Radio Drama

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Of all the influences on the early days of television, none were so direct and widespread as Golden Age Radio.

The dawn of commercial radio began in 1920, with the first commercial stations, but little can be confirmed before 1926, since few authenticated recordings exist. It was in 1926 that NBC made its first broadcast, initially as the separate "Red" and "Blue" networks. Early broadcasts were primarily news or sports related, but The Happiness Boys, a vaudeville duo, began a show in 1921 which continued until 1940. The "Golden Age" proper began around 1929. NBC was soon joined by CBS.

One noteworthy thing to happen during the Golden Age of radio was the episode of The Mercury Radio Theater on the Air which aired on October 31, 1938. Director Orson Welles headed a production of Howard Koch's adaptation of The War of the Worlds. It may say as much about the character of the time as the quality of the performance that many listeners actually believed the radio play to be a news report of an actual alien invasion. The resulting chaos is probably the reason that all subsequent US mockumentaries carry numerous disclaimers.

Many of the Golden Age radio dramas eventually made the move to television, and several co-existed on TV and radio. But by the mid 1950s, televisions were becoming commonplace, and radio went into a decline. Most authorities agree that the "Golden Age" ended on September 30, 1962, with the final episodes of Suspense and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar.

Most Golden Age radio dramas suffer from some percentage of missing episodes, but, at least after the earliest days, these are surprisingly uncommon: Audio recording was cheap and the technology highly available, so recordings of 1930s and 1940s Radio Drama are available in much greater supply than their television contemporaries.

The advertising structure for Golden Age radio differed greatly from modern television. Shows typically had a single sponsor, which provided all the advertisement for the show. Actors would occasionally deliver in-character endorsements of the sponsor's product. As a result, an account could dry up, leaving the show commercial-free while the network "sustained" it. Economic forces being what they were, advertisements were almost always for consumable products (that is, automakers and long distance carriers need not apply), such as gum, wine and soap (which was mostly advertised during daytime dramas, leading to the term "Soap Opera"). One side effect is that almost all recordings of Golden Age radio drama available today still include the original commercials.

It may also be worth noting that Golden Age radio shows tended to run much longer than television shows. The longest-running radio show was Amos And Andy, which began life in 1926 on NBC Blue under the title Sam and Henry. It ran until 1960. The comparative ease and cheapness of production may have been a contributing factor (not to mention the fact that, lacking precedent, no one knew that 20 years was a long time for a show to run). However, since the audience didn't have to see the actors, it was easy and common to pull off a Sister Becky (Yours Truly Johnny Dollar went through six actors in the title role).

Radio Drama persists to this day, but only as a shadow of its former glory, mostly for nostalgia purposes. A brief revival in the 1970's led to shows such as Zero Hour, General Mills Radio Adventure Theater, a Fantastic Four radio show, National Lampoon Radio Hour (which was a predecessor to Saturday Night Live), the National Public Radio production of Star Wars, and the best known series of that era, CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

Today, most radio dramas are one-off or miniseries events. One rare exception is A Prairie Home Companion, a long-running variety show hosted by Garrison Keillor.

In the United States, these are produced primarily by public radio affiliates. The BBC also produces a number of these on the other side of the pond, the best known of which is the original incarnation of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Free from the financial constraints of commercial networks, The BBC continues to broadcast regular dramas on two of its national networks (which have included adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials and Discworld novels), and has also set up a digital channel, BBC 7 (later BBC Radio 7; as of 2012 known as BBC Radio 4 Extra), as an outlet for archive radio drama and comedy. They also continue to broadcast one of the longest-running Soap Operas in the world, in the form of The Archers, which began as a thinly disguised farming advice broadcast, and has been running continuously 5 days per week since 1955.

Often, the radio broadcast is mostly a formality, as the production is primarily intended to sell on cassette or CD. Sometimes, radio release is dispensed with altogether. Big Finish has produced audio dramas exclusively for CD release for several years, including revivals of Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People and Sapphire and Steel—some of which have been bought by the BBC as radio dramas after the fact.

The Radio Drama format is still somewhat popular in Japan. Many Anime series have Drama CDs produced to accompany them, using the same cast of voice actors as the series; occasionally, Drama CDs are created for manga series that haven't been animated yet, as a test to see if they can support a TV version. Occasionally Video Games (especially those without space for audio) create Drama CDs to give additional backstory.

With the rise of Internet multimedia, the radio drama, along with many other types of audio programming, has received a new lease on life. The production equipment required to create an online audio show is included with most computers, and the bandwidth required to stream an audio program is well within the financial reach of amateurs, and workable over a solid home connection. Many new online audio programs, known by the neologism "podcasts", are direct intellectual sucessors to to the dramas of old. An exceptional example can be found in the Sean Kennedy Chronicles: Tales from the Afternow.

Most of the Formats and genres, as well as many Tropes that are Older Than Television, originated on radio, especially:

Notable and influential early radio series include:
Notable revival era shows include:
Notable British series that continued after the format died in the USA include:
CBC Radio One

In Canada, CBC Radio One typically had one drama on its schedule before the big budget cutbacks of the early 2010s. Examples include:

  • Afghanada: Essentially Canada's Tour Of Duty about Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
  • Backbencher: The misadventures of a rookie backbencher Member of Parliament serving in Canada's federal parliament in Ottawa.
  • Monsoon House: A series starring Russel Peters about the misadventures of an Indo-Canadian family and their small book publishing business.