Radio Drama

Radio Drama

These research notes consider the histories, aesthetics, and practices of radio drama and how its components—Dialogue. SFX. Music. Silence. Imagination.—provide a variety of deep and rich sound-based narrative experiences focused on the act of listening. Background information and listening opportunities are provided. These notes are rough maps, blueprints for further explorations.

This inquiry first defines radio drama and then outlines historical backgrounds for its development. The focus then shifts to radio drama's "constituent parts"—spoken dialogue between actors, other sounds/sound effects, music, and silence—(Hand and Traynor 2011), and their layering so to hierarchically privilege the "verbocentric" (Beck 2003), the human voice. I provide examples from classic radio drama episodes to illustrate points made. I introduce imagination and listening as additional constituent parts and discuss how they both add dimension to the listening experience. The desired end result of this inquiry is to situate radio drama as offering a variety of deep and rich sound-based narrative experiences focused on the act of listening.

Works Cited

Beck, Alan E. Listening to Radio Plays: Fictional Soundscapes. Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), vol 5, no. 3, 2003.
Also available at http://jcp.proscenia.net/publications/articles_mlr/beck/Listentoradio.html
Accessible as PDF at: https://soundartarchive.net/articles/Beck-2003-Listening%20to%20radio%20plays_%20fictional%20soundscapes.pdf

Hand, Richard J. and Mary Traynor. Radio Drama Handbook: Audio Drama in Context and Practice. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.


The roots of radio drama might sprout from Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) whose works were performed by readers as sound plays rather than by actors as stage plays (Banham 1995, 896).

Several terms are used to describe the combination of voice(s), sound effects, music, and silence to create and sustain narratives. Some of these terms are general, like audio theater, audio drama, audio books, and mind movies. But each speaks to the impression of watching a movie with your eyes closed.

The terms radio drama and audio drama are better suited to describe the presenting of sound-based stories as practiced by Re-Imagined Radio. These terms are, however, often conflated. I think they are different. For my work with Re-Imagined Radio I use the term radio drama.

The term radio is media specific. It follows Andrew Dubber's notion of radio as an institution; an organizational structure; a category of media content with its own characteristics, conventions, and tropes; a series of professional practices and relationships; etc. where work, content, technologies, or cultures cannot be considered as single subjects or processes, but rather must be considered as an "ecology," especially within the digital media environment in which "radio" is increasingly situated (Dubber 2013).

Drama signifies a literary form depicting exciting, emotional, or unexpected events or circumstances generally in scripted (dialogic) exchanges between actors who perform before audiences.

So, Re-Imagined Radio considers radio drama, primarily, as scripted, dramaturgy-based audio exchanges between actors, along with other sound sources, created for and consumed by a "listening only" audience (cannot see the actors or any actions associated with their performance) using the radio medium and contextualized within what Dubber calls a radio "ecology" (Dubber 2013). The features and affordances of both radio and its dramatic content may expand and extend audience engagement, immersion, and interactivity. Audio drama, in contrast, may not be scripted, may not be intentionally dramatic, and may feature environmental or mechanical sounds as its primary sound source.

Radio drama > Histories > United States

Several early histories of radio drama are interesting to note. For example, John Schneider reports a broadcast of a stage play, around 1914, by Charles "Doc" Herrold and his students at Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering, San Jose, California, saying Herrold and students used microphones and telephone lines to transmit the play's dialogue, from the auditorium at Normal College, now California State University at San Jose, to a transmitter in a nearby bank building (Schneider "History of KQW/KCBS" 2020). Tim Crook quotes Schneider (Crook 1999, 4-5).

Robert L. Hilliard and Michael C. Keith say the first regularly scheduled dramatic radio series, billed as WGY Players, began with a three act play The Wolf by Eugene Walter (1908), adapted for radio by Edward H. Smith and broadcast by radio station WGY in Schenectady, New York, in September 1922 (Hilliard and Keith 1997, 32). Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor repeat this claim (Hand and Traynor 2011, 15). See also Tim Crook (Crook 1999, 11), Elizabeth McLeod (McLeod 1998), and Christopher Sterling and John M. Kittross (Sterling and Kittross 2001, 88).

Henry Zecher, however, says the date of this first broadcast of a radio drama was 3 August 1922 (Zecher 2011, 531). WGY - Up the years from '22, a 25th anniversary publication by General Electric, corroborates this date. As do Connie Billips and Arthur Pierce (Lux Presents Hollywood 1995, 1).

The performance of "The Wolf" was a complete theatrical performance, lasting two and one half hours (WGY - Up the years from '22). The success of "The Wolf" led WGY Program Director Kolin Hager to commission a series of plays, all adapted from known, existing works like "The Garden of Allah," "The Sign of the Cross," "The Green Goddess," "Madame X," "Quick Wallingford," and "Seven Keys to Baldpate." Forty-three episodes were broadcast on WGY through 1923. At Hager's insistance, each performance was forty minutes in length. He felt that audiences not familiar with the new medium of radio would have little patience for longer productions. According to Elizabeth McLeod, the WGY Players, voice actors, became a fixture at the station through the end of the 1920s and were responsible for the earliest known attempt at television drama in the United States: a production of "The Queen's Messenger" presented with the Baird/Jenkins mechanical process in 1928, the first dramatic program to be simultaneously broadcast over both radio and television (McLeod 1998). See also Russell Porter (Porter 1928, pp. 1, 10) and Henry Zecher (Zecher 2011, 531).

According to Bill Jaker, the first dramatic sketch written specifically for American radio was A Rural Line on Education, broadcast by radio station KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1921 (Jaker 1998). The sketch was prepared by West Virginia University agricultural education professors H. B. Allen and Paul C. Rouzer as part of their invited appearance on the "National Stockman and Farmer Hour" radio show to discuss vocational education courses. Their short play was scripted as an overheard telephone call between two farmers (voiced by Allen and Rouzer). Their chat was interrupted by others wanting to use the party line. After a few such interruptions, Allen and Rouzer hung up, concluding the play, and Stockman Sam, the show's host, delivered the closing remarks.

