Many UK writers and comedians make their name on radio before they make that all-important transition to television, the theatre or even the big screen. It’s a route that it not often considered by new writers but should be given some serious thought because of the many opportunities and dramatic possibilities that exist within the format.
In the UK, BBC radio drama is the place to go if you want to get one of your plays on-air. BBC Radio 4 has the majority of slots: the afternoon play, the Friday play, the Saturday play, classic serial, woman’s hour drama, afternoon reading, book at bedtime, book of the week and of course, The Archers (long running soap). And on Radio 3, there’s the Sunday play at 8pm as well as The Wire (every first Thursday of the month, 10.15pm) which aims to push the boundaries of drama using first-time writers. Then there’s BBC7 and the BBC World Service.
That’s a lot of slots. A lot of plays. A lot of writers. A lot of opportunities. So how do you get your idea commissioned? Basically, the BBC split the year into two commissioning rounds, one in September/October, the other in March/April. They accept and develop ideas during these periods to give themselves enough plays to cover their demanding schedule throughout the year. However, it is extremely unlikely to get an idea approved as a writer alone. It is preferable, nay essential, that you attach yourself to either an in-house producer or an independent production company that specialises in radio plays. That way your idea has more clout and more chance of actually getting commissioned.
I am reliably informed that the radio process is similar to the stage in that it completely respects the writer during the development and production of the play. Not a word changes without the writer’s say so. Great, isn’t it? Last year, I attempted my first radio play but while I got the structure and format correct, the story was basically a bad soap opera because of my misguided preconceptions of the limitations of radio drama.
In truth, there are no limitations to radio drama. While obviously an audio format, it is also very much a visual medium where the audience’s imagination can fill in the blank canvas left between the words and sounds of the drama. After listening to a handful of radio plays, I also realised you can be quite bold, distinctive and adventurous in your style and choice of story. And after reading a few radio scripts, I was reassured that the art of screenwriting is very much in tandem with the demands of the radio play.
With this newfound sense of knowledge and enthusiasm, I am going to try to see if I can get a few radio commissions under my belt. I met a BBC in-house radio producer the other day (at Bafta, woooooh) who’s willing to help me bring my ideas to fruition. It’s new territory for me because I’ve been focusing so much on screenplays but it’s also an exciting opportunity because it offers a writer the chance to be truly creative, original and distinctive with what they have to say. So maybe now’s the time to switch off the TV for a while and turn on the radio instead.