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So You Want to Make Money Selling Audio Drama. No, you don’t.

moneyThere’s an old adage that success leaves clues.

There’s another less popular adage in the audio drama crowd that goes something like this: “You know audio drama hasn’t made the big time because of everyone who comes out saying they are going to ‘bring radio drama back!”

The amount of proclaimed experts in modern audio drama is roughly the same number of people who claimed to be a “Social Media Consultant” five years ago. The actual number of experts in the field could probably be counted on one hand.  When I say ‘experts’ I’m speaking about people who are making money selling radio drama regularly. I’m not talking about favourite free audio dramas, or the superb award winning single or even small series audio plays, but actually who makes audio plays for a living.

Ask anyone as to what it will take for radio drama to be profitable, and you get a lot of head scratching. Some people focus on modern story telling techniques; others on high quality sound production; and still others say that subscription services are the way to go.

But, as I said before, success leaves clues. So let’s pull out our deerstalker and do some detective work!

1. Classics

Look at the Amazon Best Seller list and consider some of the key information here. Certainly it is updated regularly, but let’s try to get past the audio books, multi-cast recordings, hybrids, and focus strictly on audio dramas. They are there.

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (BBC)
  • Powder River (CRT)
  • Father Brown Mysteries (CRT)
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (CRT)
  • Doctor Who (BF)
  • Treasure Island (CRT)
  • Twelve Angry Men (LAT)
  • A Raisin in the Sun (LAT)
  • Jeeves and Wooster (CRT)
  • Perry Mason and the Case of the Velvet Claws (CRT)
  • Hamlet (BBC)
  • Invasion of the Dalek Empire (BF)
  • The Prince and the Pauper (CRT)
  • Animal Farm (BBC)
  • Dracula (BBC)

At my count of this current snapshot of the Top 100, Colonial Radio Theatre has seven of the thirteen available. The BBC has four, L.A. Theatre Works has two and Big Finish has two as well. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. The incredibly well funded BBC, only has four shows in the top one hundred, nearly half of CRT.

Beyond that, what’s the other obvious commonality between them all.

Not one of them is a new story. The most recent would be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that was created for radio in 1978. Nearly forty years ago. Certainly Big Finish’s stories are more recent but they are creating tales from Britain’s most popular science fiction hero for the last fifty years.

Classics sell. If you want to make money in audio drama today. Classics are what will get the attention. Even most of the audio novels that make up the large grouping of top 100 selling items are William Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer among other classic authors. Your audience are buying classics.

2. Volume

I once asked how to get on to the now defunct Sirius’ Book Radio with my audio drama. The answer was simple. “We don’t look at anyone who doesn’t have at least a hundred shows”. Because, what are they going to play next week? If you want to sell your work, you need to get out there and make A LOT of audio drama. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Worry about getting it good and done. There’s really only one person in the studio produced modern audio drama free world that I can think of who has the consistency and the track record of ‘radio ready’ plays ready to go out with far more than a hundred under his belt, and that’s Gregg Taylor of Decoder Ring Theatre. Between Black Jack Justice and The Red Panda, not even including his summer special series, Gregg has almost two hundred shows that could be sold to a radio station today. They are all formatted perfectly for radio, and all consistent in their time and quality. Gregg’s work has gotten him tens of thousands of fans that buy his original books and comics as well as listen to the regular adventures.

Colonial Radio Theatre has made over six hundred recordings in twenty years.

If you want to sell radio drama. Don’t have that “perfect” short series. Think about how you can make your first one hundred episodes as a bare minimum.

3. Approach

A lot of people don’t consider this. But look at those who are successful and how they do it.

– Big Finish made its name for continuing the Doctor Who adventures with the retired actors even when the show was off the air. Fans of the television series not only buy books, but they buy up the audio tales as well.

Radio Repertory Company of America managed to create a new series but did so by gaining a following on NPR, so that fans can now go to their main site to download the latest adventures.

– CRT and Jim French Productions’ Imagination Theatre developed their fan base through a mixture of radio coverage and good old fashion sales of cassette tapes and CD’s working with a mix of classics and original work to gain a following.

Dirk Maggs created his signature style through arrangements with the BBC which had all of Britain as a captive audience.

So if you really want to sell your work the clues point to the following routes:

  • Get on a public radio station and go coast to coast with your show to gain a following
  • Get on your comfortable shoes and start selling your works in stores directly. (CRT began with selling their historical tales at forts and gift shops!)

4. Respect Your Audience

Some years ago, I had parents contact me with concerns that the audio dramas didn’t have a rating system. So I built one based on the famous movie rating system and called it The Audio Drama Rating System and asked Jeremy Yenser to include it in his Audio Drama Rating System. While I wasn’t expecting everyone to use the system, I hoped it would start producers considering that our listeners want to get an idea what they could expect in a play. Many companies adopted the system directly, and many others had their own systems from the start. What I wasn’t expecting was the backlash against me and those who could see the value in giving parental guidance warnings. I was surprised at the angry reaction, and confused. Even iTunes has labels for recommendations so that people have choices. I took the time to get some great actors to provide a number of free audio clips to put at the beginning of radio plays to help provide clarity in the story telling techniques from harsh language to adult situations and violence. I think in the end, it’s a question about respecting your audience to let them have the tools to make the decisions about which shows to listen to, and which content will be appropriate for which situation.

So, you still want to make money, making radio drama? It’s possible, but it’s not easy. You’re going to need to look from the people who are successful. Big name actors can be helpful, but they aren’t necessary. Great production is a bonus, but it’s not key. A modern take on normative culture, feminism, and post-modern ideas bring freshness to works, but they aren’t the factors in what sells wider distribution. If you want to make money making audio drama, produce lots, find a national public radio station to play your shows coast-to-coast, hit the streets and sell your work the old fashioned way, make your radio shows sound great in a monophonic car radio, and look at producing your own take on the classics.

You just might be one of the handful of folks who make it!

Addendum: Powder River was originally created in 2004 and is one of the top sellers of Colonial Radio Theatre. However, PR took off after its run on Book Radio!


About The Author

Born to Teachers and Amateur Audio Enthusiasts in the small rural community of Belwood, Jack's first love was stories- writing, reading, telling, and singing. He developed his acting skills through High School, University, and through film and community theatre. Jack writes the lion's share of Electric Vicuna's Audio Drama scripts and has his own writing site at www.jackjward.com He's thrilled to co-host the Sonic Society with his wonderful, talented, friend David Ault!

Comments

2 Responses to “So You Want to Make Money Selling Audio Drama. No, you don’t.”

  1. Well, with the decline of reading (only ten percent of Americans know how to read and bookstores are dying) it’s been obvious that authors aren’t paid any more. So it’s not surprising that voice actors for audio books aren’t paid, either. In my call center work, people keep claiming “You have so good a voice, you’re almost like a recording!” So what? I just move my mouth, breathe and enunciate properly, something everyone should have learned back in grade school. It doesn’t get me any more than my $9-an-hour base salary. Just because it needs to be done, I’ve been thinking about recording a nonfiction book whose prose deserves to be recorded, and release it anonymously on Bittorrent sites. What’s the use of trying to make money at it when there is no money to be made?

  2. Jack says:

    Because every raindrop raises the sea my friend. Every person who cares and wants to make a difference, stands for their beliefs. And in the end, it’s never whether you changed the world, but that you stood by your convictions in the attempt 🙂

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