Sure. My full name is Jack Jamie Ward. I'm 50 years old. I'm as old as Star Trek, which says a lot about my geekiness. I'm coming from Halifax, Nova Scotia, specifically Lakeside, a small community just off of Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada on the East Coast.
I'm connecting through videogames, I think, because most sort of speculative fiction and geek culture intersect together through story, through radio drama, which is my big thing -- or modern audio drama. All that gets reflected in videogames.
For almost 14 years now I've been running a weekly podcast called The Sonic Society. Before that I ran another show called Shadowlands. Shadowlands featured old-time radio, which is often called OTR shows. Then, I wanted to go and see what was being made that was brand new. And so, there was modern old-time, which is now modern audio drama. So, for over five hundred episodes now, we've been able to showcase over a hundred different producers, directors, including myself. I also write and produce and have been doing so for well over 16 years. Actually, I wrote a script 30 years ago that I got a chance to produce as well. So, I've worked with probably a couple hundred actors, I've written over 90 plays on my own, I'm still producing a number of series as well as this. I also have another podcast called The Electric Vicuña Podcast, which is a collection of my original productions, under the banner of Electric Vicuña, the name of our company. I've won a couple of awards as a scriptwriter and as a producer of radio drama, Mark Time Awards and the Ogle Awards and such.
I mean, would you describe yourself as -- as far as your knowledge level of the history of radio dramas or audio dramas, would you say that you're an aficionado? Would you call yourself a casual historian or a fan? How would you characterize yourself in your awareness of the form and its history?
I'd say all three. I've read a number of books on the history. I was a huge fan of spoken word. Ever since I was a child, my parents brought me up on old-time radio drama through LPs, which are those overly sized CDs that nobody plays anymore. I also ended up being a speaker in a number of podcast conventions and other places, introducing people to the history of radio drama all the way to modern audio drama. So, I've had the opportunity to be able to speak as a specialist in this field, which has been really exciting for me. And to meet people and to write for professional radio-drama companies, as well, and have some of my work professionally produced on top of that and for sale.
So, I think I've had a chance to experience -- and I've done a number of interviews with top radio drama producers of today: Dirk Maggs, Jerry Robbins, Angelo Pennetta come to mind right off the top of the bat. They're very well known in the audio-drama field for creating all kinds of really exciting works.
When I emailed you, I guess like I said it was April or March? [Laughs.]
Well, I was excited about videogames. I play them casually more often than not. One of my ex-girlfriends was the first one to buy me an actual PS3 or PlayStation 3.
I ended up re-introducing myself to that kind of console gaming. I played a lot of computer games and I enjoy playing on the computer, but now I'm just really enjoying console games. So, I found that I didn't like playing online because of some of the cultural aspects that happen on the online game. I prefer the story. Being a writer, I love story. Things like Uncharted just took my heart. I can't wait to finish 4. [Laughs.] I can’t bring myself to finish Nathan Drake’s story quite yet. I appreciate a lot of sandbox games too. I love the Fallout series, of course, and Skyrim, and The Last of Us. There's a number of games that are really long-playing games that I enjoy playing. But what really excited me, too, is I started playing things like BioShock and I realized, "Oh, you can pick up this recorder and listen to it?" And the same thing with Fallout.
So, there were these sort of mini radio dramas that were going all the way through it and I thought, "Somebody has a real love of the genre as much as I do." I mean, it's in Fallout they have "The Adventures of Herbert 'Daring' Dashwood." [Laughs.] Right? And those are mini audio dramas that people have loved and would love to see more of. I notice online, everyone's sort of saying, "Is anybody making any BioShock audio dramas? Is anyone making Borderlands 2?" I noticed there's one that Halo has put out: “The Hunt.” So, it's exciting to see that kind of crossover happen.
I just finished a transcript earlier this week with a literary critic who I interviewed who has started to write about videogames. He and I hit on this thing about the perception that maybe people who make videogames are big fans of other mediums but may not have a deep understanding of how they work to emulate, for example, film. Do you have a sense that the same type of thing is happening with radio dramas or audio dramas when they're presented in a game like Fallout or BioShock?
Well, I created a little audio essay because I was fascinated about how audio drama works on a deep level. In my little audio essay I started looking at various dimensions of audio because in the audio-drama world there's a massive split right now between people who sorta see audio drama from the old-time radio perspective of almost like staged dramas that are done auditorily, right? So, the idea of doing a live stage performance or that kind of feeling to people on the other side who say, "No, no, no, no. We want movies without pictures. We wanna have that large scale." I used to call it the difference between the minimalists in audio drama who just want the simple sound effects to the "every blade of grass" people who want to hear every blade of grass that you go across. And it's fascinating because it really does seem to be the videogame generation that is really excited -- and the people who grew up with, like, movies as their main focus, but especially videogames are really visual and they want that kind of full-scaped, 3D-sound, visual aspect in audio drama. Production, production, production is most important for them.
Right. But when you're playing games and see these audio-drama aspects pop up and play out, do you sense they are paying homage to specific approaches, styles, and philosophies of audio drama? Or does it feel like a tacked-on unspooling of clunky narrative they didn't know how else to put in the game? Or something else entirely?
I think I personally see two different flavors in audio drama in videogames: the sentimental and the practical. Sentimentalized audio drama flavor in videogames is either appealing to the setting of the story -- much like the theater showing the temperance movement in Red Dead Redemption or to a half-remembered past in the writer’s life like the “Dashwood” radio dramas from Fallout 3. They are obviously reflecting back on the 1950’s OTR that the writers either remember personally, or like me, remember their parents sharing those classic dramas.
You mentioned before that you're not that interested in playing online due to -- you called it "the cultural aspect." What types of things are you referring to?
Well, I mean, there's two aspects. The one thing is you do get a lot of sort of cross-chatter insults that happen between people. I'm just not there for that kind of thing.
Being a teacher and a parent, I don't want to get back into the whole swearing back and forth and causing all that kind of stuff. I found that almost stressful. [Laughs.] I could enjoy shooting people up if I was doing it by myself. [Laughs.]
