Flood in the Backwater

Flood In the Backwater or Going to the Big City
by Brian Price. March 3, 2012
As an independent audio theater producer I sometimes think back on what first attracted me to radio drama.  I’d like to say I was immediately drawn to the little things one could do with nuanced sound and language, the subtleties, the poetry.  That’s what I’d like to say, but of course, what got me first about radio theater was the BIG stuff—the closet falls, the cherries dropping into Lake Michigan, the space ships exploding—BOOM, BLAM, SPLATT.
Then, of course, what totally sucked me into radio theater as a “lifer” was that one could happily produce a lot this wonderful noise oneself.  With the wonders of 4-track cassette recorders, pot and pans, and scratchy sound-effects records we could blow up planets, stage barroom brawls, and hold bowling tournaments in the jungle. 
At first it bothered me that not everybody in the world, especially the United States, wanted to hear my first wacky productions.  That included the neighbors, my parents and most of the radio stations in North America.  It used to bother me that not everybody was interested in 25-voice, full-bore, multi-tracked, throw-everything-into-the-mix audio theater.  I wanted my worlds to be saturated with sound.  I figured the nay-listeners would come around.
A group that really never came around was book-on-tape publishers.   They liked one voice, one book, one tone.  But something has happened in the last couple of years. 
Here’s the good news:  More than ever before many more audiobooks are being produced by big publishers that include multiple readers, staged scenes, sound effects and music.
Here’s the bad news:  Some of this material really sounds amateurish:  Weird audio levels, dull acting that’s not in the moment, sounds drawn from 40 year old LP record collections.
What’s going on?  Well, the audiobook publishers have finally found that audiences sometimes like theatrical performances of books, and are hitting a mean learning curve on multi-voice productions.  Good audio theater ain’t as easy as it looks (or sounds).  And over the years audiobook publishers haven’t been paying attention, listening to or practicing audio theater (except maybe for children’s books).
So far, audiobook publishers have been going to their usual sources to produce audio theater:  Commercial voice-over studios, Industrial/educational studios or the publishers themselves.  Frankly, the results are really mixed.  These people aren’t audio theater people.  They haven’t been listening and producing audio theater for years.
My prediction is that at some point pretty soon the audiobook publishers are going to get feedback from their listeners that there’s a whole ‘nother world of audio theater out there.  It’s on community radio.  It’s podcast.  It’s handed back and forth on the Internet.  It’s sounding better and better all the time. 
The publishers are going to realize that they want, they need that sound—the sound of well produced modern audio theater.  They’re going to send people back in the swamps of community radio and the Internet looking for it, looking for our kind.  They’re going to be wearing suits.  They’re going to have weird accents.  They’re going to scare the kids and the dog.
They’ll be looking for the one thing audio theater producers do well—tell stories in sound.  They’ll be looking to deal.  They’ll smile a lot.  Be prepared.  They’ll be asking Audio Theater to do something it hasn’t done in a long time.  Go to the big city.     
Look for Brian’s column, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Notes on Audio Publishing and Production, on AudiobookDJ.