DAY OF THE DEAD... A Radio Drama Essays

The Radio Drama: Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Oral Tradition in America

By Frederick Greenhalgh

Among the new technologies that rocked early 20th Century America was radio. As much as the automobile, the interchangeable part, and the telephone changed the nature of transportation, industry, and communications, radio changed the nature of the media in America and created, for the first time, a set of programming that was broadcast nationwide—the notion of mass media. In its golden age, approximately 1929-1950, radio was responsible for a lion’s share of America’s media, promoting the images, values, stories, and products of American culture.

Jesse Walker, in his book Rebels on the Air (2001), provides a concise history of the early days of radio (13-40). Radio started as a military communications technology, used for navy ships to communicate over great distances, or to communicate over distances where laying telegraph line would be inefficient. Tinkers and hobbyists, however, became interested in this new technology and began to experiment, building their own transmitters and receivers and using the technology to play music or chat with one another. These early days were dominated by pirates, vigilantes, and technologists, who developed unspoken rules of the airwaves based on mutual respect, convenience, and sensibility. The navy, however, resented the presence of these mavericks, and pushed for legislation to control the transmissions of irresponsible or intractable broadcasters, claiming that such broadcasts posed a risk to maritime safety. The Navy’s concerns were addressed with the Radio Act of 1912, which required all broadcasters to file for a permit from the Department of Commerce. Interest in radio grew tremendously in the next fifteen years, however, and the Department of Commerce found itself overwhelmed by the task of trying to judiciously distribute licenses. The second Radio Act, in 1927, created the Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner to today’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to handle the oversight of the broadcast spectrum.

Walker calls this set of laws a “series of enclosures, in which the spectrum rights held by hams, non-profit broadcasters, and small entrepreneurs were expropriated by powerful private interests and the state” (36). Though theoretically anyone could apply for a broadcasting license, requirements of minimum transmission power, hours of operation, and limits to the number of licenses issued in one geographic area effectively cordoned off the airwaves to investors with significant capital. The radio spectrum was artificially limited to a smaller number of frequencies than technologically possible, and as building broadcasting infrastructure had become expensive, investors began looking for ways to create profit using the airwaves (35-36). This was done through consolidation, networking, and sponsorship.

It is important to highlight the creation of the “network” as a media structure, a unit that Eric Barnouw, in his book The Golden Web (1968), describes as “mainly a tissue of contracts by which a number of stations are linked in operation. The linkage has been done largely through leased telephone cables which the entrepreneur—the “network”—does not own. Each of the stations so linked uses an air channel which is a public resource and which neither network nor station can own. Thus networks as businesses would seem to rest on the flimsiest foundations. Yet they have become a major power center—having, in the age of American hegemony, world-wide ramifications” (Golden Web 3). The first network was NBC, created in 1926 in an alliance with GE, Westinghouse, and RCA. NBC broadcast two stations, “Red” and “Blue,” in 1927, the same year that CBS was created. These networks were the connective tissue of America’s newest mainstream medium, permitting identical content to be broadcast live from coast-to-coast. By the early 1930s, radio technology had moved from the realm of the enthusiast to that of the casual consumer, who was hungry for high-quality, original, and interesting content . But what would that content be? Who would create it? What values would be encouraged, what subject matter ignored? What would millions of Americans sit down to listen to at dinnertime every night? Obviously, the people with this power over this content would be an extremely influential and powerful group of people—they were, and they still are. They were the sponsors.

Camel, Lucky Strike, Campbell Soup, Wheaties, Michelin, Pepsodent... the sponsors of radio programs were as diverse as they were national. Though advertisers were at first reluctant to invest money in radio, they quickly discovered the power of the medium and its ability to sell products. Unlike today’s arrangement, where advertisers pay extraordinary sums for short airtimes during scheduled commercial breaks, most programming in the “Golden Age” was directly sponsored by specific companies. The network’s role was to create the content and keep the sponsor happy. If this didn’t exactly give writers, actors, and directors freedom, it did give them work. And, with, as Barnouw estimates, twenty million words broadcast a day, there was a lot of work to do.

Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast (1997) lauds the achievements of the Golden Age of Radio, and indeed, it was a groundbreaking era filled with wild experimentation and astonishing creativity. The Age might also be called the era of “radio storytelling,” as its most unique feature of the Golden Age of radio was the popularity of the new form of a new creative work—the radio drama. The radio drama exploded in every genre--adventures, mysteries, romances, hard-boiled detectives and the predecessors to sitcoms and sketch comedies. It proved that continuous, serialized programs were not only viable but immensely popular. Amos and Andy, maybe the most famous serial ever, had an audience of over 40 million through the Great Depression, and caused a virtual shutdown of the nation at 7 o’clock EST every night (it would also be the first program to be rebroadcast for a West-Coast audience) (25-26).