The other aspect is I'm not a big fan of -- because I'm so story-driven, I'm not a big fan of playing games like Halo or Metal Gear as much, or Call of Duty, or something where oftentimes when you're playing online, it's sort of shoot and then respawn and then shoot and then respawn. I like a destination to go to. And that's not just in videogames. It's my whole life, right? If I'm gonna go for a walk, I find it much more enjoyable if I find a place that I need to go to do it. [Laughs.] Than just going around in circles. So.
Just to start at a very broad point, what is your perception of videogames and the videogame industry? It sounds like you're aware of a lot of games, but from where you sit, when someone says "videogames" or "the videogame industry," what does that make you think of or feel?
There's a number of things going on in the videogame industry. I'm on the side of being kind of concerned about the Anita Sarkeesian sort of look at videogames because I often see that when you slice apart stories in very specific ways and look at them -- I went through university, I did my undergraduate in English and I am an English teacher, so I'm very aware of being able to see critical analysis in a very number of different ways. So, feminist criticism is not something I'm unaware of. I appreciate it. But I also say, "There is a time to take a look at that and step back and look away from it. And, there's a time to say, "Okay, but the story has to be first and foremost. If the story is interrupted because you're trying to facilitate a number of things or work against a number of things that you see as being a problem, then the story is hurt and you don't end up doing a better product in the end."
So, while I appreciate looking at the videogame industry and saying, "Well, is there sexism going on? Is there too much violence on?" I'm not sure that you can make those arguments that the violence is self-perpetuating violence in society. I mean, if that were the case, Japan would be the most violent society in the world. [Laughs.] And they're far less than the U.S. and less than Canada and we're pretty good. So, I have trouble making those kinds of quick analysis.
So, I see, oftentimes, people sort of coming from the good place of wanting to be able to do social causes but oftentimes sort of causing harm in creativity. And I'm all about creativity. If you want to do a really cool radio, I have a friend who does LEAP audio, and it's all LGBTQ stories. And I think that's awesome. That's what's needed in the radio-drama community. We don't have somebody out there doing that. So, I act for him as well, and he acts for me in many of my things. But on the same level, I don't necessarily say, "Well, he's doing right and this other person is doing wrong."
Find the source of that great story and reach to it and fulfill it and don't necessarily have to follow through with anybody else's ideas of what makes a good story, what makes a good character. If it's gonna work, you'll find out from your audience if it works or doesn't.
I want to dive into -- not Sarkeesian specifically, but the audience reaction and things that sparked from there. I think what might be useful is before we get further: From your point of view, obviously, your focus is more radio than videogames, but I'd be curious to hear what you feel is the usefulness in contrasting one medium's history and specifics to another. Obviously, 1:1 comparisons are not gonna be useful per se but I think that they can give hints or offer glimpses ways things might pan out or the ways they might not pan out. But I just sort of want to anticipate people reading this and being like, "Well, this is a broken metaphor from the outset." Do you agree? Is it a broken metaphor? Or how is this not a broken metaphor?
I mean, I try to tell my students -- I try to show them that all story is interconnected in the way that it has to be told. You have to have a hook -- even essays, I go through the whole process of, "You need a hook in an essay. Well, you need a hook in a movie. Well, you need a hook in a story. Well, you need a hook in a radio drama. You need a hook in a game."
The way we take in story as human beings tends to be pretty clearly cut as to what we find effective. Now, you can cookie cutter for sure, but you still have to follow the basic good storytelling procedures.
There's an interesting variety -- I did a radio drama called Blue Defender, which was a superhero that I created. One of my fans said, "Could I make an animation of this?" I said, "Sure! That sounds great." So, he made an animation of it and I watched the animation and put it on YouTube and I went, "Wow! This is so slow."
The reason was is because radio drama depends on dialog so much, that the visuals got in the way. I could have gone back and cut out almost half the dialog that I put in my radio drama and then gave it to him and the animation would have been that much more exciting. So, there is that aspect where it's more about how do you change the medium? I do adaptations of books, for example, for other companies and for myself, and it's kind of like you rip off the front cover and then you go through all the stuff and you rearrange the pages and mark off a whole bunch of stuff and then try to find the kernel of the story within to do it. Those stories are there. It's how you tell it in the medium which makes a really big difference.
One other thing, if you don't mind.
I have students who sit there and say, "Well, radio drama isn't that important. I'm a visual person." I'll say radio drama is more visual than anything you've got. And they'll be like, "That's not true." Yeah, it is. I'll explain it to you this way: Radio drama is the most intimate of mediums because it's just you and the sounds in your head and you making the pictures. You're the closest thing you can to your imagination when you're doing radio drama. It's right there. You're not even outside, reading.
Yeah, I was gonna say, some of the earliest videogames are not that different from what you're talking about in that they're just words but the difference is radio is just sound, but the earliest games were just reading those words.
Yes, exactly! I say, "Here's an experiment for you: Go watch your favorite television show and turn off the sound and see how much of it you can take in." Now go watch your favorite television show and turn it around but leave the sound up so you can't see the picture. How much of the show do you understand?" We get more from the sound than we do from the pictures in that way. We get more of the integrity of the story. So, when you get things like BioShock and Fallout, sort of adding to the story by these audio clips, they know very clearly that these audio clips create a much richer, deeper background to the story world than they would if they had a pile of different text because people would skip through that. I mean, Skyrim does that to a certain degree with the books, but I talk to a lot of people who play Skyrim and they go, "Nah, I haven't read all the books.” [Laughs.]
I don't. Do you?
No, and I'm a reader!
But, I mean, more people will listen to those radio clips that come up because they can play along and still listen while they're playing BioShock, so.
