News that Amazon’s audiobook arm, Audible, is investing US$5m (£3.8m) to seek out writing talent for forthcoming new releases, is further evidence of a major revival in the medium. The story in 2016 was the way podcasting had led to an explosion of new drama serials – this year the focus is on how licensing and links to established media is enabling the creation of glossy, high-profile audio “movies”.
Starting in November, the US psychological thriller Homecoming was released as a podcast staring David Schwimmer, Oscar Isaacs and Catherine Keener. This was followed by the Bronzeville serial starring Larenz Tate and Lawrence Fishburn, which brought 1940s underworld Chicago to life.
Over in the UK a number of classics have been making headlines as richly imagined audio productions. The Invisible Man released in February starring John Hurt kicked off a series of high-quality HG Wells releases, for production company Big Finish and in April Wireless Theatre Company produced Black Beauty with Samuel West and Tamzin Outhwaite.
Doctor Who fans were thrilled to hear that the popular pairing of David Tennant and Billy Piper are back, opening the TARDIS door on a new run of audio adventures. Meanwhile, David Duchvony and Gillian Anderson will be reprising their roles, this July, in X-Files: Cold Cases on Audible.
A new space for creating
Outside of public radio, podcasters have made the headlines for reviving the medium in the US and building loyal fan followings internationally. Still, it’s a crowded market, that can be a hard-scrabbled existence for producers wanting to put aside the day job. Licensed and commissioned productions are important, as they create new opportunities for skilled producers to invest and attract well-known names on the assurance of either a budget or an existing audience.
News that Tennant and Piper (and recently Catherine Tate) are reprising their roles, will no doubt thrill a new generation of Doctor Who fans. Yet behind the scenes Big Finish have been working with the BBC since 1999 reviving the old classic series and bridging the gap when Doctor Who was temporarily taken off the air (it returned in 2005). This earned the company a loyal group of paying fans and in 2015 it gained the BBC’s permission to start producing audio stories for the new series.
Equally the relationship with media firms can go the other way. Just as the radio series, Hitchhiker’s Guide, spawned a succession of books, TV series and films, well-produced podcast drama can often act as a pilot of future productions. Limetown and Homecoming have both received interest from TV companies. Bronzeville was first rejected by TV companies, leading Larenz Tate to develop his full vision in audio, at the fraction of the price of a TV pilot and gaining an international fan following in the bargin.
Publishers getting in on the act
A more significant trend in recent years has been the move by publishers to move into full-cast audio drama production. Audible is the biggest player in this sector. Among producers, perhaps the best known name in this field is Dirk Maggs, whose background in BBC drama has given him a reputation for filmic soundscapes and deft adaptations that have earned him a series of commissions from Audible, including the Audie Award-winning Alien franchise (2017) and now X-Files. Indeed, the latest venture was brought about by an international collaboration with Pocket Universe Production and Final Rune Productions) two key organisations in the US audio drama revival and themselves producers of the much lauded Audible epic Locke and Key.
Skilled indie producers have also seized on the opportunity. Ten years ago, Wireless Theatre Company (WTC) was one of the pioneers of downloadable audio drama, providing a national voice to emerging theatre talent in London’s West End. Today the company’s connections to acting talent have given it the credibility to scoop up a bevy of high-profile commissions from Audible including the Audie Award-winning Jungle Book (2016) and Audie nominated Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2017).
For professional actors – even big names – independent audio drama offers something other media can’t. It is fast moving and markedly more flexible than stage or screen. “It can be fit in between other projects easily,” says Mariele Runacre-Temple, founder of WTC – noting that actors can be stolen away to the recording studio in between stage-play performances.
It also expands the horizons of roles actors can play. It “opens up a new world of characters you can play, that you might never get a chance to on stage or film” explains Beth Eyre, a lead actor in the hit podcast Wooden Overcoats who has achieved a cult following with fans. She goes on to observe “there’s a huge intimacy to being right there in someone’s ears, knowing that the listener can hear every breath.”
Audible’s announcement of US$5m to seek out new writers for audio drama is a bold but divisive move. Directed towards playwrights, the fund seems to call up past eras in radio, such as BBC Radio’s Third Programme, which aired such greats as Beckett, Pinter and Thomas. The preferred format of one or two-person plays is also intended to focus on language and character over plot and neatly bridges the still existing divide between spoken audiobooks and full-cast audio plays, without great cost.
The decision is not without its downsides. By focusing on playwrights, the fund does seem to exclude the vast majority of podcast and pre-digitial producers who have laboured away to bring the medium to where it is. This is a legitimate criticism – but as the opportunities for the development of professionally produced audio drama continue to grow, it should be regarded as just a new another channel for entering the medium and a welcome expansion of listener choice.