Amos 'n' Andy, first broadcast on WGN, Chicago, Illinois, in 1925, was the first nationally popular radio drama. Two white actors, Freeman Gosden (1899-1982) and Charles Correll (1890-1972), first presented Sam 'n' Harry, a "black" sitcom. In 1927 they moved to radio station WMAQ (now WSCR), also in Chicago, and changed the name of their show to Amos 'n' Andy. Between 1928-1943 fifteen minute episodes were broadcast five days a week, all year. In 1943, Amos 'n' Andy became a weekly half-hour program. In 1955, the show was removed from regular programming in response to growing anger over African American stereotyping.

Harry M. Geduld notes an original sketch by Henry Fisk Carlton entitled "The Three Elevens," broadcast in 1926, as the first radio drama. In 1927, he says, Carlton and William Ford Manley wrote the first radio adaptations, brief plays based on short stories by O. Henry (Geduld 1991, 260).

American radio, especially the so-called "Golden Age of Radio," or "Old Time Radio" (OTR), from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, is noted for its radio dramas. Radio Nouspace curates episodes from several OTR radio drama series. LEARN more.

Radio drama > Histories > Great Britain

Radio drama in Great Britain seems to have followed that in the United States and enjoys an interesting early history associated with the British Broadcasting Company, the world's first national broadcasting organization, founded 18 October 1922 by the British General Post Office. On 1 January 1927, the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the oldest and largest broadcasting company in the world and still invests heavily in radio drama, producing some of the best modern pieces. BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4 generally offer drama and more serious fare. BBC Radio 7 offers science fiction and comedy as well as miscellaneous programs.

Peter P. Eckersley, the first Chief Engineer for the BBC (1923-1929), says the first experimental broadcast of excerpts from Cyrano de Bergerac, an 1897 comedy drama by French playwright Edmond Rostand (1868-1918), was made from a wooden hut in Wittle, near Chelmsford, Essex, on 17 October 1922 (Eckersley 1942). Alan E. Beck repeats this claim (Beck 2000).

Asa Briggs says scenes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, and Much Ado About Nothing were broadcast 16 February 1923, from the BBC's Marconi House on the Strand in central London (Briggs 1995). A complete version of Twelfth Night was broadcast 28 May 1923.

Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor say the first "specific radio play" in Great Britain was "A Comedy of Danger" broadcast on 15 January 1924. The radio play, written by 23-year-old Richard Hughes, introduced the potential of radio drama to inspire audience imagination when, in the second spoken line, the character Jack says, "The lights have gone out!" The play was commissioned by the BBC as a "listening play," and consciously utilized "the potential of the radio form" (Hand and Traynor 2011, 16).

Beck says the first official broadcast of a radio drama in Great Britain might be The Truth About Father Christmas broadcast on 24 December 1928 (Beck 2000).

Works Cited

Banham, Martin. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Beck, Alan E. The Invisible Play: B.B.C. Radio Drama 1922-1928. Sound Journal, Dec. 2000.

Briggs, Asa. The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Crook, Tim. Radio Drama: Theory and Practice. Routledge, 1999.

Dubber, Andrew. Radio in A Digital Age. Polity Books, 2013.
Accessible at http://radiointhedigitalage.com/book/

Eckersley, Peter P. The Power behind the Microphone. Scientific Book Club, 1942.

Geduld, Harry M. "Welles or Wells?—A Matter of Adaptation." Perspectives on Orson Welles, edited by Morris Beja, G.K. Hall, 1995, pp. 260-272.

Hilliard, Robert L. and Michael C. Keith. The Broadcast Century: A Biography of American Broadcasting. 2nd ed, Focal Press, 1997.

Jaker, Bill. Email post to the OTR Digest, 27 Mar., 1998.
Accessible at http://www.lofcom.com/cgi-bin/MailServ/old.time.radio2.cgi

McLeod, Elizabeth. The WGY Players and the Birth of Radio Drama. 1998.
Accessible at http://www.otrr.org/FILES/Articles/Elizabeth%20McLeod/WGY%20and%20the%20Birth%20Of%20Radio%20Drama.htm

Porter, Russell B. "Play Is Broadcast by Voice and Acting in Radio-Television." New York Times. Sep. 12, 1928, pp. 1, 10.

Schneider, John. The History of KQW/KCBS San Jose/San Francisco, California. The Radio Historian, 2020.

Schneider, John. The Radio Historian. General Electric's Trio of Pioneer Broadcast Stations. 2011.

Sterling, Christopher H. and John M. Kittross. Stay Tuned, A History of American Broadcasting. Lawrence Eribaum, 3rd ed., 2001.

Zecher, Henry. William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes. Xlibris, 2011.


"The radio performance works on the mind in the same way that poetry does," according to Donald McWhinnie, BBC executive and radio, televison, and stage director. "It liberates and evokes. It does not act as stimulus to direct scenic representation; that would be narrow and fruitless. It makes possible a universe of shape, detail, emotion and idea, which is bound by no inhibiting limitations of space and capacity. In a way it is a bridge between poetry or music and reality; a means of apprehending what is artistically incalculable with one's feet several inches off the ground" (McWhinnie 1959, 37).

McWhinnie's thoughts foreground the idea that radio drama continues a long history of dramatic narrative. Joseph Campbell documented the use of mythology by cultures around the world to underpin conceptions of death and rebirth, as well as the reenactment of myths in the form of ritualistic participatory drama, often involving narrative, music, and/or other sound sources (Campbell 1949).

