Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival

On Tuesday, after about five hours of sleep following the Second Life ARG panel, I found myself at the BBC Audio Drama Festival in London. As usual, I was due to give a talk about ARGs. I did think it was a little strange that I was invited to speak, because while we do have audio drama in Perplex City, it’s not our focus, but what the hell – it seemed interesting, and I thought I might learn something.

And I did. I won’t go over my talk because it was the usual introductory stuff (although I might write up something about the audio components one of these days), but I’ll provide a few notes on the other speakers.

The Audience

First, it’s worth saying a couple of things about the audience. Unsurprisingly, they were mostly people involved in the production and writing of audio dramas. About three years ago, you’d call them ‘radio dramas’ but this is the brave new world now, and supposedly drama is not merely confined to the radio, but it’s everywhere! You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise though… (more on this later)

The audience was mainly in their mid-thirties or above, and there were probably a few more women than men. I’m told this is a feature of the audio drama field. Anyway, the general level of knowledge in gaming, the internet or technology was pretty limited; I heard someone asking what a Tivo was. Now, I shouldn’t be surprised by this – not everyone knows what a Tivo is – but it made for a interesting and different experience, since most of the conferences I go to are of a tech or gaming nature.

All of this impacted on the discussion of technology during the festival.

Jason Kingsley, Rebellion Software

The other speaker in my session was Jason Kingsley, the head of Rebellion, one of the UK’s largest independent game developers. Since he was a last minute addition, he didn’t have anything prepared; instead, the audience asked him questions about the games industry in general, and stories in games.

I felt Jason was very open and honest, which was refreshing, no doubt helped by the lack of journalists or other games developers in the room (barring myself and the Mind Candy crew). He knows his target audience – 20-something males – and he knows what they like – blowing things up. He doesn’t expect much anyone else to play the games, and sure, there are other types of games out there, but he does what he knows, and that makes perfect sense.

Perhaps as a result of this, he believes quite strongly that story isn’t really that important in a game – what’s more important is gameplay. I actually agree with this, insofar as any story premise is unimportant, and what really matters is the way in which it’s told. In a game, exactly how you tell a story is a tricky thing, as I’ve discovered myself, and many games do perfectly well without a story.

Jason said at one point that he was a heretic in the games industry for suggesting that story wasn’t important. This might have been true ten years ago, or even five years ago, but it’s far from the case now. Stories in games are out of fashion – it’s all about ‘players making their own stories’ these days, like in Spore. Ah well – things will change again one day.

John Yorke, BBC Controller of in-house Drama

With the aid of no less than three flipcharts, John wanted to teach us how to make a successful drama series. First question: What are some examples of successful drama series (where successful doesn’t just mean good, but also popular)?

Sgt. Bilko
Dr. Who
Hamish Macbeth
Z Cars
Sex in the City
Jonathan Creek
LA Law
Quantum Leap
Star Trek

Second question: What are some bad drama series?

Dirty Work
Torchwood (debatable)
etc. (there were a lot more, but I can’t read them off my photo)

Third and most interesting question: What makes a good drama series?

Strong Characters and Core Cast
Defined and recognisable world
Story Engine
A gang

A lot of this is obvious, but some of it was new to me, so I’ll elaborate here. ‘Story Engine’ refers to the characteristic that allows a drama to keep on telling stories, week after week after week. Police stations, hospitals and law firms are great examples – by their nature, they continually encounter new situations, new problems and new people all the time. More fantastic dramas such as Star Trek (exploring new worlds), Doctor Who (travelling in time) and Quantum Leap (ditto) invent their own interesting story engines.

‘Jeopardy’ simply means that the characters must always be under some kind of threat, preferably an ongoing one that is a feature of the situation; police dramas are a perfect example.

‘Precinct’ – the characters in a good drama tend to live or work in a common, well-defined area which they love (or at least, love to hate), be it County General, Sunnydale High or the Starship Enterprise. In fact, they love it so much, we seem to see them there all the time…

‘A gang’. The characters, though they may argue and appear to hate one another, always ultimately work as a team. Often it’s only by them working together that they’ll find the killer, solve the case, save the patient.’

‘Status’. Very often, the characters are the underdogs. They’ve got old equipment, they’re strapped for cash, they’re ridiculed. This rule doesn’t appear to be as strict as the others when you think of things like Star Trek, but it’s not bad.

Based on all of this, John divided the audience into five groups and asked us to pitch ideas for either a TV or radio drama series. He would take on the role of a BBC commissioner and ask all the silly prejudiced questions that we all know and love. And here are the pitches:

Chain of Office

Birmingham is the first city to follow in the footsteps of London, by appointing a Mayor with real powers. Our mayor and his motley ‘kitchen cabinet’ (including the female enforcer, the chief of staff, the PR officer, the maverick, ‘the fuckwit’ and the bleeding heart) are here to make Birmingham a better place, by combating natural disasters, fallen bridges, race riots, broken paving slabs and terrorist attacks. We follow the adventures of the mayor, his staff, and the city. (In season 3, he stands for election as an independent…)

This was my group’s suggestion, and while I wasn’t particularly involved in its creation, it didn’t seem too bad to me. The main issue John had was that the precinct wasn’t well-defined (and The West Wing isn’t a good comparison, because that’s a more interesting place), and that it would cost too much to make. Bloody BBC – a budget of £4 billion and they can’t afford to put on a decent big drama.