Well, first up, I wanted to mention because you had mentioned before we started -- thank you for using the term "radio drama," but you said actually the correct terminology is "audio drama." In talking about contrasting videogames and your specialty, I mentioned that one of these points of contentions in videogames and talking about a point of comparison is people are saying, "Oh, we shouldn't even call them videogames anymore. We should just call them 'games.'" When did that start to happen in radio dramas where people were saying, "Oh, we should just call it audio dramas?"
Well, people wanted to identify differences between radio drama, old-radio drama and modern-radio drama. That was a big thing for people to try identify between. But then, also, there was this other big push. It was like, "Well, we gotta call it something different because people don't know what audio drama is. They know what radio drama is and think that's old, but we want to get people excited about the fact that there's this huge resurgence with technology of audio drama." And there is. There's literally thousands and thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of hours of listening that's out there that people can get a contact to.
So, people were throwing around different ideas -- I tried things like "sonic cinema," right? But, again, people went, "Oh, we don't like the idea of 'cinema' because that's suggests that it's movies." Well, movies for the mind? Pulp radio. Pulp audio. There's a whole bunch of different ideas of audio theater. So, people were -- and they still play around with those things, but I think for the most part people have settled upon "modern audio drama" or "audio drama" and "old-time radio" or "radio drama" between the two different sort of Golden Age of radio and the current age of modern audio drama.
So, I mean, when we're contrasting these two time periods -- obviously, today, we live in a very different era. What I remember learning about in college in the history of media, airwaves were considered sacred and advertising on the airwaves would be unthinkable. What changed? [Laughs.]
Well, what happened was the Golden Age of radio drama was not really very long. It's about 20, 30 years in the length of things and then television popped in. That very quickly killed much of the radio drama and most of the money went into television, so most radio companies went for the really cheap content. Playing the same music over and over again, which is -- you know, I still get that when I go work out every morning at the gym. [Laughs.] It drives me crazy: "I just heard these five songs for the last four days. Please stop playing them! I can't take it! Isn’t there an article in the Geneva Convention against this?”
So, there’s always been audio drama, even with television gutting the best days. We had that Golden Age and then we got into the Silver Age, which took us into the '60s and '70s and '80s. There are many people who are modern audio drama enthusiasts who really got excited in the Silver Age. And there were two different shows that got everyone excited in the Silver Age. For most people from England and Canada, one was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. For me, I remember the Silver Age in the '80s, and I listened to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'm like, "This is amazing." For most people in the United States, the Silver Age began with the radio drama Star Wars that was written and produced. It was fascinating because George Lucas gave his old university rights to do the radio-drama Star Wars for a dollar. He gave them all the music. They actually fundraised, to get money from the government as well. Mark Hamill signed on. They got Anthony Daniels, and then a whole slew of other people to play different characters. Then they took the George Lucas script and they extended it so they had -- for those Star Wars fans -- you could listen to effectively 15 episodes of A New Hope, which are all half an hour episodes, so suddenly your Star Wars goes from a two-hour movie to a 6.5-hour serialized season. People loved it. So, they went back and they did The Empire Strikes Back. They had less funding so they had fewer episodes. Then they had even less funding for Return of the Jedi. They didn't even have Mark Hamill back for that. They only ended up doing six episodes, so it really was ending up being the size of the movie. But it was a huge explosion of ideas for people. I have friends of mine who have used that model and have done their own radio drama like The Planet of the Apes and extending from all the movies and creating their own fan-fiction version by taking those movies and adding even stories from comics that that they read, original novels that have a different take. All these various source material allows someone to create a long-form audio-drama series. It's fun to see people weave together these serials long before they were popular to do them on Netflix. It allows writers to be as creative as they wish.
I understand your saying the Golden Age didn’t last that long, but could you talk a bit about how people came around to the airwaves maybe not being so sacred. Did TV have something to do with that?
Well, it has a lot to do with where the money went. Money went into developing television dramas and out of radio dramas. For a while you’d see a couple of shows that would actually overlap. Have Gun Will Travel and Dragnet I think were two examples of that. They ran both series on both mediums. But the lure of the visual is a whole lot easier for people to relax to. Radio drama is not for the lazy-minded. Eventually the sponsorship fell out of the radio dramas and they moved pretty much exclusively to television. Radio drama is not as cheap as playing a record that was already donated to the station. It’s certainly not as cheap as having a single DJ either. Some stations began playing the old time radio series late at night because the content was already made, and up into the ‘70s there were a few shows -- mostly anthology series of the strange that kept the torch alive. CBS Radio Mystery Theater hosted by the incredible actor E.G. Marshall played all the way through the ‘70s until ‘82, and Zero Hour by one of my own spiritual mentors, Rod Serling, had a brief run for a year and a bit in the ‘70s. Other nations like Britain never lost their love of audio drama. In the seventies and eighties, the CBC had some awesome shows like Nightfall and Vanishing Point. But all of them seemed to be anthology-based so people could miss one week and not be lost.
The core reason that I reached out to you is to talk about audience for radio dramas. I know this is a very broad thing, but what was the audience like for the Golden Age of radio dramas or the Silver Age of radio dramas?
That's a good question. I don't have numbers off the top of my head but, I mean, everybody listened to radio at the time. You figure that out after the big panic when Orson Welles did War of the Worlds and it just swept across the country, this idea that, "Oh my God, we're being invaded by martians right now!" [Laughs.] It's interesting how that happened where there were, like, two stations and people were sick of what was going on one station, flipped over, and they listened to War of the Worlds not realizing it was just a drama and thinking, "Oh my God, it's real!" The panic was real. I mean, there's no -- it's been overblown through the years. There were no actual deaths that we know of that were reported.
But people were fleeing New York. People were leaving the city. People were absolutely terrified that something was literally happening.
So, from the Golden Age, how long did it take for people like Orson Welles to test the limits of the medium?
Oh, he was going at it from the very beginning. He was a very young man and working very hard. He -- there's a very funny story where he used to work several different jobs because he had a great voice. So, he hired his own ambulance and drove from one studio, like, NBC over to CBS, back and forth, with the sirens running so he could get there on time. You couldn't do that nowadays. It would be entirely illegal.
