Wolf 359 — Audio Drama At Its Best

by Bob Tinsley

Audio Dramas (aka Radio Dramas, though that comparison is WAY out of date) are starting to make big noises in the entertainment world. It’s a great proving ground for people who want to be in the entertainment industry as well as established stars, Laurence Fishburne and David Schwimmer for just two examples.

You might also keep in mind that people like Gene Roddenberry wrote for radio before he became a Big Deal. And several properties that began as interweb Audio Dramas are currently in development for TV and movie deals.

Audio Dramas are a lot of fun to listen to. The big advantage is that you can listen and enjoy while doing other things, like driving, cooking, working on the car, etc. They are also available in just about any length you like, from 5 minutes to over an hour, and in just about any genre you can think of.

So, where do you find these fun bit of mind candy? Download just about any podcatcher like, Podcast Addict, Podcatcher, iTunes, or even Google Play Music and start searching for Audio Drama.

To give you a head start, you might want to check out Wolf 359, especially if you like science fiction. It’s “Alien” meets “Good Morning, Vietnam!” It’s currently in its fourth season with 60 main episodes and another 23 mini-episodes. I’m only up to Episode 52. Gotta catch up!

The action takes place on a research station in orbit around the red dwarf, Wolf 359. You have a mad scientist who performs secret experiments on a crew member (without his knowledge) and creates a dangerous plant creature that prowls the station and hides in places the crew doesn’t know exist. Their mission is sponsored by an evil Earth corporation with an agenda the crew knows nothing about.

When the crew gets a little mutinous they get a visit from a ruthless team of “trouble shooters.” The captain of the previous crew of the Hephaestus, all of whom mysteriously disappeared, suddenly shows up in her own spacecraft. And then the aliens come!

From the website (http://www.wolf359.fm) :

Life’s not easy for Doug Eiffel, the communications officer for the U.S.S. Hephaestus Research Station, currently on Day 448 of its orbit around red dwarf star Wolf 359. He’s stuck on a scientific survey mission of indeterminate length, 7.8 light years from Earth. His only company on board the station are stern mission chief Minkowski, insane science officer Hilbert, and Hephaestus Station’s sentient, often malfunctioning operating system HERA.

He doesn’t have much to do for his job other than monitoring static and intercepting the occasional decades-old radio broadcast from Earth, so he spends most of his time creating extensive audio logs about the ordinary, day-to-day happenings within the station. But the Hephaestus is an odd place, and life in extremely isolated, zero gravity conditions has a way of doing funny things to people’s minds. Even the simplest of tasks can turn into a gargantuan struggle, and the most ordinary-seeming things have a way of turning into anything but that.

Wolf 359 is a radio drama in the tradition of Golden Age of Radio shows like Escape! and Suspense. Take one part space adventure, add one part character drama, mix in one part absurdist sitcom, and you get Wolf 359.

The production values are top-notch, as is the acting. It’s very easy to get drawn into the world of the Hephaestus. Luckily there are enough episodes already available to binge for a very long time. And a new episode is released every two weeks like clockwork.

Enjoy! I sure am.


Bob Tinsley is TVWriter™’s Audio Drama Expert-in-Residence. He’s also a fine sculptor and writer, currently living a life much envied by our Beloved Leader, LB.

Audio Script Competition

by Bob Tinsley

As you may have noticed, TVWriter™ has been generously allowing me space from time to time to enthuse about the opportunities for writers in the Audio Drama field. Pursuant to that – and before LB decides to pull the plug – here’s something I think everybody who comes here should know:

The Audio Drama Production Podcast is holding a competition for new audio drama scripts. The bare bones are these:

They will be accepting scripts in any genre except fan fiction in three categories: 10-minute, 15-minute, and 30-minute scripts. For those of you unfamiliar with audio scripts a decent rule of thumb is 165 to 185 words of finished script to one minute of run time.