Andrew Crisell says sound, as speech or from other sources, is fundamental to our exploration of audio drama. Crisell applies semiotics to the study of the relationship between words, sounds, silence, and music in radio drama. The key to semiotics is the sign, generally a visual icon for the object it represents. The sign is indexical, linked to the object in a causal or sequential way. Radio, a context where signs are not overtly visualized, must depend on some combination of silence and sounds to trigger the listener's imagination (Crisell 1994, 65). Andrew Crisell's website provides links to bibliography, radio drama, and sound resources, as well as the "experimental sound" of Barry Truax and Douglas Kahn.

Focusing on dialogue (the sound of speech; actors speaking words), Crisell says spoken words are symbols, representations, signs of what they represent. But, words may not resemble their objects. Lacking visual input for listeners, attention must be paid to either using specific words, or qualifying those used with additional information so they provide hints to the story, thus triggering the listener's imagination. Tim Crook calls such hints signposts, and says they should be rooted in the dialogue. For example, imagine a conversation between a police officer and a woman in a police station. The woman, addressing the police officer, might use the word "sergeant" as a signpost to contextualize the dialogue. Perhaps there are other sounds in the background—other conversations, telephones ringing, office sounds—and providing them at a lower level is a common practice in radio drama so as to provide environmental depth and richness without deterring from the primary dialogue (Crook 1999). See Crook's Principles of Writing Radio Drama.

We might also consider the work of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who argues that any new medium incorporates those it replaces / extends. The "content" of any new medium is always another, older medium. For example, the content of speech is "the actual process of thought, which itself is nonverbal" (McLuhan 1964, 23-24). Speech, in turn, is the basis for narrative and dialogue, which in turn provides the foundation for storytelling, and thus drama. Speech is also the content of radio, which, according to McLuhan's tetrad, or test for the effects of any new medium, amplifies / extends oral communication beyond the transmission circumference of the human voice and retrieves some of the prominence of myth, ritual, and narrative from pre-literate (pre-writing and reading) times (McLuhan 1975, 74-78; McLuhan 1977, 173-179; McLuhan and McLuhan 1988).

Beowulf opening
As an example, here is the opening to the Beowulf legend, long an oral tradition before its interpretation in writing. In this recording, listen to the narrator's voice inflections, timing, and sense of rhythm, readily apparent in a listening context, but all much more difficult to communicate in writing.

Regarding this elemental attraction to drama, playwright David Mamet argues "it is our nature to dramatize" (Mamet 2002, 3). Drama is the nature of human perception, he says, and it is a human need to construct, or have constructed for us, narratives—in the form of three-act dramas:thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (Mamet 2002, 66)—about our lives that "order the universe into a comprehensible form" (Mamet 2002, 8). Our sense of survival, says Mamet, orders the world toward a cause-and-effect conclusion. We construct such dramas to validate "our prized adaptive mechanism" (Mamet 2002, 31), in order to understand ourselves (Mamet 2002, 40), so that we can exercise our own will to create our own character (Mamet 2002, 43). LEARN more

Mamet goes on to say that, as an "ur-dramatist" (Mamet 2002, 4), we are often compelled to promote "arts" which "inform us that everything—understanding, world domination, happiness—is within us, and within our grasp" (Mamet 2002, 48). Believing in our own superiority even while convinced of our own worthlessness, we seek to repress perceived external villains. This compulsion to repress is, according to Mamet, reenacted but unsatisfied in romance films, action painting, performance art, and electronic media, all of which he classifies as "pseudoart" versus "true drama" (Mamet 2002, 48), feeding on "information," and putting us all in "a new dark age" (Mamet 2002, 59).

Only the "nonrational synthesis" (Mamet 2002, 50) of true art (true drama) can help us structure our lives and the world into three-act dramas: "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis" (Mamet 2002, 66). Yet the knife does not necessarily serve to facilitate this tri-part narrative structure, signifying for Mamat, ever the dramatist, a violent and sexist metaphor with which to counter the violence and totalitarianism of pseudoart and pseudo-superiority. Mamet draws from a poetic description of the use(s) of a knife by legendary bluesman Hudey Ledbetter ("Leadbelly"): "You take a knife, you use it to cut bread, so you can have strength to work; you use it to shave so you'll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut our her lying heart" (Mamet 2002, 66). Even more disturbing, Mamet cites the gun as a "very effective tool" for social change" (Mamet 2002, 25), more so than a play.

But, Mamet continues, as an "ur-dramatist" (Mamet 2002, 4), we are often compelled to promote "arts" which "inform us that everything—understanding, world domination, happiness—is within us, and within our grasp" (Mamet 2002, 48). Believing in our own superiority even while convinced of our own worthlessness, we seek to repress perceived external villains. This compulsion to repress is, according to Mamet, reenacted but unsatisfied in romance films, action painting, performance art, and electronic media, all of which he classifies as "pseudoart" versus "true drama" (Mamet 2002, 48), feeding on "information," and putting us all in "a new dark age" (Mamet 2002, 59).

Yet, backing away from this abyss, in a "second act problem," where the hero is called upon to exercise will and create in front of the audience his or her own character, Mamet sanctions theatrical performance as a communal outlet of rage against our self-perceived worthlessness. The theater, along with religion and magic, "inspire cleansing awe" (Mamet 2002, 69).

So, in the end, Mamet is focused on drama, the theater, as the only acceptable context with which and within which to construct our personal dramas, confront the dual-demons of superiority and worthlessness, and provide a cause-and-effect meaning for our lives. I get this. But not his rejection of electronic media which has certainly promoted the creation and consumption of far more drama than any single playwright, and allowed individuals to focus on external villains using a number of proactive and productive methodologies.

Aesthetics > Constituent parts

Continuing from Campbell's elevation of narrative, music, and/or other sound sources as central components of drama, Crisell and Crook's theorization of sonic signposts as triggers for listeners' imaginations, McLuhan's positioning of speech as the ur component of all media, and Mamet's argument for the elemental nature of drama, we might say radio drama is comprised of the following elements, what Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor call "constituent parts."
Silence (Hand and Traynor 2011, 40).


