30 search results for "Audio Drama tradition"

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Six: 1970s, Part One

One could be forgiven for thinking audio drama was well and truly dead in the 1960s, given the obscurity of most of the offerings. However, the 1970s would include numerous attempts to revive radio drama that would be far more prominent.

NPR

National Public Radio was chartered in 1970 and soon stepped into the world of audio drama with the series Earplay. How soon appears to be a matter of debate as are nearly all details about Earplay. Not only is there debate as to when Earplay started, but also as to when it ended with some saying it occurred in 1981, others in 1982, and still others some time in the 1990s. There’s an amazing amount of contradictory information around this series, if you rely on online sources. I found errors in articles published on NPR-related websites. I’ve accessed some books and newspapers and have a closer approximation of what happened, however a full knowledge of what happened to Earplay would require a multi-day trip to Wisconsin and hunting down books, studio records, and any surviving production staff. However, for our purposes that would be overkill. Here’s the best approximation I can find of what happened:

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) extended a $150,000 (nearly $1 million in 2021 money) grant to fund a year of audio drama productions through the University of Wisconsin Extension Radio project and station WHA through a program known as Earplay. The grant was provided in 1971 and accepted by the University of October. However, audio dramas wouldn’t start to air until the following year.

The project by University of Wisconsin Professor Karl Schmidt. Schmdit had gone to New York to be a radio actor but left disillusioned by the lack of opportunity and the general “soapiness” of the New York radio scene. He made it clear he wasn’t trying to create “the good old days.” Initial plans for the series was for short plays, under 20 minutes, preferably under 15 minutes, and certainly no longer than 30 minutes. He also wanted the scripts to keep in mind that American listeners generally listened to radio while doing something else.

A nationwide call for writers went out and there was a contest for scripts. An ad in the Daily Tarheel advertised a contest where $15,000 in purchase awards would be given out to twenty scripts chosen. This ads up to an average award of $750 per winner for writing a 15-20 minute radio play (or nearly $5,000 in today’s money.)

Earplay’s exclusive focus on shorter works didn’t last. They began to sign contracts with well known and prominent playwrights to produce critically-acclaimed, hour-long dramas, many of which later became Broadway plays. Earplay also experimented with new methods of sound and worked radio drama producers in other countries, particularly Canada and the U.K. In order to be able to afford to work with major playwrights, Earplay formed the Commissioning Group with six other countries to add their rights fees to the amount that Earplay was contributing. Earplay won the Peabody Award and was also the first American production to receive a Prix Italia award.

Earplay’s position of strength in the radio drama world was ultimately undone by NPR. Each year, they obtained funding from CPB as well as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). However, NPR wanted to make their own proposal for funding for audio drama programming to these two agencies and asked Earplay not to submit their own proposal.

Many producers at non-profit radio theaters were  unhappy about the money Earplay received. Yuri Ravosky was with the National Radio Theater in Chicago in the 1970s. In a 2002 interview, he called Earplay “terribly over-produced” and stated they had “cornered some big, big money from the NEA because of it’s affiliation with NPR.”

However, this concern was nothing next to the alarm bells that went off when NPR submitted it’s audio drama funding grant proposal. Tom Perez, from ZBS, another drama production company found the proposed grant alarming:

The proposal was that they would have 3 centres producing radio drama. One doing classical, one doing popular, one doing serious drama, I believe. And it was starting off with 1.1. million and then it would increase to about 2 million. We looked at this proposal and were horrified. We said ‘If this thing happens, we’re screwed. Nobody else in this country will ever see any kind of money for producing radio drama’. And so we put up a stink. Yuri joined in and maybe a couple others. The National Endowment listened to us, CPB wouldn’t listen to us. And the National Endowment agreed and that year didn’t fund Earplay at all. They got zero. And they collapsed. Which surprised us because we didn’t say get rid of the guys, we just said this is unfair and that the money should be distributed around. So we were quite surprised that they were just wiped out totally.

“Wiping out totally” seems to be a slight exaggeration. NPR didn’t get all the money it hoped for, but had gotten a grant from the CPB. Earplay continued on producing full-length audio dramas into 1981. After that, the Earplay unit began to produce series such as their adaptation of the novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. The best available information I could find is that Karl Schmidt retired from NPR when the Earplay unit was disbanded, and the best resource I can find indicates Schmidt retired in 1986 and therefore audio productions apparently continued in some form at WHA, but not as weekly hour-long productions. Even after his official retirement, Schmidt continued to do the Chapter a Day program for the next thirty years until his death.

Newspapers of the day stated that Earplay was rarely “escapism” and raised a lot of hard-hitting contemporary issues. According to the Concise Encyclopedia of American Radio, Schmdit wondered whether the tendency of the program to raise problems it didn’t have an answer for was a turn-off for working people who came home from work and would gravitate instead towards something more refreshing.

NPR would offer something lighter before the end of the decade. In 1979, it broadcast Mind’s Eye’s adaptation of The Lord of the Ring novels. While this is not as popular with fans as the BBC version, it was NPR’s first step into more popular radio drama and they would take even bigger steps in the 1980s.

Jim French at KVI

Seattle served as another unusual spot for radio revival efforts. KVI radio played old time radio programs and Jim French was tasked with providing contemporary audio drama. To start with, French had to use station staff members. French was lucky that many of these staff members could actually act and that the productions were successful enough that he was able to bring in professional actors as his productions went on.

French’s efforts began with The Tower Playhouse, an anthology program that ran for nine consecutive weeks from July-September 1972 and then returned for a final Halloween episode. The second episode of that series introduced two characters; Dameron and Emile who would become the basis of French’s next series.

