Commentary: Podcast Audio Drama vs. Professional Radio Drama

Meta SFFaudioI like a good podcast as much as the next guy. Heck, maybe even a little more than the next guy. BUT… SFFaudio lately has become an endless parade of posts about podcasts. Great podcasts, excellent podcasts, check-this-out-it’s way-cool podcasts.

In a recent post, Jesse said that one of the podcast audio drama series is one of his two favorite audio dramas. And that gave me pause. Wait a second here, I thought. Time out. Seriously? And the door opened to all kinds of issues. The main one being this:

There seems to have developed a dual standard of excellence on SFFaudio. First, there’s the FREE standard of excellence. Meaning, if it’s free, the standard for excellence appears to be lower. I couldn’t possibly call the audio drama I’ve heard via podcasting “excellent” if I compare it with almost any professional audio drama.

In reviews and commentary, I think we should be comparing audio dramas to audio dramas. The finest audio dramas ever produced – THOSE are the gold standard. People like Dirk Maggs, Roger Gregg, and Yuri Rasovsky continue to produce first-rate audio drama, and 99% of the amateur stuff is… well, it’s amateur stuff.

I’m all for letting folks know what’s out there – that’s really SFFaudio’s mission. But, in reviews and commentary, a reviewer needs a single standard of excellence, not two. If a piece of amateur audio drama garners a great review, it ought to compare favorably with a professional piece of audio drama that also got a great review. The same goes for podcast novels.

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Scott D.

Reviews Editor, SFFaudio

6 thoughts to “Commentary: Podcast Audio Drama vs. Professional Radio Drama”

  1. Hi Scott,

    I don’t disagree with you. I’ve only been exposed to a few audio dramas in podcast form, so I can’t speak to the level of quality on the field right now.

    But I have listened to just about every podcast novel (it’s OK to call them a podiobook, I won’t sue) on the menu. Granted, some of them do sound “amateurish” and more than one sound downright awful. While the barrier to entry of creating quality audio is most certainly coming down, not everyone takes the time to get it right.

    And I think that’s a shame, because there is no reason why user generated content needs can’t meet the same level of the pro studios. There exists a stigma beyond your “free must be of lower quality” which is even worse. It’s the “you can’t possibly do as well on your own as you can do with pro-grade equipment and personnel” attitude of which I speak. But it’s not true. You can find that person with a great voice and a gift for reading. They exist. You can buy a great mic and build your own noise-free recording studio in your basement. It’s been done. You can be a rabid fan of high quality audio post production and edit like a pro with the computer you own an a couple hundred bucks in software. It happens all the time.

    But when that all does come together, then I think it’s quite acceptable to stack those shining stars up against the pro audio books. I’ve heard more than one more-than-free audio book recorded that sets my skin a-crawlin’ and much of what I’ve heard from the podiobook world is on par with the most average of audio books. Simultaneously, I’ve heard free podiobooks which I think are worthy of going up against the best $60 audio book.

    Maybe we’ll change the old saying to “don’t judge an audio book by its price tag” in the future?

  2. You raise some very interesting issues here my friend.

    When I suggested Pendant Productions was one of “two rivals in my affection [as] best audio drama umbrella group” I was saying, as umbrella groups go, Pendant is in my mind, one of two rivals for top spot. An umbrella group like, as in an organization that represents and supports separate smaller bodies with common interests. One person doesn’t run all the shows, even though a promintent figure, he or she, may help produce many or all of the shows. What I’m saying is, these two groups, and I’ll just say which two…

    Pendant Productions

    http://www.pendantaudio.com

    Darker Projects

    http://www.darkerprojects.com

    are the two most reliable in terms of entertainment. There are others, to be sure, but these stand out in my mind as being THE top two (of the moment).

    That isn’t to say nobody has done audio drama better. My god, NO, there have been STUNNING efforts by the BBC, the CBC and even the Bradbury 13. Programs from these giants, which are not umbrella audio drama groups BTW, typically stand head and shoulders above Darker Projects and Pendant’s Productions.

