Audio drama


Examines audio drama as sound-based narratives for listening audiences. Unlike radio drama, with its focus on scripted dialogue, audio drama focuses on sounds other than the human voice as its narrative basis. Audio drama draws from digital media and online contexts like websites, sound walks, locative narrative, site-specific soundscapes / installations / works, sound diaries, sound travel, found sound, audio documentaries, audio biographies, sonifications, sonic portraits, and talking signs, among others. A brief history of audio drama is provided, along with examples and listening opportunities. Future audio drama is imagined as mobile, collaborative, focused on the act of listening.


As noted in a separate inquiry, radio drama is generally regarded as scripted, dialogic exchanges between actors, based on "constituent parts" (Hand and Traynor)—spoken dialogue between actors, other sounds/sound effects, music, and silence—created for and intended to be consumed within a radio "ecology" (Andrew Dubber). [1]

Audio dramas are generally not scripted, are not focused primarily on human voice, may include other components, and are not dependent on radio as their medium of distribution. Still, they can promote engaging listening experiences, even evoke a sense of drama (exciting, emotional, or unexpected events or circumstances). Such works may be called "radio drama," perhaps because of their focus on sound-based drama and listening only audiences. But they are different, even while drawing upon the histories, aesthetics, and practices of radio drama. As a result, these audio dramas provide a number of interesting affordances and opportunities.

This inquiry considers audio drama. For example, where radio drama provides a deep resource for historical analysis, aesthetic orientation, and contemporary practice, audio drama, driven by emergent multimedia / online digital technologies, provides expanding opportunities for different forms of sound-based dramatic narratives that are mobile in utilization, global in reach, and local in focus. I argue that audio drama may be increasingly collaborative, with content produced, shared, and consumed by audiences defined by shifting and specific interests. The desired end result of this inquiry is to situate audio drama as offering a variety of deep and rich sound-based narrative experiences focused on the act of listening.

Research questions grounding this inquiry include
What are the characteristics of audio drama, and how do they compare to radio drama?
How might new technologies and platforms change our artistic/aesthetic approach to audio drama?
Might audio drama be inspired by drama within other media? How, what, why?
What types of audio drama might be produced? Are there examples of interactive radio programs, locative narratives, transmission art, and sonic works that might serve as prototypes/historical precedents?

Audio Drama: Aesthetics of Listening

A connection between radio and audio drama is sound and imagination. Sound seizes / stimulates the imagination, creates a visual world in the listener's mind, promotes reflective inquiry, provides us with power to change ourselves.

Jay Allison, one of National Public Radio's most honored producers, is quite poetic regarding listening.

The earliest stories were told out loud. When we tell stories on the radio, we tap into a primitive and powerful human tradition, even an imperative, to speak and be heard, to compel listening. . . . Radio is, after all, a performance art, its stories told in time, complete with scene, character, and conflict, needing rhythm, pacing, climax to hold interest (Allison, 2010, 184, 186-187).

Walter Murch argues that newborn humans rely predominately on hearing before their visual acuity stabilizes.

Hearing is the first of our senses to be switched on, four-and-a-half months after we are conceived. And for the rest of our time in the womb—another four-and-a-half months—we are pickled in a rich brine of sound that permeates and nourishes our developing consciousness: the intimate and varied pulses our mother's heart and breath; her song and voice; the low rumbling and sudden flights of her intestinal trumpeting; the sudden, mysterious, alluring or frightening fragments of the outside world—all of these swirl ceaselessly around the womb-bound child, with no competition from dormant Sight, Smell, Taste or Touch. . . . So although our mature consciousness may be betrothed to sight, it was suckled by sound, and if we are looking for the source of sound's ability—in all its forms—to move us more deeply than the other senses and occasionally give us a mysterious feeling of connectedness to the universe, this primal intimacy is a good place to start. (Murch, 2015)
Womb Tone

Listen to "Womb Tone," recorded by Murch's wife, Muriel, a former midwife and now working in radio.

Tim Crook provides specificity to listening experiences, which he categorizes as either elliptical or parabolic depending on physical position of the listener, the imaginative spectacle, and the acoustic space. In a parabolic listening experience, the listener is engaged in some way with the outside world. Sounds from this world compete with those presented for listening. The listener may be active, engaged with other activities at the time of listening. As a result, priority is not given to the listening experience. With elliptical listening, the acoustic space is designed to maximize appreciation of the sound quality. The listener is static in this controlled environment; the outside world is ignored. She is fully engaged at the highest level with the imaginative spectacle being presented for listening. The result can be quite powerful, according to Crook, who says sound prompts life from little details "seen" in the listeners' mind's eye very effectively (Crook, 1999, 65-66).

