Dave Arnold, Senior Producer, Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, Colorado Springs, CO
By Jerry Vigil
Focus on the Family is a non-profit organization that produces internationally syndicated radio programs heard daily on more than 3000 radio stations in twelve languages in more than 95 countries. One of those programs is Radio Theatre, a ½-hour radio drama that takes “theatre of the mind” production to the ultimate level. Senior Producer Dave Arnold gives us a peek at what it’s like to take 22 hours of voice tracks and spend 5 years putting them all together to make a radio drama. It’s “radio production” at the other end of the spectrum, where quality comes first, where tweaking is the norm, and where people understand it takes time to “create.”
JV: How did you get into producing radio drama?
Dave: I started in small market radio actually. I began as a radio DJ and found an opportunity to work with Focus on the Family through an opening they had with radio drama back in 1987. When the opportunity provided itself, I obviously took it and began with a fledgling program that they started in ’87 called “Adventures in Odyssey,” which was the brainchild of Dr. Dobson. His desire at that point in time was to begin a Saturday morning radio drama that would sort of rival Saturday morning cartoons, which he felt were becoming more and more violent and less and less appropriate for kids. So our desire was to provide an alternative for them and to hearken more to the days of families sort of huddling around the radio. Everybody that heard about it thought it would never take and that it would never last, but Adventures in Odyssey started in ’87 and it is still going today. We just had our 500th episode air earlier this year, so it’s been very successful.
JV: How did the program “Radio Theatre” come about?
Dave: Back in 1997 both myself and Paul McCusker, who also was one of the founders of Adventures in Odyssey, had a desire to begin a new program that would reach into sort of an older market. We had been working with Adventures in Odyssey, which targeted eight to twelve year olds. That’s when we started talking about Radio Theatre. Our desire was to continue to work on the Adventures in Odyssey program and keep that rolling with the staff that was in place at that time, but then also talk about perhaps working at Radio Theatre as a series of specials. The first special that we worked on was called “A Christmas Carol.” At that point in time when we worked on Christmas Carol, we had no idea how it would be received. We flew over to England and recorded all London actors. And when we did that as a Christmas special, it was reported back to us from both the general market and CBA markets as being the most successful holiday program that had ever aired on radio. It had cleared more stations than anything prior to it as a holiday promotion. I think we cleared 1400 or 1500 stations. It was really successful, and it has sort of become a holiday tradition for a lot of stations. It’s kind of become the “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a lot of stations. They air it every year.
In essence, that became a springboard for us to decide what Radio Theatre should become. Do we want to leave that as a series of specials, or do we want to look at that now as a weekly series? And as we began to look towards the future, we found that stations were asking for something on a regular basis. So we began to look at what we could do, and it became obvious that what stations were really asking from us was a weekly series, and that’s sort of how Radio Theatre began to come into being. It launched as a half-hour weekly series in January of 2000.
JV: Let me guess… there’s a lot of work involved in producing a half-hour radio program every week.
Dave: Yeah you can say that. It depends on the show itself. Some shows are much more demanding than others. We’ve dramatized all of the “Chronicles of Narnia,” and those are incredibly labor intensive. After Christmas Carol, the next project we wanted to do more than anything was the Chronicles of Narnia. And after we finished doing Christmas Carol, we sent a copy of that off to the Lewis Estate to give them an idea how we would produce a similar product for them. Actually, it was the Narnia packages that were the first thing we wanted to do, and we actually asked the C.S. Lewis Estate before anything if it was something they would be interested in us doing. We sent off a request to them and got back a denial from them. Then, after we did Christmas Carol, we sent a new package to them with a copy of Christmas Carol and a subsequent request. After they heard Christmas Carol and heard how we produced it, they accepted our second request.
So after about a year of going through contracts and such, finally in 1997 we began the process of script writing and casting. And then for a little over a year we worked at the process of intensive recording sessions because we did not want to lose the voices of the kids because a lot of the kids are through the entire series. And so we were in England an awful lot that year doing all the recording. And we recorded what eventually became over 22 hours of voices tracks. It took us five years to do all the post-production of it. It was very labor intensive. For one half hour I think we said there was probably somewhere in the vicinity of over 100 hours of work. In fact, on “The Last Battle,” which was nine and a half hours long, I think we figured out it was close to 1600 man-hours of post-production time.
JV: That’s a lot of work, but I bet it’s a lot of fun too.
Dave: It is. And of course, when deadlines come around it can also be stressful. But when you get to post-production it is a very enjoyable thing. You own it. You’re creating something that wasn’t there before. It’s making a world come alive, and that’s very enjoyable. Absolutely.
