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Radio Days
Saving Canadian drama with an old fashioned solution


A commonly accepted obstacle facing Canadian filmmakers is the lack of money available to make both movies and TV. Recent things have occurred that cause me to question this, but that's a topic for another day. So, today we'll accept, for the sake of argument, that this is true. There will never be very many Canadian productions, and they will invariably be small, parochial affairs, because there isn't enough money to pay for grand, expensive projects.

So, given that problem, let's consider a radical alternative. Let's talk about radio. By "radio", I don't mean top forty hit machines, or all night jazz programs. I mean radio...drama.

What's that? the younger of you might be asking. Well, gather 'round, kids, and I'll explain how, before the days of TV, radio presented weekly sitcoms and dramas with full casts of actors, sound effects, music...and where the budgets seemed nigh unlimited, from interplanetary adventures to high seas action, because the images played out, not on a screen, but in your mind.

CBC Radio (the main government funded Canadian broadcaster) once prided itself on being a pre-eminent producer of radio drama -- even during the TV era. But after visiting the CBC Radio web site -- and spending wa-ay longer than I shouuld have just trying to find the info I wanted -- it seems that nowadays CBC radio is largely reduced to producing one hour of drama a week. And it's an hour of decidedly "arty", high brow, "serious" drama -- not exactly the sort of stuff to woo the kids away from "Smallville" or "CSI" or "That '70s Show". Of course, the reason for this drastic implosion in radio drama, it would be argued I'm sure, is because radio drama is dead, kaput. The CBC is doing the medium a favour even producing an hour a week. Or so they'd have us believe.

To see how alive radio drama is, though, one just has to click over to the BBC Radio web site (mainly BBC 7 with new productions at BBC 3 and BBC 4) -- and wow! Apparently, in the United Kingdom, radio drama is very much alive and kicking. Hours and hours of programs a week! They've got their arty, high brow stuff...but they've also got everything else under the sun: sitcoms, soaps, mysteries, classic adaptations, horror, and science fiction. A rich and diverse schedule. Admittedly, a lot of it is reruns of older shows, but the only way to nurture an audience for the medium is to offer them a full roster of programs...even if it means re-runs. Radio, like TV, is habit forming -- the audience has to develop a habit for turning on their radio to listen to a radio play, and they can't do that if the only offering is a once-a-week anthology drama, where half the time they probably aren't interested in what this week's story is about.

The BBC web site also provides an archive of the week's programs. You can listen, at your convenience, whenever you want, just by going to the web site. In contrast, the CBC web site, aside from being hard to navigate, only lists when the shows'll be broadcast. And when that day comes around...well, you've probably long since forgotten you meant to listen in! Sometimes even the "when" is apparently a corporate secret, with programs listed but no information about when or if they will air!

I began this piece talking about the lack of money for Canadian movies and TV, and how that results in a certain parochial "smallness" to many Canadian movies and TV shows. But radio is not so hamstrung. It costs no more to do a science fiction epic crossing galaxies...than it does to tell a story about characters sitting around a kitchen in Peggy's Cove. Both involve actors and sound effects. That's why the BBC was able to mount an epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings starring Ian Holm two decades before Peter Jackson's movie version -- because they didn't need 200 million dollars to do it (and the radio series was, frankly, better than the movies).

Yet even when the CBC does do dramas...they tend to smack of the same low-budget, parochial mentality as do Canadian movies. Keep it small, keep it low-key, seems to be the watchword.

Radio dramas could provide a desperately needed forum for Canadian writers and directors and actors to tell stories and work in genres (ie: science fiction, fantasy, historical epics, globe hopping international intrigue) normally off limits to them. A place not only to stretch themselves creatively, but to hone their craft and even to test the waters. If CBC Radio were to produce a play or series that was successful, that really seemed to "work", then thought could be given to getting the money together to mount it as a filmed version. This, in fact, used to happen, with successful American TV shows like "Dragnet" and "Gunsmoke" starting out as radio series.

Of course, I can well imagine that there would be enormous resistance to such populist fare at CBC Radio. CBC Radio hasn't reduced its offerings to a few art house dramas simply by accident. It's presumably deliberate on the part of the program directors. Nor do I have any doubt they could make the claim that their audience wouldn't want sitcoms, thrillers, or -- horrors! -- science fiction. And I'm sure that's true...because after years of refusing to offer that material with any regularity, I'm sure they've driven away any such listeners, carefully culling their audience into the demographic they want.

But a programming shake up with at least one or two hours a night, re-airing old favourites -- both Canadian, and imports from Britain, the U.S., etc. -- as well as new programs, and advertise this new schedule with a few TV spots and newspaper ads and, who knows, maybe they would find their audience broadening...and growing. A few choice stunt projects could be tried to woo the younger crowd -- hiring "name" Canadian actors like, say, Keanu Reeves or someone to star in a play. Reeves would be too pricey? Maybe, but a lot of actors like doing radio drama -- like theatre, radio is seen as legitimizing (a few years back, Reeves went to Winnipeg to star in a theatrical production of Hamlet for, one assumes, a less than exorbitant fee); plus, it doesn't require anywhere near the prep time. A "name" star might not charge as much as you think. Or go the cult route and do a science fiction saga featuring some of the Canadian actors from sci-fi TV series like StarGate or Andromeda who might bring a pre-existing audience with them. Another thought is that the BBC would often do radio versions of TV shows, so maybe the casts of, say, Corner Gas, or This is Wonderland, could be recruited to perform in a radio version of those shows, or Paul Gross could be enticed to perform in an original Due South audio adventure. And the CBC could offer it all, like the BBC, via the internet as well as on the radio, so the audience can listen on their schedule, not the programmer's, and who knows what might result?

Maybe I'm underselling what the CBC does, but I'm basing this article on a couple of recent visits to the CBC radio website...and finding precious little in the way of current narrative productions (drama or comedy) let alone reruns of old favourites. In fact, I spent a month planning on tuning in to their promised adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror only to find, when the night arrived, that it wasn't a "dramatization" at all...but just a bunch of actors reading the story, and in a decidedly arty, slightly annoying, way. That's right -- only an hour of so-called drama a week and, at least in this case, it wasn't a "drama", but a glorified talking book.

Could radio drama retake TV? Nyah. Won't happen. But it clearly can be a lot stronger, a lot more popular than it currently is if the British are an example. And with Canada's pop culture in such a precarious state, even a little success can mean a lot.

Of course, success isn't just a achieved by waving a magic wand. Radio plays are just as likely to inspire their share of bad stories and ill-conceived productions as TV or movies. Years ago CBC radio did horror anthologies like Nightfall and Vanishing Point which were, to my mind, generally dreck; they were well acted, well produced, but the stories were decidedly wanting. But for an industry so desperate to assert a Canadian identity, and yet is blocked by the limited time slots and money available for movies and TV, a more vibrant radio drama industry just might provide a partial answer.

It certainly couldn't hurt.

In the meantime, if you want me, I'll be logged on to the BBC radio web site...

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

May 28, 2005 (slightly revised June 5)

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