We did probably get the largest laugh though…

John: So is this a TV show or a radio show?
Our rep: (pause). It’s a bimedia opportunity. Airing on the internet first, of course.

Causing Offence

Follow community workers and the ASBO kids they help out (and occasionally sleep with)!

That was basically it. John’s main comment was ‘who wants to watch a TV show about a bunch of spotty kids who want to scratch your car?’

Devil’s Advocate

Dysfunctional lawyers who’re out to save the world. A group of lawyers, funded by a mysterious billionaire, help defend the guy who made a car run on air from the evil motor companies, and the woman who made a lightbulb that lasts 100 years from whoever makes lightbulbs. Since they’re operating undercover, every week they get an unsuspecting granny who demands their help with a down-to-earth concern. Hilarity ensues. Oh, and the bad guys are Greenpeace.

‘Dysfunctional lawyers out to save the world? It’s just too weird. Then again, so was Life on Mars…’ Interestingly, this team counted a BBC Radio Drama commissioner as a member.

John: TV show or radio show?
Rep: TV show. But it’s got a weekly ‘thing’ on the internet, you know, where you can email the characters, put them in the hot seat, that sort of thing.

Some observations about BBC and the internet

You’ll have noticed that the people at the festival were a bit schizophrenic about the internet. On the one hand, they said their dramas should all have some sort of internet component. On the other, they were all slightly derisive of the idea. This is mainly because of the BBC’s new direction of ‘360 degree commissioning’ which essentially says ‘There’s a lot of money if you do stuff on the internet’.

Naturally this has skewed priorities somewhat, despite the fact that the internet doesn’t magically make everything better, especially if you use it in a thoughtless manner. I sympathise with the audio drama producers, because there are huge barriers in their way of doing anything online. There were also countless complaints about rights issues which mean that radio plays cannot be distributed as podcasts (thus making them non-existent to people of my generation).

The BBC: great people, terrible organisation.

Cleaning Up

A drug addiction centre… run by ex-drug addicts! Naturally, Pete Doherty would guest star.

John’s comment: ‘Why do we care about junkies?’


A team of Police Community Support Officers fight for respect and for their community. Made up of a gun-crazy young lad, a female ex-copper, a mixed-race bloke who’s given the beat of the neighborhood where he grew up, the PCSOs are everyday people trying to make the world better.

In my opinion, this was the strongest idea of the lot. John’s main concern was that people wouldn’t identify with PCSO’s, seeing them as a sad, geeky lot, but I think that’s easily remedied through intelligent casting.

All in all, it was a very entertaining and occasionally quite insightful and useful session.

Then, Now and Next – John Ousby, Head of BBC Audio Distribution Technology

This was a quick run-through the history of radio at the BBC, plus a look at what they’re aiming to do with 5.1 surround sound dramas, DAB radio and interactive entertainment.

The issue with doing anything in surround sound is that few people have a good 5.1 setup, and in any case, it’s tricky getting the audio to them due to bandwidth issues. The BBC has done a trial using Windows Media files for PC-users, but it’s not a huge growth area.

DAB radio, and radio on Freeview, has the potential to show still images and text alongside music and drama. This is fun stuff, but when John showed off a prototype of images and text alongside an audio production of ‘Dante’s Inferno’, he had a frosty reception from the drama producers, since the prototype was unfortunately ill-conceived; the images and text would have been terribly distracting from the drama itself.

This was clearly an innocent mistake and John expressed a desire to work with audio drama producers on developing the technology, but it seemed to me that there was a real separation between the tech and content producers in the audio sphere. In fact, there was a real separation between everyone in the audience – many people were unaware not only of the BBC’s technological
capabilities but of the dramas that other people were producing. Steps are being taken to remedy this, but it’s pretty depressing.

John was particularly interested in Lost, with its fake websites, player-created wikipedia and interactive online story. Sounds remarkably similar to a British ARG… (I gave him a few Perplex City cards).


This was the first BBC Audio Drama Festival, and everyone agreed that there should be more, and soon. As an outsider, it seems like it’s seriously needed, if only to bring all the audio drama producers into a single room.

The BBC has the world’s best audio drama producers, bar none, and there’s just so much that could be done with the new technology that’s available. There are a number of major problems, which include:

1. Tech and content not speaking to each other

2. A real timidity on the part of the BBC to take risks

3. A lack of input from younger people

4. Bizarre set ways of thinking – why should audio dramas have to belong to Radio 1 or Radio 4? Why not just throw them onto the internet as an mp3 and see what happens? No-one listens to the radio any more, why else is more than one iPod is being sold every second?

All of these problems can be overcome, and if they are, audio drama could break out of the ghetto of old audiences and find new ways of telling stories to millions more. There are so many things that audio can do better than anything else, and we’re just not seeing them.

3 Replies to “Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival”

  1. Typical, the Beeb hold an “audio drama festival” and I hear about it by accident a month too late. I’d be interested in knowing who put it together and when it might happen again…

  2. The BBC has the world’s best audio drama producers, bar none

    I beg to differ! 🙂 Just kidding, I know they’re top notch. But we’ve got some pretty good ones over here at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, too.

    Anyway, thanks for jotting all that down; some useful, interesting material.

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