I first noticed the Red Panda, his hands outstretched hypnotically, on a street poster in my neighbourhood. “Adventure! has a new address… decoderringtheatre.com” the poster announced. I checked it out and spent the next few days listening to the adventures of Canada’s Greatest Superhero (and his sidekick, the Flying Squirrel) on my MP3 player as I walked around town. More homage than spoof, I thoroughly enjoyed these additions to a genre most assume is long dead, and emailed Gregg Taylor to tell him so. A couple of emails later, he’d graciously agreed to “give the nickel tour” of how to make radio drama, from the high-tech of podcasting to the lo-tech of vegetable-based sound effects.
Video Killed The Radio Star — The Radio Star’s Son Swore Revenge
By Gregg Taylor It sounds like an unusual thing to want to do, at least here in North America, where audio drama as popular entertainment had its heyday in the ’30s and ’40s. But there are a surprising number of folks out there who Know What Evil Lurks In The Hearts Of Men… who yearn for Tales Well Calculated To Keep You In…Suspense and who are only too aware that the reason Superman says “Up, up and away!” is that you can’t see that he’s flying on the radio! And who wants to just sit on the bench? Get in the game!
So what do you do about it? If you feel particularly compelled to run up against the brick wall of getting someone else to give you an oversized novelty cheque to make this happen, off you go. I’ll just wait here.
Back? Don’t feel bad, you’re not the first. The good news is that it’s never been easier to make the show you’d love to hear and get it into the hands and ears of folks who’ll love it as much as you do.
This is a pretty new development. When Decoder Ring Theatre and I first set down this road in ’99/2000, it meant costly studio recording and editing sessions — even with the great rate given us by a friend who was (luckily for us) a sound engineer with his own studio. In the end we had a six-episode test run of an adventure/comedy spoof of the old-school shows (the original Red Panda mini-series) and no outlet for them that didn’t involve more debt and no expectation of finding an audience. We’d known it was a daffy idea from the start, but to have the shows sitting in a filing cabinet was intensely disappointing. Finally, four years later, we put the shows up on the website for free download as MP3s, which hadn’t been an option before. What happened next surprised the heck out of us. We started to get e-mails, just a few at first, then more and more, from all over the world — places we’d never been but our shows obviously had — all asking one question: “When will there be more?”
Fortunately, by this time, technology had progressed to the point where it was no longer a fool’s errand to proceed, and Podcasting has made it easier than I ever thought possible for your stories to reach imaginations all over the world. We now produce an ongoing series of shows, alternating between the completely re-vamped Red Panda Adventures and a hard-boiled detective show called Black Jack Justice. What follows is a few of the things I’ve learned along the way that might help you to realize your project.
There really isn’t a realistic “revenue stream” for this just yet. Advertisers still don’t know what to make of Podcasting, and a user-pay system for audio drama isn’t terribly realistic. Why? Because there’s been an explosion in the availability of classic radio broadcasts in MP3 format, and “OTR” (Old Time Radio) collectors are among the most pathologically generous people to ever walk the Earth. Mention in an online forum that you’ve never heard a particular classic show and you’re likely to receive a disc with 468 episodes on it — most American programs of that vintage are public domain. Having said that, there is a large and enthusiastic audience out there that would love to hear your show. We have a voluntary PayPal donation button on our site, and I’m often pleasantly surprised to find it’s been used. Down the road all sorts of things might happen — if you don’t make your show you’ll never know.
Know the Genre
Even if you have all kinds of experience writing for the stage or the camera, it’s still wise to give a listen to the programs that compelled the attention of millions to see how they did it. P.I. shows, hero/adventure shows, soap operas, police procedurals, situation comedies, quiz shows, variety shows… nearly every genre still in use in television today was created for radio. Even if the old-school shows aren’t your cup of tea, there are many programs available from Britain, where a well-funded public broadcaster has kept radio drama alive, as well as dozens of independent groups producing new shows. You’ll take the steep edge off the learning curve if you immerse yourself in the genre before jumping in. A search engine is your friend here, but I’ll include a few helpful links at the end to get you started.
