An Interview with noted American Audio Dramatist

Recorded the 16 July 2002.

Roger Gregg of Ireland's Crazy Dog Audio Theatre talks to Yuri Rasovsky.

Yuri Rasovsky has worked professionally in theater and broadcasting as actor, writer, director and producer for nearly 30 years. Since he founded the National Radio Theater (1972-1987), he has created hundreds of radio productions heard on commercial and public radio outlets around the world.

Rasovsky is the most honored Audio Dramatist working in the United States. Over the past 3 decades he has won two George Foster Peabody awards, five Ohio State awards, The APA Audie Award, four Major Armstrong awards, two Corporation for Public Broadcasting awards, The Independent Publishers Audio Award, The Gabriel Award, The Joseph Jefferson Award, the NFCB Golden Reel, the Mark Time Lifetime Achievement Award and the SFWA Bradbury Award.

He is also contributing editor, to AudioFile magazine.

For the millennium he created 2000X for NPR, a series of 40 plays with science fiction themes. The Hollywood Theater of the Ear.

GREGG: Science Fiction and Audio Theatre. Where's it at, at the moment in the United States?

RASOVSKY: The majority of radio drama or audio drama in the United States right now is Science Fiction. Very bad science fiction in fact. A lot of it is influenced by HITCH-HIKER and by Tom Lopez's ZBS work. And a lot of it is just silly puerile stuff done by amateurs. And I think that the revival in interest in the production of radio drama that is now 5 or 6 years old, is a product of the cheap digital Pro-Tools-like equipment that fits in somebody's garage or basement or spare room. That allows one to do things that were formerly only do-able in a professional production studio filled to the brim with expensive equipment. And so this ability to put this stuff together relatively inexpensively with your friends and relations has caused a great deal of interest. And Science Fiction is ideal for people masturbating at equipment because it would employ all the toys for all the special futuristic effects.

GREGG: At the sacrifice of good acting and a solid script ?

RASOVSKY: Well not at a sacrifice because most of these people aren't capable of those things.

GREGG: When you single out HITCH-HIKER'S and Tom Lopez's work with ZBS are you in a sense blaming them or just saying that they are the biggies and everyone tries to emulate them?

RASOVSKY: Well I don't know if you'd call Tom Lopez a biggie. He is extremely popular within certain circles. And I can't blame him for that. The work that Tom does, although it's not to my particular taste, is unquestionably excellent. And he is a genius in his way. The same is true of HITCH-HIKER. It's a one-of-a-kind sort of thing.

GREGG: Can you review the history of radio drama in the U.S. since the 70's?

RASOVSKY: Well… in the United States, there occurred in the early 70's a phenomenon that was a two edged sword. Because of Public Radio, it now became possible to put radio drama back on the air and to combine with the American tradition of production - which I admire - from the OTR days, a new emphasis on content, good writing, and more than just low comedy and melodrama which is all that was on American radio in it's heyday. So that was the good part. And it sparked a sort of a revival of interest, not as great as the one today, but far more influential; in so far as Earplay, cornered some big big money from the NEA because of it's affiliation with NPR, and was commissioning major playwrights to do radio work. I started then.

The CBS Mystery Theatre started then on commercial radio and was a success. And Tom Lopez started then. And this fizzled out in the middle 80's. And was never huge anyhow. ….

Earplay was a terribly over-produced programme. So when NPR decided it had better uses for that NEA money that was going to Earplay--and money they shouldn't have gotten anyway--and they kind of gave him [Carl Schmit JR, Director of Earplay] a gold watch. ….

In the meantime, Lopez and I saw the handwriting on the wall. …We were going to loose radio as a venue. Lopez was able to act on it in a way that I couldn't. When the slump finally began in money, which was immediately after the Reagan administration, he was able to survive. …. He had begun his initiative in commercial recording.

GREGG: When you say commercial recording you mean releasing recordings for sale?

RASOVSKY: Yes. And I was in a position myself of being able to raise huge amounts of money for radio drama but only at the expense of marketing. What I'm saying is that at the time you needed a sheer bulk of material in order to make a dent in the public consciousness. You needed regularly slotted times to put this on so people get in the habit of listening to it and who would miss it when it was gone. But the only way I could raise decent money was by doing specials. Get large amounts of money in advance for projects that take 2 or 3 years or more to finish. And then be on the air for a very limited amount of time. 5 episodes. 15 episodes. And then I'd have to go back and do another special which would take another 2 to 3 to 5 years. So I ended being known for these big specials like 2000X. And Science Fiction seemed to be appropriate at the time that I did it for NPR because it was the turn of the millennium and this was supposed to be a celebration of the new millennium by looking backwards at how science fiction authors had looked at the future. Be that as it may, these new science-fiction loving producers now dominate the production of audio drama in the U.S., and they are by and large lousy or not professional enough to gain the ear of new listeners.

