Airwave Renaissance

by by Natalie Jablonski

illustration by by Robert Sandler

On Friday, November 25, 1960, radio drama died. Goodbye, Ma Perkins. Farewell, Amos ‘n’ Andy. It was the end, too, for Have Gun, Will Travel. On this day, three of the last important daytime dramas were cut from the sound waves, a day that most radiophiles consider to be the beginning of the end for the ‘golden age of radio.’
Before television, radio dominated national media. Supplying news, music, and entertainment—radio was all there was. In this age of smart phones, 3-D movies, and high-speed internet, we forget there was a time before all this existed, when the exciting new technology was something much simpler: the humble radio. Most forgotten of all is the genre of radio drama, which included everything from full-length radio plays, comedy shows, adaptations of classic plays or stories, as well as soap operas that ran up to five times a week. At the time, radio dramas—born in the US in the late ’20s—were a dime a dozen.  Ranging from the comedies of Red Skelton or Fred Allen to the suspenseful CBS Mystery Theater and superhero series The Green Hornet, radio dramas held the attention of the nation through nothing but sound.  Radio soaps populated the airwaves with well-loved series like Ma Perkins, which aired 7,065 episodes over 27 years—second only to The Romance of Helen Trent. Perhaps the most famous use of radio theatre was Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds, a 1938 one-time fictional broadcast announcing an alien invasion that was so realistic, many listeners were convinced that the US was actually under attack.
By 1948, television was steamrolling over radio like a monster truck over a bicycle. Networks like CBS and NBC—which began as radio networks —started cutting their radio budgets, and show after show got the axe. Network executives saw money in the future of visuals.  Listeners—after they got over their initial trauma at the death of their favorite soap opera characters—were soon glued to the screen. The change wasn’t uncontested: comedian Fred Allen, whose popular show Allen’s Alley was one of the first to go off the air, jibed angrily at the new technology: “Television is a triumph of equipment over people, and the minds that control it are so small that you could put them in the navel of a flea and still have enough room beside them for a network vice president’s heart,” adding mournfully, “Radio was abandoned like the bones at a barbeque.”
Although the effects of this transition were felt on all genres of radio, the greatest casualty of the takeover was American radio drama. Today it’s become almost completely esoteric, a forgotten relic. What’s left seems corny, almost embarrassing. For a while, a few robust shows—like NPR Playhouse and Earplay— survived through the 1980s, featuring innovative works by renowned playwrights like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. But even these have since gone by the wayside, short of funds and not prioritized by networks. Meanwhile, in Britain, radio theatre remains a familiar concept: the BBC still produces hundreds of new plays every year for its channels Radio 3 and Radio 4, including the soap opera The Archers that has run since 1950.
As the outlets for radio drama shrank in the US, so did its audience.  And with no audience, there was even less incentive for stations to support those projects—there was just no money in it.

Stirrings of Life
Despite its mounting obscurity in the US, radio drama is not quite dead—at least not according to a few devoted advocates. Fred Greenhalgh produces a weekly podcast and blog called Radio Drama Revival. He started the project in 2007 on the airwaves of Portland, Maine’s community station WMPG, as a distribution opportunity for work that didn’t have a lot of other outlets.  Greenhalgh says that once he posted the call for submissions on a few listservs, he started receiving a steady stream of content. “It’s remarkable how much new work is being produced,” he says. His podcast boasts 10,000 downloads a month, and he says that his audience is an “eclectic mix” of those nostalgic for the old time radio they heard when they were young, and those who are just excited about a different kind of podcast.
Greenhalgh, who also produces his own work through Final Rune Productions, says he likes radio drama because as an artist, “It opens up a market that a fiction writer can’t access, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than film.”
It’s clear why accessibility is part of radio’s appeal. The simplicity of the technology and medium can allow for a sophisticated sound without the obstacle of complicated sets and costumes. Although radio drama has nothing on television in terms of visuals, its limitations may also be its strengths. The voice, standing alone, can convey an extraordinary range of emotion. There’s an intimacy created through listening, and radio drama often uses stream-of-consciousness narratives that allow characters’ internal dialogues to become another layer of the play. Also, since the only cues as to what’s going on are auditory, the potential actions are unlimited. While on stage it would be a tricky feat to have a character go to the moon or drive a racecar, on the radio it can seem as realistic as making a cup of coffee. As Greenhalgh points out, “There’s an opportunity as a producer to use imagination for all your special effects.” On a related note, Greenhalgh has observed a trend in popularity: “Horror is one of the genres best-suited for radio drama…people love horror programming.”

A Long Road Ahead
So is there, in fact, a revival? Several strongholds remain: LA Theatre Works is a company devoted entirely to audio theatre; ZBS Foundation has been producing work, specializing in sci-fi and fantasy, for forty years. The National Audio Theatre Festival unites about a hundred enthusiasts each year in West Plains, Missouri for a week of workshops and performances. The listserv Audio Drama Talk has almost 1500 members. But compared to the state of the genre in other countries, these numbers and handful of organizations seem paltry.
The new age of online streaming and podcasts is clearly a new opportunity for the radio drama medium to rise from the dead, but it hasn’t quite caught on yet.  For one thing, nobody has figured out how to make buckets of money through podcasting.  And it can be surprisingly tricky to listen to radio dramas online. The BBC, for example, airs hundreds of dramas each year, but only makes them available for a week or two for online streaming. Other organizations, like ZBS Foundation, largely make their pieces available only by purchase.  In contrast to the vast archive and user-friendly design of popular nonfiction radio shows like This American Life, radio drama sites are fraught with broken links and unavailable content.
Although part of radio’s strength is its technological simplicity, it can also make for some tiresome listening. “The vast majority [of drama producers] are people on a laptop, plugging in a USB mic, figuring it out as they go along,” Greenhalgh explains. Even Susan Loewenburg—head of LA Theatre Works, one of the foremost audio theatre groups in the country—was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, saying that podcasting combines “twenty-first century technology with eighth grade content.” Since more people have access to technology than ever before, there are fewer barriers to simply recording and uploading—which means there’s less of a filter created by technology, and it can be hard to know where to find the good stuff.
Even when the technical quality of an amateur work can be problematic—“sounds like they recorded in the bottom of a well”—Greenhalgh says the quality of the story can still come through and appeal to listeners. That is, after all, the point—to experience a good story. And at a time when we are bombarded with ever-more-stunning graphics, gruesome visuals, and two-second frame rates, maybe a good story is just what we need. With podcasts becoming commonplace, and the audio book industry on the rise—people are starting to listen again.  Perhaps radio drama’s stripped-down storytelling is just the rest we need for our tired, twenty-first century eyes.

Natalie Jablonski B’10.5 is listening to Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache.