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How to Get Started on Radio with John Morrison

Writing.ie | Resources | Write for Stage & Screen

John Morrison

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I’m a scriptwriter who has sweated, like many others, over the tyranny of the blank computer page, writing movie and television drama scripts. Some of those scripts have been through ‘development’ where some money has come up, mainly from Northern Ireland Screen, for me to write them.  Others have been written on spec. Some scripts have been very positively received and made it to the final few in competitions or have been optioned by production companies. So far none, however, have gone into production (other than a couple of shorts). Yet in the same period two of my radio plays have been produced and received a lot of acclaim. No, this is not me merely singing my own praises but it is simply a way of saying that maybe radio is the place for new scriptwriters to have their work aired.

It is certainly true, in my experience, that to get a movie or a TV drama produced is very difficult indeed. Somebody has to write a very big cheque and expect to get his money back with a significant bonus. Radio on the other hand is cheap to make and tends to move quickly from completed script to production. That’s not to say that getting a radio play on air is easy. It isn’t. Radio producers receive thousands of plays per year for a limited number of slots but there are real opportunities there to see, or should I say hear, your worked performed. The budding scriptwriter should think seriously about looking at radio.

For the Irish scriptwriter there are two main producers of radio to target:  RTE and the BBC. RTE has a limited number of slots and therefore a limited number of opportunities for the new writer.  My experience is mainly with the BBC and I would like to concentrate on that. The BBC is far and away the most important producer of English language radio plays in the world and for the writer living in Ireland, north or south, the news is good.

The BBC does not encourage writers to send their plays to London but to send them to the regional BBC centre or to an individual producer. Writers throughout Ireland can send their plays to the BBC in Belfast and many Irish writers based in the Republic have their work regularly performed on network BBC. In this case the border does not seem to come into the equation.

BBC Radio 4 in particular has a huge range of potential opportunities and its plays reach anything up to 1.5m listeners.

Let’s look at the slots where drama can be heard on BBC Radio4 .

Radio 4 Drama
The Archers
 – this long-running soap opera totals 1 hour 15 minutes of air time per week, making for 65 hours a year

The Friday Drama – this is a 60 minute, post-watershed play. Right now it’s called The Friday Play, but is being rebranded.

The Saturday Play – a 60-90 minute play broadcast the afternoon

Woman’s Hour play – these are a series of five 15 minute ‘issues plays’ run over a week, during The Woman’s Hour magazine programme

Classic Serial – multi-part adaptations of contemporary and historical classics

The Afternoon Drama – an original 44 minute 15 second play broadcast every weekday – about 140 hours a year.

Out of all those however, The Afternoon Drama is the only slot available to new writers. All the others have their own writing teams or are commissioned directly by Radio 4. The Afternoon Drama is where we must turn our attention,

Understand the Radio 4 audience

I don’t want to be too prescriptive but it’s important to know just what type of an audience listens to the Afternoon Drama. They are mostly ABC 1s, they read the Daily Mail or the Telegraph, live in south-east England – mostly London- and are extremely well-informed. These aren’t my findings but the BBC’s own research. Of course all types listen to the Afternoon Pay but the majority of listeners fit this classification.

This audience is the backbone of Radio 4 and the Radio 4 audience is highly engaged and knowledgeable about current affairs. This means that plays with links current affairs – or future current affairs – stand a better chance of getting commissioned.

Listen to Radio 4
Before writing for Radio 4 you have to listen to Radio 4’s plays. If you expect “anyone for tennis” cosy dramas you couldn’t be more wrong. The Afternoon Drama engages with a huge range of topics and doesn’t shy away from the controversial. Very few subjects are really taboo. In my experience producers of radio drama want to be surprised and this is the perfect slot to take risks.

What makes a good Afternoon Play
As in all drama, the most important thing is story. No matter what the subject matter is, hook the audience into listening and the battle is won. A BBC producer described this slot as being “radio for curious minds”. Plays which link into current affairs have a good chance of being commissioned.  (upcoming elections, environmental issues etc.)

Radio 4 listeners love history, but not “typical” historical biographies – the plays must reflect how people live now and be relevant to current society. It’s only a personal observation but I would say that plays set somewhere other than the locations we are familiar with in television stand a good chance of being commissioned. Radio 4 likes to make plays set in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe etc as long as the story is good.

Make the play challenging. Avoid monologues or soap operas. It must be a single play which stands on its own accord. Write in your voice – don’t try to emulate another writer. The best plays are ones that you, the writer, is “desperate to tell”.
Take risks. The Afternoon Play has the freedom to tell powerful, challenging, irreverent and disturbing stories

But most important of all, make sure you have done the very best you can with your material before sending it in.

For more information check out my blog:  justwrite4radio.wordpress.com

About the author

John’s first original screenplay, the short film, The Rules of Golf (directed by Hugh McGrory) was produced by Northern Ireland Screen. It won awards at major festivals. His two Afternoon Plays were produced by BBC Radio4, Macmorris and Dan Quixote. At the same time he wrote a number of short stories for Radio4 and Radio Ulster as well as a dozen twenty minute dramas for BBC Education Radio.

In 2008  Northern Ireland Screen backed his movie script, (written with Eileen McAuley) Crosshaven with Development money. The script received a BAFTA/ROCLIFFE presentation in 2010 and is still with Powerstone Films seeking a producer.

In 2011 Northern Ireland Screen were instrumental in setting up a meeting with Hollywood scriptwriter, Gil Denis to discuss John’s script The Last Warrior at the Galway Film Festival. The finished script is now with a major Hollywood producer. It has just been named as a quarter-finalist in the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition, one of America’s biggest.

Currently writing a documentary with Lamb Films, How the Irish Changed Football, which has received development money from Northern Ireland Screen John is also writing a two-part TV mini series, Magennis VC, for Lamb Films. This project has been looked on favourably by Northern Ireland Screen and will be submitted in February seeking Development funding.


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