It’s been just over four years since Audiotheque was born as an online space for audio drama enthusiasts and audio content producers to share and develop ideas about audio drama in an increasingly multimedia and social online world. Simultaneously riding waves of optimism and frustration, the Audiotheque project has turned into something of a labour of love for all involved. As the IT platforms supporting the website have creaked and strained at the seams, and as the teams expectations of what can be achieved have evolved, it seems that the challenge of developing a media site for innovative and free-thinking audio drama, while simultaneously building a social media community, is not an easy one. Audiotheque has been through an interesting and prolonged gestation, to say the least.
Sparked by an idea between Connor Lenon (then of BBC Radio Drama) and Rob Watson (De Montfort University), the aspiration of the site has been to mark out a space where creative audio producers, writers and performers can exchange ideas about audio drama and give visitors to the site a chance to listen to some exciting, innovative and up-front audio drama production – the one essential caveat being that they are short, only a couple of minutes long. Largely produced by non-professionals, Audiotheque has sought to define itself through independent production, emerging writing and non-professional story telling. Often exploiting ready-to-hand recording techniques, the aim has been to come up with innovative and interesting narratives in the form of sonic drama. Bedroom producers are as welcome to Audiotheque as professional producers.
When we first talked about the Audiotheque concept with BBC Radio Drama’s Jeremy Mortimer, who is a Senior Executive Producer for Radio Drama, and the guiding hand behind BBC Radio Four’s Plantagenet series (and more recently the adaptation of Charles Darwin’s A Tale of Two Cities). Our discussions focussed on the likely shift of the phrase ‘radio drama’. How could we continue to talk about ‘radio drama’ in an online world? How would the move to online programming progress, and what would be the impact of the (then) to be introduced BBC iPlayer on the consumption of radio drama? How would the audience for broadcast radio drama, built by the BBC across their national and international radio networks, take to this new way of listening to audio drama? Would the BBC’s radio drama audience take to podcasts, streaming and listening through their digital television? Or listening on their mobile phones, or what we now call smart phones? Jeremy has been steadfast, patient and consistent supporter of the Audiotheque experiment, as we’ve lurched from one approach to another, and struggled to give shape to Audiotheque against the backdrop of a whole series of wider changes in online media consumption and audience perceptions.
It is a testament to the resilience of this initial discussion that went on more widely at the BBC however, that the inaugural BBC Audio Drama Awards was not called the ‘BB Radio Drama Awards’, and recognised innovation and online audio drama as an equal with broadcast drama. Things have definitely moved on.
More recent progress with Audiotheque, however, has been somewhat frustrating for all involved, as we’ve struggled to secure a stable foundation for the website. Plagued by spam and a rather dodgy server, the site ended up being inoperative for long periods of time. Momentum was lost and the chance to interact and listen to the many excellent dramas that had been posted to the site was erratic. Combined with some poor web design on my part (not being a web developer but a bodger), the whole thing was in danger of fading away or falling through the cracks of the many other jobs that we are otherwise paid to do. But lets wind-forward to August 2011, and enter David Watts, who describes himself as a ‘web guy’ for the Faculty of Technology at De Montfort University. David has been able to renew and rebuild the site, put it on a more stable platform and give a lot of thought to simplifying the user experience of the site and the way that it integrates with other social media platforms.
The Audiotheque site, for those who are interested, runs on Drupal 7, which is an open source content management system used by the White House no-less. Drupal allows for pre-programmed modular components to be added to the site and extend it’s functionality. Drupal is supported by a network of developers and programmers across the world. It’s an adaptable platform, but it needs some degree of coding skill in php programming and systems management in order to make it function effectively. And even though Audiotheque is hosted in the Faculty of Technology at De Montfort University, the site has received only ad-hoc support – very welcome support – but ad-hoc nonetheless. The trick at this point, therefore, is to figure out how we can now make this ongoing support more embedded, resilient and amplified.
