Friday, February 26, 2010

The future of drama on BBC Radio 4

At a meeting with representatives from the Writers’ Guild and the Society of Authors last week, Jeremy Howe, Commissioning Editor for Drama at Radio 4, and Mark Damazer, the Controller of Radio 4, emphasised their commitment to retaining single plays on the network and outlined some upcoming changes in scheduling.

The biggest change concerns the Friday Play, which will be cut to 12 new commissions this year and then disappear all together (with one or two exceptions) next year after as a result of budget cuts. ‘We decided to cut an entire slot rather than take a slice out of everything,’ Jeremy Howe explained.

Elsewhere across Radio 4 the volume of drama will remain about the same. ‘Radio 4 drama reaches almost 6.5 million people per week,’ Howe said, ‘and a single Afternoon Play reaches almost as many listeners as could see the plays at the National Theatre in a whole year.’

Radio drama, though cheap in comparison with TV drama (about £24,000 per hour rather than £500,000 for an episode of Casualty) is much more expensive than other radio genres. At a time of widespread budget cuts across the corporation, Howe and Damazer insisted that the continued volume of drama across the schedule was a demonstration of their commitment to it, and to writers.

The Radio 4 drama slots

While, with the exception of the Friday Play, the drama slots are set to remain the same, Howe outlined how they are developing.
  • Women’s Hour drama –this used to be a place for many writers new to radio but is now looking to commission ‘the biggest and best writers’ for what is a high profile and challenging slot
  • Afternoon Play – ‘variety remains the key’, and this is where writers new to radio are most likely to start. The single play will continue to dominate but some more series will also be commissioned
  • Saturday Play – without any fanfare, Howe said, this has been evolving into a ‘showbiz slot’ which sought to really entertain listeners
  • The Archers – in Howe’s words, ‘Nearly 60 and behaving like a ten-year-old’ (in a good way)
  • Classic Serial – continuing to find new ways to do the classics
The audience

Research shows that the Radio 4 audience is 51% male and 49% female with an average age of 54. ‘It’s a very informed, curious audience,’ Howe said. ‘You dumb down to them at your peril.’ The station as whole is looking to attract more forty-something listeners, he added.

The commissioning process

The process for getting a drama commissioned for Radio 4 can be complicated, but from a writer’s point of view, Howe said, the main thing is to make a contact with a producer whose previous work you have liked.

Dramas from in-house producers are commissioned on the basis of pitches submitted by producers – although they will need to see other full length work as well if you are new to radio.

The Classic Serial slot is commissioned once a year, the Women’s Hour drama and Saturday Play twice a year. The Afternoon Play also has two main commissioned rounds but it has introduced some rolling commissioning, including for those independent producers selected as ‘batched suppliers’.

Once a producer has agreed to take forward an idea from a writer they will have an informal meeting with the Commissioning Editor (Jeremy Howe) to talk it over. If they decide to take it forward they then submit a formal 300-word pre-offer. In the spring 2009 commissioning round, Jeremy Howe revealed, he received 61 such pre-offers for the Saturday Play slot and 26 were rejected.

Those that make it through the pre-offer may than have some further development with the writer and are checked for any scheduling clashes. Finally a full two-page offer is written submitted by the producer to the Commissioning Editor and Controller. In spring 2009, 16 titles were commissioned into the Saturday Play from the 35 formally offered.

Commissioning from independent companies follows a similar process. In spring 2009 there were nine Saturday Play commissions from the original 84 pre-offers that were submitted by independents.

Who gets commissions

Howe said that for 2009/10 Radio 4 drama has commissioned more than 220 writers.
  • Three writers have got more than nine commissions, more than 150 have got a single commission
  • 80 are women, 140+ are men
  • More than 50 are first or second time writers for radio (‘possibly a few too many,’ Howe said)
How to get a commission

The key thing, Howe said, is to ‘listen to Radio 4 output, including drama, note the name of a producers whose work you like and then contact them.’

He stressed, however, that writers shouldn’t ‘clone what you have already heard. We want originality, we want your voice.’

The most common shortcomings when it comes to pitches, he said, were the lack of a hook for the story and the lack of conviction in the offer document. ‘Single plays need to be singular, need to stand out. If you submit an idea, you need to communicate clearly and passionately why you want to write it.’

The way ahead

Since the cost of drama is an ongoing issue, Radio 4 is generally looking to do ‘fewer, bigger, better.’ However, the commitment to drama remains as strong as ever.

Howe explained that they are looking at ways to get content out on as many platforms as possible – although rights issues remain to be resolved. They are also looking to develop closer ties with TV drama.


  1. Anonymous12:45 am

    "How to get a commission

    The key thing, Howe said, is to ‘listen to Radio 4 output, including drama, note the name of a producers whose work you like and then contact them.’"

    I've heard this all before (e.g. Jonathon Meth of Writernet).

    I've taken this advice and sent my manuscript to the chosen producer and it remained unopened and gathering dust for months. Then after a phone call to the Guild the producer contacted me with apologies and passed it on to the Writers Room and the rest is history. No Agent: No Commission. Very few offered by Writersroom but their website is interesting for its Opportunities.

    It makes JH's remarks sound so disingenuous.

  2. Anonymous12:56 am

    "How to get a commission

    The key thing, Howe said, is to ‘listen to Radio 4 output, including drama, note the name of a producers whose work you like and then contact them.’"

    Not this old chestnut. I first heard it from Jonathon Meth of Writernet.

    I've tried it. What happens is that the manuscript sits in a pile for months gathering dust. In my case I phoned the Guild and the producer wrote to me apologising and saying he had passed it on to the Writers Room. Great! We all know how many commissions they give.

    All this makes Howe's remarks seem patronising and disingenuous.


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