But he just hired an ambulance, ran the sirens to get to where he would go. And he did a lot of this because he wanted to fund his theater company, like, his live theater company as well. But he enjoyed creating classics, and so he did a lot of writing and producing. He worked as The Shadow for many years, of course, and then got into doing his own work of The Mercury theater on the Air and The Campbell Playhouse, which were his two things that got him involved in War of the Worlds. To this day, a lot of people sort of count him as the king of radio drama.
Was he unusual, though? Were there others at that time who were unsung heroes doing similar testing of the medium?
Oh, absolutely! There's a number of people that were really incredible writers. Arch Oboler was a phenomenal force in Radio Drama. He wrote some of the best psychological thrillers. So popular were his plays that he got his own bi-line show Arch Oboler Presents. Also, Lucille Fletcher was very famous for her show Sorry, Wrong Number which is perhaps one of the greatest tales of suspense terror on radio ever made. Some of her stuff was later redone for The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling, like so many others, got his start on radio drama as well.
He started working on radio, too. So, that's what happened, when radio went to television, most of those shows ended up changing into television. All the variety comedy shows, the Jack Benny shows. A lot of the great vaudeville people started -- went from stage to radio to television.
Amos and Andy, yeah.
Amos and Andy, Burns and Allen, Dean Martin. Martin and Lewis.
So, there's a ton of people who did very, very well. Of course, Abbott and Costello, their whole "Who's on First?" became really famous when it hit radio.
So, I mean, yeah, pretty much everybody listened to radio. But among those audiences and to contrast it against games, what did those audiences seem to want? Did they write in to shows or stations? If so, what did those notes say?
Oh, absolutely! In fact, a lot of -- there was such a variety. It was like early television in the fact that they started slow and they started with a couple of dramas and then they realized, "Wow, we could do things like sell stuff to kids." So, Superman, for example -- a lot of people don't realize but Superman, the radio drama [The Adventures of Superman] created a number of things that we later used in Superman. For example, kryptonite was created from the radio drama. So, there's -- and they started saying things like, "Well, we can sell box-top things off of cereals for kids. We can get kids to be able to buy Wheaties." I always loved -- I think it was Dick Tracy show, where they had the sound of guns firing off. Like, huge howitzer guns. It was like, "That's the sound of the guns!" And it was -- the suggestion of this particular cereal was exploded from cannons. It was the "only cereal made from guns." Right? [Laughs.] But it was a big selling point for kids at the time. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, The Blue Beetle. There's a lot of kids shows that they had that were a lot of fun that they could sell these kinds of products. So, they had shows for every age, pretty much for every genre.
One of the things I was wondering about was whether there's precedent for the entitled audience behavior that in the case of videogames extends beyond having a product that works. Like, a good correlate is would be: Would people critique Little Orphan Annie based solely on the quality of microphones they used and whether each syllable was enunciated correctly?
[Laughs.] No, I think this was -- we were at the very beginning of an audience that wasn't as sophisticated as it is today. I mean, you and I -- and many people like the students I teach, they've absorbed hundreds of times of more stories by the time they've gotten to grade 10 or grade 9, high school than any of those people did with radio drama. I mean, a lot of people read dime-store novels and stuff like that, but, still, reading is a longer process. Once you get into the high level of media, which begins with radio drama, where you can absorb six or seven stories a night if you have it off in the background -- that starts creating this huge backlog of stories that are in people’s heads and that's where the criticism comes, like, "Oh, yeah, I've heard this one before." This is how it's gonna happen." People start making those kinds of really sharp criticisms in that way.
I think there's one interesting aspect, too, that radio drama had, old-time radio drama had that we have a problem with videogames now: It's this -- when radio was playing, everybody listened to it. Even if it was Superman, it was still in the living room and mum was in the kitchen or dad was reading a paper or dad was in the kitchen and mum was reading the paper. Whatever it was that they were doing, but they were with the family and it was a shared kind of entertainment experience. So, you could talk about that with everybody in your family. But nowadays, everything is so portable and everything is so customizable, I'm not sure that most parents really know what their kids are playing, let alone what they're listening to. Like, it was the same thing back in the day where I was talking to a music teacher. I said, "You know, how different is the music today compared to back?" She said, "The big difference is that parents have no idea what their kids are listening to.”
Yeah, I mean, I've seen and maybe you've seen written about the rise of bowling alleys was another thing that drove a wedge in at least American families, that there began to be this divide as far as what kids were doing to entertain themselves and parents losing track of it.
Right. That makes sense.
Yeah, I mean -- so, you're saying, though, that there wasn't a lot of harsh criticism in the early days of radio drama?
No, I think that they were careful. I think that in and of itself, most of the early days of radio drama were driven by the metrics of money. So, they didn't want to really do a lot of things to insult people. Even when War of the Worlds came out, the apology tour went on forever for Orson Welles.
He went on live on film and apologized to everybody. A lot of people say that was practiced, and he loved the entertainment. The fact of the matter is is that those were the expectations. People didn't want to be shocked in the same way. They didn't want to go beyond the pale of what they considered to be bad taste.
That's a good question. I mean, I'll have to think about -- I mean I think the democratizing influence of social media has everyone rocked right now. One outraged listener or viewer now can marshall hundreds even thousands of angry citizens. We’re seeing that now for both better and worse in Hollywood, comedy. All the entertainment industries. In radio drama the power was in the sponsor’s hands, and if they were offended, they would cancel an entire show even without customer feedback. Companies were far more worried about reputation in the day of radio drama, whereas a corporation will do more of a calculation as to how much money they will make from the outrage. If a sponsor left in the old days of radio drama, there was a scramble to find a new one.
The sponsors -- if you go onto YouTube, there's a great little audio of Orson Welles just blistering, angry about a sponsor because he's had to deal with it for many, many years. There tends to be more of a -- at least in the videogame industry there tends to be more self-funded that way, because it's direct sales, right? So, it's more like the difference between HBO and network television. [Laughs.] People who wanna buy this stuff are willing to put the money down and so therefore it's a little more -- you have to spend more time self-censoring as to where you want to go and how limited you want to have your audience.
