The Radio Theater Renaissance
“LOOSE! … HEAVE! … ATTACK! … INTO THE MOOT!”
Suddenly the men roaring these words fell silent. They had been told to do so by a mild-mannered American sitting listening intently to their voices.
That American is Paul McCusker. He is an award-winning radio theater writer and director. He was in a London sound studio to record his latest audio drama based on the legend of Robin Hood for Augustine Institute’s Radio Theatre.
Having turned up midmorning at the studio, I sat in the control room and watched McCusker at work. He was at the center of everything taking place. It was clear that the actors, sound engineers, producers all looked to him for guidance and direction. Like the best creative directors, McCusker is sure of his purpose, fully conversant with the script — one, in this instance, that runs to over 300 pages — as well as completely at ease with the creative process of producing audio drama.
As the day progressed, I spoke with the cast and crew. All concerned enjoyed working with McCusker. They talked of his professionalism on the set; they also talked of the “family atmosphere” that had developed over the past two weeks of recording. The word “collaborative” cropped up again and again. This was the last day recording Robin Hood. A final production day is often fraught with pressure, strained nerves, to say nothing of occasional ill humor. There was none of this on the set. In fact, the “wrap” came early, called mid-afternoon. With it, I sensed a sadness descend upon the actors who, judging by their laughter and smiles, were still enjoying the experience of recreating Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
Any sense of poignancy soon disappeared, however, as McCusker took the cast and crew to a nearby public house to celebrate. As glasses were raised and toasts made, the sense of achievement at finishing this stage of the production was palpable; so too was the tiredness of all involved, not least McCusker.
McCusker is the Senior Director of Content Creation at the Denver-based Augustine Institute. In recent years he has been at the forefront of crafting its creative output in the world of radio theater.
Radio theater recalls the strong tradition on both sides of the Atlantic of audio drama that was once the staple of family entertainment before television. Times are changing though. Today a new era in audio has begun. In this past decade, audio books and podcasts have seen a rise in popularity and a spike in sales year on year. That popularity shows no sign of abating, not least because this form of storytelling is so mobile.
McCusker and his team are in the vanguard of this audio renaissance. Last year, McCusker won the 2018 Audie Award for Best Audio Drama with his Brother Francis, based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The Audie Awards are the equivalent of “Sound Oscars.” McCusker is in no doubt about the prestige of that victory but modest about his part in it, saying simply that it was a “team effort.” Perhaps so, but he is aware of the award’s importance for Catholic media. As he points out, it shows: “You don’t have to have a secular product to get secular recognition.”
It is not as if McCusker was an “overnight success” though. He has been involved in audio productions for over 30 years, mainly working for Focus on the Family. He served as Executive Producer for the organization’s award-winning audio dramas, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, and Audie Award-nominated The Screwtape Letters, as well as the popular children’s radio program Adventures in Odyssey. These years of refining his storytelling craft, and in particular improving his sound product year on year, is evidenced by the quality of the work his team produces. Most of the London actors I met were veterans of BBC drama; for many this is the “gold standard” of audio drama productions. The surprising view of each of the Robin Hood actors and crew was that McCusker’s productions were of a higher quality still. One actor likened McCusker’s audio productions to films such are their scale and ambition.
In the short time I was present on the set of the Augustine Institute’s Robin Hood I was struck by how much work went into each production. The average film script has 90 pages; the script of Robin Hood ran to over 300 pages. There was also the sheer size of the endeavor: both technical and human. On most film sets there might be between 10-20 actors with speaking parts. The Robin Hood set had seen 65 actors coming and going, all with speaking parts. During those two weeks, each evening that day’s sound files were uploaded to three editors in different parts of the United States. Already these editors were hard at work on the post-production phase. That phase will take the best part of a year as 50 hours of sound recordings are finessed into just six hours of listening. The various sound tracks are edited into a whole; sound effects added; the original music mixed in as a complete soundscape is forged. There then follows a listening and tweaking process by McCusker and his team, refining the sound quality and its narrative function.
When asked to sum up what his particular “gift” is, without hesitation McCusker names it: “Storyteller.” He tells stories in sound. In regard to audio drama, he explained: “If I can hear it in my head, then I can make it happen.” He is also aware of the technical requirements of the medium in which he is working. When making audio drama he asks himself constantly: “Am I truly conveying the audio in the drama?” For any producer this direct link between the imagination of the listener and the sound world being created could be as challenging as it is exhilarating. McCusker trusts in the fact that he is simply the steward of a gift bestowed rather than its source.
McCusker is a convert from Protestantism to the Catholic faith. A chance encounter with the Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft started a five-year-journey of study and prayer that ended with McCusker being received into the Church in August 2007. During this period, he read extensively. Interestingly, the book he claims was the most influential in his conversion was a novel, albeit one by an earlier Catholic convert: Loss and Gain by John Henry Newman.
McCusker’s artistic approach is refreshingly free of what he terms “pietism.” Aware of the power of great art to convert hearts and minds to the truth, he laments that too many Christians “understand a story’s power but not the power of storytelling.” He senses the temptation for Christians is to make art that is merely expository rather than an exploration. McCusker is adamant that without a good and original story idea and the technical means to transmit that tale to an audience then no matter how correct its message it will fall flat.
“Flat” is the last word one thinks of when considering the Augustine Institute’s Radio Theatre productions. As we all know, at its best, radio paints the mind’s most vivid pictures. To that end McCusker’s productions are the equivalent of Technicolor images in sound. And with Paul McCusker and his team, one suspects that, in the years ahead, these colors are going to become even more striking.
This article first appeared in the National Catholic Register and is republished here with permission.