GREGG: How will they gain the ear of new listeners?

RASOVSKY: By being better.

GREGG: Yeah…But you could end up like Emily Dickinson and put them all in a box, then die and then some one later can find them and do what with them to bring them to an audience?

RASOVSKY: That's the thing that Lopez and I discussed in the early 80's. And that is commercial recording. And the Internet. A lot of these guys who can't get anybody to look at their work, and who can't even afford the packaging… throw it up on the Internet. And offer it for free, hoping that somebody's going to find them and take it down. So the Internet is becoming a big source. There is even, as you know, this whole sub-genre of Dr. Who audio spin-offs.

GREGG: Fan stuff? Fan generated?

RASOVSKY: Fan generated audio based on, or inspired by, Dr. Who. And there are tons of it. Radio drama otherwise either thrives in areas where there is some cultural reason for it - cultural-political. For instance in Germany where Kulture is a big deal. And of course in Britain, there's the BBC.. There is some tradition there and 'whether any one listens to it or not, it is going to stay on the air'.

RASOVSKY: Since the 1920's since the first radio stations went on the air, till now, there has never been a time when there has been no radio drama on the air or radio drama being produced and heard in the United States. … In certain areas of the world where TV is difficult, because of terrain, such as mountainous countries like Greece or the Balkans, radio drama is still a going concern. The best I've heard of any in the world is Serbo-Croatian. They make the BBC look like amateurs. But on the other hand if you've ever been around the European community producers and National Networks, you begin to understand that the people that they hire… and the people who want the jobs, are not very good. Because if they were, they wouldn't be doing radio drama they'd be out pursuing something lucrative. And something that would bring them prestige as well as money. Television, for instance. And the stuff that you hear from RAI [the Italian Network], the little that's done in France, or the stuff that's done in the Scandinavian countries, is appalling! They're just stupid.

I remember being at an EBU meeting of radio dramatists and …we were playing excerpts of things that we wanted to impress other people with …our best stuff, and the RAI people, the Italian network pulled out their radio version of Ingmar Bergman's The Silence. Now here is something challenging to do to do on radio. A movie, a brilliant movie in fact, with incredibly strong visuals, practically no dialogue, and you're going to do that on radio? This would be very interesting. It was the only movie I ever saw that used a Sherman Tank as a phallic symbol. And all it was, was some guy reading the screenplay translated into Italian with a few sound effects. That's all it was! And after we listened to this…. the floor was open to questions and some one else asked: 'Why didn't you use the soundtrack from the film?' You know as a serious aesthetic question. And they pondered this as if it was serious and gave the group a closely-reasoned answer that made absolutely no sense…. And I popped up and said; 'You know I did The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on radio and I didn't use the soundtrack either.' Only one person in that room got that joke - that I was doing a radio version of a silent film. And in fact Ronnie Mason, who used to run the BBC Radio Drama Department, said 'What do you want a medal?' He didn't get it.

GREGG: Why do you do it? You're 'The world's most famous unknown radio producer' Why not just pack it all in and go into films?

RASOVSKY: For one thing, I'm not motivated by money, prestige, fame. I want to do good work and get it in front of an audience. For another, I love working in radio. For a third, I'm too damn old for anybody to consider me doing anything else. ….And when you're talking about Sci Fi Radio, there are things that I'd rather do with my time than science fiction. But I can't deny that science fiction -fantasy of any type is a perfect thing for radio, for audio. Audio is inherently expressionistic. Not only that but everything is equally real. Even a footfall is a special effect. So it's not much of a leap to go from a footfall, to a Martian, to world cataclysms, to anything and be able to make the transition in a flash! In addition to which it's a great medium for a writer because it's a way to combine story telling and literary values, normally found in print fiction, with drama. It becomes very difficult in any other dramatic medium, but it's natural to radio. Now, I don't know if you're aware of this, but you do it, because I have heard in some of your stuff, things that are genuinely poetic, very fine, fine writing. Mellifluous and expressive and image-conjuring writing.

