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Canadians Like Their Radio Drama

'Compared to Other Forms of Programming, Original Drama and Comedy Is Probably the Costliest Content We Produce'

The heyday of radio drama and comedy may have passed with the advent of television, but original and old-time broadcasts have managed to retain a share of the Canadian audience.

Like the BBC that inspired its creation more than 70 years ago, CBC Radio remains dedicated to producing new and original radio drama and comedy.

It is an expensive commitment.

“Compared to other forms of programming, original drama and comedy is probably the costliest content we produce,” said CBC Radio Programming Director Chris Boyce.

Sound wizards

The expense is due to CBC Radio using scriptwriters to produce original scripts, hiring actors to voice it and employing in-house sound effects people.

Sometimes, the latter create effects using pre-recorded clips but, more often than not, the CBC Radio sound wizards rely on old-fashioned doors, horns and other implements to create authentic sounds on the fly, just as in the 1930s and 1940s.

In fact, some of the CBC Radio sound effects equipment dates back to the Golden Age of radio.

To maximize the listenership for its dramas and comedies — shows like “Afghanada,” inspired by Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan, and “The Debaters,” where two comedians debate positions in front of a live studio audience — the CBC conducted a survey a few years ago.

Based on what it heard from its listeners, said Boyce, CBC Radio decided to replace one-off hour-long dramas with serialized half-hour dramas. “These kinds of shows are easier for listeners to relate to because they come to know the characters that return each week,” he said.

“We also make the shows relevant — ‘Afghanada’ is literally ripped from the day’s headlines — and accessible,” said Boyce. “For instance, our prime listening times are 11:30 weekdays, in terms of where the biggest audiences are — in the past, our radio dramas were aired late nights on weekends, when far fewer people are tuning in.”

Original content

CBC Radio has amassed a huge archive of material over the years — material which is rarely ever heard.

“The problem is the performance rights,” said Boyce. “It would cost us nearly as much to pay the rights to air older programming as it does for us to produce new material.”

According to Boyce, since part of the CBC Radio mandate is to stimulate Canadian talent through new production, it makes more sense to spend budgets on original content rather than repeats.

“But if we could afford to,” said Boyce, “I think that there would be a solid audience for our older shows — not on primetime broadcasting, perhaps, but definitely online.”

Matt Watts, the writer of “Canadia 2056,” a satirical sci-fi space opera that has run on CBC Radio for two years, appreciates CBC Radio’s role in producing original drama/comedy.

At press time, Watts did not know if “Canadia 2056” would be renewed for a third season. “It is a struggle here for any writer working in any medium but, as someone who has been working predominantly in radio the last couple years, the main challenge is that there is only so much work to go around,” Watts said.

Easier time

According to Watts, there is usually only room for one radio drama series to be on the air at a time, and it cannot always be the same series. “So, you are either working or you are not.”

Since CBC Radio is effectively the only game in town, not working here means not working at all … at least in radio drama/comedy.

Watts has had an easier time than Mark Bornstein, owner of Scenario Productions in Toronto. Bornstein is the writer/director of “Brick Mallery, Private Investigator,” a series of film noir audio satires that have aired on satellite radio in the United States and are now sold in audiobook form.

Billboard magazine praised “Brick Mallery” as being a “fun spoof” of the detective radio shows of the 1940s.

Unfortunately, praise does not pay the bills. To get “Brick Mallery” produced, Bornstein said he had to hire actors, take them into a studio and pay to record/edit the shows himself.

Bornstein has since expanded his portfolio by licensing vintage CBC radio dramas and comedies — the same ones referred to by Boyce. But trying to get stations to pay to air them is, he said, like “bashing my head against a wall.”

Loyal following

While Watts and Bornstein labor away at producing new drama and comedy, old-time radio shows are finding space on Canadian airwaves.

These are audio transcriptions from the Golden Age featuring stars like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, and many other greats of the 1930s and 1940s.

Stations tend to air the shows in the wee small hours, when listenership is low. Still, they do have a loyal following, said Dave Mitchell, program director of Ottawa-based AM station CFRA.

“As a station that signed on in 1947, we have an extensive library of old radio shows,” said Mitchell. “They have been recorded into a digital format for ease in playing. I also have a former employee whose hobby is collecting old shows, so he keeps an eye out for them.”

“We have been airing them at 3 to 4 a.m. for over 30 years!” said Mitchell. “The radio dramas have become a large staple of the overnight shift worker, to the point where I had tried three times to take them off the overnight show, and the number of protests was amazing.”

Mitchell has also been airing the old shows on Sunday evenings from 11 p.m. to midnight for close to 10 years — “to let people wind down from a busy weekend, before starting another hectic week,” he said.

The ongoing commitment of CBC Radio to producing new drama and comedies means that this art form appears likely to survive in Canada.

But do not expect such shows to turn up on private radio. There just is not the budget, or facilities, to actually produce such programming in the commercial sector, despite the fact that there is apparently an appetite for radio drama and comedy in Canada, be it new or old.