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A Brief Guide to Radio Drama

Simon Pitt | Radio | Friday 6th November 2009

Last weekend I was talking to someone about radio programmes, and it gradually became apparent that he didn't know that Radio 3 existed.

He knew that the number 3 existed (he could count that high), and he knew that Radio 4 existed, as well as Radio 1 and 2. However, he hadn't thought that if there was a Radio 1, a Radio 2 and a Radio 4 there might also be a Radio 3. Maybe he thought that BBC Radio stations were numbered in some sort of geometric progression.

In some ways, this isn't too surprising. Radio 3 is the least listened to of all the analogue stations. It receives, in total, around 2 million listeners a week. Compare this to Radio 4's 10 million, or Radio 2's 13.4 million. Likewise, there are only 54,323 listeners on its website a week. Radio 1, by comparison, receives 1,034,390 (These figures are from Rajar, by the way - which is sort of like BARB but for your ears).

Before chatting to this individual, I had been planning to start this article by talking about radio drama, and point out that many people don't realise there is drama on Radio 3. However, when someone doesn't know that Radio 3 exists, it's not that surprising that he doesn't know there is drama on it.

Mention Radio Drama to most people, and you'll see a slightly vague look in their eyes and a comment like "Oh, you mean The Archers?". This belies the fact that BBC Radio puts out thousands of hours of original drama each year, and is the largest platform for new writing, new acting and drama. Those who are slightly more in the know might mention the Afternoon Play, but beyond this lies a whole family of programmes, that are surprisingly unknown.

BBC Mothball Logo You can't just blame public ignorance for this though. The BBC website is doing it's best to let you forget about Radio Drama. If you take a brief trip to the BBC Radio Drama website you'll find that, well, there isn't really one. Instead, there's a half falling apart site complete with broken links, missing images and a massive great sticker on the top saying "we're no longer updating this page". Half of the links take you to television drama as well. If the Marie Celeste was a website, this is what it would be like. So, in some ways, with hardly any advertising, no PR and no web presence, it's not surprising that many people don't know about drama on the radio. This is a real shame really, because a lot of it is very, very good.

For the uninitiated, radio drama is a confusing world of strands and titles that is rather different from the way TV works. On TV, you have runs of a particular programme (Like The Simpsons, or Peep Show). Radio, however, works in a different way. Think of this article as a map for unseasoned radio travellers.

On the radio, drama is divided into what are known as "Strands". Strands, usually, are defined by their length, their broadcast time and a vague description of what they actually are. For example, the Afternoon Play consists of "Radio dramas which delight and surprise". As a description that's so bland and vague that it's meaningless. I mean, a buttercup could delight and surprise me, or an unexpectedly cute puppy. And then you have the "Woman's Hour Drama", which is described as "Classic and contemporary original drama and book dramatisations". That covers just about everything from Euripides' Medea through to whatever turgid junk has just appeared on Richard and Judy's Book Club. I mean, name a drama that couldn't be included in that description. They might as well just say "recordings of people saying stuff".

So, marketing nonsense aside, what does this leave us with? Well, firstly, unlike TV programmes, which are largely returning series with known casts, Radio Dramas tend to be single, one off episodes, or single serialisations. In this sense, they're more like the theatre or the cinema. Unlike the cinema, though, these programmes are organised into named "strands". While the descriptions the strands shed almost no light onto what they are, each strand does have a definite feel and style to it. Each one is certainly more than just its timeslot and duration. The beleaguered Friday Play, for example, is unrelentingly bleak and depressing, generally being about suicide or murder (the reasons for this, though, are perhaps more to do with the strand commissioner than the time of the slot. After all, Friday evening is hardly the time when you want to hear a good suicide yarn).

If someone tuned their radio into Radio 4 on Monday morning and left it at that for the whole week, the first drama they would come across wouldn't actually be a drama at all. It would be a reading. Specifically, it would be Book of the Week. This is, as the BBC describes it:
Serialised book readings, featuring works of non-fiction, biography, autobiography, travel, diaries, essays, humour and history.
BBC Book of the Week Logo
Book of the Week is an abridged version of popular non-fiction work. It is broadcast every weekday at 09:45, and lasts for 15 minutes until 10:00. The number of episodes of each book is always a multiple of five. This way books don't start or end midweek. The length of each book varies from five parts up to 20, although it's quite rare for a book to be that long. To justify a month's worth of Book of the Week slots it has to be something special. This idea of multiples of five is common across the three "weekly" strands: Book of the Week, Book at Bedtime and Woman's Hour Serial. As a broad generalisation, Book of the Week has an Audience Appreciation Index of 80, which is pretty high really, and each episode receives between 1.1 and 1.3 million listeners. There tend to be more listeners on Monday and Friday. It's as if people start the week with good intentions to listen to spoken word, and wane as the week goes on. Then, on Friday, they suddenly flick the Radio back on again, and pretend they've been listening all along.

