialogue as interaction in plays offers the detailed tools of stage play dialogue analysis which can be adapted to dialogue-dominated radio drama (Herman 1995).

Then there are the following: the more practical Studying Radio (Barnard, 2000, 107-24), articles resulting from the Radio Drama Conferences in Sound Journal (especially Garner 1999 and Gray 2000), and the large and growing resource on sound theory in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology site on the Internet. But over there in film studies, there is even more startling and radical work on sound theorising, especially Brannigan 1997 and Chion 1994. (More on this issue below.)


2.3 Research culture

However, continuing on the research culture of radio drama, I know of only one Ph.D. completed recently, on radio comedy (University College Worcester) and two current (Goldsmiths and Exeter). To encourage teaching and research, I have set up two Internet sites: a Radio Theory site, with Glossary and bibliographies, and a Radio Drama site with studio scripts and exercises for practical teaching. (See Works Cited.) Some interesting links to radio drama on the Internet can be found on the Independent Radio Drama Productions site (IRDP) and on Ated training and resources.


2.4 Culturalism and text-based work

Let me continue with Cinderella's woes. Radio drama is text-based yet notoriously with only a tiny selection of plays in print, and those unrepresentative of the main broadcasting output. This was well expressed by Lewis, 1981a, 169, and the situation has hardly changed except for playwrights David Pownall and Lucy Gough (Pownall 1999 and Gough 1999) among the few very welcome collections since. (I note from James MacDonald in STP 18 (1998) 134 that 80% of produced playwrights today cannot find regular publication.) As a subject, radio drama is in an exposed position in media and cultural studies: a lasting bastion of radio aesthetics, yet also with a place in popular (undemanding) culture and in the broadcasting flow. Radio drama does not renounce text, which can happen to a degree in cultural studies, and with text comes a certain methodological analysis.

Cultural materialism, and culturalism in general, have been well pioneered in drama (as for example, Dollimore and Sinfield 1985, Kershaw 1992 and 1999, and Campbell 1996). Through culturalism, we deconstruct institutions (here media broadcasting), consider how the differences of race, ethnic heritage, class and gender/sexual preference are produced, and search for possibilities of resistance (Gramsci). However, from the Post-Theory revolution within film studies (David Bordwell, Noël Carroll, et al), such 'culturalism' is under attack:

Doubtless culturalism instilled in media academics a sense of empowerment. By studying movies and TV shows one could purportedly contribute to political struggles on behalf of the disadvantaged.

(Bordwell in Bordwell and Carroll, 1996, 11)

See also Pavis, 2000, 70-1 for devastating comment on some gender deconstructionism. But from my base in a drama department, I must keep my ear close to the radio text. (More on text in 4.2.) Unlike film research ('most academic film books nowadays are packed with intricate interpretations of individual films', Bordwell and Carroll, 1996, xiv), there have been few individual studies of radio plays. However, Zilliacus 1976 (Samuel Beckett), Priessnitz 1977a and 1977b (a range of 1970s B.B.C. dramatists), Gray 1981 (Giles Cooper) and Guralnick 1996 (Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard etc.) are exemplary, among others. But the methodology still needs further exploration, not least on evolving a technical-aesthetic vocabulary for radio, as wide and exact as is available in film. (More on this in 3.3.)


2.5 APA protocol

The following is a minor issue but relevant. Not publishing in the same territory of the Academy can also be a problem. But this can bring very different intellectual mindsets together. In submitting articles to non-Humanities journals such as the print Journal of Radio Studies (USA publication, see Works Cited), I find the APA (American Psychological Association) protocol somewhat galling. It denies the direct expression of opinion in the first person. I am restricted to 'in the view of this author' and 'in the opinion of the writer of this article'. The APA protocol also discourages, or at least makes stylistically clumsy, the direct statement of one's individual stance - one of the insights of post-modernism and feminism. The researcher's role should not be hidden, especially in aesthetic evaluation, or at least that is what I appreciate in drama articles. I raise this point because it defines the role of the critic: theoretical or intuitive, formal or emotional, dehumanizing or T.S. Eliot's 'corrector of taste'? Note 1


2.6 Avant-garde

Now for another of Cinderella's plaints. Radio drama works from the script and there have been only a couple of attempts at improvisation, for example by B.B.C. producer Jeremy Mortimer. (See also Crook, 1999, 24-5, 105.) These are decades when avant-garde and high art performance founded on movement, scenography and the multi-media pose a challenge to script-based work. Indeed, they can ignore playscripts altogether (Whitmore, 1994, 1-2). So much theorizing in the arts is an understanding of avant-garde productions (Carroll, 1993, 314).

Radio drama went through its famous Modernist period, as I term it, in the 1950s (Samuel Beckett, Giles Cooper, Barry Bermange, musique concrète, etc.), when new technical discoveries met with new radio playwriting. In the last couple of decades, there is little or no current avant-garde in B.B.C. radio drama, and indeed little avant-garde radio broadcast outside, for example, the irregular series 'Between the Ears' and 'Ars Acoustica' on Radio 3. Broadcasting slots are just not there and we hear hardly anything of the international radio drama festivals and awards (the Prix Futura and the Prix Italia) - no excerpts, no reviews, no reports. International work does not inform current UK playwrights. These ghetto walls are typical of the high arts in the UK (Mayer uses the term 'aesthetic culture', Mayer, 1977, 264), but not in Europe. There is hardly any attempt to connect with, or review, sound installations or other sound works. And among academic publications on radio drama, denouncing experimental works broadcast has a long and curious history. It also reflects a dominant view within the radio industry. Note 2



Notes to Section 2


Note 1

See, for example, Goodman, 1996, 20 on feminist theatre ('it takes the personal very seriously') and Hanna, 1988, 34-8 on 'The Dance Critic as Sage and Shaman'. This debate about the personal stance of the academic is current in film studies. Here is the eminent Christian Metz:

[I]f you assume that the analyst has the necessary training (knowledge, method), the whole value of his work depends on his personal qualities, since he is at the same time the scholar, and (together with the film), the very terrain of the research.

(Metz, 1995, 157)

The Post-Theory movement in film studies (Bordwell and Carroll 1996) critiques the postmodernist self-conscious 'game' of personal academic display. It does not however dismiss 'first-person writing' and making the observer-analyst an explicit part of the story. Bordwell and Carroll stress that their collection is 'highly argumentative' (xii). BACK


Note 2

Here are a couple of classic examples of denouncing change and the avant-garde: Wade, 1981a, 243 objecting to the arrival of stereo and Raban 1981, 80 raging against Andrew Sachs' wordless play, 'The Revenge' of 1978. (See Beck 1999b, 2.3-6 and Beck, 2000, 'Perspective and the vertical'). It is unfortunate that sometimes students reproduce these views without subjecting them to critique, as these essays are among the main materials available and are still valuable. A cold welcome can still be given to artistic innovators. See Garner 1999 on the stylish and film-like adaptation of Dickens' 'Bleak House'. BACK


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