The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Nine: The Eighties

Continued from Part Eight

The 1980s would begin with the biggest radio breakthrough of the 1970s coming to an end. Earplay left on its weekly radio play and its team turned to producing serialized half-hour stories.

In December 1982, it was announced that CBS Radio Mystery Theater was coming to an end. Twenty years after the official end of the Golden Age of Radio. The revival of network radio drama was snuffed out. CBS stated that it’s focus would be on providing news, sports, and special events coverage.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater and its nine seasons on the air hadn’t changed anything. Radio networks had given up on radio drama and then in the 1970s had returned to it as a trend, but it still didn’t fit into their long-term business model.

Himan Brown ran as tight a ship as possible on CBS Radio Mystery Theater to make it make sense for the network. The actors were paid union scale for their time and a flat $350 ($1008 in 2021 dollars) per script payment to the writer. If Brown couldn’t make a radio program profitable enough for the network, it couldn’t be done.

When CBS Radio Mystery Theater left there, it didn’t end audio drama, but it ended the idea a large network of commercial radio stations like CBS or Mutual were going to invest in and promote the new radio dramas. It would require new methods of distribution.

In addition, both Heartbeat Theater and The Eternal Light, two programs that dated back to the Golden Age of Radio, would cease broadcasting. Yet, while the 1980s had more than its fair share of endings, it also featured some very important beginnings.

NPR Playhouse

NPR Playhouse by presenting an adaptation of Star Wars. George Lucas sold the adaptation rights to the original Star Wars films to his local public radio station KUSC for the sum of $1 each. The production was done in cooperation with the BBC on a $200,000 budget. The radio adaptation brought back Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) from the film in a story that was expanded into a thirteen-part serial paying homage to the sci fi serials of the 1930s and 40s, which the Star Wars films paid homage to. The series used the music and many of the same sounds as the films.

The Empire Strikes Back was adapted in 1983 as a ten-part serial with Hamill and Daniels returning and Billy Dee Williams reprising his role of Lando Calrissian. John Lithgow voiced Yoda.

Both productions were fairly well-received. However, due to production issues, Return of the Jedi wasn’t adapted until 1996, with Anthony Daniels being the only original cast member to repise his screen role. It was told as a six-part serial.

NPR playhouse initial run in 1981 used the Star Wars audio drama and reruns thereof as bit of an anchor for the series. Like the Mutual Radio Theater, NPR Playhouse offered five nights of radio drama with nights reserved for Star Wars, re-runs of Earplay, and the BBC Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy based on the novels by Douglas Adams.

NPR Playhouse would turn out many interesting projects. In 1984, they released The Bradbury Thirteen, Thirteen audio dramas based on Ray Bradbury Short Stories. They also released  The Adventures of Doc Savage in 1985, which dramatized two separate Doc Savage pulp novels from the 1930s.

NPR faced financial problems that brought to the verge of insolvency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped NPR remain solvent but forced NPR to re-organize. The grant money that had gone to NPR directly would go to local stations, who would decide what NPR programs to buy. NPR had to make cuts and this included all the teams making audio drama.

This didn’t mean an end to NPR Radio Playhouse but a shift in focus. It began to play more programs made by other non-profit radio theaters around the country and throughout the world.

A theater listing from 2001 shows how the system evolved. NPR offered four separate half-hour playhouses: One dedicated to “Classic World Literature and Plays,” another to “American Tales,” another Mystery and Science Fiction, and a final one to open stage and contemporary dramas. The website states the degree to which individual stations controlled what aired on NPR, “Individual stations may carry only part of the Playhouse programs, may air them in a different order than they are numbered below, and many don’t carry any of it at all. This listing gives only the order of the satellite feeds.”

For the first quarter on its first playhouse, NPR offered Sherlock Holmes Stories from the British company Independent Radio Drama Productions for the first six weeks of the quarter, then the LA Theatre Works Adaptation of the Devil’s Disciple (we’ll discuss LA Theatre Works more in the next part) for four weeks, and then for two weeks, they offered an adaptation for Sleepy Hollow from Generations Radio Theater.

For the fourth quarter, they offered LA Theatre Works presentation of “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” a play about Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Jackie Robinson and integrate major league baseball and then for the rest of the quarter they offered plays from the California Artists Radio Theatre, a theater company began by radio character actor Peggy Webber.

The second and a third quarters were made up of episodes of 2000X. 