Words—as narration, dialogue, and/or speech—in radio drama serve the same functions as in movies or television: to give information, reveal character and theme, direct attention, establish reality, and establish tempo and rhythm. Crook adapts French critic and composer Michel Chion's vocabulary of sound design for film (Chion 1994) to "the art of radio drama production."

"Theatrical speech is the dialogue between characters; the most common form of radio drama dialogue.
"Textual speech is description, generally provided by the narrator, and can trigger the listener's imagination.
"Emanation speech is words not completely heard or understood, another character, for example, talking simultaneously with the main character, or the narrator, and may cause the listener to lose the story line" (Crook 1999, 81-83).

No matter the type of speech, Crisell says spoken words are "primary signifiers" in that they must convey additional information regarding that which cannot be seen. If sounds alone cannot communicate an idea, then words must offer explanations. Crisell calls this "transcodification" (Crisell 1994, 146-149). As an example, McWhinnie says that on hearing the sounds of footsteps, the listener has no idea whether those feet are crossing a street, or walking up a wall, or even whether they are feet at all, unless someone speaks about the sound source (McWhinnie 1959, 80).

Martin Shingler and Cindy Wieringa argue that radio would be seriously disadvantaged without narration, dialogue, words. Speech, they say, may be the primary code for radio, "but, nonetheless, non verbal codes, such as noise and music, are still integral to the medium. They evoke radio's moods, emotions, atmospheres and environments. They provide a fuller picture and a richer texture" (Shingler and Wieringa 1998, 51).


Sounds—as sound effects (abbreviated as "sfx"), previously recorded sound history, or previously recorded dialogue—are used in radio drama to establish what Alan E. Beck calls "fictional soundscapes." The audience of a radio drama, he says, is required to make an active commitment, an "aural contract" with a radio drama, interpreting the narrative and dialogue in accordance with the codes and conventions of a long radio tradition. In this regard, sound effects can serve as another character, or a keystone for useful information. For example, two characters are engaged in dialogue. One character says to another, "Here comes a taxi, but I am not sure it will make it to the airport." Is it not more effective to hear traffic in the background, thus establishing the context, and then to hear sounds of a rough running engine in an approaching car? (Beck, "Listening to Radio Plays")

Sounds / sound effects may be categorized as eight different types, according to radio director Earle McGill
Audio Frequency
Echo or reverberatory
Musical (McGill 1940, 20-39).

Vocal sound effects, like bird or animal sounds or crowd noises, are created in studio by actors and/or vocal sound effects specialists.

Manual effects are created in studio by hand. Examples include opening and closing of doors, rain, knockings, footsteps, and the rattle of dishes. These sound effects can be created on cue, quickly and easily, by hand, and can be synchronized with the dramatic action more quickly and accurately than using recorded sound effects (McGill 1940, 22).

Electrical sound effects might include motors, telegraph, telephone, and electrical tones.

Recorded sound effects are used more frequently in radio drama than any other type of sound effect, and at the time of McGill's writing, were sourced primarily from records, played on cue in a studio.

Audio frequency sound effects can be created from simple devices, such as copper window screen stretched across a frame and wired to a phonograph pickup which is connected to an amplifier and speaker. Thunder, booming of cannons, or a sustained background of heavy crashes or explosions can also be realized in a studio (McGill 1940, 32).

Acoustical sound effects are realized by taking advantage of the acoustical qualities of the recording location, echo and reverberation, for example.

Musical sound effects are produced by musical arrangement. For example, all sound effects in "Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, part 2" (30 December 1937, The Columbia Workshop), were produced by orchestral instruments. "The City Wears A Slouch Hat," combined a drama by Kenneth Patchen and music by John Cage. Every scene and character speaking part in Patchen's drama was matched by Cage with aural imagery produced by five percussionists, and live and recorded sound effects.

"A sound effect," says McGill, "should be so instantly recognizable or so rigidly and shrewdly prepared for or flow so naturally and realistically from the text that the listener accepts it without questioning the aesthetic justice of including it in the drama" (McGill 1940, 39).


Music in radio drama serves three functions
To identify the program (for example, an immediately recognizable musical theme)
To create a bridge between scenes
To underscore or create a dramatic mood around dialogue.

Music can also be used, in lieu of naturalistic recordings, to create stylized sound effects. Percussion instruments, for example, might be used to represent a thunderstorm, rather than a recording of one. Music might also be used as an "actuality," a representation of what one might hear on location. Street noises, for example, or the sounds of exploding artillery shells at a battle front.


Silence, the absence of sound(s), say Hand and Traynor, can be combined with words, sounds, and music, and interpreted through the listener's imagination, to communicate specific ideas and contribute in particular ways in radio drama. For example, silence might indicate a mood or setting, scary, heady, restful. Silence can also provide clues regarding the ambient qualities of the drama's context, mark boundaries between scenes, represent a lapse in time, or a change of location.

Additionally, silence can function as a dramatic power, attracting audience attention, or establishing a tone. The radio drama Quiet, Please! is a good example. Written by Wyllis Cooper with Ernest Chappell as announcer and lead actor, this radio drama broadcast 106 episodes (89 apparently survive) from 8 June 1947 to 25 June 1949. Each episode began with Chappel intoning the show's title twice, with a long pause between. After a dirge-like organ and piano rendition of the second movement of César Franck's 1899 "Symphony in D Minor," Chappell began his first person narration in a very conversational style. The sparse introduction introduced the dramatic power of silence to secure audience attention, to create a mood, to sustain a feeling for the narrative. Listen to this introduction from the Northern Lights episode (30 January 1949).

