An Ode to Radio Drama

We all have exposure to actors on the big and small screen, and many of us have the joy to experience drama from stage actors in theatre. But while we do know some of the voices behind animated characters, we don't as often think of the good ole fashioned radio actors anymore. This is no surprise since radio drama has mostly been usurped by television and film.  And believe me, I love a good movie (just saw The Double, which I raved about in a previous post), but there is something quite unique about radio drama.  And I personally have a very soft spot for it.

When I was 14, my High School American History teacher played for our class a tape (yes, folks, I'm that old.) of an "Old Time Radio Show." There was a panicked woman, a phone ringing, or a phone she was using to call, I remember tension, a very stylized way of acting, maybe it was a monologue radio play... It was from a show called Suspense, and in that moment, I was hooked. My teacher said our local National Public Radio Station, WRVO, played these shows from 8pm to midnight every day, and so I tuned in to 89.9FM and thus become my long time love affair with NPR and the world of spoken word radio.

In those first few years, I met PRI's This American Life, I met All Things Considered, the CBC's Christmas Eve reading of the short story The Shepherd, Science Friday, Diane Rehm, A Prairie Home Companion and Fresh Air. Later, I fell in love with Selected Shorts, Car Talk, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, Radiolab, the BBC's world service news hour, I met the NYC NPR gang of Leonard Lopate and Brian Lehrer and most recently Invisibilia. I get almost all of my news exclusively from the radio and I prefer that. I don't hear the sensationalized version of things, I learn, I gain insight and various perspectives. I don't need to see pictures or watch video footage in the background. I'm also entertained by the story-based shows and I almost never have the desire to search for a visual to match what I hear.

And this all started with WRVO's "Theatre of the Mind." It started with Fibber McGee and Molly, The Jack Benny Show, The Great Gilversleeve, Gunsmoke, X-Minus One, Lights Out, Escape, Suspense (I loved the sci-fi/thriller stuff)...I could go on... Okay, the shows, initially, felt very over-the-top to a movie-watching teen. The comedies seemed cheesy, until I realized how much fun the actors were having with each other live.  The dramas seemed a bit exaggerated until I started to appreciate the acting of the time period.  And what started on a whim turned into a true enjoyment of these shows from War-Time America. Soon, at 18 years old, I could hold a lively conversation with a 70-year-old man about our favorite radio shows. I didn't sit with my family around the radio listening to shows as they might have in the 40s. I still watched tv, but I had the radio on while I exercised at night, while I put laundry away and cleaned my room. I multi-tasked, but I was listening. It was comforting. It was familiar and it was a kind of magical late-night entertainment to a girl with no tv in her room and before the age of the Internet (I said I was old!).

So. While I'm netflixing it up on my laptop and playing Fashion Story on my device, it brings me great personal joy to learn that radio drama is not dead. In fact, one of my favorite movies of the past year, The Bothersome Man, I discovered was originally written as a radio play. I also recently had the pleasure of e-meeting a talented voice actor in England, Niki Kernow. She did a cool recording of my monologue The Plum Colored Sweater (player below), and in our conversations, we started talking about radio drama.  I introduced her to the names of my old time radio shows, and she found them online (btw--if you just google "old time radio" you can find dozens of free players to listen to these shows--they WANT to be heard!).  Now she's enjoying these 1940s Suspense Singles, but also discovered a group of 21st century dramatists who produced radio plays called Theatre of the New Ear, with the catchphrase "Leave your eyes at home" (how nice to be able to close your eyes and relax while you're entertained, right?). But there is a more modern take too, Niki pointed out, being used with new technology involving binaural audio, recordings made with microphones "placed on either side of a stand or dummy head, sometimes embedded inside ear-shaped appendages on that head."  The result is that we hear recordings how we would perceive the sounds in person (you can hear a sample here - note: you need headphones to get it to "work."). This is not a novel idea actually (apparently it was used in the late 1800s), but has gained popularity with the virtual realities created, and of course, now we have stellar technology to capture what wasn't possible centuries ago. Niki shared one show using that technology, Saratoga Fat Cats.

There is still a place for radio drama, and hopefully we won't lose sight of that (no pun intended. Really.). Not only because of the obvious fact that it's cheaper to produce radio than films (or large-scale theatre), but also because there is a benefit to exploring story without visual...your brain and imagination like to be stretched to fill in blanks, to make the experience yours. This is good for adults but it is great for children and teens. Their brains are still growing, and allowing them to visualize, to do a bit of the creative work, stimulates their very important and very needed imaginations.

So the next time you're in a car, riding the bus, on the elliptical machine or washing dishes (or hey, maybe even sitting down with your family around the radi--I mean, computer)--maybe try giving one of these old time--or new time--radio shows a listen. You might find you actually enjoy entering your of the mind...


Share your thoughts: Have you ever listened to modern or old-time radio? What are some of your favorite shows? Do you find it difficult to imagine only listening to a dramatized story (instead of seeing the visuals with it)? What do you think the future of radio/audio drama holds?