A Brief History of Radio Drama
(an excerpt from Theatre
of the Mind, Writing and Producing Radio Drama in the Classroom)
Radio drama is over 70 years old, and, for all serious purposes, has been dead
for 50 of those years, being used only occasionally in the classroom as a
novelty or curiosity. During the middle to late 1940's, radio drama reached its
peak, then, with the advent and expansion of television, it quickly faded into
history. Before the 1920's formal radio programs were unknown. Most broadcasts
were one time events consisting mainly of talk and music. Broadcast hours were
irregular, usually four or five hours a day, and the only regularly scheduled
broadcasts were weather reports. Once in a while, musical events such as
symphonies and operas were broadcast from the locations where they were being
performed. Occasionally stage plays were broadcast from the theatre, and
sporting events were broadcast with play-by-play announcing.
the mid 20's, larger stations began to develop programs using announcers or
narrators. These programs used definite openings and closings and were built
around specific program ideas. Radio drama was born in 1927, when networks began
adapting short stories, and even writing original scripts, for broadcast.
During the last part of the 1920's many one-hour, sponsored network programs
started. Musical variety and concert music programs were the most popular forms
during this period. Some of these network variety programs used a different
format each week—a musical program one week, a talk or a debate the next week,
and perhaps a dramatization the third week. During this period the network
schedules included two or three minstrel variety programs and a comedy variety
program using a series of several comedy acts in a half hour. Song-and-patter
teams, usually two person teams that used talk between songs, became popular
during this period. Later on patter-only comedy acts appeared. The Amos 'n'
Andy show was one of the first to use this format. At first Amos 'n' Andy
presented patter five nights a week for fifteen minutes each night.
During the 1930-31 season, the comedy dramatic form became an important part of
radio programming, when Amos 'n' Andy adopted a story line. Amos 'n'
Andy was so popular that the program survived even into the TV era.
the early 1930's national advertisers recognized the potential for radio
advertising and became willing to buy air-time and sponsor programs. As this
happened, networks competed for their share. The result was the development of
many new program forms. Among the new program types were: vaudeville variety
programs, dramatized news programs, programs built around a comedian,
advice/interview programs, amateur contest programs, town meeting programs,
daily network news programs, daytime "soap opera" serialized drama,
after school juvenile serialized adventure drama, and hillbilly variety
programs. As network daytime serials became popular, stations developed daytime
order to survive the depression years, many local stations scheduled commercial
religious programs, programs with cultural appeal (country music for instance),
and astrology programs that included strong appeals for donations to keep the
show on the air. During this time, local news programs were usually one
fifteen-minute broadcast per day, getting their news from daily newspapers.
the early 1940's, radio programs reflected America's involvement in World War
II. As the number of news and human interest programs grew, evening variety,
musical, quiz, and audience participation programs shrunk. During this time,
evening dramatic programs exploded in number.
result of the country's involvement in the war, the number of hours per week
devoted to news broadcasts nearly doubled. It was probably this abundance of war
news that propelled the spectacular growth of evening dramatic programs. As
listeners grew tired of war talk, they turned to other programs for escape. The
forms that offered the most escape were comedy-variety, comedy drama, and
thriller drama. As a matter of fact, one of the dramatic series created during
this period was entitled Escape. During the 1944-45 season, the networks
scheduled 8 hours of comedy variety, 8 hours of comedy drama programs, and 14
hours of thriller drama each week. By the end of this period, networks offered
47 hours a week of dramatic programs during the evening and on Sunday. Thriller
drama programs counted for about 25 hours of these each week.
the early years of television, not enough homes had a TV receiver and national
sponsors were hard to find, therefore, production costs had to be controlled. It
was too expensive to create new forms and take a chance on an unknown show, so
the forms that existed at the time on radio were moved directly to television.
In fact, many of the successful radio series went directly to television. Gunsmoke,
an extremely successful western drama, was one among several that could be heard
on radio and seen on TV. Suspense, radio's longest running thriller
series, was another.
Copyright © 1998 by Balance
All Rights Reserved
The above material may be used for non-commercial purposes without permission
providing the above copyright notice appears on all copies.