At first thought, it might seem that theater performed on the radio could be a lost art. Nowadays, we have the means to see and experience wonderful arts performances — with our eyes as well as our ears — in so many ways, on countless devices, that merely listening to theater on the radio could seem like a step backward.
And yet, according to sources such as The Washington Post, radio drama has been making a comeback. As World Radio Day is Feb. 13, it seems fitting to pay tribute to the art form of radio theater, which in the United States, began a century ago.
The recent resurgence in popularity is due, in part, to COVID 19. Live entertainment, as we know all too well, came to a sudden standstill worldwide in early 2020. And that entertainment void pried open the door for openness to radio theater.
An article on CBR.com states, “It’s no secret that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit the entertainment business hard. The industry has done its best to adapt, but restrictions have made it impossible for film and TV production to continue as usual. Yet, one mode of storytelling has proven to be particularly well-suited to weather the storm: audio dramas, which are much faster, cheaper and — most importantly — safer to produce.”
Case in point, when the theater owned by British playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn, shuttered due to COVID 19, he reimagined the unproduced play, Anno Domino, into an audio drama and made it available online. His wife, actress Heather Stoney, and Ayckbourn recorded the play, portraying all eight characters themselves.
For writers and performing artists who had planned to open shows on stage, it felt natural to transition to radio theater, at least temporarily.
“The theatres are trying to reinvent themselves, really, and are attempting to raise their voices and say, ‘We are still here, we are still here. We can give you something’,” Ayckbourn said in an interview with NPR.
Back in 1921, the first dramatic piece written specifically for radio, A Rural Line on Education, aired on Pittsburgh’s KDKA. The ground-breaking play depicted a telephone conversation between two farmers, continually interrupted by others wanting to use the line.
Soon after, the popularity of radio dramas took off dramatically. New York’s WGY began airing weekly stage plays by their own actors, the WGY Players. Months later, WLW did the same in Cincinnati, followed by radio stations in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. By 1930, dozens of radio dramas – including comedies, soap operas, westerns, anthologies, detective shows and more – aired daily across the land.
The attractiveness of radio dramas waned drastically after the invention of television, and since then, even regular broadcast has taken severe hits following the advancements in visual entertainment such as cable television, movies on videotape and video streaming services.
Today, much of what can be considered “radio drama” is really “audio drama,” as much of it – particularly in the United States – isn’t broadcast on the radio. Instead, audiences stream over the internet or listen on CDs. In a particularly innovative move to combine radio drama with live theater drama, in the COVID age, some theater companies have organized drive-in radio theater.
St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre turned their production of the historical radio show War of the Worlds into a drive-in show last November. The show was performed in the company’s parking lot, with sound broadcast via an app, car radios and theater-provided digital radios. Mask-wearing audience members also were invited to sit outside in self-provided chairs.
Thanks to advances in digital recording and Internet distribution, radio drama began enjoying a revival about a decade ago, as podcasting gained acceptance. Creating new entertainment and reviving old shows audibly is relatively inexpensive, and somewhat nostalgic. Independent producers have been building audiences through internet distribution.
Even Amazon’s Audible has delved into radio theater, creating its own theater division.
The art form of radio theater has attracted big stars, such as Broadway greats Audra McDonald, Susan Stroman and Laura Benanti. Part of the beauty of radio drama is that in the modern world, we can take these actors with us anywhere – due to ear buds and small devices – and feel like we are never alone, even during times of isolation.