2000X was a rare series where NPR actually was involved in the production. They partnered with Yuri Ravosky of the Hollywood Radio Theater of the Air to produce it. The series was originally named Beyond 2000 and released in the year 2000 and centered on futuristic stories from as likely sources as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and as unlikely sources as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. The production featured forty-nine different stories told over twenty-six episodes. Some of these stories took up the length of an entire episode and one for only two minutes. The series featured established Hollywood Actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Robin Williams, and David Warner. It also brought golden age radio legend Jackson Beck to provide narration on one episode. The series was produced thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

2000x would be the last original work commissioned by NPR. Due to a lack of affiliate interest, NPR Playhouse came to an end in 2002.

Focus on the Family

The radio ministry Focus on the Family entered audio drama in 1987 with Family Portraits over twelve episodes. The family drama series received positive feedback and the series continued on as Adventures in Odyssey. Odyssey continued to be a kid-centered family drama series. However, the series began to change and introduce many adventure elements. Probably the most important was the Imagination Station, which was introduced in 1989 as an invention of Mr. Whitaker, the central character who ran Whit’s End, the local Ice Cream Shop. The Imagination Station allowed users to travel to a simulated version of the past and interact with the characters there. This was typically used to allow characters to experience events from the Bible or history. He also created the Room of Consequences which allowed the user to find out likely consequences of a choice or decision by extrapolating a likely imaginary future.

Odyssey added these speculative elements along with real villains, mysteries, and long plot arcs, while maintaining simple kid drama stories that had nothing to do with these plot elements. This led to an odd mix of episodes that somehow worked. This could be embodied in the lead character of John Avery Whitaker, a kind grandfatherly man who serves kids Ice cream and good advice. However, he also has invented the equivalent of Star Trek’s Holodeck and stuffed it into the same building as his ice cream shop, and by the way also has a son who is secret agent.

The series, over its run, attracted major voice talent. Hal Smith, who originated the role of Mr. Whitaker was best known for playing Otis, the town drunk on the Andy Griffith Show and for providing multiple voices on Davey and Goliath. Townsend Coleman, who voiced The Tick in the 1990 Animated played Jason Whitaker. Golden Age radio star Alan Young (also the titular Mister Ed and Scrooge McDuck on Duck Tales) featured as multiple voices, including Whitaker’s friend Jack Allen.

Three different actors have voiced Whitaker. After Smith died, Paul Herlinger was cast in the role in 1996 and played the part until he was forced to retire due to ill health in 2008, and was replaced by Andre Stojka. Numerous child actors came and went as the Odyssey series ran.

The series has had a life beyond its more than 900 radio episodes, with seventeen videos released, along with more than eighty books. In addition, there have been toy and computer game spin-offs. Adventures in Odyssey has had the most success at merchandising of any program since the Golden Age.

Focus on the Family tried another series in the 1990s, The Last Chance Detectives. The Last Chance Detectives was a kid-centric mystery-adventure series set in a New Mexico desert town. Their first multi-episode adventure featured an appearance by Jason Whitaker, thus tying it into Adventures in Odyssey. The series featured Adam Wylie, who’d spent four years on the critically acclaimed TV series Picket Fences as the lead. It had a much more limited cast and a down-to-earth setting, which lent itself to something Adventures in Odyssey never produced: a live-action adaptation. The series didn’t make it. There were three different four episode story arcs over radio along with three direct to video films, and five novels.

Another project was Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. The Radio Theatre did longer form standalone productions. Radio Theatre produced adaptations of public domain works like Les Miserables, Oliver Twist, and Ben Hur, along with World War II era biopics of leading Christians such as C.S. Lewis, Corrie Ten Boom, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which won a Peabody Award in 1997). They also produced an original mystery series: The Father Gillbert Mysteries. Some of Radio Theatre’s more notable later work included adaptations of two of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters.

The success of these efforts and Adventures in Odyssey in particular set the stage for many other successful modern Christian Audio Dramas including Paws and Tales, Down Gilead Lane, Jonathan Park, and the Lamplighter Theatre. 

Louie L’Amour Audios

Bantam Audio publishing started up in the 1980s and wanted to publish audio version of the work of legendary Western Writer Louie L’Amour. L’Amour didn’t want to just put out normal audiobooks. He wanted to turn his short stories into audio dramas patterned off old time radio programs.  The programs were mostly produced in New York. The first story to be adapted was “The Unguarded Moment” which was one of L’Amour’s non-Western stories.

An obvious choice for adaptation was L’Amour’s stories of Texas Ranger Chick Bowdrie. Reathel Bean was cast as Bowdrie and all the Bowdrie stories were adapted to audio, along with many many others from L’Amour’s lengthy bibliography. Eventually the audio dramas were recut for radio and syndicated on more than 200 stations.

In 2004, the final L’Amour Audio Drama, Son of a Wanted Man was adapted. It was the first and only L’Amour novel to be adapted to radio.

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