In the Tower Playhouse, Stewart Wright noted, “Dameron was a sailor/soldier of fortune; Emile was a café owner who was involved in espionage.” However, when The Adventures of Dameron launched in September 1972, Dameron (Robert E. Lee Hardwicke) became a freelance troubleshooter and Emile (Doug Young) became his partner. The contemporary adventure series ran for forty-nine weeks.

Crisis was French’s next big production and it premiered in November 1973. Crisis was another dramatic anthology show in the style of golden age programs such as Suspense and Escape. French utilized radio acting talent but also had national talent appear on the program from time to time, including Roddy McDowell, Bob Crane, Patty Duke, Keenan Wynn, John Astin, and radio legend Hans Conreid. The show continued to turn out new episodes until December 1977, releasing 152 in all.

Among the most notable episodes of Crisis was, “West for My Health,” released on New Year’s Day 1976. In the play, a debt-ridden private eye with a gambling problem is given one chance to save his life, travel west to Los Angeles to kill someone. However, he arrives to find his quarry is already dead, or is he?

The private detective was named Harry Nile and was played by local radio personality Phil Harper. Nile would return in three more Crisis episodes over the next seventeen months. French decided to do a continuing Harry Nile series. The four Crisis episodes were re-aired as Harry Nile episodes in November and December 1977 and The Adventures Harry Nile began airing new episodes regularly on December 27, 1977.  There would be twenty new episodes aired before KVI changed its programming format. The move was so sudden, French was left with one episode completed but unaired.

French’s 1970s run of Seattle radio drama is impressive. He’d produced and 231 audio dramas, as well having written most of them, and acting in a few. After the sudden end at KVI, it’d be thirteen years before French released a new audio drama. French’s second run of radio dramas would take a different direction and will be discussed in our article on the 1990s.

The National Lampoon Radio Hour

National Lampoon was a cutting edge humor magazine that published between 1970 and 1998. It featured humor that pushed the boundaries of good taste but drew a large following and became iconic and left a lasting impact on pop culture. The magazine spawned multiple films. The most famous were Animal House and the National Lampoon’s Vacation series of films starring Chevy Chase.

They also entered the world of audio. It started with the release of the comedy album Radio Dinner. The album did well and editor Michael O’Donoghue convinced the magazine’s publisher to bankroll a radio program. Thus was born the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which launched in November 1973.

The show’s humor was loved by its fans but it ran into a problem. Its shock humor made sponsors nervous. The show drained the magazine’s resources and after thirteen weeks it was cut to half an hour. According to NPR “As a gag, the performers pretended that stations had cut them off in mid-show.”

The series served to introduce several great comics to America including Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner. They would be among the most celebrated cast members and would make Saturday Night Live a hit when it launched with O’Donoghue as head writer, using much the same style of humor as they did on National Lampoon’s Radio Hour. Material from the radio series was also used for several subsequent comedy record albums.

Zero Hour/The Hollywood Radio Theater:

Eight years after the last attempt to revive network radio drama, Mutual made a new attempt with Zero Hour, which is also often referred to as the Hollywood Radio Theater. The series was hosted by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame and had two separate runs.

The first run featured serialized suspense stories that would have a single story running through five thirty minute episodes Monday-Friday. The first story starred John Astin, Patty Duke, and former Sam Spade radio star Howard Duff, with radio legend Elliott Lewis directing. This series began airing in September 1973 and ran for thirteen weeks.

The second run of the series featured five different standalone twenty-minute stories per week, with the same star featuring in every story broadcast during the week. Among the stars who appeared during this run were Star Trek’s William Shatner, Bewitched’s Dick Seargent, Wonder Woman’s Lyle WaggonerHogan’s Heroes’ Bob Crane, and Wild Wild West’s Ross Martin. Lee Merriweather, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie, co-starred as the daughter of the titular Barnaby Jones, was the only actress to be featured. The series began on April 29, 1974 and like the previous version, lasted thirteen weeks.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Five: The 1960s

Continued from Part Four

In the years after the golden age of radio, there would be many attempts to make new audio dramas, either by paying homage to the golden age of radio or trying to do something new. This started within a year of the Golden Age’s end.

Cataloging every group of actors that ever sat down to make audio dramas over the last sixty years would be an impossible task. So much of it was lost or forgotten or just didn’t have that much of an impact. I’m going to mention those that are prominent as well as others that I find interesting. If you’re aware of an audio drama or group worth discussing, feel free to leave it in the comments.

To start with, audio dramas got released on story records. Story records were a thing in America going back to the 1940s. In some cases, they contained a special recording of a radio drama. In other cases, they contained original audio dramas.. There was a Superman Christmas album in 1941 and two brief Superman records featuring the original radio cast in 1947.

These story records continued to be made long after the golden age of radio ended. Records were made in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Power Records in the 1970s may have been the most famous of these as they told stories of Superheroes, Star Trek, Space 1999, and Planet of the Apes among others. Most of these records attempted to tell complete stories in under 15 minutes, although some (particularly the Power Record LPs) could sustain a story for 45 minutes. Do these count as audio dramas? That’s a dicey question, particularly when you get into the “book and record” sets in which the audio would supplement a book rather than standing on its own.

I don’t have a definitive answer to that question. Millions of children listened to story records over those decades and may be what comes to mind when someone mentions “audio dramas.”

Pacifica Network Takes on Radio Dramas

My initial instinct when doing this section was talk about all the 1960s radio dramas in chronological order. However, Pacifica network radio stations not only offered the first two dramas discussed, but also two others, so it seemed good to talk about them first before moving on to other projects.

The Pacifica Network is made up of listener-supported independently non-commercial radio stations. The flagship station was KPFA in Berkley, and by the 1960s, they’d been joined by KPFK in Los Angeles, and WBAI in New York City.