JV: Are all of your Radio Theatre programs adaptations?
Dave: We do a combination of both adaptations and original material actually. We do a lot of classic stories such as the Chronicles of Narnia. We’ve done adaptations of Les Misérables, Ben Hur, and The Secret Garden, and some lesser-known titles like Melville’s Billy Bud. But we’ve also done original stories. In fact we’ve got an entire mystery series that is our take on the Father Brown series, sort of Anglican Priest meets the X Files, a very different approach on the mystery genre. The Father Brown mysteries have your Anglican Priest going through the machinations of mystery, but ours have more of an X Files sort of twist to them in that we deal with a bit of the supernatural in many of the stories, from the spiritual perspective of the priest dealing with things. You really have to listen to the stories to understand because the priest, in some cases, is uncovering clues that he could not know about unless he received hints from on high. In one case he solves a murder that never happened. He solves it before it happens. And in other cases he’s dealing with very disturbed personalities and also with perhaps tormented individuals.
And so we’re pushing the boundaries where perhaps modern evangelicals might be a bit concerned, but definitely the culture is very comfortable because that’s where the world is today. It’s watching X Files and these kinds of stories, and I think we’ve gotten quite a bit of positive response on our mystery programs. People are enjoying them very much.
Another series that is an original story that we’ve created and are just wrapping up now is a different telling of the Gospel of Luke from the perspective of the writer as he is chronicling the story of Jesus, basically going from town to town and trying to research the story. It’s very much a TNT sort of approach. When Turner was telling a lot of the Biblical stories, he tried to tell them in a very straightforward approach. That’s what we’ve tried to do with our telling of the Gospel of Jesus from Luke’s perspective. It also gives a lot of the history of the time, which is fascinating. Most people don’t really understand what was going on during the time of that telling. So it gives a lot of the historical background, but it also gives that different slant on what happened during the time of Jesus.
We also have done a biography on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a German pastor during the time of the reign of Hitler. Bonhoeffer, if you don’t know his story, was involved in one of the assassination attempts to unseat Hitler and was uncovered and imprisoned and subsequently hanged for his role in one of the plots to assassinate Hitler — a fascinating story. We actually won a Peabody Award for that one. So we do a combination of both, original stories and adaptations.
JV: And any one of these stories may be a series of what, six or eight half hour programs?
Dave: Right. Most of them are serial productions.
JV: What are some of the biggest challenges you face when it comes to doing these things?
Dave: The scope of the productions because a lot of them are really long and involved, just trying to keep up with the deadlines and the demands to be completely honest. In fact, we’re right in the middle of a production right now. Jan Karon has written a series of books, the Mitford series, that have all been on the New York Times bestseller list. Each time another book comes out it’s number one. We’re adapting her first book right now, “At Home In Mitford,” and unlike most of these programs, which are like six, seven, eight, nine parts, this is actually going to be seventeen half hours. When it comes to CDs, it’s going to be on six different CDs. It’s very slice of life, set in North Carolina, and very humor based. So it’s a different kind of story for us. But the length of it is just massive. Our goal in everything we do with these adaptations is to be very true to the spirit and the tone and the approach of the story. We just got in the studio to adapt Little Women and the same is true of that. That became a 10-part episode because we’re trying to be very true to the approach and the story itself, and condensing too much takes away from the desire to be faithful. You’ve seen a lot of adaptations that cut the heart of these things, and that’s not our desire.
JV: You must have several writers and producers on staff.
Dave: We have on-staff writers and we’ve also got some freelance writers that are working for us. Same with the production, some is done in-house and some out-of-house.
JV: About how many producers got involved in, let’s say, the Narnias?
Dave: From a post-production perspective, six.
JV: Tell us a little about the studios.
Dave: We’re using Pro Tools and we’ve used Fairlight as well. For our particular projects we’ve got four studios.
JV: You mentioned that you had flown to England to do some recording of the actors for “A Christmas Carol.” Do you do that often, or do you have local talent that you use as well?
Dave: We actually fly to London for all the Radio Theatre productions. They’re all done with British actors.
JV: Sound effects obviously play an extremely important role in your productions. What tips could you offer in the way of using sound effects to create an atmosphere?
Dave: Well that really comes down to playing. To me it’s listening more than anything because anybody can learn how to do the tweaking. When I first sat down behind a board for the first time, the best thing anybody ever told me is anybody can learn how to move the knobs. It takes the ideas inside the guy’s head to figure where to put the knobs. It’s just listening to something and then knowing intuitively inside your mind just where to stop the knob. A monkey can push a knob up and down and twist a knob, but it’s just knowing where to stop. And you can’t teach somebody that. It’s just hearing it. So I think people need to be astute of listening.
