Radio Waves

Jane Killick

Since TV became the zenith of home entertainment, radio audiences have continually declined. But the SF fan can still find infinity between the headphones, as Jane Killick points out in this article for the 1993 Concatenation...

In 1980 I got my very own spaceship for Christmas. On occasional Saturdays the following year, I took off to alien worlds, terrifying futures and the past with my FTL drive blazing.

My spaceship was a mono radio/cassette player and it introduced me to the worlds of Harry Harrison's The Technicolour Time Machine, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. Radio 4's occasional series of SF plays in 1981 opened a door to the SF classics in a way the second-hand bookshop, with its shelves of 15p American pulp SF, never had. And, what's more, it was mine. Radio, whether it be a whacky DJ or Woman's Hour, has a unique one-to-one relationship with its listener.

Drama is fiction imitating reality. If the visual is taken away from drama -- like a blind person whose other senses compensate for lack of sight -- it has to be replaced by something else. In the traditional home for SF -- prose -- the author's description draws the reader into the imagined world. But in radio, sound is the medium and it can transport you anywhere. At its best, it can be like plugging your imagination into somebody else's vision -- like reading a novel, but with the added drama of theatre or film. There are no wobbling sets on the radio.

Radio 4 is the champion of radio drama in Britain. At least once a day they broadcast some form of drama. And, unlike certain TV channels we could mention, Radio 4 doesn't turn its nose up at SF. When it ventures into the genre, it's usually to dramatise classic SF novels, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. In other media, it is rare for the existence of intelligent stories such as these to be acknowledged.

But listening to them, there often seems to be something missing. I found it difficult to put my finger on until I heard a magnificent two-part mainstream serial on Radio 4. In The True Story of Martin Guerre, an intricate sound picture of the sixteenth century was created using background noises such as chopping wood and birds singing. In an SF future things we take for granted now, like tweeting birdies, often may not exist because they've been blown up by some nuclear bomb. So, to transport the listener to such a future by the vehicle of sound, the birdies must be replaced by something. Finding a something that will convince people they're in a different reality takes more effort than reaching for the BBC sound effects disc. It takes the type of imagination and time that went into making The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Writer Douglas Adams apparently communicated what he wanted the show to sound like by waving his arms around a lot. There's obviously not nearly enough arm-waving going on in Broadcasting House.

The other thing that became clear by listening to the classic serial the other week was how the characters came alive. Cardboard characterisation is an accusation often thrown at SF, and if this transfers to a radio play, it's an extra barrier to success, especially in the one-and-a-half hour adaptations of novels. Because a character's voice is such a large part of radio drama, cardboard versions do it no favours. This makes purely idea-oriented SF difficult to sustain for radio. Brave New World failed on the radio for this reason, despit being a classic SF 'idea' book. In contrast, Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon made compelling listening because it's about the development of the central character, Charlie. Idea SF is best served in a half-hour play. The Fear on 4 series (sadly no longer with us) occasionally dealt with fantasy and SF ideas, and worked very well.

Another reason SF radio drama can sometimes be disappointing is that many of the plays are adaptations of novels. While they may be produced to a high standard, it has to be said that not every SF story can be made to fit the radio format satisfactorily.

There is also a prevalence of writers new to radio drama on Radio 4. Although producers should be congratulated for discovering and encouraging new writers, it would be nice once in a while to hear plays from the pens of more accomplished playwrights. Of course, the real problem is that as soon as writers become proficient at their craft, they're off to the bright lights of TV where the pay is better.

Some criticisms of SF drama can, however, be applied to radio drama in general. The perceived 'intellectual' audience for Radio 4 (in marketing terms the ABC1 audience) to often leads to boring 'intellectual' drama. For my money, the more popular strands are best -- Saturday night's classic serial and the weekday 6:30pm entertainment slot have more hits than misses.

In the last couple of years, SF has found a new home in Radio 5. The 'sport/kids/anything else you can think of' station that replaced Radio2 medium wave has made a big effort to put some SF on the radio for kids. Although there may have been some gems among the bunch, those I heard seemed to be so jam-packed with sound and quick-moving scenes that they didn't make sense. Despite laudable plans to encourage children to listen to radio drama, most would agree the experiment has failed. These dramas picked up a minimal audience and, because it is a very expensive way to fill airtime, the BBC have announced they won't last much longer.

What's missing for adults is original radio SF -- work created especially for the sound medium. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the example of this, but that was fifteen years ago [twenty now], and radio drama appears to have learned little from its success. The recent repeat of Journey into Space on Radio 2 (originally broadcast 1953-58) sounded wonderful, taking the listener on the great space adventure. It shows how little radio drama has changed in 40 years. It also shows the power of SF on the radio -- Journey into Space was the last evening programme of any kind to get a larger audience than the telly. What could draw SF listeners back to the radio is another serial.

If talk of all this SF on the radio comes as a surprise, it's because when Radio 4 broadcasts SF, it doesn't tell anybody -- not everyone goes to bed with a cup of cocoa and a copy of Radio Times. That's a shame, because even though some of the drama misses the mark and leaves you thinking about the ironing instead, some of it is good stuff. Radio introduced me to a science fiction world I hadn't previously known. And, although it's easy to criticise and wish for more imagination, resources and output for radio SF, Radio 4 does do more for SF than any other media. It just would be nice if more people knew about it.

Jane Killick

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