In October 1963, a series of movie parodies that had long been privately performed made their way onto the public airways over KPFA. The series ran for five weeks with four episodes running 45 minutes in length and the other running an hour and a half. This is the first new radio drama made in the United States after the end of the golden age of radio.

The second was the Starlight Mystery Theatre which featured Matthew Slade, Private Investigator, which began over KPFK radio in Los Angeles. The series was the brainchild of former Canadian News Publications owner Brian Adams,  who wrote for the series and was its producer/director. The series was a remake of Matthew Slade, a Canadian radio series from 1957-60. In a July 1964 interview with the Canadian newspaper The Province, he said he hoped to make the new productions available on Canadian radio. He also planned six Matthew Slade movies, although nothing appears to have come of that.

KPFK had been at the center at a lot of political controversies and even had had to answer some questions from the FCC. LA Times Radio columnist Don Page pitched The Starlight Mystery Theatre (and the Los Angeles re-broadcast of The Compendium Cliche series) as a break from the seriousness and controversy.

Slade was played William Wintersole, an experienced stage actor who had just come to Hollywood and whose debut screen acting performance wouldn’t air until November. Wintersole would become a solid presence in Hollywood, logging eighty-seven different acting entries in his IMDB profile including a twenty-five year run on the soap The Young and the Restless.  Slade’s policeman foil Lieutenant Barney Flagg was played by Karl Swenson, a veteran character on screen and radio. Swenson had starred as the lead actor in the Golden Age Father Brown and Mister Chameleon and he became the first actor from the Golden Age of Radio to take part in a radio revival effort.

The Matthew Slade series was a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the type of parody of radio detective programs that have continued to be released to this day. It was tongue in cheek in the same that Richard Diamond could be. The series began airing July 5, 1964 and continued on a mostly every other week schedule until November 22nd and then re-aired four episodes in 1965. The series was resyndicated in 1966 by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service and in 1968 over the Far East Network to American Service personnel. The only episodes missing are the Avarice Heir and the third party of the “Day of the Phoenix” trilogy. (Note: Still our most sought-after lost episode.)

The audio drama event that had the greatest impact was the arrival. of Firesign Radio Theatre, a comedy troupe that began performing on the Radio Free Oz program over KPFK. The four men who started the troupe chose the name because they were all born under the three astrological “fire signs.” They premiered in 1966 and were a definite part of the Counter-culture movement, but also managed to outlast it.  Their humor had many features: it was surreal, it pushed the envelop, and was also very political. They had several radio programs in succession beginning with Radio Free Oz followed by The Firestone Theatre Hour, Dear Friends, and Let’s Eat. The last of these series ended in 1972. They also continued to publish comedy albums with original radio plays, the most famous of which were the Nick Danger series parodying golden age of radio detectives. The group had a very productive career: releasing albums, writing books, and dipping their toe back into radio every now and again. Group member Dave Ossman established the Mark Time Awards to award excellence in audio drama.

Like any performing group of the era, they had mandatory drama and group break-ups but got back together. The group carried on long enough to even have a  podcast called the Radio Free Oz Podcast. (What else?) Founder Peter Bergmann died in 2012 and his memorial service was their last group performance.

Pacifica’s final contribution came from its New York, WBAI in New York City which produced the first radio drama based on a Marvel Superhero prorperty. Charlie Potter had been hired on at the station to do light admin work but discovered it was relatively easy to get on the air and had been missing radio drama. He decided to produce a series about Doctor Strange, Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. Theyc called Stan Lee and asked his permission to do the series. Lee, whose office was near the WBAI studio, walked over and gave his blessing in person and wished him well on the radio series.

The series ran for 17 episodes, which were produced over three years. At the start of the 2010, six or (some sites said seven) episodes of this series came into circulation and were passed around by collectors. Most of these have disappeared (into some weird pocket dimension no doubt), but the origin episode is still online and it’s a supririsngly impressive production particularly in terms of sound design and direction.

Theatre Five

After Matthew Slade began airing on the West Coast, something far bigger came to the nationwide ABC radio network, Theatre Five began airing August 8, 1964. It was an anthology program that ran for 260 episodes. It was the first attempt of a major network to bring back radio drama.

It featured some key features that later efforts would implement. Notably, it was a five-night-a-week program. This was critical. While during the Golden Age of Radio, a program could be once a week on any given night, the way network radio had evolved, weeknights had a reliable schedule every night. If you wanted to have a program on one weeknight, you needed to cover them all.  Theatre Five actually filled two separate twenty-five minute timeslots as a network sustained program.

The series was based in New York and brought back many of the most noted New York voices of the Golden Age of Radio York including Jackson Beck, George Petrie, Lon Clark, Ed Begley, Staats Cotsworth, Ralph Bell, and Santos Ortega. It also featured a couple of future stars making one-off appearances in Alan Alda and James Earl Jones.  The stories ranged across a wide variety of genres from Science Fiction to Mysteries and Human Interest.  The stories were written in a very contemporary style, often following modern trends in social thinking and theories. The theme music was similarly modern,with a very memorable quintessentially 1960s feel to it.

The series ended after a year. The programs were translated into Spanish. In addition, ABC gave copies of the series to non-profit radio station WBUR to re-air for educational purposes.

Horizon’s West

Horizon’s West was a thirteen-episode docudrama of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was actually produced by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service which was better known for distribution radio drama.  The series starred golden age radio regular Harry Bartel as Merriweather Lewis and also featured golden age radio actors like Ben Wright, Jay Novello, and Les Tremayne. It was broadcast to American service personnel.

While radio drama continued to be produced during the 1960s, but most were rather obscure. The 1970s would bring memorable efforts to revive radio drama as the attempts to revive it in the United States would begin in earnest.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Four: The Legacy of the Golden Age of Radio

Continued from Part Three

On September 30, 1962, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar and Suspense aired their last episodes. This marked the end of the Golden Age of Radio. But what exactly had ended?