Write the show you want to write, not what you think will sell. It’s a mistake I made with our first shows, making them a spoof of the style I really wanted to be writing in, thinking it would broaden the appeal. Make the show you want to hear. If you love it absolutely, that will come through in the work. Besides… there’s no sense “selling out” if there’s no realistic chance of getting paid anytime soon (see “expectations”, above).
Having said that, there are a few things that will help you out in the long run. First of all, keep the cast size as tight as you can. It not only helps your audience to not have to sort out dozens of different voices, try and remember you’re going to have to find the actors and get them all into the recording space. Trying to schedule actors is like trying to get a hundred cats to walk in a line. Don’t make your job harder than it needs to be. If you are planning on writing a continuing series, limit the number of recurring characters. Remember, if you have to find something for six regular characters to do, it doesn’t leave you a lot of time to tell a story.
A show created for podcast or even CD release doesn’t have to be a standard length. But there are lots of programs on independent and community radio stations all over North America and beyond that might like to give you some airplay, and sticking with a half hour or hour format will make it easier for them to do that. If that’s not what you want to do, don’t do it… but don’t complain later that you can’t get any air for your 287-minute opus.
Set a goal for yourself. Are you writing a continuing series? An anthology program? How many shows is a reasonable amount to start with? There’s no simple answer for this, but remember, if it takes folks awhile to discover your show, and if it’s over before it begins… not to mention that it will cost less in the long run to produce a number of shows in the same sessions, and give you a bit of a cushion. You’ll want it before too long. You may want to consider teaming up with like-minded writers and producers to share resources, performers and distribution. That won’t be simple to put together, but may be of enormous benefit down the road.
Although the very nature of audio drama allows you to do just about anything, try to remember every time you write a note for a sound effect, that it’s you that is going to have to make or find that effect and edit it into the show. The story is the important thing — sometimes you absolutely do need certain effects to tell it properly. Anything superfluous will make the audience less clear on what’s happening. Keep it lean, and try not to write things like “the submarine explodes around them.”
This isn’t intended to be an authoritative lesson in recording technique, nor would I be the person to give you that. If you know someone with experience with sound design or engineering, absolutely hit them up for more information. Remember, they will always geek out a little over equipment that you might not really need. Here’s the basics.
You’ll need to have, or at least have access to, a decent computer with lots of free memory. You don’t need a fancy-pants supercomputer, but if you’re still working a Vic-20, you’re gonna need an upgrade. If you routinely say “Arrgh! This thing is a piece of crap!” while working, that’s probably trouble too. You may or may not need to upgrade your sound card, particularly if you have some visions of creating some sort of Stereophonic Sgt. Pepper-land. This is a pretty easy conversation with the guy at the electronics shop, so I leave that to you.
Now you need an audio editing program of some kind to manipulate the sound once you get it to the computer. There are many out there, I suggest checking out “Audacity” for three reasons: it’s simple to use, it does a good job, and it’s freeware. It also has some of the better tutorials I’ve played with. It’s very simple to get comfortable with and easy to find online from a number of different sources.
You’ll need something to get the sound from the microphones to the computer. A simple 4-track mixer is really all you need here. You might be able to get a good one used, but they’re really not terribly expensive to buy new. You’re not looking for something that looks like a console from Star Trek here. This is just a conduit to help you get the signal from point A to point B.
And as for the microphones, well, you can get away with a lot in regards to the rest of your equipment if you have good mics. Remember, if you’re going to podcast these, they’re going to be compressed some (if you actually expect anyone to download them, anyway) and they’ll sound better if the original is as high-quality as possible. I really suggest renting rather than buying anything at the start. A couple of Wide-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones will be everything you could ask for. They’re very expensive to buy, and not at all to rent if you live near a good music store. Rent them for a little longer than you think you’ll need, and factor in a couple of weeks for you to play with them before the actors walk through the door. If you already have other microphones, or can get something different for free, fine… just give yourself time to learn how to get the sound you want out of your setup.
