Interview with Campfire Radio Theater Producer John Ballentine

There was a time when you could gather around a campfire and hear a good scare story. Nowadays you can do the same from the comforts of your home courtesy of Campfire Radio Theater. That’s what we hope you do after learning more about it from its producer John Ballentine. We got to talk to him about how the podcast was created, what a typical episode sounds like, the cast, what’s coming next, and more. Please take a few minutes and read the interview below…

-PH: Before we get into the podcast, please let us know a little about yourself.

-John: Well, I’m joe average married guy with a family and a normal day job. We live just outside of my hometown, a very southern neo-gothic area with 100 year old homes. Used to enjoy hot rodding cars and drag racing but I really needed a cheaper hobby.

I’ve always had a passion for fictional storytelling and writing. Had a bit of a history working with audio and filmmaking as well along with various other artistic endeavors. Combining these skill sets into producing audio drama proved to be a natural progression.

-PH: When did you first become a horror fan? What got you into horror?

-John: I think everything scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid. As ridiculous as it sounds, I could not stay in the same room while my older sister watched Young Frankenstein so I was definitely a horror coward. I didn’t really start warming up to horror until my teen years and we began studying the works of Edgar Allan Poe in school. Dark literature and episodes of the Twilight Zone were my gateway drug.

-PH: So am I correct in saying you started Campfire Radio Theater? What sparked this idea?

-John: Yes. Producing radio drama had always been an unchecked box on my “creative” bucket list but it’s a field I never realistically believed I’d have any chance to pursue. This type of “campfire”storytelling faded from public airwaves quite sometime ago. Now, I’m not old enough to remember the golden age of radio but I do recall listening to shows like Nightfall and Bradbury 13 on NPR as a young man and really yearning to try my hand at that craft. Even then though, it was a fading art form.

Fast forward thirty years later to the emergence of podcasting and suddenly here was a fresh new medium. A chance to perhaps breathe life into a form of entertainment that I still had warm affection and nostalgia for. It was most gratifying to find other folks who felt the same.

-PH: Once you had the idea, what were some of the most important things you wanted to include in the podcast?

-John: I knew I wanted to do an anthology. Something between Rod Sterling’s original Twilight Zone and Tales From the Crypt but with a contemporary vibe. And utilizing modern recording techniques and cinematic level sound design.

I totally found the perfect model for what I wanted to create in the old CBC radio production of Nightfall from the 80s. It was a terrific mix of shock value and horror storytelling. Listening as an impressionable young lad back then, I could hardly believe my ears! How were they getting away with broadcasting stuff that seemed like it belonged in an R rated horror flick? So, I borrowed a great deal from their formula and tried to put my own unique spin on the genre. Campfire Radio Theater grew out of that.

-PH: So tell us a little about the episodes. What does a typical episode sound like?

-John: Hopefully, if you slip on a set of headphones, you’ll be immersed in an audio experience you’ve never had before. 

Each episode has a runtime of about thirty minutes and is a self contained story with the exception of a handful of two-parters we’ve done. Most of our stories are original horror tales but we’ve adapted works by Joe R Lansdale and Bill Gray with the author’s consent.

It’s a vastly different medium from film where all the visuals are laid out for you. There’s a special component that the listener must provide. Imagination being the key. The listener must paint the visuals in their head for what characters and locations look like. They imagine the monster hiding around the corner and chances are, their monster is more terrifying than anything Hollywood can dream up. It’s all in the listener’s head. We just provide the soundtrack for their nightmares.

-PH: Where do the ideas for each episode come from?

-John: Sometimes ideas materialize from mundane ordinary things. Perhaps you pass a road with an odd name and you wonder what’s on the other side and what kind of people you might run into if you took a detour down that road. Imagination fills in the blanks, the mind starts reeling and next thing you know, you have a horror story taking shape. Sometimes ideas just spring from the ether.

-PH: Please tell us about some of the cast that are part of the episodes.

-John: Our cast comes from all over the US, Canada and the UK. Lots of first rate voice actors have contributed over the years. Too many to mention. I’m truly humbled by how fantastic these guys are. They all bring emotion and texture to their characters that you’d miss if someone just read you a story. It’s always a pleasure to hear what they bring to each episode. That’s what makes audio drama unique. 

-PH: Take us behind the scenes. What kind of preparation do you do for upcoming episodes? How long does it take to create an episode?

-John: I start writing a script and that can take anywhere from a week to months to nail down to. If I’m spinning a historic tale about Scottish lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanish or nazis being hunted by bloodthirsty creatures in WW2 it can also involve a bit of research.

Casting is the next stage which is very important. Matching the right voice for each character. Once you cast the right people it makes the job so much easier.

While I’m waiting for voice work to be completed, I start discussing the score with my composer Kevin Hartnell. We spitball a lot of ideas. Kevin is a super gifted guy and knowledgeable with virtually any form of music. We’ve developed a terrific friendship over the years working on the podcast. Much of my own inspiration springs out of his musical compositions.

Once I have all the pieces… voice work, sound design and music, the sound mix stage kicks off. It’s like a big puzzle that has to be assembled. Sometimes you might be dealing with a session of 50 separate tracks or more! It’s a ton of work but once you hear the talents of all these amazing folks come together, it’s well worth the effort!

-PH: What have been some of the biggest challenges of bringing the podcast to fans?

-John: Really it’s just finding the spare time to put these shows together. The podcast obviously isn’t a full time gig. All of us have day jobs and unfortunately sometimes the real world intrudes. It’s basically like a part time job that you really love, only you’re not making any money at it. We have zero budget so Campfire Radio Theater is a total passion project for all involved. 

-PH: If you could only recommend one episode for fans to listen to, which should they check out?

-John: A personal fave is Hungry Hollow. Instead of going in the studio, we recorded that show on location in the woods and it was a fun process. It’s a creepy tale about three guys hiking an isolated mountain trail who encounter a bewitching young beauty lost in the wilderness and as you might imagine, spooky shit begins to happen.

-PH: Any special plans for future shows? Any surprises, or teases you can give for what’s coming in the future?

-John: Hopefully, this COVID thing will die down one day and we might have the opportunity to record actors on location again. We field recorded another episode several years ago called Abduction at Willow Woods at various locations using a diy binaural microphone which is shaped like a human head. It’s a process that simulates the way our ears perceive sound and if you listen with earbuds or headphones it’s a really fun immersive experience. The sound is much more life-like and can even startle you sometimes. It’s kind of like 3D for your ears!

-PH: So here’s your chance to promote anything we haven’t talked about. Let us know something more about yourself, the podcast, certain episodes, where people can find you, or anything else you would like to mention.

-John: Well, first off, thanks for this opportunity to chat about the podcast!

Currently we have a holiday episode in the works as well as another episode in production slated for early 2022 release. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the podcast and it’s been an enormously rewarding experience collaborating with so many gifted folks over the years. With any luck, we’ll continue to spook listeners for many more!

You can find Campfire Radio Theater wherever you listen to podcasts as well as our website. Follow us on social media for periodic updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

We would like to thank John for taking the time to answer our questions. Hopefully this was a good introduction to Campfire Radio Theater if you haven’t listen to them before. If you’re a fan of their show, hopefully this gave you some more details on who you’re listening to. Either way, please make sure to catch the latests shows on the usual podcast platforms and more!

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