Now, one of the things I did was I said, "Well, wait a minute. In modern audio drama, we don't have a ratings system." So, I said, "Why don't we create a ratings system that works just like we do for movies?" So I sat down with a couple of people and we thought it out and we came up with the audio-drama rating system, which I can send you a link for.
It's not a requirement, but I thought, "Hey, I've got students and parents that are asking what they can listen to. If an audio-drama company adopts this, then at least they have a bit of an idea of what to expect for their kids."
And I often say to people who say, "Well, should I put a lot of swearing in my radio drama or a lot of sex?" I say, "Just be aware that you are probably gonna limit your audience a little bit because there still are people who are older who love listening to this stuff and they could be turned off very quickly by those good-old fashioned four-letter Anglo-Saxon words.”
"That describe bodily functions." Right? [Laughs.]
Yeah, many of them can be used as verbs but are also nouns.
Exactly, that's right. [Laughs.]
I mean, this is another far-flung question: Do you see roots or seeds for things like clickbait journalism today in the start of radio's day?
I think -- it's interesting because the very beginning of radio was like the very beginning of podcasting, which was very experimental, not very -- like, you could set up your own radio station and three people around the block could hear you. That kind of thing. And that kind of happened a little bit with podcasting. And now, as people see money come in, well, that's where you see more standards, you see more requirements, you see more things that come in. I think that's what's kind of happening in the media world right now. I think the Gamergate is like this push back of saying, "Okay, we're tired of being the kids on the other side of the fence. We want to start having real media analysis of the videogames that are going on." I have to say mea culpa because I remember back in the '90s when I first started teaching and I had a student, he was saying, "You know, videogames could end up being just as engaging as movies." I went, "No, they couldn't!"
Of course I was growing up on Space Invaders and Pac-Man. I was like, "There's no way these are going to be as engaging as a movie." Which, they probably are now anyway. [Laughs.] But he's right. I mean, now, there's so many games with great cutscenes and stuff like that, that engagement, it's not surprising that now a massive release of a very famous game makes more money than many massive releases of movies.
Talking about Gamergate and Sarkeesian and feminism in games, is there an analogue in radio for the feminist movement in games today?
Huh. Well, there are a -- yeah. There's a lot of feminism. This is a big discussion we have back and forth in audio drama, too, because that spills over, right? Social issues spill over in every media. You can't escape them. So, the social issues of feminism are absolutely spilling over into audio drama and there's these big conversations of, "Well, why did you make this character male? Couldn't you have made this character female? Why is this character white?" I'll say, "Well, I didn't notice that the character was anything because it's radio drama." [Laughs.] "He could have been any color, for all I know." But there's that question of, "Well, what does a white person sound like? What does a black person sound like? What does a Chinese person? Do we have somehow our own biases of what we expect people to sound like based on their ethnicity?" So, it's a huge question that people -- and I think it's healthy. I think it's healthy to have these kinds of questions. I think it's never -- it stops being healthy when people start saying, "You're doing something wrong based upon what I think should be right.” That's when things start becoming -- you know, they start falling off the truck and becoming a real issue. And we’re seeing that push back in universities right now. People are getting upset that there’s a uniformity of opinion. I’m against that. I love diversity, and that means there’s as much room for all kinds of stories in the Internet. No need to throttle any perspectives out.
There are some really great female audio-drama producers out there. Gwendolyn Jensen-Woodard comes to mind. Alexa Chipman comes to mind. Sarah Golding, and the amazing Tanja Milojevic, who I consider to be the queen of modern audio drama. They all have really strong female voices in their writing and they do great work. I'd like to see more because just like videogames, the thought of radio drama tends to be more a boy's club. There's a lot more men that are creating radio drama than there are women, and I'd like to see more parity.
I'd like to see more parity of stories, too.
But we're not there yet.
Well, wait, were there things from radio’s history or coverage of it that resemble modern clickbait journalism?
One of the problems with making direct comparisons between today and the days of radio drama is how little information we have and how centralized so many of those decisions were made compared to how they’re done today. It’s almost like asking for people to give specific details as to how clickbait occurrences happen in movie theaters. It’s rare because most theaters are owned by large organizations, and the distribution model is so regressive that punitive measures against theaters are really harsh. Back in the days of radio drama you had two networks, and later three -- ABC came in in the ‘40s -- so most everything was very measured in their releases. They also didn’t get clear understandings about how to market in the same way we do now -- which really didn’t get started until the eighties. The most click-baity you’re going to get is during the war years when they were trying to use propaganda to whip up support for war bonds and the like. Can you imagine today someone telling you that going out to buy goods like tires, eggs, milk, sugar and the like was doing your patriotic duty? The famous War of the Worlds scare was such a shock because people literally had no consideration that what they were hearing wasn’t an actual live news broadcast. The public had a level of trust in their government that the modern age wouldn’t understand. They were marketing kids to become junior G-men: Telling them how cool they would be to work for the government and for the betterment of their community. It’s almost unimaginable to consider people talking like that today.
Today, when I think of mainstream radio, one model that comes to mind are the shock jockey or people who are typically trying to appeal to more gendered audiences. We’re more focused on what divides us as a nation as opposed to what united us which was all the discussion in the days of old time radio. Even if you think of something like NPR, you get a very specific style and mode of thinking that’s carefully carved out for a specific audience.
Well, it's true, and even more so in modern audio drama. We’re doing our best to carve out niche audiences. Again, I'm -- I do listen to some NPR. I'm more of a CBC listener because I'm up in Canada and I grew up with CBC.
CBC's been pretty good at being able to get both male and female voices and all perspectives, but you look back and you realize that some of the superstars that were there were mostly men and it's not because they didn't have phenomenal women, it's because there were less of them in radio.