Many believe this marked the end of radio drama or audio drama as a whole. In truth, the U.K., South Africa, and many other countries around the world continued to make radio dramas for decades and British have never stopped. Further, thousands of hours of audio drama have also been still produced in the United States. In fact, there hasn’t been a single week since 1962 that at least one audio drama was produced in the United States.

Heartbeat Theater was produced from Hollywood by the Salvation Army. It often recruited mid-level Hollywood characters. It would continue until 1985. The Eternal Light was presented by the Hebrew Theological Seminary. In later years, it often moved towards panel discussions, but they continued to incorporate audio drama as part of their broadcasts off and on into the late 1960s.

In addition, radio drama programs aimed at children, like The Children’s Bible Hour and Your Story Hour continued to produce new material. Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago began broadcasting weekly audio dramas in 1950 and continues to this present day

Radio drama didn’t die, but that doesn’t mean nothing had changed. Two big factors had changed.

The Golden Age of Radio was marked by an embarrassment of riches in talent and glamour. Its top shows featured the best actors, musicians, and writers. It is a level of glamour and talent that radio will never see again. Imagine what a modern-day version of the Lux Radio Theater would be like. The theater would be hosted by Steven Spielberg with musical direction with Danny Elfman providing the music and actors like Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, Cate Blanchett, Robert Downey, Jr, and Dwayne Johnson would perform radio version of their own movies.

This would never happen today. There’s neither money or public interest to justify it. Nor could any radio show draw guest stars at the top of their game and height of their popularity like Suspense and several other dramatic anthology programs.

The people who make modern audio dramas aren’t big stars and have no interest in becoming such. More audio drama in recent decades has come out of places like Boston, Grand Rapids, Colorado Springs, and Seattle than from Hollywood.

The second big change is American radio drama ceased being part of America’s common culture. At the height of the golden age of radio, radio was at the center of American popular culture. It was famous. It had its own legendary unforgettable moments. A generation of Americans can’t hear “Flight of the Bumblebee Bee” without thinking of The Green Hornet. In the popular culture, it was possible to understand references to radio programs in the same way we might understand when a work is referencing The Godfather or Star Wars without ever having seen them.

When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the most enduring pop culture artifact of the period were the Looney Tunes. Those cartoons contain pop culture references that will go right over your head if you don’t know the Golden Age of Radio. For example, mother animals giving a distinctive shout to absent children of  “Henry!” and Daffy Duck’s wife saying, “I want a divorce.” are references to golden-age radio programs.

By contrast, all radio programs released since the end of the Golden Age of Radio are cult entertainment. The continuing fandom for golden age of radio is as well, but that’s always been the case with newer programs. They are loved by their devotees and completely irrelevant to every other living creature on the face of the Earth.

That being the case, it’s reasonable to wonder if the end of the Golden Age of Radio might have occurred earlier. Some cite November 1960 as the end of the golden age of radio, particularly fans of soap operas. Once Gunsmoke was canceled in June 1961, all that remained of the world of network-originated radio drama was an hour of programming featuring TV soap opera actors. I still prefer September 1962, as network radio drama had faded and withered eleven years until then..

Nonetheless, Golden Age radio programming has been kept alive in a number of ways.

Radio Rebroadcasts

Military radio services like the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service and the Far East Network (FEN) continued to replay radio programs from the golden age of radio.

Also, various stations continued to dedicate a portion of their programming to replaying programs from the Golden Age of Radio, some with hosts, and others without hosts. There has been a decline in such radio rebroadcasts in recent years, particularly as radio stations seek to avoid backlash over content that doesn’t meet modern standards and sensibilities.

While it is not quite as common these day, old time radio still is rebroadcast. The longest running of these series is The Big Broadcast which originates in Washington, DC. It was originally hosted by John Hickman (1964-90), and then by radio hall of famer Ed Walker (1950-2015) and has been hosted by 2016 by Pulitzer Prize Winner Murray Hurwitz.

The most widely heard show is When Radio Was, a series syndicated by Radio Spirits. The series began in 1990 and has had numerous hosts including original Jeopardy Host Art Fleming (1990-95), comedian Stan Freberg (1995-2006), and Broadcaster/History Chuck Schaeden (2006-2007). Since 2007 Greg Bell has hosted the daily syndicated series, which also airs on the Radio Classics Satellite radio channel.

Radio Preservation and Conventions: 

Most American radio programs aired only once. Much of radio was done live and disappeared into the ether. However, transcription disks were made of many programs. Most of these were intended to be destroyed after they were played.  However, there were quite a few disks that survived in radio stations or ended up stored in various locations and were purchased by collectors and preservationists. Tapes were often made from the disks.

Fans of old-time radio began to gather. The Friends of Old Time Radio arose in the 1970s and was followed in the 1980s by The Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety And Comedy (SPERDVAC). These organizations served gathering places for fans and collectors of golden age radio. In addition to the opportunity to meet surviving cast and crew from the Golden Age of radio, fans traded tapes of programs with other collectors. It is through this process of collectors acquiring and trading radio programs with each other that so many programs survive from the golden age of radio.

Commercial Sellers:

Over the years, many companies have sold commercial radio vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. They were sold to the general market consumers at stores and record shops. These products gave fans of certain programs or types of programs a chance to listen to programs or types of programs they particularly enjoyed when they wanted to. It was a tricky business to negotiate for a wide variety of reasons, such as figuring out what type of programs people would be nostalgic for enough to buy, as well as finding the right price point for consumers that would allow the company to stay in business. Many companies entered the market but most went defunct.