When you’re watching a film, don’t just watch but almost close your eyes and listen. Listen when you’re outside. I do this and my wife thinks I’m nuts. I’ll go outside and I’m just listening to things all the time. If I’m in a department store, I might pick up something and start playing with it and making sounds. I turn things different ways, and I’m always listening for different sounds. And if I go into a thrift store, I may walk out with a whole bunch of different things because they just make great sounds. I’ll take them with me for props.
You have to be a student of sounds, and you have to listen. When you’re outside on a cold day just stop and listen. What does it sound like on a cold day? When it’s raining, what does it sound like? The rain on an umbrella, what does it really sound like? You just have to listen. And then once that sound is in your head, when you’re in the studio trying to recreate that sound, you keep fiddling with the knobs until you get to where it sounds that way.
JV: One sound we use all the time in radio is that of money. We want to get the idea across that we’re giving away a ton of money, and it’s always the sound of a cash register or coins used. I wish I could make fanning a bunch of $100 bills come across as just that, rather than someone wadding up some paper.
Dave: Sometimes it’s a certain mic you may want to use. Different mics obviously have different textures, and just in the same ways that different mics play off of different voices better, different mics play off of different sound effects better. Sometimes a 414 may work off of a sound effect better or a Schoeps may work better. I would say that probably for those kinds of sounds you really want a good condenser mic probably like a Schoeps because it’s going to get the crispness of the money. You want to EQ some of that low end stuff off and get that business in there of the dollars, which, you’re right, can be real hard to get. You just got to finesse it in.
JV: When recording actors’ voice tracks, do you ever go on location to get realistic environment sounds and reverbs, or is this mostly done in post-production?
Dave: It’s all being done in post. We get the room as dead as we can. And in terms of how we mic, we mic them all individually and try and isolate them from one another. And we split them off onto their own track, and that allows us then to pan them in and out, process them, and do whatever we want with them — which is different for the British actors because they’re used to working off of a stereo mic doing their own Foley effects. One of the main reasons we work with British actors is because they are very accustomed to doing radio drama because of the BBC. BBC has been doing radio drama continually for the past 50-60 years. In America it kind of died after the mid-‘50s, and yet in London with the BBC it has continued throughout the years. It’s still a regular form of entertainment there.
And so they know how to act for radio, but they’re not used to doing the kind of recording we do. They like to work on and off mic, whereas we tell them to stay right in front of the mic. Don’t go off. And then, when they hear how we produce it, they’re very pleased with how it sounds. It’s very different from their style of production.
JV: How much radio drama production do you think is being done out there? Obviously you’re doing some, BBC does a lot. Are other companies doing it on a similar scale as you?
Dave: There are others, not an awful lot but there are others doing it. There are some in Los Angeles. There are some that are doing it for kids. It’s been more of a renaissance I think since it’s been shown to be a fairly viable entertainment. It’s not huge, but you’ll find pockets of it around.
JV: In the pages of RAP, we often talk about creating more “theatre of the mind” production, something you take to the nth degree. What are your thoughts on radio’s quest for more “theatre” in their promos and commercials?
Dave: I was in that role for a long time. I was in radio for seven years, and the dilemma that I faced, and I think that most people really face — and I deal with other folks that are still in that role — is time. You’ve got so much product that you’ve got to produce, and you only have so much time to do it. So there’s pressure to get so much done in so little time. To be honest, that kind of kills creativity. It kills the ability to go deeper and deeper.
What I would like to see happen is for people to be able, as much as they can, to spread their schedules out a little bit more and be able to take a little more time instead of having to make these things cookie cutters as much as they have had to. Give themselves a little more time to think things through and to delve a little bit deeper, because I think innate in all of these people is that spark of creativity. When you get into the essence of what that product is about or what that idea is about, you start to then create an idea and create a concept, and then create sound concept around that. If you could give yourself a bit more time to flush that out and work with it…. I mean, we talked about Radio Theatre and having 1600 man-hours. There’s no mistake about the reason why these programs are sounding as deep and layered as they do. We spend a lot of time on them. If you have to kick a spot out in an hour, it’s just going to have to sound like you kicked the spot out in an hour. And my heart goes out to those folks that deal with the boss coming in saying do this spot great and do it in 30 minutes. You can only squeeze blood from a turnip so long.