    As to the double standard of excellence in commentary and review, I think you are correct. Firefly Old Wounds is not Firefly the former, has amateur actors. The latter had Joss Whedon. Almost enough said. The guys at Sonic Cinema know this. They know they aren’t going to achieve Firefly with Firefly: Old Wounds. Damn it, they shouldn’t be expected to! Amateur actors bring less to the stage (pun intended). As I’m sure you are aware Scott, amateur productions have their place. We don’t insist that Summer Stock actors be on the same level as National Theater actors. And yet we can enjoy and look forward to an amateur production of Romeo And Juliet in either venue. Especially when we consider those people up there on the stage cool. I think the Darker Projects people, wheoever they are, are cool. I’ve barely communicated with the guy executive producing at Pendant and I think he’s cool. He and his people are doing cool work, for love and sharing it. I like that, and you know what, it probably makes me like it more than it deserves. But if I am genuinely enjoying it as much as I am, how can I bring it down by saying… This is only my opinion. I can’t. I WON’T, my opinion is valuable damn it! ;)

    LOL!

    One point I think needs making too. Most audio drama is free anyway, or the equivilent of free, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was given away (on the radio). Dirk Maggs’ productions are available for purchase, but they are ususally given away on the radio first.

    Now here’s the rub, I couldn’t possibly call even half of the audio drama’s I’ve heard on the radio “excellent”! There are crappily written, badly paced, badly acted and hideously unfunny audio dramas that were done as professional productions, it’s just that there are MORE of them in podcasting. The barrier to production is lower, in some sense, and higher in others.

    Nobody at Darker Projects is doing audio drama to get rich. And yet many of the audio dramas that appear on BBC Radio are by actors who don’t have any interest in “the work,” it is a job, something they do to pay the rent. For me it all starts with story. If the story is compelling, the acting is less important. With Fan Fiction, like Pendant’s numerous superhero series or Darker Project’s Star Trek series, the story is bootstrapped, we already know the formula, the writers of the fan fic audio drama have the possibility of acheiving Star Trek like quality. And let me tell you sometimes they exceed the original by a wide margin. I cried my way through most of Star Trek Voyager. I havent’ done that with the audio fan fic.

    You suggest that people like Dirk Maggs, Roger Gregg, and Yuri Rasovsky are making quality, and I agree. But is it always 10 times better than the best of the amateurs? I think not.

    As for a single standard of excellence in reviews, I’m not sure how objective we can be. Rating each aspect of a production, story, acting, production, doesn’t seem like it’d be capable of encapsulating the feeling I get when I hear a excellent (if amateur) production.

    You said “If a piece of amateur audio drama garners a great review, it ought to compare favorably with a professional piece of audio drama that also got a great review.” I agree with this. I just happen to think there is a hell-of-a-lot of good work being done by a select group of amateurs.

    As for podcast novels. I am in complete agreement. Thus far, of the podiobooks I’ve reviewed, there hasn’t been a single podcast novel that even compared with Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But few regular audiobooks get such high praise.

    The thing of it is, right now I’m listening to a contender for best Podiobook I’ve ever heard, and thus far it is better than a signifcant number of regular audiobooks I’ve heard this year. It remains to be seen if I will feel that way when I finish it, but right now, I’m eager to hear each instalment, laughing out loud at the funny parts and marvelling at the diamond hardness of the Hard SF. I’m loving it.

    Anybody have a problem with that? ;)

  3. Evo and Jesse,

    Evo brings up an excellent point. The simple fact that an audiobook comes in a shiny box does not make it a better audiobook. Surely there are good readers reading good work in the podiobook world. I just want to make sure that we are not giving them a free hall pass on this site just because there’s no cover art.

    Things are certainly changing. Four years ago, when Jesse and I started this site, podcasting didn’t even exist. I daresay that podcasting is well on the way to changing everything. Its main appeal to me is the its ability to find the target audience. Programs that couldn’t exist in a mainstream radio market can exist – and thrive – on the internet because eager listeners can find these shows. What does this mean to the audiobook industry? I’m not sure yet.

    Jesse:
    Yes, I certainly do think there’s a place for amateurs. Without question. Hell, I’m an amateur at nearly everything I do in the science fiction world. And yes, these folks are cool. Everyone I’ve met (in person, or via e-mail) in the podcasting world are folks I would love to hang out with. These people share my interests more often than not.

    And you are upfront in saying that perhaps you do have a bias there. You are treating it a bit different – your points about the overall quality of modern audio drama are taken. Is the stuff always “10 times better”? Absolutely not. But the best of it – 2000X, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Last Harbinger, Hitchhiker’s – damn, it’s wonderful stuff. (Fanfic is a completely separate issue. I still admit that I don’t understand its general appeal, audio drama or not. As such I won’t attempt to review them.)

    This is a general reviewing philosophical dilemma. If I look at myself and my own reviews and commentary, do I review a YA book differently than I do one aimed at an adult audience? Yes, I do. Do I review a piece of military SF differently than I do a piece of hard SF (my personal favorite subgenre)? Yes, I do. I probably review the hard SF a bit tighter, since my expectations are higher.