In these situations, silence can be a virtue, according to McWhinnie. "Silence, as a calculated device, is one of the most potent imaginative stimuli; prepared for correctly, broken at the right moment, in the right context, it can be more expressive than words; it can echo with expectancy, atmosphere, suspense, emotional overtones, visual subtleties" (McWhinnie 1959, 57).

Providing nuance to the use of silence, Wreford Miller argues that more than the absence or opposite of sound, silence is an essential part of and must be considered relative to any acoustic or communication system. History, he says, has situated silence, as a concept and a physical state, as a form of repression or marginalization. Denied the ability to communicate, peoples are denied social justice. In an economic context, silence, he says, is undesirable. In radio, silence, "dead air," is bad, a sign that something has gone wrong in a medium where every minute of broadcast is monetized. Silence means loss of revenue. The skilled use of silence, however, can be used to counteract repression, provide a form of personal resistance, and source of innovation (Miller 1993).

Using these constituent parts, radio drama grew in popularity and success throughout the so-called Golden Age of Radio (also Old Time Radio, or OTR), from the early 1920s to the early 1950s when American radio provided outstanding programming in several genres (music, comedy, soap opera, and adaptations of comic strips, stage plays, movies, and drama) to audiences from many cultural, social, political, and economic backgrounds. Common ground through this broad spectrum of listeners was their love for engaging dramatic narrative. The following radio drama series are often cited for their success providing immersive narrative experiences. Contemporary radio drama continues and expands this legacy.

The Columbia Workshop aired weekly on the Columbia Broadcasting System from 1936-1943, and then returned 1946-1947. The mission of each episode was to use experimental modes of narrative to discover, enhance, and evolve new forms of radio drama. The results are considered by many as the finest examples of radio drama ever produced.

The Damon Runyon Theatre was based on [Alfred] Damon Runyon's (1880-1946) long-running newspaper column, "The Brighter Side" and each weekly episode of radio drama focused on engaging narrative. Each episode provided a humorous or sentimental tale about the gangsters, gamblers, and hustlers of New York's Lower East Side during the years of Prohibition. Episodes were most often delivered in the present tense, with a distinctive mix of formal speech and slang, and never a contraction.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a weekly, hour-long live drama radio show directed by and starring Orsen Welles, who, along with the acclaimed Mercury Theatre repertory company, presented classic literary works over twenty-two episodes in 1938 (11 July 1938-4 December 1938).

Stroke of Fate was a 1953 American radio drama, with each weekly episode providing an alternate history based on fateful decisions or accidents. The first half of each episode was dramatized historical fact. The second half, following a point of divergence, was dramatized historical speculation. A prominent historian explained the divergence, the stroke of fate, at the end of each episode and how it might have changed actual history.

Archival websites focusing on OTR radio programming include
Radio Nouspace (a partner with Re-Imagined Radio)
AM 1710 Old Time Radio
RUSC (RU Sitting Comfortably?)
History and Old-Time Radio
Old Time Radio (at the Internet Archive website)
Old Time Radio Catalog
OTR Network Library
The Original Old Time Radio Guide
Old Time Radio Researchers Group Library.

Aesthetics > Any hierarchy to radio drama's constituent parts?

Is there any hierarchy for these constituent parts? Alan E. Beck says radio drama is primarily "verbocentric," based on narration and dialogue, in strict hierarchy with any music and/or sound effects balanced below and rarely sharing the same sound space for long. It is the dialogue that absolutely dominates the sonic flow (Beck, "Listening to Radio Plays").

Sandy Tolin seems to agree. "Above all it is the characters—the voices—that convey the deepest emotional truth in our medium" (Tolin 2010, 148). Cathy Lane notes the power of spoken words can mobilize people across a wide spectrum of activities: to wage war, to tell a convincing story, or to illustrate cultural and social imbalances of power. Voice-based compositions and performances involve precise demands for listening and learning, she acknowledges, but the immense possibilities realized from "playing with words" are inspirational and informative (Lane 2008).

Lane also identifies non-verbal communication as a "weapon" of power, along with the loss of both language and culture under colonialism (Lane 2008, 10). Ansuman Biswas says voice is a technology immediately to hand, made from native materials. We need not seek some more remote technology. Writing, while an invaluable aid to memory, can be misleading (Biswas 2008, 42, 45).

Michael Vincent argues that a speech context may be heard as music and imagines "restaurant soundscapes turned into huge spoken word choral performances and the hushed tone talking before the start of a movie as akin to the tuning of an orchestra before an evening performance." One can hear musical aesthetics in the speech contexts that surround them (Vincent 2008, 59).

Trevor Wishart notes the voice also connects with many considerations beyond just the context. "When we speak," he says, "we not only convey meanings but we portray things about ourselves, simple things like what gender we are or whether we are ill or healthy, but also, perhaps, what our intentions are, what our mood is. There are so many layers to the voice and once you incorporate language you can connect to traditions of poetry and drama and literature but also with the everyday use of speech" (Wishart 2008, 71). Qualities of personality come through voice as well (Wishart 2008, 72). This individual quality of voice can be captured (recorded) and abstracted with interesting results and implications (Wishart 2008, 74).

Of the larger power and ability of speech, John Wynne argues, "Language is the primary repository of culture and history, and once a language is no longer spoken, the rich knowledge it carries is gone forever." Sound art may offer a "para-linguistic strategy for exposing cross-cultural experiences that language itself cannot achieve" (Wynne 2008, 81).

Paul Lansky, a pioneer of computer music, says that in using the computer as an instrument he is interested in "trying to project the image of the human performer behind the screen." He also notes a difference between works where the speech is recorded "everyday sound" and those that are written for the microphone. The latter, he says, is "performance" while the former is "eavesdropping" (Lansky 2008, 109). Finally, "every composer is a story teller in a sense. Every time you write a piece you're telling a story in one way or another" (Lansky 2008, 110). Lansky is speaking strictly of music composers, but we certainly could consider an expanded definition and role.