So, there's some really great female voices on CBC that I really appreciate. Anna Maria Tremonti, for example, who does the daily sort of CBC show called The Current. She's one of the best reporters I know. She's one of the best interviewers who really get into the story. And there's a real sense of understanding of social issues in the CBC. So, you'll hear a real diverse group of people and they try to keep it as diverse as possible. So, it's valuable, but, again, we're also getting that pushback. Now, just recently I read an article about people saying, "I can't even sell a television show idea if it's not based on some other ethnicity other than my own experiences of being a white person growing up in Canada." And they're saying, "Well, we want a Canadian experience." The person says, "I was born here. I'm Canadian!" Again, those conversations are healthy as long as they don't end up narrowing the story playing field. To me, it's all about story. My beginning and ending thing is a story. You got a great story? I don't care where it comes from, who your main characters are, I want to listen to it because I think great story is universal.
To circle back to one of the things that made me reach out to you, the entitled fandom or audience knowing better -- are you saying that it really doesn't have roots that go back all the way to the Golden Age of radio dramas? That this came later?
Well, there are fans of old-time radio -- I mean, they had their own conventions of collectors and stuff like that. They'll spend time, just like any other fandom, sort of enjoying their niche and arguing back and forth: "What was the best one?" "Well, it was Lights Out!" "No it wasn't, it was Suspense!" [Laughs.] And they'll go back and forth arguing which show was the greatest show.
So, but I mean, what's fascinating to me is that it's kind of come full circle because fan audio has been really popular. I mean, my show became extremely popular after I produced the first Firefly radio drama fanfiction. So, after the series ended and we were all anxious for more series, I thought, "Okay, well, I kind of want to do a fanfiction, but so many people are doing Doctor Who and so many people are doing Star Trek and Star Wars. I want to do something different." And I loved Firefly, so I created a six-episode series called "Old Wounds."
It became super-popular among all sorts of people who had never listened to audio drama before. So, it was a way to bring people into audio drama. I think in many ways, those fans -- those people involved in fandom from television or from movies are looking for crossovers to be able to continue with their thrill of stuff.
I'm curious about another type of crossover. You mentioned fans being really passionate and enthused with one another. What we see in modern times, at least in videogames, although it extends elsewhere and outward, is people reaching out to the creator. So, you can think of Stephen King's Misery as a fictionalized version of it, but I think Sherlock Holmes is one of the first instances I've been able to find, at least, where Arthur Conan Doyle ended -- he killed off Sherlock Holmes and he was assaulted on the street. I read one account that he was called a "brute" on the street.
[Laughs.] Oh, 19th century. Don't you just love the way that they insult somebody? "He called him a brute? A brute! Really!"
Was there anything like that in the Golden Age or Silver Age of radio dramas?
I'll tell you, they were really worried about certain things like that. For example, The Lone Ranger was really, really a very popular radio-drama series.
The guy who wrote it, he actually ended up writing The Green Hornet, too, by the way, so he basically wanted another Lone Ranger but he put him in modern age. Instead of having a horse, he had the car, the Black Beauty.
So, what happened was the actor who played the Lone Ranger died -- not during the show itself but during the run of the show. I think he got hit by a car. And they were terrified of the outcry from the kids. They were terrified of the outcry of the parents. So, what they ended up doing was hastily writing a show where he and Tonto were in a massive battle and he was badly injured and couldn't speak. So, Tonto ran the show for several episodes and several weeks, where he moved him back and forth and he was testing out his voice but it wasn't quite right. And because they didn't have reruns back then, they could slowly move a brand new actor into the Lone Ranger position. Even though his voice was different, nobody remembered. So, they didn't have that big fallout that happens.
I think they were concerned that they had such a group of fans that that would make such a difference.
Yeah. I mean, what were they afraid of?
I think they were afraid of kids, first of all, being really upset about the fact that Lone Ranger died. They didn't want to have that kind of conversation about, "Well, he's not the Lone Ranger." 'Cause they spent that time creating it. I think they were also concerned, very much, about the bottom line. If somebody just came in and played the Lone Ranger and it was an entirely different voice, kids wouldn't buy into it and that would be it and they would turn out, turn off, and go to do something else.
There’s another great Superman story about how some guy figured out that the KKK were using a series of codes to contact each other across the country. They guy took his information -- basically their entire code book -- to the FBI who told him they didn’t care. They had bigger fish to fry. Somehow that guy got a hold of the writers of Superman and they wrote a story around Superman breaking up the KKK. The put in the real codes and made it public putting the KKK back and effectively almost out of business. Another instance where Superman saves the day.
For audiences, I don't really know that we need to conform to this binary, but did they want more artfulness or adventure out of their radio dramas in the earlier days?
That's a good point. I think, again, there's such a variety of everything. You have suspense, which was a little slower paced and much more tense. But then you also had Escape, which was all about an adventure, exciting, pulse-pounding. You had Bold Venture, which was Bogie and Bacall redoing their African themed movies on radio dramas. So, a lot of people were looking for a way to extend their movie experience into the radio-drama realm.
And so, you'd often find things that were really popular in the movies done on the radio dramas. in fact, they had a show very specifically designed Lux Radio theater, where they were selling Lux soap. Where, Lux Theater would do, "Okay, here is The Wizard of Oz radio drama." And they would bring in the main actors to come in and do The Wizard of Oz and they would do a shortened hour-long version of that so that they could sell that to the movies. So, people would go listen to that and go, "I want to see that in the theater." And they'd go see it.
Can you talk to me a little bit about the evolution of different radio houses, as it were? I'm curious -- well, if you could talk about that and just organizationally, how various personalities began to evolve and interact with each other?
Well, I think in the early days of radio drama, it was people like the Orson Welles and the Arch Obolers and the Anthony Bouchers that were able to sort of call their own shots and make their own shows because they became super-popular. Not so much the producers but the voices behind the microphones that were the ones that got people's attention, so people wanted to hear from them more. That's why the Jack Bennys were doing so well, because not only were they producers but they also were the main voice. So, they could go anywhere and if they needed to change networks they could. So, that kind of popularity worked well.
