Adventures in Sound

How many of you recognize this radio broadcast?

On Halloween in 1938, radio listeners experienced the scare of their lives when they heard that Martians had landed on Earth.  The broadcast of Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds supposedly caused a mass panic because it was presented as a news broadcast, so listeners believed it was true.  This is the power of a well-done radio drama.

According to, a “radio drama (or audio drama, audio play, radio play, radio theatre) is a dramatised, purely acoustic performance, broadcast on radio or published on audio media . . . [or podcasts]. With no visual component, radio drama depends on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story.”  According to Tim Crook, “It is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension.”

KC Wayland observes that “audio drama is having an art renaissance. The ease of access to the technology and the distribution platform of podcasts is turning up the volume on this form of aural entertainment. The growing listenership and metrics of reach are driving advertisers to these shows, injecting funding into the medium again, luring new creators to the field.”

In fact, Amazon Audible has “announced the establishment of funding up to $5 million (“Theater Fund”) dedicated to the commission and development of innovative English-language works from playwrights around the globe. The fund will support the creation of one- and two-person audio plays driven by language and voice, in keeping with Audible’s core commitment to elevating listening experiences through powerful performances of brilliantly composed words.”

Audio Books vs. Audio Dramas

An audio book tends to have one narrator who reads directly from the book or story.  In most cases, the books don’t have music or sound effects to enhance the narration.  “Instead, the narration serves to describe the scenery and action, creating an image for the listener,” according to Jenny Ek.

Lioro Farkovitz explains that “the narrator is the same as the internal voice the reader develops on their own. Naturally there is variation in the sound of the voice, emotional expression, volume and intensity.”  She believes that some publishers don’t like the idea of  having a full cast for audio books because it “can make the audiobook experience feel more like an audio drama.” However, the big audio book publishers are making the move to add full cast actors, music and Foley sound effects to their audio books, according to Shannon Maughan.

However, the narration-only books are not as interesting to the Facebook generation who “want experiences to be vibrant, diverse, engaging, and interactive. Listening to one person for 22 hours can be exhausting,” says Anthony Howard.  He explains that audio dramas combine “sound effects, multi-cast actors, special effects, a great story, and sound quality into a different and unforgettable experience.”

Effects on the Imagination

The key difference between audio books and audio dramas is how the listeners use their  imaginations.  In a narration-only book, the narrator is reading from a published book that was written to be read.  Therefore, it uses descriptive language to aid the reader’s imagination.  It’s the same as reading the book.  In a written or audio book, the words tell the listeners what to see in their imaginations.

In an audio drama, the story is told only through dialogue, sound effects and music. According to Jenny Ek, “not only does the audio play rely on the listener to understand the different sound symbols and sound events occurring, but also requires them to use their imagination to put the finishing touches on the creation of the world. Listening to an audio play is therefore an individual, personal experience, and ‘the creation of mental images needs active, voluntary attention from the listener’ (Rodero, 2012, p. 460).”  She explains that the “soundscape in an audio play is a reduced version of the real soundscape it’s representing, consisting of just a few carefully chosen sound effects. The reduced soundscape is then completed and brought to life within the mind of the listener, who is able to associate sounds with certain types of settings.”

So I gave it a try . . . 

I  listened to two dramatized stories from Agatha Christie on Audible.  They had actors, music and sound effects.   Listening to the story was interesting and engaging.  The sound effects were effective.  I even noticed that they positioned the actors at different distances from the mic to give the feeling of movement around the room.   My imagination did try to envision the characters and the scenes, but the images were not as vivid as in a narrated story from a written book.  I was more focused on how the actors were speaking and deciphering the sound effects to understand what was happening. I didn’t have time to dwell on descriptions because I had to keep up with the dialogue and actions.

Then I listened to an audio book excerpt with one narrator and no music or sound effects.  This is not as engaging as the audio dramas, but the imagery in my imagination was immensely improved because the text described what I should see.  I didn’t have to construct the images of the environment or characters because the words described them for me.  I had more time to see the descriptions.

Either way, audio books and audio dramas are having a renaissance.  Find out for yourself which one you prefer.


 © 2018 by Kathy Matthes. All Rights Reserved.

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