Though there was an enormous stream of unmemorable pulp, there was also the intensely cerebral work of masters such as Norman Corwin, Arch Obeler, and Orson Welles. Writers such as Carl Sandburg and Ray Bradbury found a new medium to express themselves, using radio’s unique aural nature to take their literary ambitions in innovative new directions. Many classic works made it to the radio, and though the trend horrified literary purists, few could deny the role of radio as America’s premier medium of entertainment (36-37).

Radio production was, if nothing else, a running experiment. Most of radio’s producers and sound effects artists, even its actors and writers—fell into the field by accident while intending to make their way to Hollywood or Broadway. Many people with little technical prowess found themselves attempting to create elaborate Rube Goldberg-like contraptions to make sounds as varied as trains, crowds, and spaceships. Gunshots were fired off live in studios, watermelons were chopped with hatchets, and every pot, pan and piece of sheet metal was used for the unique array of sound effects needed in the variety of radio shows, which were often created fresh for each broadcast (Broadcast 95-96). For the writers who could keep up in the intense, deadline driven world populated by infamously demanding directors, there was work.

There were also taboos; tobacco companies competing with the Lucky Strike brand, for example, forbade the word ‘lucky’ in lieu of ‘fortunate.’ If you were sponsored by Chevrolet, you certainly couldn’t “Ford” a river (Broadcast 154-155). A reference to nearly any bodily function was forbidden, and so was nearly any criticism of the war, save in the most rhetorical, non-confrontational way. Even within these limits of self-censorship (sponsors were far stricter than the policies of the FCC today), there was exceptional creativity in radio productions. Due to the low production costs of radio, radio producers took more risks than those in Hollywood, giving the experimental scripts or scripts by lesser known writers a better chance to reach the air (23-24). Combined with its theatrical elements—live sound effects and acting—the radio drama form was a compelling and innovative storytelling device, even if its Golden Age was very brief.

In the early 1950s, the politics, technology, and popular interest were shifting in ways that spelled the death of radio, or at least radio as it had existed in its Golden Age. Television licenses, frozen during the Korean War, became available again in 1952, and hundreds of stations rushed to the air (Golden Web 308-09). Networks, sensing the shift in the tide, began to adapt popular radio shows for television, and their sponsors followed. Consumers responded to the programming changes, especially as inexpensive television sets hit the market. While during the licensing freeze only 9% of consumers owned television sets, by 1953 67% of American homes had a set, and by 1959 88% of homes had one ( Radio, essentially abandoned by the major networks, had to find its new place in the world of pictures and sound. Many radio stars made their way into television, but others found it impossible. Maltin describes the dilemma thus:

The literalization of entertainment, both comic and dramatic, was the greatest pitfall facing writers, directors, and performers who tried to adapt radio programming for TV. The excitement of seeing images on a TV screen couldn’t make up for the abandonment of imagination that radio offered ... Outlandish exaggeration for gags ... could never be duplicated on television. Yet, for many viewers, the novelty value of TV was great enough to compensate for any sacrifice (Broadcast 297).

In addition to this fundamental difference in the medium, television was also more expensive to produce, and required actors to memorize lines. For some of radio’s most accomplished talents, television was simply not radio’s equal, and they chose to pursue different careers by the end of the 50s, when the networks had all but abandoned radio completely (305).

Contrary to some pundits radio did not die, but it did change dramatically as it entered the 60s. Jesse Walker, again, provides a history of this period in his text Rebels on the Air. The commercial response to radio’s new role was to cater to regional advertisers, even if the songs it played were by national acts. Market-share researchers and cautious investors developed the formulaic, hits-driven style of radio, which promised to bring in audiences large enough to appeal to these advertisers (57-59). The concept of top 40s was born.

Although the FCC’s strict regulations continued to keep airspace at a premium, the restrictions didn’t stop a wave of commotion at the lower end of the FM dial, dedicated to educational, public, and community stations (69-98). Rampant counter-cultural idealists from San Francisco to New York City were finding ways onto the airwaves by finding late night spots or negotiating their way into a regular show. Freeform stations featured radicals of all sides of the political spectrum and were responsible for the coordination of more than one political protest. While this counter-culture was dominated by middle-class white hippies, there also was African-American radio in Chicago, Atlanta and Memphis. These DJs spun blues tunes, chatted with artists, and promoted the cause of civil liberties to the chagrin of the white authorities in their broadcast area. Live radio had moved from the mainstream, certainly—but what appeared in its place, even if in very limited amounts confined to extremely urban or extremely rural places—was a radio with more freedom and social awareness than had existed in the past. The homogenized, national broadcast became replaced with small, intensely local, often conflicting voices, which persists today in America’s community radio stations.