Gary Ferrington likens such purposeful listening to "theater of the mind," where every individual listener is her own movie director. "It is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension" (Ferrington, 1994, "Audio Design . . ."). Said another way, sound promotes visualization of something that is only heard. Once we link a sound to an image, the sound is that thing signified by the image.

Alien Operating Room

For example, we can imagine a medical operating theatre aboard an alien spaceship. What would such a place sound like? "Alien Operating Room" is what I imagine. Listen . . .

Listening to this imaginary soundscape might, according to Alan Hall, offer "a [sound] portal through which a deeper, often inarticulate, consciousness can be glimpsed. . . . The intention is to find deeper and wider resonances within—and without—the listener" (Hall, 2010, 99, 104).

The Revenge

Andrew Sachs
1 June 1978, BBC Radio
How might sounds other than speech carry a narrative? Could they spark the imagination? An excellent example is "The Revenge," first broadcast on BBC radio on 1 June 1978, and noted as the world's first radio drama without words, relying completely on sounds and sound effects for its storytelling. In this half-hour production, delivered in five scenes, Andrew Sachs, who wrote the drama and plays the protagonist, extracts revenge on a rival. The work was recorded in binaural stereo, giving the effect of hearing all events from the prospective of the protagonist. Sachs recorded and added many other sounds—birds, passing traffic, clocks—and in doing so draws our attention to the array of sounds to which we are exposed daily, but choose to ignore.

The storyline might be heard like this. "The Man" (Sachs), escapes from a prison, walks and runs along gravel paths through a wooded area, pursued by police and their dogs. The Man enters a stream and hides underwater as his pursuers continue away from his hiding spot. Leaving the wooded area, The Man walks into a town, past a noisy pub, steals a motorcycle, which he rides to his destination, eluding the police once again. The Man's destination is the house of his rival, who leaves as The Man hides nearby. The Man breaks into the house, eats and drinks food he finds in the kitchen, smokes a cigarette, and falls asleep in the living room while petting the cat. The Man is awakened by the return of his rival, who enters the house, and draws a bath. The Man moves through the house, enters the bathroom, and drowns his rival in his tub. After, he smokes another cigarette, and then leaves the house.

Listen to "The Revenge." Use headphones for the best experience.

A Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Andreas Bick
March 2010
A second example is "A Pot Calling the Kettle Black" by Andreas Bick, a German sound artist. Created for the March 2010 relaunch of the Belgian Internet radio, this ten-minute sound-only narrative uses sounds associated with kitchen activities: frying eggs, drinking mineral water, making a cup of tea, or cleaning the dishes. As Bick says in his artist statement, "Sounds of water and fire, of heating and burning, of immersion and draining appear in many variations. The sounds are orchestrated by a woman who is inspired to vocal experiments by her daily routines. The kitchen noises turn into abstract sound worlds which may arise from her imagination and memory—but perhaps they are just sounds that have been released from their chemical bond with a specific meaning and which, when heated, recombine to form new molecular structures" (Bick, 2010).

Listen to "A Pot Calling the Kettle Black." Use headphones for the best experience.

The Unfortunates

B. S. Johnson
17 October 2010, 8:00 PM, BBC radio
Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933-1973) was an English experimental novelist, poet, literary critic, producer of television programs, and a filmmaker. His novel The Unfortunates was published in 1969 as a "book in a box" comprised of twenty-seven sections, the first and last clearly specified. The remaining twenty-five sections, unbound pamphlets, ranging from a single paragraph to twelve pages in length, were meant to be read in any order.

The novel's plot concerns a sportswriter, Bryan (voiced by Martin Freeman) sent to a city to cover a football match. The city is identifiable through in-text information and an included fictional newspaper football match report as Nottingham, England. Bryan realizes the city is where he first met his friend, Tony, who died early from cancer. Throughout his visit, Bryan is confronted by memories of Tony. The result is a meditation on friendship and loss, as well as the nature of memory and writing as Bryan struggles to recall everything in order to "get it all down''as he promised Tony.

