BBC Radio Drama Awards give industry a boost

Article  by  Natalie HIDEG  •  Published 01.02.2012  •  Updated 02.02.2012
[NEWS] Over the past year, BBC radio stations that broadcast drama programs underwent several financial setbacks, meaning less on-air time for the genre. More than ever, professionals in the industry and audiences need a reason to get excited about radio entertainment. Enter the BBC Audio Drama Awards.
The BBC has finally recognized the genre of radio fiction for its cultural, historical and entertainment value, officially ranking it amongst television, cinema and the stage. The company seems to be taking note of the genre’s substantial listener fanbase and creative talent that has gone unrewarded for far too long.

Jan. 29, 2012 marked the first ever Audio Drama Awards, held at the Radio Theatre at BBC Broadcasting House in central London, honoring actors, producers, writers, sound designers and creative professionals in the field for their work on such programs.  Although hosted by the BBC, independent producers were able to enter the competition, but the vast majority of the dramas shortlisted (and those receiving awards) were from the BBC’s Radio 3 and Radio 4. Different panels for each of the 10 categories – Best Audio Drama, Actor/Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress, Comedy Drama, Adaptation from Another Source, Use of Sound, Online Drama, and Innovation – included judges from within and outside the BBC.

The ceremony, presented by radio and television actor David Tennant (“Doctor Who”) handed out eight of 10 prizes to BBC Radio 4.  Tennant himself won the award for Best Actor for his depiction of Kafka in “Kafka: A Musical,” while Rosie Cavaliero won Best Actress for “Lost Property: A Telegram From The Queen.” Best Audio Drama went to “Lost Property – The Year My Mother Went Missing” by Katie Hims, and Best Use of Sound was given to Julian Simpson’s “Bad Memories.” The only non-BBC winner was an online drama – “Rock,” about Hollywood Actor Rock Hudson – created by an independent radio station, Made In Manchester, for The Independent Online. Tim Davie, the director for BBC Audio & Music, hopes the awards will attract "wider recognition of the many talented people who work in the genre." The ceremony not only rewarded key contributors to this art form for their valued work, but may help provide radio fiction with much-needed publicity to help revive the genre, continuing to entice faithful listeners and attracting new ones, and convince radio decision-makers that drama is worth the investment.

The BBC is the largest producer of radio drama in the world. Performances are broadcast on Radio 4 and Radio 3, with longer plays appearing more frequently on the latter station. The BBC broadcasts the plays, sometimes produced internally, but often commissioned by independent producers for the stations. They carry significant audience numbers: Radio 4’s Afternoon Play program boasts 900,000 listeners, with numbers on the rise. And yet, in the past several years, the BBC has been forced to scale back its drama activities. Radio drama is much more cost-effective to produce than its televisual counterpart; however, Radio 4's station controller, Mark Damazer, purports that “it's not cheap" to produce quality material. Due to financial cutbacks, radio drama programs within different BBC departments have gradually been accorded less playtime, with longstanding timeslots for drama being allotted to news, religion and current affairs broadcasts.  The BBC began tightening its belt in March 2011 when the Friday Play (from 9-10pm) on Radio 4 was taken off the schedule; doing so, Damazer said, prevented across-the-board budget cuts which would have affected the overall quality of programming. Then, in order to focus more on international content, more cuts were made to BBC World Service in April 2011, ending the department’s contract with BBC Audio & Music, thereby merging audio drama with documentaries. A spokesman from the BBC, however, insured that the BBC “will continue to commission nearly 200 single plays a year and more than 100 series and serials, in strands including Woman’s Hour drama, Afternoon Play, Classic Serial and the Saturday Play.”

Another challenge that radio fiction faces is its difficulty in attracting new talent, surprising in light of the many appealing aspects of working in radio. The writing/editing process is much simpler and time-efficient than in television; writers work solely with the director, saving them the hassle of running around to talk to different managers. Starting a career at BBC Radio could also have it advantages: the company has been springboard for numerous eminent English playwrights, screenwriters, and actors, producing names such as Tom Stoppard, (playwright/screenwriter, “Arcadia,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” “Utopia” and “Shakespeare in Love”)  Lee Hall (screenwriter, “Billy Elliott,” 2000) and Mike Bartlett (director, “Lark Rise to Candleford,” 2005).

Actors David Tennant and Kenneth Branagh
talking about why they like working in radio drama

But regardless of the success that radio work can bring about and the more relaxed work method involved, many well-known playwrights – as well as those new to the field – prefer to work in television, theatre or cinema, citing better pay. Public radio funding is often meager, and most of it must go to producing the program, not to the actors or writers. Moreover, many news outlets have cut back on reviewing, providing even less publicity to these little-known programs; this means that the work produced in these dramas often goes unnoticed, giving little incentive for talented professionals in the industry to work in radio. The creation of an awards ceremony could thus help to revive the genre by attracting new authors and writers to this form of media.

Radio drama professionals have come up with a number of new strategies to breathe life into the genre. One such strategy is to give more focus to fact-based treatments of contemporary Britain, with scripts retelling current events related to life in the UK – for example, the Soho bombing, or the creation of the Cameron/Clegg coalition government. By doing this, listeners are not skipping out on news for fiction, but get both in one radio program. Radio 4 has also been trying to highlight its epic novel reenactments, such as Life and Fate, originally published by Soviet dissident Vasily Grossman in 1959 and considered one of the most important Russian novels of the 20th century.

In other countries, such as Germany, France and New Zealand, radio drama continues to attract audiences on public and online radio stations, while in the United States, much of the radio drama that can be found nowadays comes from the American Counsel of the Blind and from various religious stations. But in the UK, compared to other countries and despite the recent financial hiccups in radio drama at the BBC, the genre is thriving more than anywhere else in the world. And hopefully the awards ceremony will be just what the genre needs to retain its position on the British entertainment industry landscape.

Photo credits:
- tardisdrwho2007/ Screenshot of Youtube video
- Flickr;
- BBC/ Youtube

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