Radio drama producer

Radio drama producer

By Effie Woods 13/01/11

Polly Thomas is a freelance radio drama producer, with several years experience at the BBC. She talks to Effie Woods about becoming a producer, the power of sound, and the different between theatre and radio...

Why are you called a producer and not a director?

Because our role is very broad. In radio we work on much smaller budgets. Our crew size is much smaller than film, TV or theatre, so the producer not only directs the play, but is also acts as producer, does the script editing, does the casting, writes the promotional material, and loads of other jobs.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a dramatisation of The Gun by C S Forester for BBC Radio Drama that has been turned into a Saturday play by Mike Walker. It’s a 19th-century epic set in Spain with guerrillas fighting off the invading French, and a cast of seven actors recreating a grand sweeping historical drama.

After that, I’m working on a community radio drama project for a Muslim community radio station in Birmingham – it’s part of a trilogy of radio dramas about issues that have come up through consultations with Muslim women.

How did you get into the industry?

I wanted to be an actress from a young age. Unfortunately I wasn’t very good! I knew I wanted to work in the performing arts, so I toyed with lots of things before I drifted into directing – which I suspect quite a few directors do.

I did a variety of jobs, such as producing a series of short stories for a women’s radio station and running Brouhaha International Street Festival in Liverpool. I got involved with the [now-defunct] New Playwrights Trust, because it was about supporting and encouraging new writers. I was interested in new writing so I worked as a script reader for theatres in London and directed plays on the pub theatre network.

I was persistent. I applied for jobs with BBC Radio many times before I was finally invited in as a freelancer. I was asked to bring in a writer I wanted to work with, so I got Nicola Baldwin to write a 30-minute drama, which I produced. That was my first radio play. I eventually got a radio drama producer job at BBC Manchester and spent 10 years there.

What makes a great radio play?

Radio can be quite prescriptive because the time slots are strict. And of course, radio is about the sound world created in the studio, but the bottom line is having a good story to tell. Great radio comes from a writer who is bold in their approach to the storytelling.

Too many writers will write their radio play as if it is a theatre piece. With radio you don’t need to give information in the same way that you would in a visual medium. It’s atmospheric. Sound is incredibly powerful – think of the emotion a piece of music can inspire within seconds. Hearing is the first sense we get in the womb and the last we lose on our deathbeds.

Your advice to a budding radio drama producer?

Listen to as much as possible. Get as much varied dramatic experience as possible. Experience of working with actors can be an advantage. Also, a healthy interest in developing relationships with writers is important.

Unfortunately you can’t expect to get a job on a plate so take every opportunity available – the BBC offer loads of the work experience schemes that can give you invaluable experience.


Interested in radio? Read our piece about behind-the-scenes radio jobs.

Image courtesy of bestfor / richard on Flickr.

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