Once Book of the Week finishes, Woman's Hour starts at 10:00. I have to admit, I have a soft spot for Woman's Hour, even though the implication is that women get their hour, and then they can shut up and be satisfied for the rest of the week to talk about "proper men's things". With it's title, I can't imagine it getting commissioned today (it's like having "Indian afternoon" or "disabled morning". Having said that, if you're Asian you get a whole network to yourself, which makes the single hour allocated to women look pretty miserly). Nevertheless, during Woman's Hour, our hypothetical drama devourer would come across his (or in this case her) first piece of proper drama of the week, with the Woman's Hour Serial at 10:45. A word of warning about this slot: it doesn't really have a standardised name. It answers to the names: Woman's Hour Serial, Woman's Hour Drama, or if you want to cover each base, like Rajar, it is the Woman's Hour Drama Series. Rather confusingly, the Woman's Hour dramatic thing is then repeated, on the same day at 19:45, where the slot doesn't have a name at all. It's just a drama, referred to by the name of the programme. The first broadcast gets between 1.5 million and 1.2 million listeners (up slightly on Book of the Week - whether they're the same people or not is a different question), while the repeat gets around half a million. Like Book of the Week, the Woman's Hour Drama is 15 minutes long, and tends to be five episode long, although occasionally it is 10 episodes, and even more occasionally it is 20. There are also a few recurring programmes, such as the we-can-squeeze-one-more-series-out-of-Prunella-Scales "Ladies of Letters" and the sort-of-drama "Writing the Century".

Once Woman's Hour is nothing more than a ringing in the ears, there is something solid and sensible for half an hour between 11:00 and 11:30 (usually a documentary about the silk trade or something like that). At 11:30, predictably enough, we have the 11:30 30 minute comedy narrative. It's not always entirely clear what goes here. It doesn't have it's own category on the BBC webpage, so they don't need to define what they put in it. A few years ago, it used to contain adventure stories like Agatha Christie and Lord of the Rings. Now, it's the home of weak situation comedies that aren't good enough to go out at teatime.

The problem with the slot is that it is comedy narrative, which is a tough balance to get right. Largely, dramatists can't do comedy, and comedians can't do drama, so you're left with this tricky middle ground that no one dares to claim. BBC Radio Drama fill some of the slots, and BBC Comedy (affectionately known as "ents") fill others. If that wasn't enough, some weeks it isn't even there. Unlike the Woman's Hour Drama, or Book of the Week, which are always on, whatever happens (Trident will probably launch missiles if they're not on. After all, what use is a Britain without Book of the Week), the 11:30 30 minutes comedy narrative strand (that really is what it's called, or "eleven-thirty" for short) comes and goes depending on the whim of the network commissioner. Some weeks, you'll find that the 11:30 drama slot has been filled by a documentary indistinguishable from the one at 11:00 (maybe it'll be about the origins of the M1, or a discussion about NATO). Despite all this, the 11:30 slot tends to be listened to by just under a million people.

Once this is over, we move to You and Yours at 12:00, The World at 1 at three seconds past one, and some sort of factual series at 13:30.

Archers CD Released by BBC Worldwide At 14:00, we come across The Archers for 15 minutes. Radio 4's flagship drama gets just under 1 million listeners each day, with an average listening age of 58. Crucially, it also gets an audience appreciation index of 81, pushing it above Book of the Week. Like the Woman's Hour Serial, The Archers is repeated later on that evening, at 19:00, but unlike the Woman's Hour Serial, it gets more listeners in the evening, with around 1.2 million people listening. The Archers is also repeated on Sunday in a re-edited version, but we're getting ahead of ourselves now.

Once The Archers has put you in the mood for drama (think of it like a warm-up act), the Radio 4 schedulers fire the Afternoon Play at you at 14:15. The Afternoon Play's audience falls off linearly throughout the week. On Monday, there are about a million people listening, by the Friday this has slipped down to three quarters of a million. Unlike the other weekday slots, each 45 minute play is usually a standalone drama. Occasionally there will be a week of connected dramas or reoccurring series (such as Dickens Confidential). There are, also, a small number of repeats of previous dramas that are dotted throughout the schedules, so the dedicated daily listener will occasionally come across something he's heard before.

Once the Afternoon Play is over at 15:00 there's a bit of a lull. The next thing that could possibly be described as drama is at 18:30 when there is some sort of "comedy thing". Often this is non-narrative comedy, things like The Now Show or I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, but there are times when they might slip a piece of narrative comedy in there. These tend to be higher profile comedies, with major stars or big names attached.

At 19:00 we come across The Archers again, with a repeat of the afternoon's episode. We then move to Front Row, before coming back to drama with the Woman's Hour Drama, this time it's non-gender-specific, branded simply as a weekly series.

There's another lull before we move onto Book at Bedtime at 22:45, and, with that, our intrepid drama listener falls asleep, satisfied with a good day's listening.

BBC Friday Play Logo
This pattern is largely the same throughout the week - until we hit Friday, when, sometimes (although decreasing in regularity) we hit The Friday Play. This goes in short seasons, of about a dozen or so episodes, and tends to be generic (in the sense that the episodes are of a genre). Years ago, there also used to be a Monday Play and a Wednesday Play, but these have fallen by the wayside. Similarly, the number of Friday Plays commissioned is decreasing every year. Once a regular play, you're now lucky if you catch a Friday with it on - in 2010 there are going to be 12 throughout the whole year. Think of it as an endangered species of elephant, and think of the Radio 4 commissioners as piano makers who have run out of ivory. If you want to have a bet on what will be cut next time Mark Thompson announces to the Daily Mail that he is going to save licence fee money, The Friday Play would be a good bet.

