Radio plays. Audio fiction. Audio drama. Ear movies. Fictional podcasts.
That’s just the start. And it doesn’t even get us to the problem of what you call a single production. (A play? An episode? A story?)
Other drama worlds standardized their terminology ages ago, some of them very precisely: a narrative feature is a fictional film that’s about 90 minutes or longer. A 10-minute play is not a one-act play. But in the burgeoning world of audio drama, we can call these suckers anything we want, which means nobody knows what to call them.
This naming business gets even more interesting when you consider that we might not all be talking about the same thing. The term “fictional podcast” turns out to be a bit broad. “Fictional” means it’s clearly not a nonfiction podcast like Serial, but within the world of fiction there are so many formats (let’s not even talk genres!). Is an author reading a short story out loud essentially different from a scripted drama performed by actors? I think so. (And not because I’m assuming the reader isn’t an actor. The very existence of LeVar Burton Reads makes me happy to be alive, but the project is something very different from a collection of audio dramas.)
There, I had to pick a term to finish that last parenthetical, and I went for “audio drama.” I suppose I lean that way simply because that’s the term the delightful Robert and Matthew of Yap Audio use (more on the Audio Drama Production Podcast in another post, if not two).
But I have noticed that when I’m talking about this podcast with friends in the real world, sometimes “audio drama” just doesn’t click. “Radio play” usually does the trick, though. So why not lead with “radio play” for the sake of clarity? People know what it means, but there’s an old-timey feel to the phrase that might be a bit too old-timey, even for my taste. (Or maybe the issue is that it’s not old-timey enough–many of my favorite plays predate radio by quite a bit.)
Part of the problem with the naming process is that it becomes an exercise in defining what your work is not. It’s not a 30’s-style radio show. It’s not a recording of a short story. It’s not a film without the visuals. It’s not an audio recording of a stage play. Audio drama is so much more than half of another medium. It’s a real world of its own, where the audience’s mind actively creates the finished product. Every listener has a different experience, guided by what’s been recorded, but ultimately up to the listeners to interpret, right then, as they’re hearing it.
Maybe it’s best that there is no name yet, if every step toward a name is also a step toward narrowing down the scope of what a fictional podcast can or should be. Do we really want to say that an old-style radio play, complete with live Foley and a one-take recording process in front of a live audience, needs to be regarded completely separately from a piece that’s recorded in multiple takes like a film? It’s a different style, not an altogether different medium. (Try though I might, I can’t argue that a movie with heavy voiceover isn’t actually a film. Or at least I wouldn’t argue that sober.)
For now I guess we call these things whatever we like, and with that we’re free to explore and redefine what we do.