Once the Golden Age was over and we got into the Silver Age, then we're looking at far more independent companies that are putting together radio-drama stuff like Tower Records and Lion Records and some record companies were putting out kids' versions of radio drama on records that people could listen to. A lot of comic books were done. A lot of those were done to try to direct sell the audio.
Once you got off the radio and the public airwaves, then it was much more niche. Take a look at now -- move even further to modern day and you've got Big Finish. They've got a number of different products that they do but they're mostly known for doing the Doctor Who radio dramas. The official ones. They've been given the go-ahead by BBC, so what ends up happening is you'll have one of the Doctor who's on television retire and a year later, he's on radio dramas. So, you can continue the stories of the Doctor Whos that you love to hear on radio drama stories that you've never of before.I know David Tennant right now and Catherine Tate have just released a couple of different brand-new radio dramas in their characters that they had during their time of Doctor Who and fans are eating it up. Blake's 7. They just released some more Blake's 7, which was a big science-fiction show in England at the time, and Survivors.
So, there's a lot of that you'll find. Again, that's where fandom comes in. Fans demand those things that they loved in their childhood. So, they're saying, "How can we get more Space: 1889? Well, we could make an audio drama because it doesn't cost nearly as much." Or, "How can could we get more Star Trek now that Star Trek's off the air?" Well, suddenly, we have a ton of different Star Treks that come out: Giant Gnome Productions and Darker Projects had three or four different Star Treks that came out. There was a ton of people that did their own Star Trek versions. In fact, many people, that's how they got started doing radio dramas was because they were super-fans, they started by doing these audio dramas. There's a Buffy Between the Lines. There's an Angel audio drama out there. So, there's a lot of those things that were the huge fan ones and that got actors involved -- anime was another great one, because there's such a big fandom for anime there's a lot of people who have taken manga and made it into audio drama.
In the Golden Age and the Silver Age, was it sexy to be on the radio? Were they celebrities of their day?
The Golden Age, absolutely. In fact, most of those people were already famous actors in the movies. Or they became famous actors in the movies. That's what they did.
In the Silver Age, not so much. You would have more B-class actors doing the odd audio drama. It really -- there wasn't the money in the Silver Age the same as there was. There was a couple -- CBS Radio Mystery Theater had E. G. Marshall and Tom Bosley. William Shatner was in an episode of Zero Hour. Heck, Leonard Nimoy put some money into his own audio drama series. A lot of actors who weren’t hot on the big screen or television for one reason or another tried to get more work even developing their own shows in radio drama. You’d be surprised at how many people out there love it. Stephen King has said many times he loves radio drama. Neil Gaiman has had several scripts written for the medium and produced. J. Michael Straczynski from Babylon 5 and many other shows fame loved radio drama.
Nowadays, there will be some people that will put some cash into hiring actors that have cachet. Carl Amari did so with The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas starring Stacy Keach as the narrator. But that's a very expensive game. Here in Canada, I was looking at hiring professional actors to do some of my audio dramas, and when I first started they were saying, "Well, it's about 75-95 an hour for a baseline actor for four hours." I was like, "Well, you know what? I can swing that. I won't make any money doing it, but I can swing that." Because I usually have to have four to six actors if you're going to do a regular series.
But then, about eight years ago, nine years ago, they changed -- the union changed and they made audio drama costs the same as cartoon voice overs. I was like, "Then we're dead. There's no way we can hire actors that we're gonna have to pay $2,000, $4,000 a day." If I were selling my product, because it's a niche market for audio drama, I'd be lucky to get a couple of hundred bucks. [Laughs.]
Do you think that's something the average listener is aware of or knows?
I think the average listener knows that if they've listened to radio drama for any length of time. There's always the big conversation, like, "How can we make radio drama viable for people?" There's some companies that do it. Colonial Radio Theater does it and they make fantastic work and they're always producing. But I’m pretty sure that they and Jim French Productions, and Radio Repertory Company of America are not pulling down anything like television or movie profits.
Colonial Radio has literally hundreds of programs out there, most of them written by Jerry Robbins. I boggles the mind. Dirk Maggs does it, but, again, he gets his stuff on the BBC. The Truth podcast does it, but again, they get their stuff out on NPR. So, oftentimes those people who are making a lot of money end up doing so because they have connections to radio. Radio never went away and if they have a chance to be able to play it on the radio, then people are gonna wanna buy it afterwards. I know there's K.C. Wayland, is one of those outliers who has made an okay amount from doing a show on zombies. It came out -- you know, basically the same time as The Walking Dead. I would say it came out before The Walking Dead, to be honest. And I mean the comics of The Walking Dead. It's called They're Alive. There's a lot of audio-drama companies that try to do fundraisers and he did a very successful Kickstarter campaign for another We’re Alive: Lock Down. And because of that, he was able to get some really good voices, some really good studio time, and he's got a really strong fan base because of that. There's also an interesting crossover from audio books, too. There's a lot of audio-book people that dabble in radio drama, often. It's not really radio drama as much as it's multicast voicing. Right? So, they'll have different people doing the voices or they'll throw in the odd sound effect. I don't see that as really radio drama. I see that as storytelling, more narrative than play acting. But people like Scott Sigler, he came a best-selling author based upon his podcast of audio fiction with music and some sound effects and the dramatic readings.
In the Golden and Silver Age of radio drama, were people such big fans that they were doing their own versions of fan-fic in those days?
I honestly think that -- I mean, I was on another podcast and I was told that there was some conventions that actually happened before Star Trek conventions, but I think, really, Star Trek was the creation of the modern fan-fiction explosion -- unless you’re going back to Mr. Skygack from Mars, and I don’t recommend it. I think it really took a long time for us to be conditioned to be fan fiction addicts. I mean, kids would always play their own versions of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians and all that kind of stuff, but adults tended back then -- it was like, "Okay, you're no longer a kid anymore. Go out and get a job." So, we're now in this very weird stage where people in their twenties are going through their second kind of childhood. And people that are my age and your age and stuff like that -- I remember when I first got married, my mother said, "Oh good, you're no longer Peter Pan." [Laughs.] I sort of sat there and I thought, "What does she mean by that?" But that was her society, that she grew up saying, "It's time to put away childish things. It's time to stop thinking of yourself as a person who will never grow up.”
