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HEAR Now: A Little Taste of Everything

Festival offers a buffet of contemporary audio storytelling from around the country

An award-winning audio drama producer shares her experiences of the first-ever U.S. based festival showcasing audio drama and more.

“Golden Voice’s” Robin Miles was among the narrators who performed at HEAR Now for AudioFile Magazine’s program at the Tivoli Theater. This summer in Kansas City, Mo., the National Audio Theatre Festivals (NATF) launched HEAR Now: The Audio Fiction and Arts Festival to celebrate the modern art of audio drama, audiobooks and the many other forms of “sonic storytelling.”

HEAR Now is the audio equivalent of a film festival. You’ve got a bit of it all: live and scripted solo performances, multi-voiced productions, classic radio drama, experimental narrative and much more.

This four-day festival gave fans, performers and producers the opportunity to come together and share a variety of program genres and styles through both live performances and listening. Guest performers such as Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theater shared stories and performed.

“There has never been anything like this before in the U.S.,” said Festival Director Cynthia Allen. “NATF recognizes that with the Internet, audiobooks and personal listening devices, there are more people than ever before listening to audio storytelling, so they decided to launch this new festival to celebrate this unique and wholly American art form.”

HEAR Now kicked off on June 20, a Thursday, with a special listening session that featured Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere,” which was completed only weeks before by director Dirk Maggs for BBC Radio. This high-quality production features an all-star cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Anthony Head and many more. Special remarks recorded by Gaiman and Maggs were heard just prior to the playing of the first 90 minutes of the three-hour program, while the balance of the series was heard throughout the Festival weekend.

Programming presented from the world of audio drama included work from producers like Tom Lopez of ZBS Foundation, the best of the last 15 years of the Mark Time and Ogle Awards hosted by Great Northern Audio Drama’s Jerry Stearns and Brian Price, Audie award-winning drama from SueMedia Productions, new work from FinalRune and many others.

“We were delighted by the number of works submitted for the first year of the Festival,” said Allen. “The Festival was able to showcase award-winning work by established artists, as well as new productions from emerging artists, in moderated ‘listening’ sessions.”

Submissions from all over the U.S. were heard in high-quality theaters, giving fans the chance to fully experience the work. HEAR Now’s “Podcast Palooza,” which ran online throughout the festival and until the end of August, in conjunction with programming from the Atlanta Fringe Festival in June, gave those who could not attend the opportunity to be part of the fun.

Live readings hosted by AudioFile Magazine and Editor Robin Whitten presented “Golden Voice Narrators” Dion Graham, Katherine Kellgren, Robin Miles, Barbara Rosenblat and Stefan Rudniki reading works of the “Jazz Age” and the “American West,” bringing the art of narration to the HEAR Now Festival.

In addition to recorded audio drama and live narration, each night of the festival featured a live performance at the University of Missouri Kansas City’s Spencer Theatre.

The next evening, June 21, featured “Audio Vaudeville,” where solo and group performers from around the country came together in a live show. “Audio Vaudeville” featured storytellers, poetry, sound art, narrators, fully produced live radio plays and sketch comedy. The Audience Favorites of the night were New York City’s VoiceScapes first place win, with an original play called “It Always Feels Like Monday”; the second place Audience Favorite was a dark comedy about ‘problems in a nuclear power plant’; and third place went to a short comedy featuring Barbara Rosenblat and Melinda Peterson as “best friends forever.”

Saturday night saw the local Kansas City Group “Right Between the Ears” win the overall Festival Favorite trophy with their fast-paced sketch comedy group featuring guests Phil Proctor and Barbara Rosenblat.

“It was a great show,” said Allen. “‘Right Between the Ears’ has been producing live audio programming and shows for public radio for over 25 years in Kansas City, so it was great to see the hometown favorite win.”

Randy Thom of Skywalker Sound hosted a live teleconference session from his offices just outside of San Francisco that showed how feature-length animation uses audio drama techniques to begin the production process. Sennheiser’s “Silent Disco Headphones” were used to showcase special binaural recordings like “Myst” and “The Maltese Goddess,” from the ZBS Foundation.

Throughout the festival, Kansas City residents got to hear live readings of Mark Twain on the radio by Audie -winning narrator Robert Fass, as well as at onsite readings throughout the town, by aspiring voice actors Sue Bilich, Donna Postal, Diana Dorman, and Mac Chamblin.

To ensure a next generation of listeners, more than 30 children were treated to a special tour of the Kauffman baseball field, where the book and audiobook “The All-Star Joker” by David A. Kelly takes place. Children ages 6–8 received copies of the book, as well as listening CDs courtesy of the author and Random House Listening Library. Audible also donated downloads of the audiobook for the children to hear after the tour.

The “Roots” of the art form were recognized and celebrated when long-time radio drama producer Himan Brown (1910–2010) was posthumously given NATF’s Norman Corwin Award for Excellence in Audio Theatre for his more than 65 year career, during which he produced more than 30,000 radio programs, including “The Adventures of the Thin Man,”“CBS Radio Mystery Theater,”Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Grand Central Station, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Joyce Jordan, M.D and numerous daytime soap operas.

A special session hosted by his granddaughter, Melina Brown, showcased a video tribute to Himan, featuring actors Tony Roberts, Patricia Elliot, Bob Kaliban, Russell Horton and Jada Rowland. Additionally, Kaliban and Horton were on hand to be part of a panel and share stories of their many days in the studio working with Himan.

Unique programs, like tours of the University of Missouri Marr Sound Archives, showcased the early history of recording and sound archiving. The Marr Sound Archive comprises a range of historic formats, including LPs, 78s, 45s, cylinders, transcription discs, instantaneous-cut discs and open-reel tapes that let us listen to more than 300,000 recordings of jazz, blues, country and popular music, historic voices and authors reading their own works, vintage radio programs and more.

When Sunday rolled around, “Workshop 101” presented work written and created onsite throughout the festival by a small group of first-time audio drama artists.

“NATF wants to maintain its educational mission. Being able to offer a small group an intensive hands-on workshop was an important goal for the festival and one we plan to grow into multiple smaller workshops throughout next year’s Festival,” explained Allen

And don’t forget the after-parties, hosted by Tantor Media (audiobooks), Audio Cinema Entertainment and SueMedia Productions, which gave attendees a place to gather at the end of each day and toast their many accomplishments.

To keep the “party” going, The HEAR Now Festival will be presenting another Audio Vaudeville type performance as part of the upcoming Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention, with help from SueMedia Productions.

This will be an evening of live contemporary audio/radio drama, along with narrative readings in the spirit of celebrating the art of modern sonic storytelling.

Hosted by Bob Kaliban (CBS Mystery Theater) the show will feature performances by Audie Award and Golden Voice-winning narrators Katherine Kellgren, Robin Miles and Barbara Rosenblat, and the award-winning New York based audio drama troupe VoiceScapes Audio Theater.

The performance, which will take place on Oct. 18 at 8:30 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media, is free to anyone with an AES Conference Pass.

And given the success of the first HEAR Now Festival, NATF is planning events for the next one, June 19–22, 2014, in Kansas City. For more information visit or write to [email protected].

Sue Zizza is the owner of SueMedia Productions, a full service audio production company. She is an audio producer, director, writer and sound designer. She also teaches audio arts and sound production at New York University’s Kanbar Institute for Film and Television at the Tisch School of the Arts.