The hour-and-a-half BBC adaption of Johnson's novel by Graham White was broadcast on 17 October 2010 at 8:00 PM on BBC Radio 3. The producers chose one order at random prior to the show, and that selection served as the program's script. Following the broadcast, BBC placed the novel online and encouraged listeners to shuffle eighteen parts with their BBC iPlayer to form new and randomized versions of the work. This is one version.

Audio Drama: Practices

We are surrounded, says Gary Ferrington, by a chaotic composition of foreground, contextual, and background sounds, an intermix of human and non-verbal sounds, some of whose sources can be seen, but others not. Listening to non-verbal sounds, says Ferrington, we gain information about physical activities, invisible / abnormal structures, dynamic changes, and events in the world surrounding us and our daily lives.

What to call this new listening experience? The terms radio play, radio theater, radio drama, audio play, audio theater, and audio drama have been used to denote an audio-centric experience, similar to watching a movie or television program with eyes closed. [2]

I propose revisiting audio drama. This term, with its Latinate origin audiere (hear), denotes a listening experience, with a focus on what might be heard. Additionally, audio drama allows separation of evolving, broadly-defined and utilized sound-based dramatic narratives from the more specific (in definition and utilization) radio drama.

So, by audio drama I mean acoustic performance perhaps broadcast on radio but more primarily available through other audio media / sources like sound embedded in sound embedded in websites, soundwalks, locative narrative, site-specific soundscapes / installations / works, sound diaries, sound travel, found sound, audio documentaries, audio biographies, sonifications, sonic portraits, and talking signs, among others.

Audio drama might include radio drama's constituent parts . . .
Words (as narration / dialogue / speech)
Sounds (as sound effects, abbreviated as "sfx"; including use of previously recorded sound history, or previously recorded dialogue)
Music (as thematic elements, transitions between scenes, or sonic emotional identifiers
Silence (as a punctuation for speech or other sounds, or a counter against)

Along with . . .
Listener's imagination

and . . .
ambient sounds
environmental and mechanical sounds
animal vocalizations
sound collages
edited sound compositions

Thus, radio drama aesthetic foundations and practices can easily overlay and inform this broadened scope of audio experience. But, where radio drama provides a deep resource for historical analysis, and contemporary medium-specific practice and culture, audio drama, driven by the multimedia Internet and other emergent digital technologies, provides a plethora of genres for narrative, drama, and storytelling. In short, audio drama is rich with opportunities for narrative, drama, and storytelling. As Rick Moody says, "It's the right moment for avid listeners, people thinking with their ears" (Moody, 2010, xi, xii). Examples, with discussion and analysis, follows.

Audio Drama: Talking Signs

Spoken forms of information occupy, indeed help to create, many of the spaces within urban cityscapes. Hidden voices speak from many different forms of signage. Airports and railway stations were the first public spaces to provide safety and travel information via unseen voices: "Change here for the 4, 5, and 6 trains." Elevators followed with voices that remind us, "The door is closing." These unseen voices represent a spectrum of rhetorical purposes from advertising to authority. With the advent of low power FM transmitters, such advice and concern can now be everywhere we are, and many places we wish it were not. The counter argument is that hyper-local sound broadcasts can provide useful, even necessary, information. For example, imagine you are looking to rent an apartment.

Audio Drama: Futures

Examination of past practices is insightful, and prompts the question whither the future. What might we expect as future forms of audio drama? Future predictions might follow two different paths. First, surely audio drama will continue to be created and consumed within Drubber's radio "ecology."

As for the second path . . . as more and different technologies converge into smaller, hand-held devices (tablets, readers, smartphones) individuals are increasingly able to undertake media production and consumption activities in mobile contexts. No longer place bound, or tethered to wired connections, it is safe to say that a future context for audio drama will be mobile. Based on the growing presence of social media platforms on mobile devices, and their emphasis on connection and communication, it seems logical to suggest that future audio drama will be collaborative as well. Finally, as a mobile, collaborative experience, audio drama will be contextualized within one's daily life, via streaming or on demand downloading, rather than as a separate, dedicated activity.

What features and functionalities might we expect from mobile, collaborative, on demand audio drama? Regarding mobile . . . mobile devices can provide in one's pocket the same sound production capabilities (recording and editing) as once necessarily housed in a physical building. With the recording studio mobile, audio drama can be produced and broadcast anywhere, anytime. Raw audio files can also be easily shared among collaborators. One might add narration, another music, a third might include sound effects or samples from prerecorded materials. Other collaborators might provide packaging, marketing, or social media promotions. Others may focus on distribution: streaming or on demand downloading. The various forms in which such artifacts might be created and/or consumed could invite opportunities for engagement. As a result, listeners may become interactors, "protagonists of information" (Saiz, 2011, 67).