The submission window runs from January 8 to the 21st.  The links to the place to pay and upload scripts will be posted on the website and FaceBook page on January 8. (see below)

The winning scripts will be performed live at The Vault Festival in London on March 7 and at the Edinburgh Podfest in August. The other scripts will be placed in a repository from which 20 producers will choose scripts they like to produce and distribute on the Interwebs.

The submission fee is $6 for up to three scripts.

Don’t worry too much about format. Celtix and, I believe, Final Draft have templates for audio (radio) plays. There are two accepted formats: one is the old radio format, also known as BBC format. Most dedicated voice actors that I have talked to prefer this format. Sample scripts and a Word and Wordclone compatible template can be downloaded from

http://www.ruyasonic.com/rdr_main.htm

The other format is the standard screenplay format. Most high-budget audio productions, such as Bronzeville with Laurence Fishburne and Homecoming with David Schwimmer, use this format because most of their actors are either film or TV actors.

The most important thing to remember is to pitch the action toward audible rather than visual cues. “John grabbed Mary and shook her,” doesn’t translate well to audio. “John grabbed Mary and shook her ’til her teeth rattled and her cheeks flapped like a dog with its head out the window of a speeding car,” on the other hand, does.

The audio drama field is growing by leaps and bounds, creating opportunities for those of us willing to give it a try. Even if you don’t win this competition, having your script chosen for production afterward will provide a nice hard-point on your resume.

All the details of the competition can be found on the Audio Drama Production Podcast website at http://audiodramaproduction.com/2017/12/adpp-audio-drama-script-writing-competition-2018/

The Audio Drama field is particularly nice because of its low cost of entry, but the nicest part about the Audio Drama community of producers and actors is how welcoming and helpful they all are. Give them half an excuse to choose your script, and they will.

So, get to writing, and be ready to submit starting January 8, 2018. You’ve got nothing to lose other than your unproduced status.

My Favorite Audio Dramas of 2017

by Bob Tinsley

In case you haven’t run across me before, I’m a big fan of Audio Drama (think radio shows with better – mostly – production values). Considering that most Audio Dramas are put together with production budgets of nothing (less even, usually, than web series), the quality of writing and acting can be surprising. That doesn’t mean all Audio Dramas are put together on a shoestring. Some of them, like “Bronzeville” with Laurence Fishburne, have real budgets, SAG contracts and Big Names attached.

Whatever budget, Audio Dramas are fun. Here are some of my favorites from 2017 in alphabetical order:

“A Scottish Podcast.” (https://scottishpodcast.com) A tongue-in-cheek horror series detailing the activities of a couple of ne’er-do-well musicians who decide to do a paranormal investigation podcast.  

From the website: “You’ll walk through the long-forgotten catacombs under Edinburgh. Sail out to the lonely and abandoned island of St.Caillic. Visit dingy pubs, run-down industrial estates, and obscure non-league football grounds.” They are at the end of their 18-episode first season and hard at work on the second season.

“arsPARADOXICA.” (https://arsparadoxica.com) A time travel story with people getting stranded in unpleasant places and the machinations of a secret government agency across time — in both directions.

From the website: “When an experiment in a time much like our own goes horribly awry, Dr. Sally Grissom finds herself stranded in the past and entrenched in the activities of a clandestine branch of the US government. Grissom and her team quickly learn that there’s no safety net when toying with the fundamental logic of the universe.” They are into their third season with 27 regular episodes and another 15 extras.

“Jarnsaxa Rising.” (https://jarnsaxarising.wordpress.com)  “Just above the 60th parallel in the Baltic Ocean, a team of researchers arrives at an abandoned wind farm, to investigate some unexplained energy surges.”

The team is sent to this remote and frigid location by a multinational corporation with an agenda far beyond a simple service call. Norse gods and eeevil corporations. Oh, my! The first season of 10 episodes is complete, and I understand work is beginning on the second season.

