Writing Radio Drama

Radio - the Invisible Medium


Radio drama reaches many thousands of listeners via the BBC who produce a wide range of plays every week across Radio 4, Radio 3 and Radio 4 Extra with repeats on BBC Sounds, giving audience more opportunities to engage. 


Because the medium is relatively cheap compared to TV the new writer’s chances of getting a script commissioned are better. 


The genre has also undergone something of a revival as ‘audio theatre’ on apps like Audible. Podcasting and internet radio have  created platforms for those who want to produce and perform their own plays.


Although some writers regard radio as a route into TV, many love the unique flexibility of the medium, and its appeal to the imagination. It’s the most literary of the electronic media and gives the author more autonomy than TV, which is often more of a collective process. 


As an invisible medium, it also presents the challenges of signifying location, action, and character identity and has developed its own conventions to resolve these issues, inviting the listener to explore soundscapes and acoustic space.


The Pictures are Better on Radio


Listening to radio drama  is an intimate experience – in that the listener is required to interiorise the re-presentation of “ the radio world” through  recognition of a  complex interplay of codes and conventions.


It’s a verbal medium. It is  language that is the primal element in creating an immersive environment for the listener.


The audio drama representation is constructed in the listener’s brain via 

the specific sounds and their symbolic connotations  
- the signification of acoustic spaces

- the emotional and cultural connotations of music

- the complex semiotics of  spoken (but usually scripted)  language used  in dialogue and narration.


So radio drama is more of an auteur’s medium.  The verbal text that anchors the sound-scape carries the biggest burden of representing the whole world-of-the-play.  


In addition to the exposition of back-story and plot, the writer has challenges that are peculiar to radio:




Techniques of Radio Drama - Options and Conventions



The Radio Drama Script


The layout conventions for radio scripts are simpler and  less prescriptive  than for film and TV,  so it’s possible to write them with ordinary word processing packages. However, specialist software like Scrivener will  adjust margins and punctuation to follow the standard BBC format.  Examples of this  can be found on the BBC Writers Room website.




Mode of address – voice-over by omniscient narrator ?  by unreliable narrator? direct address by first-person protagonist ? Dramatic monologue?  Internalised voice(s) – heard only by protagonist?  Multiple direct address (competing POV?)    Or is the narrative carried wholly through dialogue?  


Dialogue - dialogue as exposition;  dialogue  must  identify names, relationships,  visual features of characters and locations (dialogue as mise-en-scene) and action ; vocabulary and syntax can also identify  region, nationality, class, period, personality. 


Limitations of radio dialogue re action, multiple characters  in a single scene.


Accent  - another index of region,  class, period. The “grain of the voice'


Silence and Sub Text– use of silence exemplifies the “invisibility” of radio - reinforces the sense of enigma code, creating suspense, ambiguity, tension, reflection.




Because music carries so many powerful emotive and cultural connotations, it often plays a key part in radio drama. It can reinforce (or ironically counterpoint) the meaning of the spoken text.  


Non-diegetic music  - signature/theme tunes; filmic soundtrack music under dialogue; music beds under monologue; music bridges between scenes;  music stings and jingles  including station idents and branding


Diegetic music - music in the world-of-the play as ambient  ( music on the radio, juke box, hi fi,  band in a bar, night at the opera)  or a narrative device ( songs within a play) which may develop storyline and character interaction; internalised music – heard by the protagonist.


Sound and Editing


The acoustics of a space (cathedral reverb, stuffy drawing room, bathroom echo) are key signifiers of location.   Some studios are dedicated to reproducing particular acoustics, but many directors prefer to work in a totally neutral acoustic, which can be altered in post-production.


As portable recorders have improved, some directors have preferred to record plays on location using boom mics or radio mics as “audio cameras” to track the movement of the actors as they speak.


Sound and Point-of-Listening


In radio drama the relationship of the actor(s) to the microphone is important in representing space, movement and the relationship to other characters. Stereo imaging and distance from the microphone can define these spatial relationships, as well as the address to the audience. Sounds can be be proxemic (indicating distance from the microphone) and/or kinesic (indicating movement through the stereo field).


Sound Effects


The primary role of sound effects in radio drama is signposting location and/or signifying action.  But they also carry symbolic connotations and emotive significance.    


To enhance their emotive significance and/or to meet audience expectations of what sounds “realistic”, effects are sometimes, deliberately exaggerated, or enhanced.

Sound effects can be created in post-production editing  or recorded   in real time as “spot effects” using Foley-type techniques. The BBC tradition of drama sound design in mainstream plays resembles the Hollywood practice of continuity editing in this respect.




Signposting is the technique for establishing the location at the beginning of a scene. This is done by effects, spot or FX, and sometimes backed by description. 
 Most often these effects or spot are introduced (faded in) at the top of the scene, before the dialogue begins. It is up to the director whether speech begins quickly, or more seconds are needed to strengthen the effect of this signposting on the listener. If a new location, especially an outside location, is being established, the audience will need more time to absorb this information. So the scene will be established in this way: the beach - sea waves - with a seagull (though that is now a cliché), the ambience of a crowded street. 
Spot effects can establish a kitchen by sounds of washing up at the sink, or a boiling kettle, and the livingroom by teacups or bottles for alcohol. Signposting has the same function as the establishing shot in film and TV.)
Sometimes the signposting has a relatively simple function, especially in 'standard production'. But it can also be used to indicate mood, as symbolism.  So the sound of the sea waves symbolizes loneliness or perseverance, depending on context.
Signposting is efficient in returning for the second and further times to the same location. The choice for the director is whether to return to the same signposting device (as washing-up), or vary this. Good writing will link a plot strand to a certain location, for clarity. For subplot strands, this works well, so that the audience can relocate minor characters in their memory by an easy trigger for recall.
For the director, choosing and presenting the signpost is often a task that demands clarity above subtlety or art. It must be immediately 'read' by the listener, hence the importance of establishing the location:


Sound mixing 


Even in very naturalistic sound design, there’s an element of selection, as directors will usually foreground those sounds which have significance in the narrative, and those sounds themselves may be highly stylised and positioned at points where they reinforce the dialogue rather than overwhelm it.  


Sound treatments


Voices may be treated to enhance naturalism (telephone filter, reverb on PA system, ) or  to   signify a non-naturalistic code  (reverb  for interior monologue, ring-modulation for de-humanisation)




Since the development of electronic music in the 50s and the increasing use of multi-track recording, there’s been a trend towards “Soundscape”  production  ( my term)  in which  non-diegetic music and diegetic sound are merged, often as an exploration of the inner space of the protagonist.   




Covert editing: Dialogue (except in rare “live radio” performances) will usually be edited to remove cues, mistakes etc and sometimes edited to change the pace or rhythm of a sequence – but usually  unobtrusively.  


Similarly volume levels may be normalised or compressed so that sequences match.

Overt editing: The quick fade is a standard transitional code which can signify time-lapses, time-compression. Cross fades – like cross-dissolves in film – are also common. Cross-fades can also incorporate a verbal or musical bridge that can signify a  time-transition, often a  flashback, or a location switch.




Montage in radio terms  is “ a rapid sequence of cross-faded or straight-cut ‘segments” (Beck) – often layered over sound or music beds.  Although montage may  be executed on the digital work station, it’s often part of the writer’s conception in the script.   Montage can signify time-compression, recapitulation, climax. It’s sometimes used  for dream/fantasy sequences.

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©Paul Green 2017