Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Theater – 6


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


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 ( (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.