“Steal the Stars.” (https://tor-labs.com/steal-the-stars/) From the website: “Steal the Stars is the story of Dakota Prentiss and Matt Salem, two government employees guarding the biggest secret in the world: a crashed UFO.” But there is much more than just that: a heist of incredible complexity, a story of forbidden love, loyalty and betrayal, and a completely unexpected (at least by me) twist at the end.

Complete in 14 episodes. As might be deduced from the URL, this Audio Drama was sponsored by Tor Books from a pitch by the series creator, Mac Rogers. There is also a novelization of the series published by, you guessed it, Tor Books.

“TANIS.” (http://tanispodcast.com/) A docudrama currently in hiatus at the end of the third season (of 12 episodes each along with numerous extras). From Wikipedia: “Nic Silver, a former radio host, discovers references to something called Tanis in two disparate sources. He begins hosting the podcast in an effort to determine what and where Tanis may be . . . . His search . . . leads him to confront a variety of mysterious groups and organizations . . . .” Conspiracy theory abounds!

In 2017 TANIS was acquired by Universal Cable Productions and Dark Horse Entertainment for development into a TV series . Writers will be the podcast creator, Terry Miles, and TV writer Lee Shipman. The producers will be Sam Raimi and Debbie Liebling.

“The Black Tapes.” (http://theblacktapespodcast.com/) Another well-done docudrama from the same folks that produce “TANIS.”

From Wikipedia: “The story begins as a biography of paranormal investigator Dr. Richard Strand (voiced by Christian Sloan), an ‘evangelical skeptic’ on a mission to debunk all claims of the supernatural. Reagan becomes interested in his collection of unsolved cases, which she begins calling his ‘Black Tapes,’ and the podcast evolves into an exploration of these cases, paranormal culture, and the mysterious life of Dr. Strand.” The series was concluded this year after three seasons, a total of 30 episodes and numerous extras.

“The Bright Sessions.” (http://www.thebrightsessions.com/) Think the cast from the TV show, “Heroes”, in therapy. What we have here is the story of a therapist whose clientele is made up exclusively of people with paranormal abilities, everything from telepathy to teleportation in space and time. I don’t know about you, but I find it comforting to know that superheroes are as dysfunctional as the rest of us. And if you think these folks are wandering around untethered, rest assured that there is a shadowy government agency out there keeping a close eye on things.

The creator and writer of this show, Lauren Shippen, was chosen by Forbes Magazine for this year’s “30 Under 30 – Media” list. Universal Cable Productions and Dark Horse Entertainment (remember them?) are developing the show for TV. So far, in four seasons, 47 regular episodes and numerous extras.

“The White Vault.” (http://whitevault.libsyn.com/) If you liked “The Thing,” the original, of course, you should love this one. A repair team is sent to an unmanned mining outpost in the Svalbard Archipelago, far north of the Arctic Circle.

Trapped by a severe storm that also cuts off their communications, they find something under the ice that shouldn’t be there. Something unfriendly. Seven episodes so far.

“Wolf 359.” (http://www.wolf359.fm/) I reviewed this one more fully, and you’ll be seeing that here at TVWriter™ soon. You could call this one “Good Morning, Vietnam” meets “Alien” — and “Aliens.”

From the website: “Wolf 359 is a radio drama in the tradition of Golden Age of Radio shows like Escape! and Suspense. Take one part space adventure, add one part character drama, mix in one part absurdist sitcom, and you get Wolf 359.” Episode 61, the series finale, just dropped.There are also a number of mini-episodes and extras.

And these are just scratching the surface. The number of Audio Dramas available has exploded over the last couple of years. Whatever your taste in storytelling you can find something to binge on with little effort.

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Theater – 6

writer

In an earlier post I talked about the need for a Trusted Source for audio theater. In that post I talked mainly about a place to buy good, high-quality audio theater. Under that umbrella also fall the writers, actors and producers, and the easiest way to find a trusted source is to look for the Big Names.