As we are learning from social media, connection and communication and community involvement is collaborative, shared among participants, and built through repeated connections between members of constantly shifting groups defined by common interest, location, or activity. Social media brings people together so they can collaboratively create / share information of all types in conversational settings that despite their virtual nature are sufficiently real and believable for their participants. "John is my Facebook friend" can carry every bit the weight of real experience as "I have known John my entire life." Social media also elicits interactivity, the ability to respond to input. I share a bit of my life, you respond by sharing a part of yours. You ask for help, I provide. One searches for information, community-produced resources respond. In short, real needs, real actions produce realistic responses and returns.

As with creation of future audio drama, its consumption may not be limited to specific time frames, but rather is available via streaming or on demand downloading. For example, rather than sitting and listening to audio drama, imagine you invoke an audio drama on your mobile device that has you up and out of your flat, walking the streets seeking treasure, solving puzzles, or participating in some dramatic event. Perhaps you collect materials / clues from the surrounding landscape, or from people met along the way. Perhaps you create and share content with these same, or other folk. Perhaps you, and others, draw on that content wherever / whenever you want. There are examples of this scenario to which we can point for ideas and inspiration [4]

A more specific example would be for one community group to produce one portion of an audio drama, let's say an episode of a documentary focusing on life in their neighborhood. They conceptualize, write, and produce the dramatic event. Perhaps they perform their drama at a local cafe, bar, or public space. It is recorded and made available via streaming or on demand contexts. The following week, another, different, group continues the drama by providing the next episode at a different location, using different actors. Again, the artifact is distributed to a mobile audience and made available for remixing by anyone interested.

In this scenario, audio drama becomes non-linear, social, collaborative—an audio network providing global reach even while its focus remains local. This approach promotes collaboration / sharing for the purpose of dramatic storytelling. As a result, multiple storytellers / dramatists create, shape, and share stories. Diverse participants collaborate / participate without a central structure. Any storyteller / dramatist is one voice in the process of telling the story / presenting the dramatic narrative. Diverse narrators / actors / producers decide how to shape and use the collaborative social spaces afforded by this new form of audio drama.

The results could be very interesting. Siobhan McHugh argues that traditional drama, as well as oral history and documentary, can be flat, fraught with dead ends, shallow. One solution is to apply editing to raw sounds (speech or other), along with one's juxtaposition to those sounds, to create a layered, sequenced, selected hybrid genre that is at once entertaining and compelling, even while anchored in well researched/constructed sound files (McHugh).


[1] Dubber argues that "radio is a term used to refer to very different (though related) phenomena." For example, radio is an institution; an organizational structure; a category of media content with its own characteristics, conventions, and tropes; a series of professional practices and relationships; etc. As a result, radio work, content, technologies, or cultures cannot be considered as single subjects or processes, but rather must be considered as an "ecology," especially within the digital media environment in which "radio" is increasingly situated.

[2] What to call such sound-based narratives is a good question . . . "sonic stories," "ear movies," "radiophonic sound cinema"? Regarding the term "audio theater," examples include audio books, audio dramas, and mind movies (sound effects and music give the impression of watching a movie with your eyes closed). The Audio website provides a wealth of information about audio theater. Follow the link to "Sound Effects" to learn more about Foley sound, for example. Also, the "Resources" link provides information about "Audio software and hardware links," "Microphone information," "Streaming audio," "Recording on location," writing audio scripts, and much more.

[3] This sample taken the video Max Neuhaus' Times Square , by Adel Souto, 2012, available on YouTube.

[4] Games, locative media, and electronic literature created for use on mobile telephones may provide examples and prototypes. In 34 North 118 West (Jeremy Hight, Jeff Knowlton, and Naomi Spellman) a former industrial area in downtown Los Angeles, California, becomes the site for a locative narrative project. Imagine walking through an urban area surrounding the former Freight Depot with a tablet computer equipped with a GPS card and headphones. Physical maps are also available. GPS tracks one's position in the neighborhood and triggers audio-visual narratives when entering hot spots created by Hight, Knowlton, and Spellman. Physical elements /details at each location augment the narrative, providing metaphors and symbols for interaction(s) with the characters and history of this place. By wandering about the area and evoking multiple narratives, many lost or forgotten, one can uncover the hidden history of this once thriving part of downtown Los Angeles. The streets, the buildings, the ghosts of former residents, all provide fragments that, taken together, provide a deep and rich narrative of this place.

