Talking about the current status of drama on public radio, NPR's cultural programmer Andy Trudeau thinks back 10, 15 years ago, to a panel session on audience building. Someone had asked the speakers, "When is the best time to air drama?," and a panelist shot back, "1939."
Despite this pervasive belief among station programmers — that radio drama doesn't draw or hold modern audiences — Trudeau is spearheading an effort to revive the genre. At the very least, his is an attempt — perhaps a last-ditch one — to bolster the only regularly distributed national outlet for radio drama, NPR Playhouse.
Trudeau is asking the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to fund research on the appeal of drama to NPR's core audience, and he is asking drama producers to be signatories to the proposal and give the project some cash. Producers are mixed in their response; at least one says that negative research results could ruin public radio drama, while others say it's a good idea.
The merits of the project may be moot, since it faces significant obstacles before realization. First, NEA has little money to give out these days. In response to a 40 percent budget cut, the endowment has eliminated discipline-based grants and instituted four broad award categories that will have theaters competing with dance companies competing with TV producers. Given the crowding, no one can confidently say the NPR proposal is likely to win funding. NEA turned down a similar proposal from Trudeau last year — but it is not unusual for such proposals to win grants after revisions.
It doesn't help that NPR itself has not committed any resources to the $50,000 research project, though it may eventually. Trudeau is hoping NEA pays for half, and that producers will help fill the gap. But generally, radio drama houses are not cash-rich. Since Trudeau sent out 15 letters April 8 inviting producers to participate, five companies have signed on. Three have refused.
The immediate return for participants depends on their investment. Senior partners, who contribute $5,000, can have their programs tested before the focus groups and receive all results. They also take part in shaping the survey, and receive a videotape of the focus-group sessions. Junior partners, at $500, would receive an executive summary of the findings. The Boston-based Public Media Foundation has signed on to be a junior partner. The California Artists' Radio Theatre will be a senior partner if it can get foundation support; otherwise it too will be a junior partner. Trudeau has not named the other three participants.
"The nerve of asking these producers!" said Rasovsky,
when NPR solicited them for research money.
"Radio drama is the surest, albeit the happiest,
way to penury and obscurity."
Trudeau says NPR would assemble the focus groups in two markets. The goal, he says, is to answer two questions: Does drama appeal to core public radio listeners — the news audience? And what types of drama do these listeners prefer? NPR Playhouse now devotes itself to four genres: classics such as The Count of Monte Cristo; American stories such as a recent series on the life of Rose Kennedy; science-fiction, mystery and adventure; and contemporary dramas.
The research will give program directors data they need to have faith in drama's appeal and to position it effectively, Trudeau says. "If we can give station managers the tools to evaluate [drama] in terms of appeal and strength, I'm confident more of them will use it and more will use it in better dayparts," he says. "It has the potential to turn things around."
Currently, Trudeau says, carriage of NPR Playhouse fluctuates between 90 and 130 stations. He believes that PRI's Rabbit Ears Radio — "glitzier" than Playhouse with stars like Meryl Streep and Mel Gibson reading children's stories — has siphoned some of the carriage in recent years. Most stations don't air Playhouse at prime listening hours, either, but use it after 7 or 8 p.m., when audience size takes a steep dive. Few stations choose to buy Playhouse outright; rather, they get it as part of NPR's cultural package, which includes the popular Car Talk.
Network management probably isn't thrilled with the program's performance, but pressure to perform better is limited, because NPR doesn't put a lot of money into Playhouse. It pays for distribution costs, but the program's small acquisition budget has come from the NEA. Still, all NPR programs are having to make their case for survival, says Trudeau. "Management has said, 'Let's look at what we're distributing, and figure out, is there a reason to do it. If we're distributing a program fewer stations are using, however important it is in an idealized way, we have to stop and say, should we continue?"
Playhouse will soon see the last of its NEA program-acquisition grants. The endowment's new rules limit applicants to one proposal per year, and NPR is not likely to use its one funding opportunity to support drama. (Trudeau's proposal doesn't count because it is a consortium application.) Whether NPR will pick up the cost of acquiring drama remains to be seen. "I have to make the case to this company that there's real opportunity here," Trudeau says.
One prominent drama producer, Yuri Rasovsky, opposes Trudeau's proposal and is encouraging his colleagues not to participate. He argues that negative results, accurate or inaccurate, could put radio dramatists out of business by confirming program directors' belief that drama leads to tune-out. He also objects to NPR asking producers to kick in money for the research, when it pays them roughly $300 per program.
"The nerve of asking these producers!" he says. "Radio drama is the surest, albeit the happiest, way to penury and obscurity."
But Valerie Henderson, executive producer of the Public Media Foundation and one of the project participants, says she is sure the research results will be positive. "There are a lot of people who like drama, and I've always believed there are many more than we know of," she says. Public radio listeners today don't have the chance to appreciate drama because stations air it at inconvenient times and inconsistently, she says. They also confuse and lose listeners by shifting its time slot too frequently in an attempt to find the optimum niche, she says. "Stations have to hang in there and build audience."
Other ways to get drama out of the doldrums, producers argue, include better promotion of programs and production of higher-profile projects. To demonstrate drama's potential, they point to the popularity of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, which includes comedy sketches, and to flourishing drama venues such as WNYC, New York and KCRW, Los Angeles.
These and other venues, including CDs and books, which are growing in popularity, will keep radio dramatists active, says veteran producer Erik Bauersfeld. He links program directors' abandonment of drama with an insidious expansion of commercialism. "All [stations] want to do is make money and be top station in their communities and get more listeners. There seems to be no way to stop that." But even if Playhouse were canceled, "we will do what artists have always done," he says. "Which is just keep on painting. . . [People] don't want any sunflowers this year. But still, Van Gogh will paint a sunflower."