Today, one is unlikely to find stumble across original radio drama on their FM dial. Unlike the CBC and BBC, neither NPR or Public Radio International actively commission new radio drama productions. Amateur or semi-professional groups in various regions of the country have carried on the legacy but until recently have had little national distribution beyond their own local community or college stations. The technology that today allows such small, independent groups to touch a national, even an international audience, is, of course, the internet.

Like radio, the internet began as a military technology, and few imagined that it would ever be integrated into the mainstream. Early internet adopters were much like radio’s first pioneers, and the early internet frontier was just as unregulated, freeform, and subject to the irresponsible and malicious (which, to some extent, it still is). In an intriguing cycle of technology, the next transformation of the internet appears to be wireless, and the prospect of universal coverage and portable internet radio is very feasible ( Combined with the creation of satellite radio and the popularity of the iPod, it becomes clear that the future of aural content, if not exactly radio as we traditionally imagine it, is secure for the feasible future.

Ironically, television is now suffering from one of early radio’s persistent problems—the need to produce so much content that not much of it can be very good. Audio production, meanwhile, has none of the pressure of being mainstream, and producers can spend as little or as much time as they like producing their content, without the pressures of broadcast dates. In addition to the music industry, which of course dominates the greatest portion of audio content, audiobooks have become a multi-billion dollar industry, moving onto portable devices thanks to sites like and distribution through Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Programs like This American Life (distributed by Public Radio International, and broadcast on many NPR stations) have reaffirmed radio’s ability to capture the imagination and tell stories differently, and more powerfully, than mainstream film and television, and with audio production gear becoming less and less expensive, continued innovation is clearly possible.

The difference between visual and aural storytelling is more fundamental than technology. Despite the amazing improvements in video and film quality, set design, and special effects, it remains quite simply that radio captured something still more sublime—the human imagination. The canvas of the radio dramatist was, and is, the imagination, which remains superior to any computer graphics creation that could ever be crafted. The horrors implied by the greatest of radio’s dramatists are too disturbing too see, the comedy so absurd that it could not be portrayed in pictures. While America’s obsession with visual images lead it far away from this very powerful medium, the ultimate power of oral storytelling—the earliest of art forms—still waits to be fully realized by the creative individuals of the 21st century. But as America’s tireless media consumers grow bored with the glut of imagery, and look for something else, will they turn again to radio? My hypothesis is yes; my project is the experiment.

The idea of writing for radio at first seemed a novelty, but as I began to think about the subject matter, the storyline, and the history of the medium, I realized that radio drama was the most compelling medium for this story. As I mentioned above, there is a rich tradition of talented radio writers who used the unique attributes of sound to portray stories in ways that simply cannot be accomplished with even the most luminous prose. For me, who felt dwarfed at the intricacies of language that would be needed to effectively portray New Orleans, the landscape of sound opened the possibility of writing for the mind. There are times when I deliberately evoke the stereotypes of New Orleans—the clip-clop clip-clop of horses hooves in the French Quarter streets, for example—before juxtaposing it with a social commentary provided by the Messenger or the narrator’s own inner monologue. The hard work—conveying the setting effectively to the audience—is done by a simple ambient sound, hardly realized consciously by the listener, while the story continues to carry onward into the future, not laden down by long descriptive passages of the French Quarter streets. If the technology exists to provide such a relief to the author, why not embrace it? Indeed, constructing a lush sonic landscape, with many effects recorded in New Orleans or remembered from New Orleans, became a creative endeavor in and of itself. No writer, even the best, can reproduce the sound of cicadas or trumpets on the page; the best alternative is to evoke them in the reader, who can hopefully follow.

Metaphorically, the medium of sound seemed more appropriate for a story about New Orleans than a piece of writing, which by its nature is solid. Sound, in contrast, has no apparent substance, no surface, nothing to grasp on. It exists only in interpretation, only in its relationship to the listener. There is no passive absorption of a radio drama—the drama is created only by interpretation of the sounds, only through processing the words of the story. The relationship with the story and the listener is direct, and invisible. It is a medium that is somewhat other-worldly, somewhat postmodern, and congruent with the oral tradition of New Orleans’s native peoples and the origins of the myth which I evoke. Its very form is its formlessness, its existence the reality given to it by the listener. It is intimate, personal, and unable to be “put down;” pragmatically, it can be taken with the listener through any number of portable electronics devices nowadays, reproduced infinitely through the networks of the internet, and heard by millions while never really “existing,” in the sense that a book, even a printed paper like this one, is held, touched, real.

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