Simultaneous to this technical challenge has been the more fundamental challenge of bridging mindsets. Those with a passion for creative audio drama on the one side, and those with a passion for software and web applications development on the other side, are not easy to bring together. Computer gaming design is probably a field that has had much more success in this area, and made much faster progress. Probably because there is a more defined economic model at work. The perception is that audio drama isn’t a multi-billion pound global commercial industry that sucks in creative talent, but is a rather sedate and at times mature specialist interest that sits more easily with people who read the Daily Mail, who are obsessed with classic literature, and who have been to university. I’m cynically caricaturing, but it’s safe to say that radio drama doesn’t have a hip, young, alternative, sub- and counter-cultural profile. That said, it would be very interesting to put a value to the market for audio drama, and see how much audio drama is actually worth to the UK economy. And this is before mentioning the work that companies like Big Finish undertake with their science fiction and fantasy audio drama series, that are mainly sold online, but are also broadcast as commissions by BBC Radio Four Extra.
The computer games industry can probably offer some useful success models in our search to develop Audiotheque, as the bridge between storytelling and computing has becomes a more integral component of the process of games design in recent years. And indeed, story telling is the beating heart of what audio drama is seeking to achieve. Through voice and through sound we have always told stories. The aural tradition is embedded in our basic cultural make-up, and even possibly our evolutionary make-up.
So how come it is hard to get young people to listen to audio drama? What is it about the way that we consume modern media that leaves little space for younger audiences to get into a mental landscape of sound based story telling? Why is the picture or image so dominant? Why has online music culture exploded on the internet, but audio drama has not? Why do video production sharing sites dominate the creative online mediascape, while audio drama is seemingly confined to the margins? Why doesn’t audio drama have the same allure or resonance? It did once, when radio was the dominant broadcast medium of the twentieth century, so why have we not seen a radical explosion of audio drama production as the tools of recording sound have been democratised and mass produced, and the ability to share audio content has exploded?
Is it something inherent in the stories that we are generally telling in audio drama communities? Is it something to do with the listening skills of younger audiences? Is it something to do with the platforms on which audio dramas are shared and promoted? Is it something to do with the voices that support and promote audio drama? Is it because audio drama requires a foregrounded mental attitude which doesn’t lend itself well with mental multi-tasking? I’m making some very general assumptions that these issues are not being tackled, but in our search for the essential spark that will light the flame of a re-kindled interest in audio drama, the search goes on.
To some extent, it’s obvious to me now that the best way to develop Audiotheque is to do it in a way that appeals to the people who are most closely involved with the project. If the site and be developed and managed in a way that pleases those most committed to investing time in it, then it stands some chance of attracting other people who might share a similar outlook, worldview or sense of their own limitation/endless possibilities?
So, here’s a simple list of things that need to be discussed and acted on as we develop Audiotheque. This isn’t a closed list, but a prompt for further discussion, debate and orientation:
Development Issues With Audiotheque Site:
Credibility with audio production industry?
Sounding-board for willing and motivated contributors?
Needs editor and editorial strategy?
Needs functionality and usability strategy?
Needs social media strategy?
All about CONTENT?
Audio Posts — Articles — News — Features — Contributors — Blogs?
Travels in audiology….
More than a ‘school’ or ‘training platform’?
what models are appealing – Paris Review? Oki-Net?
Gathering and circulating stories using audio drama?
Audio Drama Awards / Who are the cool audio drama producers outside of the BBC?
How does the Computer Games Industry align with the audio drama community?
Take an approach of an underground fashion magazine / subculture?
Looks for a design competence?
‘Free Thinking, Open Source, Audio Drama’
Audiotheque is a place where creative ideas are not restricted by the company or organisation that you work for?
Audiotheque goes beyond working for a brief?
Individuals can be creative for themselves?
Audiotheque is non-proprietorial?
We like to remix, reuse and mash-up material – giving it’s proper attribution for things that we share?
Sharing ideas and leading off other people’s ideas?
Telling stories with audio?
What is the transformative story behind Audiotheque?
What is the role of the editor?
Does the editor support the people who are going to be telling their stories? Does the editor need to be telling stories themselves?
What’s the relationship between Motivation and Guidance?
Interview people about telling stories for audio drama?
Play button for images?
Subtitle on site?
Navigation by lists, type of content, producer & organisation?
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