Jeff Adams' Radio Drama Blog

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Location: International Falls, Minnesota, United States

Monday, August 14, 2006

Shadow Falls Review

One requirement to be an audio dramatist in this place and time is a kind of blind faith in the future. If you’re going to produce audio, you have to believe things will improve for the art form. You have to believe the audience is out there waiting to be discovered like a lost tribe on some remote South Pacific Island, primitive people who still listen to radio drama having heard not of Satellite TV and X-Box. And while much of a producer’s time is spent telling him or her self little lies about how things really aren’t as bleak as they appear, now and then we receive actual boosts from the cruel world out there.

One such boost is the new podcast series ‘Shadow Falls’ from some guys called Podshow L.A. The show is a kind of X-Files or Twin Peaks for audio, and it’s the most professionally produced thing I’ve heard yet created specifically for podcast. The creative mind behind Shadow Falls is Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff. I don’t know anything about him other than what I can infer from the show, which is that he knows his way around audio drama. Acting, script and storyline of Shadow Falls are excellent and accessible to a modern audience. By that I mean that it could be adapted to modern television without much trouble. And I mean that as a compliment.

There’s no private detective voice over, no thin synthesizer music, and no wooden-reads from the minor characters (these being the top three curses of New Time Radio, IMHO). The actors are all professional, the show is loaded with new music, including a dark and hip title single that plays out in its entirety at the end of each episode, and the production values are the best I’ve heard outside of ZBS. Plus, Adam Curry, the patron saint of podcasting, is given an Executive Producer Credit. You can’t get much more connected than that.

I have my problems with Shadow Falls. There are many many characters, and though the director did a fair job of establishing unique voices for each of them, it’s still tough to tell everyone apart. This is particularly challenging given the nature of the story. Shadow Falls, like all broadcast dramas these days, requires fans to follow each and every installment to keep track of the convoluted storyline. It will be interesting to see if Nemcoff can keep all the characters ‘on stage’ often enough for the listeners to keep track of them all. Take all this with a grain of salt,. I’ve never had much time for dramas with large casts. I couldn’t even get past the first Prancing Pony scene in the BBC’s Lord of the Rings.

There are occasional bits and pieces of dialog that smack of ‘First Draft Theater’. At the beginning of Episode Two, for example, our Narrator, the mysterious Molly, gives us a little history lesson of Shadow Falls beginning with French ‘Missionaries’ shooting all Native American’s on sight. In the rest of the scene, the French are referred to as ‘Settlers’ which makes a lot more sense when it comes to the shooting. Missionaries did a lot of damage in the new world, but most of it was unintentional. The point of going on a mission was to reach the natives and turn them into brown Europeans. Tough to do that if you shoot them all on site. That’s the kind of nit-picky error that story conferences are designed to catch.

I had some misgivings about the show’s sound design after episode one, but those were alleviated by episode two. E2 features a far more complex and layered design with music running throughout and much more Foley. This is important because podcasting is changing audio into a headphone medium once and for all. People listen to these shows with ear buds, and that gives us producers the chance to be more detailed and layered in our designs. Episode One of Shadow Falls featured little more than a few drop-in effects like footsteps and door knocks, and the music seemed more traditionally positioned between scenes. Heard on headphones, the overall effect was rather thin and weak. I hope Nemcoff and his crew get even more aggressive in the future, using sharper pans and more ambient sound effects to really create that world in between our ears.

If and when we finally arrive at Mass Audience Land, Shadow Falls is going to be seen as one of the shows that got us there. My hope now is that Mr Nemcoff and company can use the resources they appear to have to further the art form and find ways to engage modern audiences. This is going to take a lot of experimentation and work, and I hope Nemcoff, who is also a screen and TV writer, has enough commitment to audio to stay the course to its end. Yeah, I know. I’m saying this for selfish reasons. But if someone has to blaze the trail, and it isn’t going to be me (as it appears it won’t be) Nemcoff would appear to be a likely candidate.

Shadow Falls is available at

Monday, August 07, 2006

Lowly tech & the end of Live Performance?

Another weekend, another green, blue, electric yellow dollar.

It’s Monday morning, and I’m coming off a busy weekend. The Icebox Radio Theater, my main focus these days, earns a little extra money for itself (and for me) by renting out our sound system for various events around town. Saturday, we mic’d the stage for a Pioneer Picnic event in Littlefork, MN about twenty miles south of here. I live in Koochiching County, Minnesota, which is going to be 100 years old in three years. The county is starting their centennial celebrations a bit early so as to stretch the anniversary out. Anyway, there was a full day of music which is where I came in. Lug the sound system down there, set up in blazing heat (thanks to my friend Gene for a canopy) Work with a series of musicians, mostly amateurs. Things went relatively smooth until late in the show when we had to cut the last two acts short to avoid the thunderstorm that was brewing.

Second job on that Saturday: do a live play.

Tall Bears is a script of mine that the IBRT performed in May inside Backus Auditorium here in the Falls. Live radio. What the hell am I doing in live radio? The problem, well, it’s live, of course. You get one chance to get it right, and of course, you almost never do. Last May we had a technical problem and did not record the show (we record all our shows. The small fan base here likes to bye CD’s) so this was really important to me. The show had its hitches, of course. I myself missed a cue, and the strong winds in advance of the aforementioned thunderstorm blew pages around plenty. The sound effects crew missed one because they were busy getting their pages squared away. And when I finally did get the recording back home, I discovered the first minute of the show was missing. That’s live radio. Fortunately, I had the backup recording going. It’s of lousy quality (Olympus flash recorder. Cheap, convenient, but DAT quality it isn’t) but it will cover that first minute.

This is my fifth live play this year, and I’ve got another at the end of the month. After that, time for a break. Maybe a long break. The problem with small towns is you’ll only get good talent by accident. Mostly, you get people with enthusiasm (at first) but they are only interested in the ‘Community theater’ thing: a few rehearsals, lots of socializing, no real effort to make the play sound good. That’s the ultimate flaw in amateur arts everywhere: there’s no focus on audience. It’s all about creative self-expression. We don’t have community theater because Salem, Oregon has a driving need to see the owner of Lancaster Chevy play Tevia. We have community theater because people want to act. Audience is secondary.

My problem is I have a need for audience. I want people to listen and react. You can’t attain that without making the play sound good. People will wander off otherwise. Next for the IBRT, studio projects.

I think there are inherent limits to live radio theater. Not only is it a one-take situation, there’s a certain flatness that comes from five people lined up in front of SM58’s all set to more-or-less hearing level. If you can control the environment, you can experiment with the performance. Studio work is more than just doing retakes of flubbed lines. It is, I think, where the best art can be done. Live radio may be nothing more than a type of theater, and not audio drama at all.

All for now.