    And THERE is the crux of the issue, no? Expectations. Does the work succeed as what it is? When I listen to an audio drama, I want something that approaches the best of my experience with them. If the acting isn’t believable, the background sound too loud, the score inappropriate, the script poorly written – well, I don’t know if it’s right for me to say, OK, this is amateur work, so I’ll go ahead and review it as such.

    And I’m very eager to hear your “contender for best Podiobook you’ve ever heard”!

  4. There is an interesting thread on the crappity of blog reviews over on SFsignal:

    http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/004303.html

    I also note that, the PC Gamer Podcast’s 50th show ( http://www.pcgamerpodcast.com/?p=92 ) had a fascinating discussion about the use of a ratings scale and review or criticsim theory. The crux of it was, if you don’t use the full range, between 0 stars and 5 stars, for reviews (or between 0 and 100%), that this says more about you than it does the game or book. They’ve never given a game a full 100%, nearly every game that is reviewed is well above the 50% mark. The only way to suss-out what the ratings scale means is by reading all their textual reviews, which kind of makes the STAR or PERCENTAGE system only useful for marketing of the highly rated games. They typically agonize over the rating of games between 90 and 98 percent. This means that for all intents and purposes, if you’ve got a great game, there is an additional scale for just how great it is symbolized by numbers.

    Or to quote that meta-critical philosoper Nigel tufnel:
    “These go to eleven.”

    As for the Poiobook that has me so fired up, I’ll keep that under wraps (publicly) until I finish it.

  5. Commenting at this stage probably amounts to talking into the wind, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

    I think there are a lot of people who are quite new to audio drama whose listening experiences are thus far limited to the readily available amateur productions highlighted here recently. Or maybe that’s just me. I suggest a series of reviews of some older productions for the audio neophyte. For instance, I only just recently discovered ZBS productions and have been listening to it non-stop ever since. To an extent the Sonic Society has really filled this gap in, introducing a number of shows that are inarguably “the good stuff” (for instance, the Soul Patrol and Crazy Dog). But it would be nice to know what the more experienced listeners here hold out as the gold standard, so the less experienced listeners may profit. And none of that is to say that there is any less value in what are being referred to here as amateur productions. I am greatly enjoying Old Wounds and my sincere thanks go out to Jack and Andrew for there efforts. But, at the same time, I’m really enjoying listening to the Fourth Tower of Inverness and Ruby Too and Bill Lizard. Again, maybe it’s just me and maybe I am not representative of your readership, but that’s what I would like to see.

  6. Brad, I think you are right. Audio Drama is a strange beast. Persons in the UK, Ireland and Canada are probably more often exposed to it in the form of modern Radio Drama than are most American citizens. Yet I assume most of the SFFaudio readership is US based. Certainly most amateur Audio Drama in production seems to be coming from the USA.

    We previously posted a number of reviews to an Radio / Audio Drama section of SFFaudio…

    http://www.sffaudio.com/AudioDramaReviews.html

    But in terms of reviewing old stuff, we pretty much are limited to what audio drama we have in hardcopy.

    I will point out that there are a couple quality producers we have reviewed. RRCA, a terrific group previously unmentioned in this thread, and the ARTC, ditto, both offer some amazing modern audio drama.

    http://www.rrca.com/

    http://www.artc.org/

    As for ZBS, Ruby, Galactic Gumshoe etc. I’d be in favour. Maybe we can get in contact with ZBS.

    The Sonic Society, is a simply awesome filter for new stuff! Dani Cutler, and I’m proud to say she is now on staff here, is the podcast compiler for them.

    As for my personal gold standards…

    BBC Radio did a STUNNING adaptation of John W. Campbell’s WHO GOES THERE? which was podcast on the Tales Of Horror Podcast last year…

    http://media.libsyn.com/media/horrortales/horror11.mp3

    99% of the Seeing Ear Theater stuff is better than 99% of everything else in my book. Some of it is available in hardcopy. Most of it is listenable online in realaudio…

    http://www.scifi.com/set/

    As well I think I mentioned the Bradbury 13 (a limited series done for NPR in the 1980s).

    CBC Radio’s Vanishing Point series was really terrific. Near mpossible to get though.

    Unfortunately, that is the general rule, you will have a great deal of difficulty finding hard or even downloadable copies of most of these. :(

    As to you not being representative of our readership. I can’t say, we get a very tiny amount of feedback compared to the number of people who visit the site. If you put in requests we’ll try to fill em. :)

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