The Internet:

The Internet has overall been a boon for vintage radio programs. The first old time radio programs posted on the Internet were low-quality and often barely listenable, perhaps due to the limited quality of recordings available to original posters. At the same time, it made it easier for old time radio fans and researchers to regularly connect with one another.

Thanks to advancing audio technology, increased hard drive storage capacity, the proliferation of broadband, and the work of many volunteers,  the poorer quality recordings have been replaced with better-sounding episodes. Golden age radio programs are available at hundreds of old-time radio websites and podcasts, as well as on video sites such as YouTube.

Whatever Happened To…

There’s a perception by many that after the Golden Age of Radio, that era’s performers suffered and faced their careers ending. In reality, it’s hard to say for certain about any performer, “If only had radio had remained influential, their life would not have gone downhill.”  Maybe one actor comes to mind that you could make that argument.

For most radio actors, working in radio was a blessing. They enjoyed the work and the ability to become anyone. Radio’s light rehearsal schedule and quick turn around allowed them more time with family. Some treasured being able to act before a wide audience but going about in public unrecognized. However, most pressed on with their careers.

Some found their place in TV land. Agnes Moorhead had been the original Margot Lane on The Shadow and starred in one of radio’s most iconic plays, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” To anyone who didn’t know radio, she was simply Endora on Bewitched. Howard McNear had been a versatile character adept at creating mad killers or just plain eccentric oddballs, but was known to many as Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith show. Others such as Virginia Gregg, Herb Vigran, and John Dehner had stunningly long careers and a wide variety of character roles.

Others took their voice acting experience into the world of animation. Janet Waldo had played the quintessential teen girl in the 1940s radio series Meet Corliss Archer. In animation, she starred as Judy Jetson, Penelope Pitstop, and Josie from Josie and the Pussycats. Paul Frees created the voice for Disney’s psychologist duck Ludwig Von Drake. and the role of Boris Badenov on The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Sometimes, a cartoon would feature multiple stars from Radio’s Golden era, such as the first Fantastic Four cartoon which featured Adventures of Philip Marlowe star Gerald Mohr as Mr. Fantastic and Paul Frees as The Thing. 

Many who survived long enough got to attend the first old-time radio conventions, meet the fans who loved their work, and some  performed old scripts, putting on their old radio roles like a comfortable pair of shoes.

There were radio actors who moved on to other things but recalled their radio days fondly. They’d gladly get back into radio if given the chance. These sort of actors not only were part of the golden age of radio, but would take part in the prominent efforts to bring back radio drama over the next two decades.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Three: The Decline of Network Radio Drama

Continued from Part Two

As television rose, radio drama declined. The year 1951 saw the first time television advertising revenues surpassed those of radio. This led to rising budgets for television and falling budgets for radio. On radio, the big stars’ appearances became less and less frequent. Radio’s most talented writers began writing for television, often pulling out old radio scripts, dusting them off, and rewriting them for television.

The budget cuts showed up in music. As television rose, some programs saved money by switching from orchestral scores to organ scores. NBC saved money in the early-to-mid 1950s by using the same musical bridges on nearly all of their dramatic programs. Radio appearances by big stars on programs such as Suspense became rarer as the decade went on. The quality of films getting adaptations on the Lux Radio Theater declined as well.

A vicious cycle emerged. Declining budgets led to declining quality of on-air programs which led to further declines in listenership which led to budget cuts which led to declining production quality, which led to more declines in listenership which led to more budget cuts

Radio did have one last great moment of major pop culture influence. In 1953, the series Gunsmoke appeared and began a major trend: the adult western program. Westerns had a place on radio since the 1930s. However, Gunsmoke dealt with more mature themes and featured rich, well-developed characters. The series would run for eight years and spark a revolution on radio and television that would carry over into the 1950s.

Gunsmoke would make the jump to television but not with the radio version of Marshall Matt Dillon. The character was played by William Conrad, who was viewed as too fat for the role. The role went to James Arness, who would do a superb job. However, Conrad being left in the lurch was a reminder that television was a far more shallow medium than radio.

Quite a few TV shows attempted to continue to air separate radio episodes. It was a win for the networks who saw having separate radio and television programs as an opportunity to cross-promote. For the actors, it meant more money. Yet for most shows, it began to make less sense with declines in radio listenership reduced the amount of the revenue, and the burnout that comes with doing the same thing repeatedly took a tool. Ozzie and Nelson record thirty-nine episodes on television and another thirty-nine on radio, Dragnet recorded fifty-two on radio. At some point, it began to not make sense for TV successes to hang around radio.

1955 saw some major departures: Jack Benny and Bob Hope left radio along with Dragnet and the Lux Radio Theater. Beloved programs were leaving in droves, yet radio drama would survive until the 1960s.

How Network Radio Drama Survived the 1950s

Among fans of the golden age of radio, by far, the most beloved radio programs of this era came from CBS. While the big stars became scarce on radio, CBS was buoyed by a de facto radio repertory theater where the same actors appeared over and over again in CBS various radio productions. Actors like Virginia Gregg, Parley Baer, Peggy Webber, and John Dehner were the backbone of CBS’s Hollywood radio output of the late 1950s. None would be famous, but each were talented and performed with thousands of radio appearances under their belt. That sort of talent and competence kept radio interesting.

Their work could be heard in CBS’s surviving anthology programs: Suspense and Romance. In addition, they appeared in the CBS Radio Workshop, an experimental program that harkened back to the groundbreaking Columbia workshop of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Outside of this, CBS maintained many soap operas and launched a new one, The Couple Next Door, in 1957. Several Westerns also aired during this period, including Gunsmoke. In a reversal of adapting radio shows to television, CBS launched a radio version of its western TV Show Have Gun, Will Travel with Dehner as the lead.