There’s not much of that these days outside of the UK. (The situation in the UK deserves its own post.) Has there been much of that since the Golden Days of Radio?

Well, yes.

The last years of the 20th Century were comparatively lush with Big Name audio theater episodes.

In 1996 Leonard Nimoy and John deLancie founded Alien Voices and convinced Simon and Schuster Audio to carry their output. Between 1996 and 2000 Alien Voices produced seven plays, five of which were based on H.G. Wells books and two that were Q vs. Spock episodes. The supporting cast was stuffed with Star Trek alumni.

From my reading this was basically a playground for deLancie. He wanted to do the Wells books as no one else had done them, at least on film. He wanted to stick to the original stories. He wanted the Alien Voices brand to be a name that people could depend on for high-quality audio theater.

In 2000 deLancie shut down operations due to a philosophical dispute with Simon and Schuster. S&S wanted to churn out more stories and make more money. Each title sold approximately 25,000 copies. S&S said that they needed to sell three to four times more than that to be profitable.

Remember that this was before the podcast boom and before Amazon was the force that it is today. I don’t believe that these were ever available as downloads (all mine were on CD; they were also, I believe, available on cassette tape) so in addition to talent/production costs there were printing costs for the covers and liner notes, costs for jewel cases, costs for CDs and cassette tapes and physical distribution costs as most (if not all) sales were from brick and mortar bookstores.

deLancie felt that S&S were making him into an audiobook salesman, and that wasn’t what he wanted to be.

In the same time period, 1997 to 2001, Seeing Ear Theatre, a subsidiary of The Sci-Fi Channel, was active. They produced 57 episodes of top-quality audio theater by writers like Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman and many, many others, starring Claudia Black, Annabella Sciorra, Paul Giamatti, Brian Denehy, Mark Hamil, etc.

J. Michael Straczynski, during the time he was working on Babylon 5 wrote eight episodes of a series-within-the-series called The City of Dreams. There were also 7 episodes of Tales from the Crypt. They were all available for free download from the Seeing Ear Theatre page of the Sci-Fi Channel website until 2007 when the page disappeared. Luckily most of the episodes are still available on the web.

These were unarguably Big Name productions with Big Name stars and Big Name writers. So why didn’t they become Big Successes and make audio theater a part of everyone’s listening day?

IMHO, it was all a matter of timing. They hit the market about ten years too soon.

Today the technology for success is in place. You can download a series of podcast episodes for time-shifted listening with no more thought than turning on your smart phone in the morning.

We could combine that with a modified House-of-Cards marketing model: each weekly podcast episode could be downloaded for free; in addition, at the time of the release of the first weekly episode the whole season could be purchased as a digital download with extras like blooper out-takes, making-of features, producion journals, and other merchandising opportunities. Stars, both actors and writers, attract attention, the writing, acting and production values seal the deal.

After trying an episode or two, people start buying the full season. Binging on audio is just as easy (perhaps easier) as binging on video.

Ah, dreams! But that’s what show business is about, isn’t it. In fact, that’s what life is about. All it takes to make those dreams come true is blood, sweat, tears and a lotta luck!

I have an iron or two in the fire. It’s a big fire, as big as your imagination. Add your own irons.

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Dra – We Mean Theater – 5

Suspense

What does it cost to produce a 40-minute episode of audio theater?

That’s right, Virginia. Audio theater episodes don’t just grow on trees the way money does. Wait. That didn’t come out right, somehow.

Anyhoo, episodes of audio drama are the end product of the hard work of a lot of people. And, being people, they like to be paid for what they do. I know, I know. Actors will often act for the sheer fun of it, money or no, but at the very least you need to buy them lunch. If you’ve got a couple of sound techs, three or four actors, a musician or two and miscellaneous other folk, even pizza can get pricey. Truth be told, someone who is being paid will almost always perform better than if she were doing it solely “for the love.”

