I’m going to be talking about actual copyrighted radio drama series which are: 1) under copyright, and 2) appear to have been abandoned by their possible rights-holders. Before writing about this topic, I should offer two disclaimers.
In the strongest possible terms, I discourage the unauthorized use, copying, or distribution of modern radio dramas wherever rights-holders are known and are selling the work. Beyond any legal ramifications or reasoning, there’s a simple fact that it is very difficult for audio drama producers to turn a profit and thus produce the materials we love. If we want to see more audio dramas produced, we’d better buy what we listen to, or listen to an authorized source that pays them a royalty, like Spotify, BBC Radio 4 extra, or the Dramafy app.
Secondly, I’m not a lawyer and I possess no inside information. While it appears that the owners have abandoned these projects, they could theoretically be reclaimed at any time by copyright owners, as the copyright is active. So I’m not encouraging any action whatsoever based on my speculation. Rather, these are observations and opinions, and should not be taken as legal advice.
Protected but Abandoned
While old-time radio enthusiasts love to debate old-time radio copyrights, the issue of copyright for newer radio programs of all sorts is pretty clear. Radio programs made between 1972 and 1978 are under copyright for 95 years, and after 1978, all radio programs are copyrighted for the life of the author plus seventy years.
There are several audio dramas that are being actively sold and marketed, such as the Star Wars audio dramas, the Louie L’Amour audio dramas, and The Adventures of Harry Nile. But there are several series that have fallen into neglect and are getting no official releases, and leaving fans to find the shows where they can.
This thirty-episode sci-fi series about the International Space Authority defending the planet was a huge hit in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand in 1979 and 1980. Later, the series had a presence online and promised to turn the radio programs into 3D animations, but these plans appear to have fallen through, as the website disappeared without a trace. Someone call the ISA.
The Sears Radio Theater
While its successor series The Mutual Radio Theater has received releases through Radio Archives and Radio Spirits, this 1979 series, which featured five nights a week of radio dramas in different genres with a different host each night, has languished, leading to a lot of recordings of variable quality.
CBS Radio Mystery Theater
This series was emblematic of the 1970s radio revival and ran for eight seasons, producing 1,399 episodes. The series had a bit of revival and a series of reruns in the late 1990s. But it never had an official home release. Radio legend Himan Brown was frustrated in his later years by the proliferation of cheap recordings of his project, and in the mid-2000s tried to get fans to sign up to express interest in a subscription service for home audio releases. Of course, by then, Brown was trying to close the barn door after the horse had run away, as there were already far more collectors and sellers selling copies of his work. Since he died, none of his heirs have tried to cash in on the series, and the 1,399 episodes are available in multiple places on the Internet.
Seeing Ear Theatre
Seeing Ear Theatre is proof that a production doesn’t have to have been on the radio in the 1970s or even more broadcast radio. In the late 1990s, the SciFi channel (not yet renamed the SyFy Channel by the kewl* kids), the Sci-Fi channel decided to experiment with bringing back science fiction audio dramas on their website. I remember being excited, and, like millions of other science fiction fans, clicking the link to listen. Most of us had the same experience. We’re reminded that this was the 1990s and Internet was not really good for much other than Instant Messaging and reading web pages with pixelated images because we had dial-up motives and even streaming a real audio file was too much for it to handle.
To be fair, the Sci-Fi channel did try to make some of the audio dramas available beyond the few people able to actually stream them via the most advanced technology of the day … double-sided audio cassettes. (Not even CDs?)
However, the audio tapes are out of print, although you might find one on eBay. The series was saved from being totally forgotten by a few fans who managed to listen to them.
2000x (also known as Beyond 2000) was a prestige audio drama series for NPR broadcast at the turn of the 21st Century. It was a 26-episode series containing hour-long episodes, with a total of 49 stories, featuring stars of the day like Richard Dreyfuss and Robin Williams, and even tossing in an appearance from Golden Age radio legend Jackson Beck. There was a CD release of several episodes that has long since gone out of print and no indication that anything is being done to make the series broadly available.
We could list more series but I think the point’s made that quite a few really interesting audio dramas are technically copyrighted but not being officially cared for. Next week, we’ll take a look at why this is.
*Ironic and intentional misspelling.