The big surprise during this era was Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. The series had run from 1949-54 with three different actors playing the lead over the course of more than 200 episodes. However, CBS wanted to bring the show back as a serialized version with stories told in 15-minute segments Monday-Friday. Bob Bailey was cast as the new Johnny Dollar. The serialized episodes often expanded upon previous half an hour stand-alone detective scripts or combined concepts from multiple scripts. In 1956, the series continued on as a half-hour program. (For more on the Johnny Dollar in this era, see my recent article on the top five detective dramas of the declining years of the golden age of radio.)

NBC also contributed to this era, starting with its Monitor series, a weekend-long block of a variety of radio programs. This included occasional bits of vintage radio, most notably five-minute episodes of Fibber McGee and Molly.

However, NBC’s greatest contribution to this era came in April 1955 when they launched a science fiction series called X Minus One. The series ran only seven weeks and advised listeners if they wanted to continue hearing the program to write in. That says a lot about the reluctance of Network radio to go into Science Fiction. However, luckily for science fiction fans, interest was high and the series returned to radio and continued to air until New Year’s 1958. It adapted the works of great science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. It would be re-aired as part of NBC’s Monitor series through the 1970s and there would be a brief attempt to revive the series with new episodes.

Another Science Fiction anthology series began to air over Mutual called Exploring Tomorrow, which aired for 55 weeks twice a week from December 1957-December 1958. It also adapted a similar high quality number of stories. It’s not as well-remembered as X Minus One. The production is hurt by the fact circulating examples of the series have much poorer sound quality than X Minus One and there are far less of them.

Mutual continued to try to be competitive in the world of radio drama into the late 1950s. It became the new home of the long-running radio hit Counterspy and also brought over Gangbusters and another Philip H. Lords program Treasury Agent. They also launched programs of their own, but few of them are in circulation among listeners.

ABC also aired a program called Police Blotter at least into 1957.

However, by 1960, except for an occasional bit of radio drama on Monitor, the sole home of mainstream network radio drama was CBS. On Yours Truly Johnny Dollar on September 25, 1960, the show featured an episode “The Five Down Matter.” The episode celebrated five years of the series revival and continuance. At the height of the golden age, anniversaries or episode milestones passed without notice, or perhaps just a comment after the episode. However, surviving five years when great programs were failing deserved celebrated. Johnny Dollar featured Bailey and all of the most memorable supporting characters from his five-year run.

Five weeks later, Bailey’s run on the show came to a sudden and unceremonious end without on-air acknowledgment. The series moved to New York without either Bailey or the supporting cast.

November 1960 would be brutal. CBS canceled nearly every remaining radio drama. It gave the remaining soap operas a month to wrap up their storylines. It canceled the radio version of Have Gun, Will Travel. After that November, all that remained on the radio was Gunsmoke and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. 

The Golden Age of Radio’s Final Months

Yours Truly Johnny Dollar acclimated to New York with an entirely different feel to the series and Bob Readick in the lead. In June 1961, CBS radio line-up had one last shake-up. Gunsmoke ended and Suspense returned to the air in New York. This meant all of CBS’ radio operations would be centered in New York and would rely upon actors it worked with on its daytime soap operas. Mandel Kramer, a veteran radio actor, and a supporting character on the TV soap Edge of Night became the last actor to play Johnny Dollar.

For the next 15 months, both programs carried on as best they could. However, on September 30, 1962, both programs aired their last episode on a day that is considered the end of the Golden Age of Radio. But what exactly ended? And how has the legacy of the Golden Age of radio endured since?

We’ll talk about that in our next installment.

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Two: The Rise of Television

Continued from Part One

It’s impossible to talk about the final years of the golden age of radio without talking about what brought about its decline. In the years immediately after the War, television was a joke on radio. It was said to feature little more than professional wrestling and old movies that weren’t that good when they were first shown in theaters.

Long-time radio comedian Fred Allen said in 1950, “I’ve decided why they call television a medium. It’s because nothing on it is well done.”

In the same year, on Life of Riley radio program, Chester Riley (played by William Bendix) talked about when he was planning on getting a television. He cited waiting for new models come out with improvements. When asked what improvements Riley was waiting for, he replied, “Someday, they’ll put on entertainment.”

There was truth behind the jokes. In the early days of television, home viewing audiences were smaller, the technology was experimental, and the limited audience meant limited advertising revenues and smaller budgets. TV stations didn’t have the money to license A-films to be played on television. When they made original productions, they couldn’t afford glamourous talented actors, so they often settled for those who were glamourous but with minimal talent. Actresses being hired to show skin exasperated actor William Gargan, who left his role on the successful Martin Kane, Private Eye television program with a 7 year contract to go back to radio.

Television also came with a steep learning curve. Like radio, most television programs were live. However, on radio an actor could flub a line and find his place by looking at the script. Television required working without a net. Yet, Americans wanted television to succeed. Development of the medium had been ongoing since before World War II. Now, with hard-earned savings, America wanted television. My father came at age around this time and he waxed nostalgic about actors blowing their lines on live TV. With America hungry for television, even its bugs became features.

Most radio performers suspected it would catch on and most would play a part in it. Fred Allen would spend his last days on a TV game program, and William Bendix would come to TV as Chester Riley as soon as Bendix’s studio would allow it.

Television Built on the Foundation of Radio

Television set out to give Americans the same programs they enjoyed on radio. Early TV was filled with detective shows,  dramatic anthologies, family comedies, and soap operas. The links between early television and the golden age of radio run deep.

Perhaps the greatest television hit of all time, I Love Lucy, hit radio in 1952. The series starred Lucille Ball, who had starred in another domestic comedy My Favorite Husband. Many scripts used on I Love Lucy were reworked scripts from My Favorite Husband. 