We stopped that because -- we stopped that effectively because we knew there was money in it, right? [Laughs.] There's money in reselling and having people dress up and do cosplay. There's money in having people go back to their favorite stories. I mean, they're gonna do H.R. Pufnstuf again, for crying out loud. I mean, there's gotta be money there or people wouldn't keep going back to the same places to mine. And that just wasn't in the case. Back in the old days of Golden Age of radio drama, the closest you got to that kind of stuff was classic stories. People knew the class stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur and The Musketeers and those kind of adventure stories, so they loved those types of adaptations. But they didn't really spend an awful lot of time creating versions off of that because they wanted to hear those actual versions.
So, not to hammer on entitlement too much but you talk about back then and obviously one of the bigger things that has changed -- although I think we still like our class stories, as digital culture has risen, is it digital culture that has made us more entitled or is this just something humans have always done when they're presented with a nice, free service?
I'd like to think that humans have always done this. As I've gotten older, I really do see a change in my students. I really do see -- I mean, I started teaching in '97. I'm an early adopter. I'm not in any way, shape, or form a Luddite. I was also a computer consultant for many years and I still am creating software now. But in '95 I was working as a computer consultant then. So, I love technology.
But I've also seen that in many ways we're moving away from this society which I used to say was citizen-based, where we understood that there were times that things are important to us and there are times that other people have to shine as well and that we have to work together as a community to do stuff, to this time of consumerism where, "I want what I want all the time when I want it." And I'm noticing that even with my staff-member friends. I've got staff in my own department who are in their twenties and they don't have anywhere near the broad understanding that I had in my twenties about stuff. They're very, very niche-oriented. When I used to call them on it, they get snarky and they say, "Well, I'm too young for that. Why would I ever be interested in that?" And I say, "Because if you understand the larger scope of all these things, you can see where those connections are." Not to mention, if you're ever going to sell the prospect of, like, Shakespeare to students, you gotta be able to recognize that not everything new is the only things worth listening to or reading to or whatever. That there's real value in understanding how this whole thing works.
So, why does something being free today seem to take the pride out of consumption?
It's a good question. I think there's actually -- when it comes to audio dramas, there's a lot of people that get really angry at the suggestion that anybody would charge. They feel there is this requirement that audio dramas should be free.
To me, I'm in the middle. I'm an omnivore about everything, really. [Laughs.] I appreciate those people who are trying to make something out of it and selling it and I appreciate those other people who are saying, "No, I'm learning this process, too, and I just love it and I'm going to make it for free." I had this friend, he didn't watch TV. He got up at 4 in the morning, worked three different jobs, and everyday he just makes audio drama because he loved it and he loved sharing it with people. Bill Hollweg was the real deal.
So, there are people out there who really don't understand the process that it goes into to be able to create audio drama and just will grab whatever's free and just devour it. And then there's other people that are out there that have an understanding, a deeper appreciation for the medium and go, "Oh my God. I can't wait to hear Dead Ahead. I love that comic. I can't wait to hear how they do it." And they charge for it, but they still bought it, because they knew of the quality that it came from.
So, you're gonna get that kind of dichotomy, but I think just like there's a huge push in music -- you know, the music industry's had to change big time because of people just taking a whole bunch of stuff that was for sale and giving for free. Now that big question is: How do you make this medium viable for somebody?
I can send you that.
I'd love to see that.
Normally I ask people this about videogames, but given your focus, I'll tweak it. This is intentionally broad: What have radio dramas or audio dramas accomplished?
I think audio dramas -- I teach it to my students and I think audio dramas are really the best storytelling you can get to without going back to talking around a fire. Because I think -- they did an interesting little study where, and I don't know where the link is. I can't find it anymore. But they put somebody -- hooked somebody up to a brain scan and they saw what they were doing, what the brain was doing when they were watching TV. Which, was basically nothing at all. Because, you know, you're fed all the images, you're fed all the sound, you're just taking it in. There's not a lot of things going on. And then they connected it to somebody who was reading and there was a lot going on, lighting up in the brain, which was awesome because people were reading the words and they're trying to imagine the sounds and the tastes and all the different figure of languages going on. And then they hooked somebody up with radio drama and it's off the scale because suddenly you sit there and you hear a sound and you're building the entire world on that sound.
If you're walking -- you know, if you're in a radio drama and you hear crickets, you automatically know time of day, where it takes place, all that kind of stuff that's going on in the background. Little bit of light wind can also tell you something as well. If somebody sits there and says, "John, what are you doing?" And you hear the click sound of a gun, you're picturing all that stuff in your head. So, a simple sound effect really builds these kinds of connection in your head and you become a really thinking, analytical person when you start listening to radio dramas.
I've also said -- I tell my students all the time, I say, "Okay, if you don't think radio dramas are really effective, I want you to go to Midnight Radio Theater and I want you to go and listen to The Woman in the Basement.” I also say this to my older students, because there are some adult-themed stuff in this show, "But I want you to do this in your bedroom and I want you to have your cell phone off and I want you to have all your lights off. I just want you to listen to this and have nothing else on."
I've had students come back to me and go, "Couldn't do it. I watch horror all the time. I couldn't go through with that show. It was too terrifying." And that's just because, just like in comics -- comics has closure. We have all these little frames, and our brain creates closure between one frame to another. Radio drama creates the best closure. Like we always said: Nothing is scarier than what you imagine in your head. Those slasher films you watch are never as scary as the suspense that they create in those suspenseful films of horror and terror because of the psychological aspects of your brain that make a difference. So, radio drama, and what we can do with voice has that incredible power of telling stories more viscerally and more visually than any other medium, I think.