As for the recording space itself, obviously it needs to be free from outside noise, including streetcars, pinging radiators and your own computer’s fan. Remember the way that sound bounces back off the walls will also effect the recording. There are plentiful free resources online that can help you with this. Just give yourself time to figure it out and don’t be afraid to play.
This one was pretty easy for us, being an existing theatre company and having a large extended “family” of actors whom I’d worked with and knew well. This process will be different depending where you are, but finding people who are interested in doing something unique like this isn’t difficult. In whatever size town or city you live, posting a sign that says “Audition Notice” will bring results. Unless you are in favour of lighting a small pile of money on fire for no good reason, include the words “non-union” on your notice, and make sure all of your performers actually are. Make no promises you can’t keep, schedule your sessions well in advance and respect everyone’s time. You’re working together on something that most people never get to do anymore. It should be fun and exciting and it’s up to you to make sure it is. Remember, it’s tough to keep your shows coming if your actors don’t want to keep coming back. And if by some miracle some money does come in, don’t forget your actors. Even though they’ll all have signed releases, the right thing to do is still the right thing to do, and you wouldn’t have a show without them.
Effects and music
If you use recorded materials that belong to someone else it will come back to bite you. Don’t do it. It means a nightmare scenario if your show actually becomes successful and U2’s people end up knocking on your door for royalties. It doesn’t belong to you. Don’t use it. Oddly enough, buying a CD of sound effects does not convey any sort of license or permission to actually use those effects in anything, so don’t bother.
If original music is an option, it’s a good one. One of our two series features original old-timey organ music created by one of our company members, along with the little “doodleoops” (her word) between scenes that could be right out of The Shadow or The Green Hornet. Our other program is in a later style, and we wanted a more “full” sound to go with it. The solution for us was a website called Sounddogs where you can purchase and download high quality, royalty-free production music and sound effects online. You buy it, it’s yours (not exclusively, of course, but it’s yours to use as you see fit).
Naturally, any sound effect you can make yourself, you really should, and this is a lot of fun. By changing the pitch, tempo and volume, the same open handed clap can be made to sound like a slap in the face followed by a punch to the stomach and a kick to the head, all in rapid succession. (Your show may have less hitting, but the idea is the same). We layered in a carrot snapping, a celery stalk tearing and a slowed-down bite out of an apple to make the most painful sounding compound fracture you can imagine, and that was also a lot of fun. Making your own sounds is very rewarding, but for times when you need a decent explosion, or ray gun or all the drive sounds of a ’38 Packard… well Sounddogs is a good bet. Each effect will set you back a few dollars though, so use discretion. There are some sites listed in the final section that will help you with making your own sounds.
Okay, this one really deserves it’s own D.I.Y. Article, but I’ll hit a few highlights. In a nutshell, Podcasting is the distribution of sound files, usually in MP3 format, over the internet via an “RSS” feed, that allows folks to subscribe to your show without coming back to your site all the time (though lots of people will download directly). A short time ago, most Podcasts were either tech talk or audio blogs, but they’ve become very diverse. There are lots of audio drama podcasts, most of which are old-time series repackaged. Some are starting to include original material and a few are even developing into regular original series. As of time of writing, this is all very new and exciting and it’s a swell time to jump in.
I know it sounds like you really need to be a computer expert to make this happen, and if that were true, I sure wouldn’t be doing it. Our podcast service provider is called Libsyn. They’re made it super user-friendly — a complete muggle can do it, and many do. They also have several flat rates for usage, which means your costs won’t go up if your program becomes popular and starts using a lot of bandwidth. It’s as easy as setting up a regular blog.