Oftentimes, the programs directly moved from radio to television. TV programs like The Life of Riley, Our Miss Brooks, My Friend Irma, Dangerous Assignment, The Line-Up, Suspense, the Adventures of Superman, The Lux Video Theater, and You Bet Your Life all had roots in radio. In some cases, cast members were changed, but in others, you got to see all the old radio favorites that you’d only heard for all these years.

Radio comedy legends like Red Skelton, Burns and Allen, and Jack Benny also made the transition to television. In addition, the Colgate Comedy Hour became a place where noted radio stars like Eddie Cantor, Abbott and Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis took center stage in live shows.

Many programs became so successful and so associated with television, only the most dedicated even knows there was a radio version. Dragnet aired two and a half years over radio before coming to television and would air for eight seasons in the 1950s and make four more seasons in a comeback in the 1960s. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet aired on radio seven and a half years before the television show premiered and would last on television for fourteen seasons. Guiding Light had fifteen years on radio before its television debut and would continue on television for fifty-seven years.

Other programs crashed and burned, often hard. Radio hits like GangbustersLife with Luigi, and The Great Gildersleeve didn’t last long on television. An ill-considered version of Fibber McGee and Molly without Jim and Marion Jordan also failed to catch on on television.

Some radio shows proved to work better on television. Audience participation programs like People are Funny and Truth or Consequences are better when the audience can see the outrageous stunts the contestants are sent on and Candid Camera was far more enduring than Candid Microphone. In addition, physical comedians like Lou Costello or Jerry Lewis were limited by radio and television allows their full zaniness to show.

Other radio shows used techniques that didn’t work on television. In the finale of the Dragnet radio episode, “The Big Bar,” the audience gets to hear the police radio as police cars chase down the suspects, with occasional commentary from our heroes and people in the radio room. In the television version, we’re treated to several minutes of the cameraman trying to find interesting shots of people standing around the radio room, listening to the chase on the radio.

Baby Snooks (Fanny Brice) was a beloved seven-year old girl who bedeviled her daddy with her questions and bad behavior. A decision was made to do a television version with the 59-year-old Brice accompanied by her father, who was played by Hanley Stafford, a man eight years her junior. Her television audience didn’t appreciate an adult actress playing a child’s role on a live action show, so she didn’t repeat the appearance again.

While many of those who made the golden age of radio special moved to television, radio drama still continued. In our next article, we’ll look at the final years of the golden age of radio.

 

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part One: The Rise of the Golden Age

Caroline Crompton, host of the Shedunnit podcast, was the guest on BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Podcast Radio Hour on an episode where the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio was recommended. She noted that many people didn’t think of America as having an audio drama tradition like the British do.

The British tradition of audio drama as embodied in BBC Radio productions is a storied history of prestigious productions. The works of great authors, both past and present are reflected in the adaptations. In addition, the BBC also produces original comedies and dramas. It’s known for great sitcoms like The Navy Lark as well as bringing radio adaptations of popular television programs including Yes, Minister, Dad’s Army, and Steptoe and Son as well as the original mystery series Paul Temple. These productions feature some of the greatest radio actors of their time. Legends like Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, and Julie McKenzie have all made their appearances in BBC Radio Four productions, as well as current stars like David Tennant, Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Hayley Atwell.

In addition to BBC, there are also independent audio production companies like Big Finish which have put out a prodigious amount of high-quality audio dramas.

The American tradition is different. It’s a long, complicated story with many twists, turns, and aspects. While many British people don’t think Americans have a heritage of audio drama, there’s plenty of misunderstanding on this side of the pond, too. Some Americans don’t know about it. Others think the last day of the golden age of radio in the United States was the day the audio drama died, despite all the other countries in the world that never stopped making it. The idea America ever completely stopped putting out radio dramas is inaccurate, too.

So my next few articles will talk about that tradition. Note I’m not trying to tell an exhaustive history. Rather, our focus is going to be on the major events, programs, and milestones in American radio drama. We’ll start with the era known as the golden age of radio that effectively began in the late 1920s and carried through until 1962.

The Golden Age of Radio and It’s Milestone Programs:

Books stretching into the thousands of pages have been written on the history of the golden age of radio. My aim here is a relatively quick summary, so I’m going to limit my discussion to a few key programs and events.

In the late 1920s and early 1940s, America’s radio networks began to form. There was CBS, Mutual, and NBC Red and Blue Networks. The NBC Blue Network would later be sold off and become an Independent entity now named ABC.

The expansion of radio represented a gold rush opportunity for entertainers. Programs would appear across the four networks. In addition, several programs were sold as first-run syndications to Independent radio stations as well as network affiliates to air at times when network programming wasn’t playing.

The first programs to gain popularity were serialized programs. Cecil and Sally, Amos ‘n Andy, Lum and Abner, and Vic and Sade would become fixtures on American radio as serialized comedy. Regular soap operas like The Goldbergs, One Man’s Family, and Ma Perkins became daytime mainstays that outlasted many other programs.

Rudy Vallee’s Fleishman’s Yeast Hour began in 1929 became the first great musical variety program on radio. The series mixed music, comedy, slice of life interviews, short dramas, and comedy sketches. The show made stars of many guests, most notable ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Jack Benny had his first broadcast in 1932 and eventually became radio’s most popular comedy program, often featuring parodies. Benny and fellow Comedian Fred Allen thrived on a long-running “feud” that enriched both of their careers. Not only did Benny succeed, but Dennis Day and Phil Harris starred in it. Another co-star, Eddie Anderson, became one of the most well-known performers of the time.