Leigh Landy, in his essay "Re-composing Words," responds to Marcel Duchamp's quote: "Art is what happens when you take an object out of context and give it a new thought." (Tomkins 1997) and calls this form of recycling "1% tilt" (Landy 2008, 142). Landy suggests the following project: use current radio broadcasts as found sound, take something known and change it ever so slightly (1% tilt) so that it becomes something new, and then present it as a work of art (Landy 2008, 144).

Laurie Anderson says words are the most powerful weapons in the world because they allow us to tell stories. It does not matter that these stories are old, or even whether they are true. What matters is that they are good stories. Good stories, about a villain, or a treasure, or a promise, or a right (perceived or real), can start wars. How do you combat that? Tell better stories (Anderson 2008).

Taking a different position, Crook says every constituent part must serve a purpose, and each, in balance, must help to capture the listener's attention from the beginning of the story. Each should help the development of the plot through conflict, resolution, and character development. Together, constituent parts build and sustain drama. The desired results are enjoyable listening experiences that are true (factually correct), real (believable), or emotionally compelling (the reality is grounded in the story) (Crook 1999).

Alan Hall says, the "art" of radio production exists in linear time somewhere between the concert hall and the cinema. The combination of voices, music, silence, sound, and imagination "[promotes] the possibility of transcending the everyday, of turning a routine walk into a sequence of dance steps. If these elements are well composed—or, if you prefer, choreographed—a kind of alchemy takes place, a transformation of base materials into gold" (Hall 2010, 34).

Elke Huwiler seems to echo Crook, when she says radio drama is a acoustic art form presenting a methodology for analyzing narrative radio plays by considering all acoustic features: music, noises, voices, and electro acoustical manipulation like mixing. Each, according to the argument, can be, and often are, tools that signify story elements (Huwiler 2005).

As an example, listen to this abridged opening and closing of the radio drama The Shadow, broadcast from 1937-1954. Listen to how the music and narration prepares the listener for what she will hear, and reminds her of the central point at the end.

Another example is "The Rocking Chair Fraud," the first episode of Ellery Queen's Minute Mysteries.

Aesthetics > Listener's imagination

Imagine the following as dialogue heard in a radio drama . . .
GRAY: Without visual distractions, the smallest subtleties of the voice become apparent and seize the imagination (Gray 1981).

BROOKES: [That's right Francis,] What radio does best is stimulate the imagination. [What do you think Scott?] (Brookes 2010, 17).

CARRIER: [Thanks Chris.] It's important to concentrate on showing rather than telling because when you tell people something they forget it, but when you show it to them, make them imagine it in their own minds, they remember it (Carrier 2010, 29).

DeLYS: [I'm also] interested in the associations that seem to arise, that are possible, when we allow sound to settle us. Perhaps it's sound's ability to mesmerize us into a slower, stiller mode that promotes reflective inquiry (DeLys 2010, 95).

HALL: [Well said, Sherre]. Sound has the capacity to take the listeneer out of the everyday by making images dance across the imagination (Hall 2010, 101, 102 99).

SMITH: [Well said yourself, Alan Hall. As a historian and radio producer, I believe] A powerfully crafted history piece transports the listener to distant, imaginative terrain the way great travel writing delivers the reader to distant lands. . . . Sound is a time machine. Hearing history transports us to the past in a powerful imaginative way. The voices of the past, in all their nuance and texture, pour into our cars and our kitchens. These voices have the power to alter the stories we tell about ourselves, and to change us (Smith 2010, 135, 146).

The common theme among these speakers is imagination and its power to evoke visualization in the listener's mind. Sound seizes / stimulates the imagination, creates a visual world in the listener's mind, promotes reflective inquiry, provides us with power to change ourselves. For these reasons, I suggest the addition of listener's imagination to the constituent parts of radio drama suggested by Hand and Traynor.

Walter Ames, Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter, quotes CBS executive Guy della-Cioppa speculating that television viewers, saturated with visuals, may be yearning from something that will engage their imaginations. Della-Cioppa says, "As a little boy in Tampa once said while watching a television story, 'You know, mamma, I like stories better on radio 'cause the pictures up here [pointing to his head] are better'" (Ames 1956, D4; See also Nachman 1998).

Neil Verma says that by linking radio to "imagination" and "pictures" in the mind, della-Cioppa's anecdote, and the resulting phrase, "Radio, the Theater of the Mind," . . . remains one of the most venerable clichés in informal conjecture about medium-specificity the world over" (Verma 2012, 4). Verma goes on to say, "perhaps 'theater in the mind' is a superior way to describe what the phrase is after, since internalization is the principle that governs the saying, which names one medium (radio) by its capacity to nest a second medium (theater or pictures) in a third (mind or imagination)" (Verma 2012, 2) Verma concludes, "Radio is not a theater of the mind; it is the theater of the mind" (Verma 2012, 3 his emphasis). Thus, Verma introduces the theme of this book: that "the theater of the mind had to be built" and was in fact built through collaborative efforts between radio networks and key broadcasters and their creation and distribution of radio stories that intersected with political, technical, and cultural developments of mid-twentieth century. And, since various theories about the human mind and the role of imagination were at that time evolving and in contest with each other, "American broadcasters built a theater in the mind, radio drama necessarily became a theater about the mind" (Verma 2012, 3, his emphasis).

Aesthetics > Listening as a portal to drama

NOTE: See also Inquiries > Sound Theory for my thoughts about listening as part of the conceptual framework for my Radio Nouspace project.

Regarding the listening experience, Alan Beck says the immersive qualities of sound, together with the external circumstances of the radio listening experience (in a car, distracted, or seated comfortably with full attention), and individual internal imagination promote the creation of a personal "listening zone." In short, listening is part of the radio experience (Beck "Listening to Radio Plays").

