It’s February 2022. I am sitting on a roof terrace in my old neighborhood of Villa Crespo, Buenos Aires, chatting with a friend. The sun is low in the sky, but it’s still hot. A hummingbird, tiny, wings flapping frantically, joins us, hovering beside a purple salvia.
Just an hour earlier, I had been on a call to a commissioner at BBC Radio 3, pitching the idea of an adaptation of Sandro Veronesi’s award-winning novel, The Hummingbird.
It was the only hummingbird I saw on my two-week stay in Argentina.
A good omen, perhaps?
Three months on, I am writing this from my desk in Porto. The adaptation is complete, broadcast, and now available on BBC Sounds.
More than 85,000 words condensed to fit an hour-long slot. Thirty-two scenes rehearsed over five full days. A 66-page formatted recording script, lines numbered for the cast of six to record their parts in studios in Cheltenham and Oxford. Five hours of recorded speech, each take noted and marked, edited, and weaved with music, and the authentic sounds and textures of Italy. The result: an impressionistic, dreamlike telescoping of a life into 59 minutes with an intricate, immersive soundscape.
Let’s hop over to Malmӧ, Sweden, home to the Øresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. The striking five mile-long bridge descends onto an artificial island and morphs into a 2.5 mile underwater tunnel. extraordinary. Look it up! Earlier this month, Malmӧ hosted Radiodays Europe 2022, a lead meeting point for the world of podcasts, radio, and audio.
The conference caught my attention via Twitter. Johan Seidefors, the Nordic head of content at Spotify, in conversation with James Cridland, said that the next trend in podcasting could be different types of scripted content for a bigger audience.
Sam Missingham tweeted the clip with the comment: “’Scripted podcasts you say?’ Huge opportunity for publishers and authors.”
Publishers, agents and estates have everything to gain in terms of sales and audiences from taking the initiative and driving the production of new audio dramas.
I followed the thread of responses and it was a familiar one. A commentator or service provider says: “This is an opportunity, we need this.” Creators (of audio drama in this instance) react by saying: “This isn’t anything new, we’ve been doing this for years!” The publishing industry reacts with… well, not much.
Publishers, agents and estates have everything to gain in terms of sales and audiences from taking the initiative and driving the production of new audio dramas. If the next big thing has everything to do with tonality, as Seidefors said, this is the moment for already published fiction to be intelligently adapted, with creative direction and sophisticated sound design.
The content is there, the expertise is there, and the opportunity is there to do this on a bigger scale.
There is not a lack of willingness. Agents and publishers are certainly pursuing radio/audio dramas, in a broad sense, along with film/TV rights. There is also no lack of output. Audio drama producers and designers are creating stand-out productions with original styles and stunning soundscapes.
A one-hour format fits perfectly. With the right adaptation and direction, a whole novel can be condensed into just under 60 minutes, as we did with The Hummingbird. It doesn’t need to feel rushed, or incomplete, but it can leave the listener wanting more: the book!
Audiobooks tend to be read instead of the text, rather than as a way in. Less commitment is required from a one-hour adaptation. Also, exciting new talent can be cast in a one hour audio drama (if the director/producer can resist defaulting to known names), which is unlikely to happen in an audiobook or a screen adaptation.
Back to the conversation in Malmӧ. A one-hour drama easily translates to a podcast. A series of translated fiction from a region? Or novels from a particular decade, or on a quirky theme? A podcast season with episodes of hour-long dramatizations (and not necessarily new productions – there are plenty already in existence) could be exactly what the likes of Spotify are searching for.
Finally, there’s the live event to consider. This August, Edinburgh International Book Festival will host an immersive experience of The Hummingbird audio drama. I hope it delights the audience and that it will inspire more treatments of one-hour dramatizations finding their way onto festival programmes.
Kudos to BBC Radio 3 for taking a punt on something quite different for the network, and to Tamara Zemit at Edinburgh for jumping at the opportunity to stage something experimental.
Short, punchy audio dramas: a way to tell powerful stories in creative ways to unexpected audiences.
The Hummingbird is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. The adaptation, produced by The Story of Books, is on BBC Sounds until 21st June 2022. The live, immersive experience at Edinburgh International Book Festival is on 29th August at 10.30am. It will be followed by a Q&A with Sandro Veronesi, Elena Pala, and John Retallack who adapted and directed the audio drama.