If Audio Drama Is Making a Comeback, Tisch Is Ready for It

Dramatic writing student Jyotsna Hariharan won a HarperCollins contest with her audio play 'Rebuttal.'
photo: "on air" light used in radio productinos

For many, the phrase “audio drama” conjures something distant, staticky, and unmistakably old-fashioned—the quaint 1938 aliens-are-among-us panic caused by a newscast-style adaptation of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds, perhaps, or the wholesome sight of a family gathered in the living room to listen to a madcap comedy like The Jack Benny Program. Video killed the radio star, or so the story goes, with television all but obliterating the entertainment medium that had been dominant from the 1920s to the 1950s. Then came the internet, the distraction machine that would in turn swallow up everything that came before it.

Recent figures paint a different picture. While e-book sales fell by 14% in 2015, audiobook sales totaled $1.77 billion, an increase of 20.7% over 2014. And the trend is picking up pace—in the first quarter of 2016, audiobook sales again rose (by 35.3%), while e-book sales continued to fall (by 21.8%). In 2016, 21% of of U.S. adults said they'd listened to a podcast in the past month, up from 17% in 2015—growth buoyed in part by surprise hits like the documentary Serial, which in its first season presented the story of a real-life murder trial in a series of suspenseful installments. In that context, audio drama seems poised for a renaissance.  

“Radio, which was thought to be dead, has suddenly come roaring back,” says Tisch dramatic writing chair Terry Curtis Fox, who has more than a passing familiarity with the medium: He was one of several noted playwrights—among them David Mamet, Edward Albee, and Arthur Kopit—who wrote for NPR’s long-running Earplay series in the 1970s and ’80s.

photo: Terry Curtis Fox

Terry Curtis Fox

Given the natural appeal of audiobooks and podcasts both for those who commute in cars or who never walk the city streets with earbuds, Fox says that devotees of gripping nonfiction pieces now popular on NPR—such as Radiolab or This American Life—may soon be making the jump to drama.

For dramatic writing students just getting their start, this new-old medium presents a rare opportunity: Because audio drama doesn’t require expensive sets, costumes, or cameras, it could be an ideal avenue for budding writers to get their work out there on a small budget. “All you need is a good set-up that is not too complicated to record, and some actor friends who are willing to take an afternoon off to record your script,” Fox says. “A science fiction piece that would cost $100 million done as a movie you could probably do for $100 as an audio drama.” (BBC America, for example, has been producing Doctor Who audio dramas with actors from the long-running TV series.) And, as long as their voices are appropriate to the roles, actors need not match up perfectly with the age or physical appearance of the characters they’re playing.  

photo: three men crowded around an old fashioned radio microphone

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. "Orson Welles, Archibald MacLeish and William Robson performing the radio drama Air Raid." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1938.

Experimenting in different forms can also broaden writers’ abilities, Fox stresses. “The bedrock of what I’m about as chair of the department is that we’re dramatists—not playwrights, screenwriters, or TV writers,” he says. In addition to unique challenges (picture writing a fight scene for the radio, for example), each medium also offers particular advantages: “There’s nothing more intimate than audio because it involves the active participation of the listener,” Fox reflects. “You are much, much more a collaborator in an audio drama than you are in a film or a play because you have to create the images in your head. There’s an astonishing bond between the audience and the work.”  

photo: Jyotsna Hariharan

Jyotsna Hariharan

Dramatic writing graduate student Jyotsna Hariharan recently got a chance to try her hand at the form with support from HarperCollins, which hosted a writing contest at NYU as part of an effort to expand its audio offerings into the realm of original dramatic work. At the time the contest was announced, Hariharan was already at work on a piece for her playwriting class that followed two teenagers who form an unlikely friendship when they partner up on their high school debate team.

“My play was already very dialogue-heavy because it’s about debate,” she recalls. “It’s very verbose, and stage plays usually require more action than dialogue, so I realized I could change it into a radio play where the only communication is audio.” The play, Rebuttal, ended up winning the contest’s grand prize—the chance to be recorded, produced, and marketed by HarperAudio.

It was Hariharan’s first audio drama, and in some respects the learning curve was steep. “No one’s narrating, and you can’t just have the characters say ‘we’re in the cafeteria now,’ so you have to write lines of dialogue to kind of hint at where they are,” she says. Hariharan wasn’t much of an audio consumer before Serial, which she calls “the gateway podcast,” but since starting there she’s become hooked on series as diverse as Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, a BBC Radio 4 dramatization of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, and The Baby-Sitter’s Club Club (described by its creators as a show in which “a big dumb idiot and his brilliant, charming friend discuss the classic novels of Ann M. Martin in chronological order”).

Though she dreams of writing TV comedy—she idolizes Tina Fey and calls 30 Rock her Bible—Hariharan saw the invitation to venture into a different medium and genre (young adult, in this case) as an avenue for growth. “It’s been a great experience—definitely getting something published and having a credit when you’re still in school is great,” she says. “It’s something I hope I can develop and see where it goes.” 

Listen to an interview with Jyotsna Hariharan.