GREGG: Well thank you. I like word play and rapid-fire stuff. I marvel at craft of like the best moments of the Marx Brothers. …

RASOVSKY: I know that you like it, because you do an awful lot of it. But you're achievement is not there. Your humour is funny and especially so for a very literate individual. But your achievement is, I think, in that lyricism that you're capable of. That's peculiarly Irish. You might have picked it up just by being there.

GREGG: Maybe. I've been here in Ireland for 23 years.

RASOVSKY: Well, there you are. I think in that regard that your stuff is far more vivid than Lopez's. Now Lopez does things with a combination of fairly utilitarian dialogue, music and a very discreet use of sound, to give the audience something to look at. And he does it better than I've heard anybody else do it. … Ruby is supposed to be his magnum opus, but Dinotopia, a kid's book, that he did strictly for commercial reasons, is a masterpiece!

GREGG: I agree.

GREGG: So what would you advise an young aspiring science fiction writer, in terms of the possibilities of audio theatre?

RASOVSKY: What would I do if I were a young science fiction writer? Well it depends on what I thought this guy's ambitions were. If you want to make a material success out of yourself - Stay out of radio. Stay out of audio. If your ambition is to do good work, and to get it before an audience, and have a stimulating time doing it, then consider audio as an option, but one of others, because it's very difficult right now for us. Follow the example of J.Michael Strazjinski [creator of BABYLON 5] … very much admired as a successful science fiction guy. Now that he's a success he gets a hold of the Sci Fi Channel, and their Seeing Ear Theatre and he does some radio for them. For a while he had a local show on radio here in southern California in which he discussed science fiction and at that time he first dabbled in doing science fiction radio drama. So he's got a couple of things that are out now on cassette. He had nothing to loose. He didn't put his own money into it, the Sci Fi Channel paid for it. And he didn't make any money either. But that wasn't his goal. He was making plenty of money elsewhere. And he's already established, so why not? But realize that audio drama may seem easy to do, but is actually the most difficult kind of theater to pull off.

GREGG: Thoughts on current Audio Theatre trends and what the future may bring

RASOVSKY: There is an encouraging sign as far as audio drama is concerned--if I'm right in my perception. And that is, as a theatre man I have noticed that in any given community where there is no theatre, they say you can't build an audience if there isn't one there. But they are wrong. Some people, mostly amateurs, may decide that they want to do theatre. And they create product. And it may not be good but it's there. Nobody wants to come and see it. So they languish. But what that inevitably does is spark someone else to form a clique of their own because they can't get into this clique, and start their own theatre. And pretty soon there's a bunch of these guys, mounting plays that nobody wants to come and see. Just friends and relations. Inevitably an audience does arrive, comes along and starts demanding better. Better quality. And I think that that is happening now with radio drama. That the first step in building an audience is to put out product even though no one is listening to it. And these first guys whether they're good or not, they're going to put out enough activity to attract some attention and they're going to build audiences for the people who are going to be good. And the ones who aren't good are going to fall by the wayside, because once there's an audience, the audience is going to be demanding and they're going to want better stuff. They may be indulgent in the beginning, but sooner or later, they are going to want better stuff. Especially, as often happens, a theatre community will often get complacent. If all these guys are roughly on the same technical and artistic level, they'll coast there because they can get away with it. A new guy comes to town who tries a little harder, does a little better and then they all scramble to meet that standard. And once they do they can afford to be complacent again, until a new guy comes to town who then raises the bar. Now I may be wrong, but I think that that is what may be happening now when it comes to audio drama. The key thing is that it's not going to happen on radio. Radio is a means to an end. Radio is one way of getting people to buy material that is offered on the Internet, on MP3, on CD, on cassette, and on whatever other medium that is going to come along. And broadcast radio itself going to be just one of several promotional media and others may even be more important. It is not going to be the be-all and end-all, that once you're on the air, you have reached your goal. It's a means to an end. And that's all for the best. In radio, some moron programme director who doesn't want to be a programme director, has no gift for it, has no idea who his audience is, and is only reading whatever his NPR research is telling him, and then if he doesn't feel like it, he doesn't implement it, because he's just plain lazy, this is the guy who is the mediator, the middleman, between you and your audience. Do you want this guy mediating between you and your audience?? Shit. I would rather get this stuff out in front of a public and have the public decide we want it or we don't want it. And if I fail or succeed, it is because the audience, not some ass-hole arbiter of taste, tells me I deserve to fail or succeed.