Fred Greenhalgh, writer/producer/director of his post-apocalyptic (zombie-free) audio theater series, The Cleansed (http://thecleansed.com) (IMHO, one of the best produced audio series available), put together a budget of what it costs to produce an episode of his series. Or, at least, what it would cost if he had the money to pay everyone, his “ideal” budget. Fred told me in an email, “I was never paid and our actor scale was cut to contend with the fact that the real-world budget was much lower than we had hoped. But we DID in fact pay every actor, crew member, and other creative person in our production and paid for appropriate legal contracts, etc. so we have clear rights on our production. This is something we feel is very important.”

Please note, paying for the people and the equipment is not the only outlay of money. If you are a responsible producer, you also have to protect the rights of everyone involved in the production as well as your own. This requires (Eeek!) lawyers. The rest goes without saying.

Paying people for their efforts is, at the least, a sign of respect. Value for value. Someone who is being paid, even a little, is more likely to show up on time, be better prepared and be more interested in the quality of the end product. All this results in better audio theater.

Fred’s budget breaks down like this:

Item                                                                         $/episode                             $/season (10 eps)

Director                                                                          500                                           5,000
Producer                                                                        700                                           7,000
Writer                                                                              200                                           2,000
Production Assistant                                                150                                            1,500
Actors                                                                             600                                            6,000
Music                                                                               150                                            1,500
Mix/Master Engineer                                               150                                            1,500
Sound Recordist                                                         150                                            1,500
Meals                                                                               100                                            1,000
Office Supplies                                                               50                                                500
Production Art                                                             50                                                 500
Equipment Rental                                                     100                                             1,000
Location Rental                                                         100                                              1,000

Total                                                                          3,000                                           30,000

And then there are the season’s ancillary costs:

Administration                                                                                                               2,000
Marketing                                                                                                                          1,000
Creation/Distribution of CDs                                                                                    1,000
Merchandising — Postcards, t-shirts, etc.                                                           1,000

Total Cost for a 10-Episode Season                                                                  $35,000

Compared to a TV series, the cost is miniscule. But if you are toiling in obscurity, outside the mainstream, trying your best to produce professional quality entertainment, that’s a daunting amount of money to come up with every year. And the income stream is, shall we say, variable.

That’s what we need to change, and sitting around preaching to the choir is not going to do it.

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Drama – 4

Chapter 4
by Bob Tinsley

ShadowLa Cosa Nostra

“This Thing of Ours”, what do we call it?

What we call it affects the public’s perception of it, and perception affects acceptance and popularity.

This HUGE question was mentioned in Fred Greenhalgh and FinalRune Productions’s hangout, The Future of Audio Drama Panel. Everyone interested in audio drama should watch it. In spite of the technical challenges it was very informative and a lot of fun. It should, I hope, be the first in a series. An hour just isn’t enough to cover all the things that an ambitious title like that demands. Thanks, Fred.

But I digress.

Audio Drama. The first thing everyone focuses on when hearing those two words is radio drama. The impression those last two words leaves is: poor production values, awkward writing, bad acting. All that in spite of Suspense, Inner Sanctum, Gunsmoke, Mercury Theatre, etc.

That impression, that PERCEPTION, is helping to keep “This Thing of Ours” in the entertainment ghetto in my humble opinion.

Tell someone you are going to play an audio drama for them. Immediately you see their eyes lose focus; their lips lift in a sneer; they start making excuses (whining!).

But if you can press-gang them into actually listening to an episode of We’re Alive! or The Cleansed or The Leviathan Chronicles or any of the myriad of other quality shows out there, their face lights up, and they say, “Oh. I didn’t know it was like that.”

But if they were out there in the wilds of the interwebs alone and given a choice between “audio drama” or “audiobook” where do you think they would go?

Yeah, me, too.

So, what do we call it?

“Theatre of the Mind” is a good phrase, but does it still carry the same connotation in the mind of Joe Onthestreet that it did in the Golden Age of Radio when it was coined? Not to me. It seems kinda clunky. Too many words.

