Wednesday 22 May 2019

Audio Drama Podcasts, by Dan Metcalf

I think I've spoken on this blog recently about my love of podcasts (wait a minute. Yep, here it is) and I thought I'd continue my thoughts here. There has recently been an explosion of content (ugh, hate that word) in the podcast arena, especially from the BBC. Recently Auntie Beeb launched the BBC Sounds App, which pulls together music, live radio, the 'listen again' feature previously on the BBC iPlayer, and now for the first time, podcasts. Before now the BBC only allowed downloads of programmes previously broadcast on regular radio but an update of their charter allows them to produce brand new content (ugh) for download only. One area they have now flexed their muscles in has been drama.

The BBC is of course the home of radio drama, having produced it since the corporations inception. The Archers is probably the most popular having racked up nearly 70 years of top notch farming action. The Afternoon Play is also a bastion of the airwaves, with many new writers finding their break on Radio 4.

The BBC Sounds App has experimented somewhat with different ways of doing drama on the internet and even hoped for crossover audiences by commissioning an Eastenders audio series.
A few other writers have found a way to tempt listeners into scripted drama however, and I can highly recommend the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, available to download and stream on BBC Sounds.
An updated version of the story by HP Lovecraft, the audio series takes inspiration from the success of true Crime Podcasts such as the wildly popular Serial. In it, a pair of journalists are investigatng the case of the titular Ward and recording their every move, speaking to witnesses of the wierd event and digging deep into the archive. It plays as a straight podcast, the actors even pretending to ask for money on their crowdfunding pages (a regular part of independent podcasts). It's a ballsy move, writing wise, especially when you consider that it rules out interior voice or other tricks often employed in radio plays.

Another podcast-within-a-podcast is the independant production Blackwood. In this spooky drama from Skylark media in the US, a group of bored teenagers are investigating a local legend, the Blackwood Bugman - it plays out as a sort of Slenderman or Blair Witch piece of recent folklore. The plotting and writing is fine, even if it relys on 'yoof speak' whcih sounds stilted in the actors voices.

Back at the BBC, experimentation continues with the rather excellent Forest 404. Voiced by Doctor Who alumnus Pearl Mackie, main character Pan is an audio archivist in the future who comes across a sound she has never heard before - the sound of the rainforest. When she begins to ask questions - what is a forest? where did they go? why has no one heard this before? - the authorities try to wipe her memories, and a search for the truth ensues.

The drama is neatly played by just three actors, each giving their own version of events, beautifully sound designed and with original music by British DJ Bonobo. The BBC have gone a step further by recording talks to complement each episode, with experts speaking about the themes and ideas raised in the drama. Another separate strand of the podcast has soundscapes of the world of Forest 404; rainforests, original music, ambient sounds.

One of the only audio dramas specifically aimed at children is the snappily titled Once Upon a Time in Zombieville, and I was lucky to hear the producers talk about the show at last year's Children's Media Conference in Sheffield. Made by Glasgow firm Bigmouth Audio who specialise in recording sounds and speech for animation, this is billed as an 'audio cartoon'.

The producers simply recorded a fun script and peppered it with brilliant sound effects, complete with high-class acting talents. Check it out.

But it's not just little old BBC who have cornered the market. Hollywood's coming too. The standout radio drama Homecoming, about a decompression programme for ex-soldiers, starred film actors David Schwimmer, Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac. Even more impressively, it was very quickly turned into a TV drama for Amazon Prime and starred A-lister Julia Roberts.

Finally a project I binge-listened to just yesterday. Blockbuster is a dramatised documentary with a seriously impressive musical score and sound design which tells the story of the friendship between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as the attempt to make their breakthrough hits Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The acting is kind of cheesy-yet-fun, but worth a listen to hear what can be achieved by an independent production.

The best things about podcasting and radio drama is that the audinence is increasing - it's highly ocnvenient for listeners to stick on a podcast at home, at work or on a commute. And also the bar to entry is fairly low. You don't need a huge studio and a bank of sound effects - a microphone and PC will do.

What are you listening to? Let me know in the comments.


Dan Metcalf is a writer of things. See more at


Sue Bursztynski said...

I’ve recently downloaded a podcast app so I can listen to my bother’s music podcasts, but not, so far, drama podcasts, though I do own some radio dramas in audiobook - some Agatha Raisin and the wonderful radio play of Good Omens. I’d like to get into the science fiction podcasts I have heard about.

Moira Butterfield said...

Thanks Dan! Only yesterday I was asking around for interesting podcast ideas to listen to, since I'm getting tired of the many podcasts that seem to feature the same-old same-old round of 'talking head' comedians. Now I have some great tips!