Because of the absence of the visual image, radio drama need not necessarily be confined to the representations of things as they are, Since radio drama, or fiction for radio, or story-telling with radio, or any other use of radio at all other than for pure information-giving or opinion-giving, starts off from a necessary degree of stylisation, it has always attracted and continues to attract, the avant-garde. […] It is a medium that writers love.
Angela Carter, preface to Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1985)
I have just uploaded an short paper I wrote in March 2008 at the request of the British Library concerning issues regarding radio drama in the Sound Archive.
The Sound Archive at the British Library, for those who don’t know, is the national sound archive. Through the BL, you can in theory access the BBC’s corporate sound archive. I say ‘in theory’ because unless you can specify exactly what you want you will encounter problems. Neither the BL or the BBC can be blamed for this. Sound Archive staff at the Library have no sense of ownership over the BBC material. They will ask the BBC on your behalf, and if the BBC deliver the item to them, they will deliver it to your listening carrel. The BBC will likewise do what they are asked, but unless what you ask for conforms exactly to what they have in their system, there is nothing they can do.
The BBC has spent so long apologising to here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians that it has never really grasped the cultural importance of its product. In terms of radio drama the BBC is unquestionably the world leader yet the in-house view has always been that sound-only drama is transitory, ephemeral. This year BBC radio drama celebrates its 90th year and we hear nothing about it. Elizabethan drama bestrode the public stage for less than twenty years, yet we discuss it endlessly. As custodian of its own product, the BBC policy has always been pile it up somewhere and sort it out later. In fairness, they are quite rightly too busy making new product.
Anyway, “The Lost Art Form” offers my thoughts on the system as it stood back in 2008. More recent experience suggests that the cuts since then certainly haven’t helped. I will shortly be describing another listening project which I undertook in September 2011 (yes, the very day I went temporarily blind!). In the meantime I would love to hear your experiences with the Sound Archive.