Theater, though, does have a certain cachet.

One suggestion that came up during the hangout Panel from Claire Eden, producer of Minister of Chance, was “sonic movie”. At first blush, not bad.

What is a movie? Images that move accompanied by meaningful sound, both of which occur outside the spectator (remember that word).

A good audio drama will generate images behind the listener’s eyes while the sound continues outside. The spectator becomes a participant.

“Movie” can work. I think.

But, “sonic movie”? Sounds kinda like a weapon, he said, pulling a sonic blaster out of his pocket.

“Mind movie”? I like that better, even if I did think it up myself (actually it occurred in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010).

But . . .

There’s that “movie” word again with the implication that everything is occurring external to the audience, an audience made up of spectators.

Then there’s “audio theater”. Many actors have said that they love theater because they can hear and/or see the audience reaction, implying that the audience affects their acting. From that I can infer that the theater audience is, in some way, a participant in the performance.

So, maybe, “audio theater” isn’t such a bad choice, audience as participant.

Is that the best name? I don’t know. I do know we need a good, spiffy, sexy name that runs trippingly off the tongue. It could be one of the biggest things we need to pull audio dra. . . erm . . . theater out of the ghetto.

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Drama – 3

Chapter 3
by Bob Tinsley

WAchapter37-copy-297x300

Is audio drama too hard to listen to?

Define hard. Does that mean that listening to audio drama requires too much attention, too much engagement of the imagination?

I don’t think so. As Fred Greenhalgh from Radio Drama Revival  said in his response to an earlier post, “People DO like audio drama when they get the chance to hear it . . .” I think it requires more attention than music (for most people, musicians and music majors excepted), but certainly no more than is required for audiobooks.

Audiobooks still engage the attention, the imagination. If I’m listening to MacLeod Andrews read Richard Kadrey’s SANDMAN SLIM I can’t say that I don’t see the action in my head. But it doesn’t have the richness, the texture, the immediacy of an audio play. The play doesn’t require more of my attention, just different parts of it. If anything I believe an audiobook requires a greater degree of attention commitment than an audio play does. That may be different for other people, but I don’t think so. I have a pretty simple mind. Just ask my wife.

Is audio drama harder to find than audiobooks and music? Not these days. Anyone with a computer or a smart phone and an internet connection can download a podcatcher (iTunes, Podkicker, DoggCatcher, etc.). Open it and search for audio drama or radio drama or dramatization and you’ll be presented with a list of sites. Pick a couple you like and look at their keywords to use in further searches. You can download all the previous plays they have plus get the new ones downloaded automatically. For free! Audio drama at your fingertips.

And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Audible. I searched for “dramatization” this morning and came up with 852 hits. Admittedly some of them are duplicates, but still, 852 hits? A lot of the better known podcasters have their work for sale on Audible: Atlanta Radio Theater Company , Icebox Radio Theater , We’re Alive, and others. You could download all their plays for free if you had the bandwidth and the time, or you could buy them in one easily downloadable package. I bought a collection of horror plays put out by Fangoria that runs 4 hours and 12 minutes for $9.07 (tax included, I guess).

Is the technology available to most people? About half the adults in the United States now carry with them almost constantly the most sophisticated audio player seen to date: a smart phone. As the computer and Netflix have changed the way we consume movies and TV shows, so the smart phone and music player apps have changed the way we consume music. Anything that can play music can play audiobooks. And anything that can play audiobooks can play audio drama.

The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that Joe Onthestreet CAN find audio plays and CAN listen to them where ever he happens to be at whatever time he feels the urge.

The question now becomes: What’s keeping him from doing it?

In two words, perception and ignorance: the perception that audio drama is inferior entertainment and ignorance about where to find it. Changing those views requires some semantic gymnastics and some high-profile exposure.

Stay tuned, boys and girls, there’s more to come!