A lot of podcasts release their shows encoded at CD quality size. This is all very well and good if that’s what you want to do, but it makes for a large file. An awful lot of our audience lives in areas that don’t have high-speed access and couldn’t download a file that size in a reasonable amount of time. Also, a very high percentage of our listeners are listeners and collectors of OTR shows, many of which are circulated at a standard of 32kBps, making an averages file size of 6-7mb for a half-hour show. I’d love to release our shows at the highest possible sound quality, but we’d lose half our audience at a stroke. Our shows also come out a month later on a second feed through the Radio Memories Network (details below) encoded at 64kBps, for those that prefer a larger file. There are already only so many people out there downloading sound files, and a limited number of those who like radio drama. Eliminate those without high-speed, lots of available memory and the patience to download a 60mb show they’ve never heard of… well, it’s up to you.
If you’re not sure how to manipulate the size of your MP3 files, or even how to turn your finished show from an uncompressed (WAV) file into an MP3, I recommend a program called “Streambox Ripper” for the usual three reasons: It’s easy to learn/use, it works well, and it’s freeware. You can find it on the net very easily from a number of different sources, though not from the company that originally developed it, as they no longer support or sell it.
People, places and things that will help you
This list is in no way comprehensive, and in no particular order, but includes a number of excellent resources and will save you some time and wear and tear on walls you’d otherwise be running into.
Yeah, I put us first. Sue me. The “Podcast” link will open up our Libsyn page where our shows are. The “Contact Us” link will get a message to me if you have questions. If I can’t answer them, I’ll try and point you in the direction of someone who can.
An excellent source of information on the creation of Audio Drama, and source of the radiodrama electronic newsletter, itself a fine source of up-to-date information and a good way to get the word out about your shows once you have them.
Veteran audio theatre producer Tony Palermo offers the benefit of his considerable experience creating radio drama. A must-look.
An excellent source of links to websites offering new and classic audio drama for trade, download and podcast. You’ll want to use this to find shows for inspiration, and you’ll want to list your shows here when they’re ready to go.
A great source of inspiration and information, with many classic radio broadcasts in the public domain offered for download by an unfailingly generous crew of members.
A fine directory of internet audio entertainment links. You can learn much about the other new programs being created here by browsing through this list, and you will eventually want to be listed here yourself.
Need a volley of musket fire? A blues trumpet loop? A choppy sea and wind in the rigging for your pirate epic? Need it badly enough to buy it? This is the place.
A reliable Podcast service provider that offers flat, reasonable rates, good support and the opportunity to get your Podcast out to the world without any more technical knowledge than you need to set up a blog (which is to say: not much). If you plug in the username and password “sandbox” you can play on their test site and see how easy it is to use. And no, I don’t get a discount for sending you there. I just like them.
Podcast directories are how most people find your shows. This is a pretty good listing of most of the major ones at time of writing, along with links. Once you’ve got your shows ready, you’ll need to spend some time listing them with as many directories as you can, in order to get as many folks to your door as possible.
The first Podcast network. Eight “channels” of related Podcast feeds sending out shows on audio drama related themes. Many are classic shows with commentary, others are all-new programs. Definitely something you want to investigate.
And that’s the nickel tour. If it seems like a lot, it is, but it’s not that daunting an undertaking once you get down to it. In order to make these shows fly, I had to learn more new things in the six months leading up to our launch than I had in the five years previous, and that’s exciting. Telling the stories you want most to tell in the way you’d love them to sound is exciting, as is finding out that there’s an audience that wants them. It’s a lot of work for uncertain reward, but if creating this kind of “Theatre of the Mind” is something you’ve always dreamed of, it’s never been easier to make that dream a reality.
Gregg Taylor is a Toronto actor, writer and director. A founding member of Decoder Ring Theatre, his original works for the stage include Black Jack Justice, Prometheus Unplugged and Me and the Boys and Our 50 (with Steven Gauci). His radio programs The Red Panda Adventures and Black Jack Justice appear every second Saturday at www.decoderringtheatre.com. Gregg is delighted to have finally confirmed that it was not a computer error that caused his high school aptitude test to come back “Radio Superhero.”