The Nokia Games (1999-2005)
A series of alternate reality games designed primarily to promote the latest Nokia mobile telephones, involved communication between players through various forms of mass media and featured storylines that changed each year. Each game lasted 3-4 weeks.

The Beast (2001)
An interactive web game designed to promote the film A.I., an unfinished film project of Stanley Kubrick, directed by Steven Spielberg, and released in the United States on 29 June 2001. Elan Lee and Sean Stewart, lead designers, both of Microsoft, seeded the initial clues and puzzles throughout the World Wide Web. A discussion group eventually claiming more than 7,000 members called Cloudmakers formed on 11 April 2001 to solve the puzzles and fill in the details of the game. They solved the game on 24 July 2001.

Uncle Roy All Around You (2003; Blast Theory)
Agame played online in a virtual city and on the streets of an actual city. Online and street players collaborate to find Uncle Roy's office before being invited to make a year-long commitment to a total stranger. Building on Can You See Me Now? (2001; Blast Theory), Uncle Roy investigates some of the social changes brought about by mobile devices, persistent access to a network, and location aware technologies.

I Love Bees (2004)
An alternate reality game created and developed by 42 Entertainment to serve as both material world experience and a viral marketing campaign for the video game Halo 2. First advertised in a subliminal message in the Halo 2 trailer, players who visited the website found it apparently hacked by a mysterious intelligence. Playing the game involved solving puzzles to reveal the backstory involving an artificial intelligence apparently from a crash-landed military spacecraft and its attempts to repair damages suffered in the crash. Launched in August 2004, over three million people viewed the website and thousands of people around the world played the game during the three months it was active.

Hypercities Project (2009)
"A collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment."

LA Flood Project (2010)
By Christy Dena, Jeremy Douglass, Juan B. Gutierrez, Jeremy Hight, Marc C. Marino, and Lisa Ann Tao. Positions the audience/user/narrator as the ellipses (. . .) the points between the narrative action: "Voices are being heard on cell phones . . .."

Mowing Lawn (2010)
By GPS artist Jeremy Wood, uses satellite navigation technology to compile a personal cartography of his relation to space and time while mowing his lawn.

[murmur] (2003)
A digital storytelling initiative that began in Toronto, Canada, and has since expanded to eleven cities worldwide. People walking neighborhood streets find signs with a telephone number and access code. If they dial the number and enter the access code they can listen to an audio narrative regarding the very spot where they are standing.

Works Cited

Allison, Jay. "Afterword." Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, eds. John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 184, 186-187.
Website for this book.

Bick, Andreas. "A Pot Calling the Kettle Black."

Crook, Tim. Radio Drama Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 1999.

Dubber, Andrew. Radio in A Digital Age (Cambridge, UK: Polity Books 2013).

Duckworth, William. "Interview with William Duckworth." Sound Works Volume 1: Inscription, ed. Gregory Desjardins. Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag, 1994, 42-49.

Ferrington, Gary. "Keep Your Ear-Lids Open," Journal of Visual Literacy, 1994.

Ferrington, Gary. "Audio Design: Creating Multi-Sensory Images For The Mind," Journal of Visual Literary, 14, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 61-67.

Hall, Alan. "Cigarettes and Dance Steps." Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, eds. John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 99, 104.
Website for this book.

Hand, Richard J. and Mary Traynor. Radio Drama Handbook: Audio Drama in Context and Practice. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011, 15.

Iturbide, Manuel Rocha. The Sound Installation.
An unpublished academic paper in which Iturbide explains and details what is meant by sound installation. Useful for theoretical overview.

McHugh, Siobhan. "Radio Narrative: Considerations on Form and Aesthetic".

Moody Rick. "Forward" in Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, eds. John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, March 2010. xi, xii.
Website for this book.

Murch, Walter. "Womb Tone," Transom Review 5 (no. 1) April 1, 2005.

Saiz, Carmen Peñafiel. "Radio and web 2.0: Direct Feedback." Radio Content in the Digital Age: The Evolution of a Sound Medium, Angeliki Gazi, Guy Starkey, and Stanislaw Jedrzejewski. eds. Briston, UK: Intellect, 2011. 67.