Lux Radio Theater came to the air in 1934. It began as a series based in New York that provided hour-long dramatizations of Broadway plays. The series moved to Hollywood in 1936 and began adapting movies to radio, often with members of the film cast reprising their original roles. The series became a massive hit and spawned several other movie adapting series, the longest lasting of which was the Screen Guild Theater.

Fibber McGee and Molly starring real-life husband and wife Jim and Marion Jordan hit the air in 1935 and would evolve into one of radio’s most beloved and successful sitcoms, spinning off two other series: The Great Gildersleeve and Beulah. 

In January 1936, Gangbusters came to the air and became a sensation in the world of crime drama. It’s violent opening and it’s tales of notorious criminals (often told over multiple weeks) made it massively popular listening for years.

Orson Welles made his mark on radio. His career began with a 7-part adaptation of Les Misérables for CBS. Then, he became the uncredited voice of The Shadow. However, he’d make his most famous mark on radio when he took to the air with the Mercury Theater. The plays were evocatively told, often in experimental ways. The most noted of these is the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which was staged as a newscast and led to a national panic. Even though Wells would have a prolific career and make one of the greatest films of all time in Citizen Kane, that radio play is his best-known work.

As War came to the Earth, radio also focused on its greatest writers. Arch Oboler could write great plays about the typical human condition. However, he was also well-known as the writer of the horror series Lights Out. Many of his wartime plays include elements of the imaginative or supernatural, such as a woman who finds Adolf Hitler suddenly a passenger in her car. Norman Corwin was radio’s poet laureate. He was capable of writing delightful surreal stories likeThe Undecided Molecule”  and “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas.” Yet at the same time, that poetic force could be turned on European fascists or used to solemnly commemorate the end of the war. These two writers were stand-out eloquent voices who told evocative stories that captured the feeling of the age in unforgettable ways.

In 1942,CBS launched a new anthology series called Suspense. Each episode was “well-calculated to keep you in suspense.” The genre of the episodes would vary. The stories could have elements of mystery, horror, the supernatural, adventure, and some could be considered Science Fiction. The series ran for twenty years and had numerous showrunners who had their own ideas of what a Suspense episode would like. The series became popular with the general public, and also with Hollywood actors. At the peak of the show’s success, Hollywood greats like Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, or Lucille Ball were often the series guest stars. Often guest stars acted against their typical type. For example, Jim and Marion Jordan appeared outside their Fibber McGee and Molly guise in a serious role. The series produced its most famous episode when Agnes Moorhead provided the principal voice performance in the classic play, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” The episode was performed eight times on the series and adapted into a major motion picture.

After the War, the hard-boiled radio private eye began to proliferate. The hard-boiled private eyes tended to be involved in more violence than the traditional programs, both on the giving and receiving ends. Dick Powell’s Rogue’s Gallery was the first of the number and a key plot point involved him being knocked so senseless each week that he had a conversation with his alter ego. In addition, there was also a unique style of hard-boiled dialogue and narration that has endured as a staple of the genre. The most famous and iconic of the lot was The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff. Hard-boiled private eyes proliferated all four networks and the trend didn’t begin to taper off until the mid-1950s.

Many American police officers bristled at their portrayals in Golden Age radio in detective dramas: from comedic characters with painfully stereotyped accents to clueless simpletons who needed the help of brilliant detectives to figure out how to perform even rudimentary functions of crime detection to brutes who smacked around detective heroes and forced them to solve the crime for them on pains of being sent to the gas chamber and executed for a crime they didn’t commit. The portrayal of police departments and their operations were so unrealistic, as far as real police detectives were concerned, the stories might as well be set in another universe.

A police sergeant who was a technical adviser on the film He Walked by Night discovered Jack Webb, a supporting actor in the film, had played radio private eyes and griped at length. He asked why a radio series wasn’t made portraying how police really did their jobs. The idea came back to Webb in 1949 when his radio series was set to go on hiatus and he needed to find a way to support himself and his pregnant wife during the summer. He pitched NBC on a series of realistic police dramas, and it was greenlit as a summer replacement. Dragnet became one of radio’s iconic hit programs. Webb was not only the show’s star but it’s director and was dedicated to making it as realistic as possible. He used unheard-of sound effects men to create a sound and feel for Dragnet that was years ahead of its time. Just as the success of Sam Spade had led networks to rush out their own private detective programs, the success of Dragnet had every other network making realistic police dramas and served as a major evolution of crime dramas in the United States.

As the 1950s began, American radio was a massive force in American culture. It featured numerous dramatic anthologies that adapted movies, great works of fiction, as well as those told original tales. It boasted America’s finest comics and numerous situation comedies. It also featured a great deal of culturally significant programs about history and literature. It features programs made for men, women, and children. As America entered the 1950s, radio was king. Yet, radio was living on borrowed time and it’s reign would come to an end early in the next decade.

 

 

Audio Drama Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles is like the Christmas Carol. You don’t watch or listen to an adaptation to find out what happens but to see how well the creators have captured the story. Big Finish does a superb job of capturing the spirit of the Hound of the Baskervilles in a very traditionalist adaptation. Amazingly, the entire program was recorded and rehearsed in a single day.

The cast is wonderful. Richard Earl has got the part of Watson nailed and that’s vital since most of the story centers around him. John Banks and Charlie Norfolk did Yeoman’s work, playing five parts and three parts respectively. They did it so seamlessly, I didn’t know they didn’t have separate actors for each part until I listened to the Extra’s CD. Samuel Clemens is very compelling as Sir Henry Baskerville. And of course, Nicholas Briggs is great as Holmes.Of course, what makes the piece so atmospheric over audio is the sound design and music, coupled with Earl’s narration and they did an incredibly good job in post-production. It captured the spookiness and suspense of the story. Overall, Big Finish does Doyle’s most legendary story justice in a superb adaptation.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchaser.

A version of this review was posted in 2015