Hand and Traynor state that radio drama is "totally dependent on the listener" (Hand and Traynor 2011, 34, their emphasis). The audience, they say, is "part of the creative act" (Hand and Traynor 2011, 35, emphasis in original) and can participate in that act even while doing something else.

Hugh Chignell describes such listening as "secondariness," the ability to perform some other activity or work "while listening and paying attention to the radio" (Chignell 2009, 62). Andrew Crisell says "secondariness" can strengthen the listening relationship. "As a secondary medium accompanying its members while they are engaged in "primary" activities it [radio] can therefore infiltrate their view of the world in a way which is all the more powerful for being only half-conscious" (Crisell 1994, 162).

Said another way, sound promotes visualization of something that is only heard. Once we link a sound to an image, the sound is that thing signified by the image. Listening to such sounds might, according to Hall, offer "a [sound] portal through which a deeper, often inarticulate, consciousness can be glimpsed. . . . The intention is to find deeper and wider resonances within—and without—the listener" (Hall 2010, 99, 104).

An example is The Incomplete Recorded Works of a Dead Body by Ed Hime, winner of the 2007 Prix Italia award for Best Original Radio Drama. In this, his first radio drama, Hime has his character, Babak Beyrouti, seeking something that is lost. The upshot, however, is not the happiness of finding what is lost, but the sadness left behind. Hime chose a documentary style to promote the credibility of a fictional world, augmented with found sound, police reports, and phone messages. This portal releases the drama from artificiality, focusing instead on its authenticity. The end result is the subjectivity of listening. Listen to The Incomplete Recorded Works of a Dead Body.

Stepping back, we might apply the idea of a sound portal to radio drama. Suppose we eliminate one half of a dialogue, leaving it to the listener's imagination? An example is "Man with a Gun," one half of the 8 December 1938 episode of The Columbia Workshop. Listen as the main character interacts with others, who remain silent. What does your imagination tell you about these other, unheard characters?

Works Cited

Ames, Walter. "Radio Still Here and Even Growing." Los Angeles Times, 11 March 1956, p. D4.

Anderson, Laurie. Interviewed by Cathy Lane. Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, CRISAP, 2008, pp. 180-185.

Beck, Alan E. The Invisible Play: B.B.C. Radio Drama 1922-1928. Sound Journal, Dec. 2000.

Beck, Alan E. Listening to Radio Plays: Fictional Soundscapes. Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), vol 5, no. 3, 2003.
Also available at http://jcp.proscenia.net/publications/articles_mlr/beck/Listentoradio.html
Accessible as PDF at: https://soundartarchive.net/articles/Beck-2003-Listening%20to%20radio%20plays_%20fictional%20soundscapes.pdf

Billips, Connie and Arthur Pierce. Lux Presents Hollywood: A Show-by-Show History of the Lux Radio Theatre and the Lux Video Theatre, 1934-1957, Mcfarland, 1995, p. 1.

Biswas, Ansuman. "Sound and Sense." Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, CRISAP, 2008, pp. 41-47.

Brookes, Chris. "Are We on the Air?" Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pp. 15-26.
Website for book

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 1949.

Carrier, Scott. "That Jackie Kennedy Moment." Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pp. 27-35.
Website for book

Chignell, Hugh. Key Concepts in Radio Studies. Sage, 2009.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision Sound on Screen. Translated and edited by Claudia Gorbman. Columbia University Press, 1994.

Crisell, Andrew. Understanding Radio. Routledge, 1994.

Crook, Tim. Radio Drama: Theory and Practice. Routledge, 1999.

DeLys, Sherre. "Out There." Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pp. 86-95.
Website for book

Gray, Francis. "The Nature of Radio Drama." Radio Drama, edited by Peter Elfred Lewis, Longman, 1981, pp. 48-77.

Hall, Alan. "Cigarettes and Dance Steps." Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pp. 96-107.
Website for book

Hand, Richard J. and Mary Traynor. Radio Drama Handbook: Audio Drama in Context and Practice. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Huwiler, Elke. "Storytelling by Sound: A Theoretical Frame for Radio Drama Analysis" The Radio Journal—International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media, vol, 3, no. 1, 2005, pp. ***.

Landy, Leigh. "Re-composing Words." Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, CRISAP, 2008, pp. 140-144.

Lane, Cathy. "Foreword." Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane. CRISAP, 2008.

Lansky, Paul. Interviewed by Cathy Lane. Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, CRISAP, 2008, pp. 108-111.

Mamet, David. Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama. Methuen, 2002.

McGill, Ralph. Radio Directing. New York: McGraw Hill, 1940.

McLuhan, Marshall. "McLuhan's Laws of the Media." Technology and Culture, Jan. 1975, pp. 74-78.

McLuhan, Marshall. "The Laws of Media," et cetera, 1977, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 173-179.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw Hill, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall and Eric McLuhan. Laws of Media: The New Science. University of Toronto Press, 1988.

McWhinnie, Donald. The Art of Radio. Faber & Faber, 1959.

Miller, Wreford. Silence in the Contemporary Soundscape. Masters Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1993.
Accessible at http://summit.sfu.ca/system/files/iritems1/5610/b15197189.pdf

Nachman, Gerald. Raised on Radio. University of California Press, 1998, p. 7.

Shingler, Martin and Cindy Wieringa. On Air: Methods and Meanings of Radio. Hodder, 1988.

Smith, Stephen. "Living History." Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth, The University of North Carolina Press, 2020, pp. 135-146.
Website for book

Tolan, Sandy. "The Voice and the Place." Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pp. 147-156.
Website for book

Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp: A Biography. Chatto & Windus, 1997.

Vincent, Michael. "The Music in Words." Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, CRISAP, 2008, pp. 57-61.

Verma, Neil. Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetis, and American Radio Drama. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Wishart, Trevor. Interviewed by Cathy Lane. Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, CRISAP, 2008, pp. 70-77.

