A Bedtime Story in the Dark

A Brief History of Radio Drama in the United States

Saturday, April 16, 2011 - 12:00 AM

It is hard to imagine, now that radio is so pervasive, what a miracle it seemed when a confluence of discoveries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the first broadcasts. 

Easier perhaps, in an age that is transforming our own sense of communication almost daily, to appreciate how quickly radio went from being a technical novelty, and the realm of hobbyist, to being the dominant entertainment medium of its day, described by The New Yorker essayist E.B. White as "a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes."

The fledgling radio industry was hungry for content, and by the 1920s the airwaves were thronged with news and sports broadcasts, variety and quiz shows, concerts, storytelling hours, and repurposed vaudeville acts.

No one knows precisely when the first radio drama was recorded in the U.S., but entertainment historian Leonard Maltin cites a 1923 article in Radio Digest that discusses "the radio play, a new form of dramatic interest."

What was of "dramatic interest," then and now is the way radio drama partners with the listener—earning the medium its often repeated sobriquets, "theater of the blind" or "theatre of the imagination."

Early U.S. radio dramas were often local productions by amateur troupes hastily assembled to fill programming hours, but by the 1930s the form had gained critical mass and was among the mainstays of the major networks.  During radio's "Golden Age" (which continued into the late 1940s) hundreds of series and plays were broadcast, ranging from such marketable genres as the crime story and the thriller (early writers for radio often came to the medium from pulp magazines) to stirring literary adaptations, such as made the reputation of the young Orson Welles.  Welles is best known, of course, for crafting the most notorious broadcasting “prank” in history, War of the Worlds, but this sheep in wolf’s clothing was in fact simply an adaption (the studio announcer says so, right at the top of the show) of a short story by H.G. Wells.   It was one of many that Welles presented with various on air repertory companies such as the Mercury and The Campbell Playhouse, including vivid productions of Heart of Darkness, and Dracula.  Traditional and contemporary theatre also found a home on the air, with WQXR presenting adaptations of Elizabethan drama, and Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty, among others, and Columbia Playhouse commissioning new works by writers like Archibald MacLeish, whose The Fall of the City was the activist poet’s indictment against the unchallenged rise of Fascism in Europe. 

Adaptations of Hollywood movies—and series characters from them—were also standard radio play fare, but the most potent works of the Golden Age came from a small cadre of writers that included Norman Corwin, Lucille Fletcher, and Arch Oboler, who understood that radio was a unique medium, in which language and sound had parity, and linked together could provide works of compelling poetry and mystery.  Fletcher was the author of such classics as The Hitchhiker and Sorry, Wrong Number; Oboler created classic suspense works like Lights Out, and Corwin dominated the form with dozens of productions of stylish and poetic works, some of which made their way onto WNYC’s airwaves after initial broadcasts on CBS. 

In the period between 1930 and 1950 over 5,000 radio programs were in circulation, a sign of the robustness and reach of America’s first real entertainment industry.  However, by 1949 the Golden Age of radio was going grey, and the networks were redirecting their focus and resources to the promising new medium of television.  

Because of this, radio drama almost became extinct.   Since it had never became a regular source of income for the legitimate theatre community, as it is in England, its abandonment by the networks left a vacuum that it took nearly 20 years to fill.  There were some exceptions—the producer Himan Brown revived a vestigial form of radio drama alive on CBS between 1974 and 1982—but the parade had passed by.  

Nevertheless, Brown, who died in 2010 at the age of 99, and the other giant of Golden Age radio, Norman Corwin, who celebrated his 100th birthday in May of the same year, remained fiercely loyal to the form.  Brown’s New York Times obituary [LINK] quoted him as saying, “I don’t need 200 orchestra players doing the ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ I don’t need car chases. I don’t need mayhem. All I need to do is creak the door open, and visually your head begins to go. The magic word is imagination.”  In my interview with him in February, 2011, Norman Corwin stated emphatically, “if Shakespeare were alive today, he would write for radio.”

Radio drama’s resurgence as form in American culture has been mutable and imperiled, and because of this has gone largely unremarked by both the general public and critics.  But in fact it may be our country’s best kept cultural secret.  A small but remarkable stream of works has come from myriad sources around the country since the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the public radio system.

One of the most significant contributions to the history of contemporary radio drama was the long-running series Earplay, a series established by Karl Schmidt in 1971, originally at WHA in Madison, Wisconsin, and subsequently at WBEZ in Chicago.  Others involved in the project included Tom Voegli, Howard Gelman, and screenwriter John Madden, whose early exposure to the bold realm of radio may have made it all the easier to imagine Shakespeare in Love.

The series, which was distributed by and ultimately identified with National Public Radio (incorporated in 1970) commissioned work by established writers such as Archibald MacLeish and Edward Albee, and featured works by Donald Barthelme, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Tom Stoppard and John Mortimer. It also gave exposure to new writers, among them Arthur Kopit, whose play Wings, first written for the series, became a Tony-nominated stage play, and David Mamet, who declares in a piece in his essay collection Writing in Restaurants, "writing for radio, I learned the way all great drama works: by leaving the endowment of characters, place, and especially actors up to the audience."

Earplay lasted until 1981. Subsequently, a number of other radio drama projects were mounted, though most had short or fragmented lives owing to funding considerations, and the challenge of creating a new audience for a form many still associated with Golden Age.  Among some notable series and producers were a variety works created by Yuri Rasovsky; Everett Frost’s series of Samuel Beckett plays; compelling specials (including a bold remake of War of the Worlds for its 50th anniversary in 1987) by Otherworld Media; and Eric Bauersfeld’s collaborations with Jose Quintero; and his English–language versions of important post-war German radio plays.

Several producers took up Earplay’s mission to use the existing worlds of film and theatre to reanimate radio drama.  In 1986, Marjorie Van Haltern created The Radio Stage series for WNYC, commissioning original works from contemporary playwrights, in partnership with local companies that had a strong history of dramaturgy and an interest in language.  She later noted that she imagined the project as "a safe clearing in which to work, a place to write and realize a work that could not be made for any other 'stage' than one of pure sound..." I took over the series in 1992, and it premiered new productions through 1996.

In California, Susan Albert Lowenberg founded L.A. Theatre Works, one of the most star-studded and visible radio ensembles in the country. Relying mainly on multi-cast staged readings of existing works from the classic and contemporary repertoire and literature (by authors such as Sinclair Lewis, Noel Coward, Henry James, George Kaufman, and Arthur Miller, Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein and others), Lowenberg has created a robust institution that includes a successful public radio show and live performances around the country.

NPR returned to the distribution of radio drama with the establishment later in the 1980s of NPR Playhouse, an umbrella under which it acquired and presented productions from producers all over the country.  American Public Radio (now PRI) also began to feature drama productions in its program portfolio, including Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre and a number of major drama "specials.” Some notable productions have also come from independent companies, such as the collaborations with sound artists created by New American Radio.  

The advent of the Internet in the early 1990s, and the subsequent emergence of multi-media platforms, prompted some new ventures in audio theatre as well, notably the Syfy Channel’s Seeing Ear Theatre, produced by Brian Smith.  The combination of access and intimacy offered by online listening means that audio drama is returning to radio’s first principle: that its “theatre” is the space between a listener’s ears.

Great radio is not about information—it’s about imagination.  Tapping into things our brains already know, and giving them context, direction, beauty, and mystery.  In that sense, no matter what the technical environment, this is a form for the ages.  

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