Audio dramas are one of my best discoveries from 2019. They’re like audiobooks acted out with sound effects. An audio drama is like a movie in your ears. Except longer, more immersive, and even good for your eyes.
They’ve existed for a while and I frequently listen to adaptations from the 1980s, more on that later.
I absolutely love them.
An audio drama is a gem from the golden age of radio. Before books were adapted for TV and we got series, theatre plays and books were adapted for radio. That’s how we got radio dramas.
Back in the day, everyone was in on it. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was first created as a drama for BBC in 1978. The Adventures of Tintin had radio episodes 3 times a week between 1959 et 1963. In Norway, radio theatre started in 1927 at NRK and hasn’t stopped since.
Notice I’ve been using the term radio drama. For the rest of this article, I’ll consider Radio Drama, Radio Theatre, Audio Fiction, and Audio Theatre under “Audio Drama.” The semantics feel pointless now that everything is distributed digitally.
Let’s just get the technical bits out of the way. There are 2 differences between audio drama and full-cast audiobooks:
- Audio dramas are adapted and abridged (historically for radio).
- They have much richer music and sound.
It gets unclear nowadays because audiobooks productions keep getting bigger and more polished. But for me that’s still a good way to make the distinction.
Ian Holm, who played Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, first played Frodo in the BBC adaptation in 1981. Show The hobbit song vs Minds Eye in 1973. “It’s a bird, it’s a plane” comes from The Adventures of Superman, a drama by WOR New York in 1940.
The first major benefit for me is how much shorter the adaptation is. For example with Emma by Jane Austen:
- 17 hours for the Librivox full-cast (free and public domain) of the original text.
- 8 hours for the Audible Original dramatisation.
- 5 hours for the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation.
- 9 hours and 24 minutes reading the book at 250 words per minute.
So, that’s between 3 and 7 hours of my time back. Just on one book.
Even more examples:
- Moby Dick. The book is 213,546 words, a 13-hour read. The dramatised version is 2 hours.
- The Divine Comedy. The book is 101,065 words, a 6-hour read. The drama is 2 hrs 50 mins.
I’m a remote programmer, all I do is process text on screens. After a day’s work, there’s only so much that I can read. Therefore most of the classic literature was always a no-go for me.
When my brain’s fried, I don’t have the capacity to go through a hefty book with lots of descriptions like Moby Dick. With the dramatised version, I can experience its magic in a new, immersive way. And I can rest my eyes while doing that. It’s a double win.
I watched Whiplash with J. K. Simmons the other day. It was in the backlog for a while because people kept recommending it. Still, I had no clue when the film was made. And I went through most of it not knowing.
Until this one scene came up. It’s only a couple of seconds long, a clear shot of Miles Teller’s phone on a bus. But that was it, I knew how old the film was. The phone was enough.
Here’s my point: Visual effects, fashion, and accessories in Film show their age quickly. Sound effects, much less. Unless the sound quality is noticeably bad, the noises of the world don’t change that much.
An opportunity for a new world which exists in the mind of the listener.
— Richard Armitage
Two words: Casting and music. The performers in some productions are stellar. I’ve listened to dramas starring the best actors of our generation. My favourites feature Christopher Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, James McAvoy and lots of other names like this. One of John Hurt’s last performance was an audio drama.
The cast of The Sandman is a multi-million dollar production.
Second, it’s frequent to hear audio dramas with music that’s 100% original and performed by a full orchestra.
There’s an immediacy to Audio Drama, it can go straight into your head in a way that no other media can.
— Neil Gaiman
Radio dramas are the only medium (apart from books) that made me look around wondering where I was during reading/listening.
There’s also the role that your imagination plays.
When you watch TV, you don’t use your imagination at all. When you read a book, it’s the opposite, you have to imagine everything. How people speak and look, the sound of rustling leaves, landscapes, you know, everything.
Audio dramas sit in this happy middle in terms of imagination. They give you fragments as voice and sounds to help your mind do the rest of the work and create.
Here are some of my favourite audio dramas that I would recommend you.
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman – BBC Radio 4
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman – BBC Radio 4
The Invisible man – Big Finish
Now open your ears to the worlds of old and new.
- I know, I know, they call it a podcast. It’s distributed like one, but it’s a really large audio drama production.↩