Wynne, John. "To Play or Not to Play?" Playing with Words: The Spoken Word in Artistic Practice, edited by Cathy Lane, CRISAP, 2008, pp. 78-84.


Radio drama > histories

Grams, Jr., Martin. Radio Drama: A Comprehensive Chronicle of American Network Programs 1932-1962. McFarland, 2000.

Remember WENN
A sample from Season 1, Episode 1 of this comedy-drama television show about a fictional radio station (WENN) late 1930s-1940s. While television is based on viewing, radio is based on listening. People "out there" listening, "each envisioning their own motion picture of the mind." Pay special attention to the power of radio sound to create reality in the imaginations of its listeners.

Radio drama > producers

Alien Voices Unofficial Web Site provides access to a company of Star Treck actors, led by Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and John de Lancie (Q), who perform audio dramatizations of classic science fiction literature.

Chatterbox Audio Theater (Memphis, Tennessee) creates fully soundscaped audio works for free streaming and download.

Crazy Dog Audio Theatre (Dublin, Ireland) is a professional production company that regularly produces live radio theater shows for the National Broadcasting Company of Ireland. See especially the links to "Writing for Audio" and "Sound Effects" where you can learn to build your own sound effects gear.

Dry Smoke & Whispers Holodio Theatre (Portland, Oregon) offers a mystery science fiction "cinema in sound" series set in a sprawling galactic civilization produced like a cinema soundtrack with intense special effects that make it seem like you are present on another world. Award-winning and highly recommended.

Great Northern Audio Theater (Minneapolis, Minnesota) features work by producers Jerry Stearns and Brian Price, individually and together, as well as a number of other fine resources for contemporary audio theater. See especially Radio Theater on the Web for LOTS of links to other radio theater organizations and resources.

Icebox Radio Theater (International Falls, Minnesota) has been producing new audio drama since 2004. Podcasts of episodes available at the website

Independent Radio Drama Productions (IRDP; London, England) was started in 1987 as a non-profit partnership between Tim Crook, Richard Shannon, and Marja Giejgo, IRDP's ambition was to promote the value of radio drama and to expand opportunities for writers new to radio. After earning several international commissions and awards, IRDP ceased operation. The website today provides articles on the subject of radio drama.

L.A. Theatre Works (Los Angeles, California) strives "to enrich the cultural life of the national community through the use of innovative technologies to produce and preserve significant works of dramatic literature on audio, and to assure the widest public access to these great works." Of their four primary programs, "The Play's The Thing" is a live, in-performance radio theater series with ten shows a year. Provides a free, customizable streaming service for its productions.

The Ministry of Chance (Manchester, United Kingdom) is a free, award-winning audio drama series crowd funded by a worldwide fanbase and relying solely on word-of-mouth publicity. Download and listen to the nine episodes.

Radio Drama Revival (Portland, Maine) is a weekly, hour-long drama produced at community radio station, WMPG. The show accepts submitted work.

Radio Tales of the Strange and Fantastic is a speculative radio drama inspired by radio's classic era. Productions include stories of the supernatural and the supernormal dramatizing fantasies and mysteries of the unknown, adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. LOTS of great stuff here. See, for example, "A Gun for Dinosaur" and "Earth Abides."

Sonic Society (Halifax, Nova Scotia) showcases contemporary international radio drama. Their website provides an incredible number of audio drama links.

Willamette Radio Workshop (Portland, Oregon) is a professional theatrical organization dedicated to the creation of original material for presentation on the Radio, Internet, as Compact Disks or whatever audio venues are available or appropriate. They produce radio shows in their own studio, or at live venues. Each one acknowledges the influence and history of radio theater. Each one seeks to recreate / reimagine classic radio programs. See also the information about the Writers On-the-Air workshop.

The Wireless Theatre Company (London, England) is a modern British troupe doing contemporary audio theater work. A small fee is required for each downloaded radio drama.

Radio drama > tools

A Free Audio Theatre Script Template is a free downloadable template for a radio drama script. Provides background information on radio scripts and how they follow a format developed in the 1940s. Provides instructions on how to use the template to create your own script.

Audio Drama Production Podcast is a weekly podcast covering all aspects of writing, recording and creating audio drama. Subscribe through iTunes

Radio drama > festivals

National Audio Theatre Festivals sponsors the HEAR Now: The Audio Fiction & Arts Festival every June in Kansas City, Missouri, showcasing live and recorded audio fiction and sound art storytelling in theaters and other listening venues. HEAR Now offers audio drama, audiobooks, sketches, poetry, spoken word, moderated discussions and panels, alongside academic papers, juried competitions, and presentations on the physics of sound, as well as performance workshops. This festival is an immersive experience in all aspects of the art and craft of audio fiction and sound art story-telling.

Radio drama > studies

Beck, Alan. How is radio drama research? ***Source unavailable ***.

Beck, Alan. Radio Hub. ***Source unavailable ***.

Blue, Howard. Words at War: World War II Era Radio Drama and the Postwar Broadcasting Industry Blacklist. Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Crook, Tim. Principles of Writing Radio Drama
If you are interested, this book seems like a great introduction. Even if not interested, the highlights and recommendations on this one webpage can improve your life. How? By learning how to be the main character in your own life drama.

Gramis, Jr., Martin. Radio Drama: A Comprehensive Chronicle of American Network Programs 1932-1962. McFarland, 2000.

Huwiler, Elke. "Storytelling by Sound: A Theoretical Frame for Radio Drama Analysis." The Radio Journal—International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media, vol. 3, no. 1, 2005.
Argues that radio drama is a acoustic art form and presents a methodology for analyzing narrative radio plays by considering all acoustic features: music, noises, voices, and electro acoustical manipulation like mixing. Each, according to the argument, can be, and often are, tools that signify story elements. Downloads as a .PDF file.