With the arrival of the weekend, things change. On Saturday, you have to wait until 14:30 before you get your first hit of drama, and that is the Saturday Play, which, on the Radio 4 website, is described in almost exactly the same way as the Friday Play. Usually the Saturday Play is an hour, but sometimes it can be 90 minutes. It tends to be the home of more exciting, headlining grabbing series and programmes. Currently, the BBC is dramatising the John le Carre novels as a series, entitled either The Complete Smiley or Smiley's People. I'm not sure if anyone quite knows what it's called. Despite it's higher budget, and often more exciting titles, the Saturday Play only gets around 800,00 listeners.

After this, the next stop is the Classic Serial. Saturday's episode is a repeat of the previous Sunday's episode (this, is a little confusing, really, since BBC weeks start on Monday - a move that happened about fifty years ago to reflect the importance of the working week in people's lives). The repeat gets about 350,000 listeners, but, crucially, the Classic Serial gets about 83% on the audience appreciation score, making it the most popular piece of radio drama.

On Sunday, at 10, there is the epic Archers' omnibus. This is an edited version of all the week's episodes, shoved together into a feature length version that last for an hour and a quarter and grabs around 2 million listeners. Rather excitingly, the Sunday version features a re-recorded version of the infamous theme tune (for trivia fans: it's called Barwick Green), played on harmonicas by the Yetties

At 15:00 on Sunday, we come to the last piece of drama of the week, with the new episode of the Classic Serial, which is generally has around 630,000 listeners. The Classic Serial is a dramatisation of a classic story, spread over several weeks.

And that is it for the week's regular Radio 4 listening. Think of this as the bread and butter of Radio Drama. But, while these may be the standard dramas. Around twice a year, Radio 4 has an eight-week season of From Fact to Fiction. Each episode is based on events that have taken place during the week. There are also occasional Afternoon Readings (guess what they consist of), and that's about it for Radio 4.

Radio 4 is, of course, not the only station to have drama on. The real home of comedy and drama is Radio 7, broadcasting it 24 hours a day (albeit only about 8 hours worth of material, that is then repeated three times). Of course, Radio 7 gets almost all of its content from the BBC Archives. There are a tiny number of newly commissioned shows (a number that is dropping each year), and a few things that are Fresh From 4, which are recent repeats of programmes from Radio 4. (Radio 7 has a habit of producing hideously tacky names for its strands, and treating its listeners as if they are children - which is somewhat ironic since most of its listeners are over 50.)

While they may be infrequent, Radio 3 also houses several drama strands. Most confusingly there is a strand called The Wire that features new writers and experimental pieces. (Its name is irritating because if you ever mention The Wire, people think, and quite understandably, that you're talking about the frankly awesome HBO series). On Sundays Radio 3 has an occasional strand called Drama on 3. Like Radio 3 in general, Drama on 3 tends to be a bit more exclusive and highbrow (not to say that Radio 4 is lowbrow by any means). Most programmes in the Drama on 3 strand are adaptations or recordings of theatrical performances. In many ways this is rather exciting, since it means that you can listen to huge, hight profile theatrical shows for free, from the pleasure of your own house.

Radio 3's average listening figures are significantly lower than Radio 4's. Drama on 3 gets around 99,000 unique listeners on the radio, and only around 100 unique visitors a week online. The Wire gets even fewer listeners: around 97,000 per episode. This difference in listening figures is much more to do with the profile of the station than the programmes themselves. After all, as I said at the beginning of this article, when there are people out there who don't even know Radio 3 exists, it isn't that surprisingly that its listening figures are so low.

All of this combines to make a huge portfolio of radio drama programmes (and an even bigger back catalogue). But, while there may be a huge amount of drama on the radio, it is, as I said at the beginning, of rather a different type from its TV cousin. The dramatic series is rare on the radio, while the single dramatic piece is common, which is the opposite of the TV. Even though it came first, and, infamously, has better pictures, the radio now seems to struggle because of its difference from the television. Despite all the talk about short form drama and the "YouTube generation" (a phrase that is hideously overused and means absolutely nothing), modern viewers prefer longer, continuing dramatic series. Novels are popular but you can't even give short stories away. There's a real (and inexplicable) stigma attached to them; if you printed a short story on a life raft, someone drowning would probably think twice before climbing aboard. Short plays and short films suffer the same fate; try to get someone to watch a short film; you might as well try to get them to eat their own face.

There was a study published recently that discussed how human beings are a lot less rational than we like to think they are. Looking at what audience habits, you can see this in practice. Audiences are just weird, and, when it comes down to it, who knows what they'll want to watch or listen to.


Key Facts and Figures

Number of hours of regular drama on Radio 4 every week: 9

Number of subscribers to Radio 3's YouTube channel: 183

Percentage of programmes listened to via listen again: 2%


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