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A BRIEF hISTORY OF RADIO DRAMA IN AMERICA

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Radio's Golden Age
by Don Kisner

An Audio Play from the Comic Section   A Night to Remember   A Writing and Producing Unit   A Radio Drama Project   Theatre of the Mind (revised edition)

A Brief History of Radio Drama in America

In a time before spacewalks
moonshots
and cyberspace
when television was still an unrealized dream
the king of imagination was a piece of furniture
about the size of a picnic basket
and every day
shortly after sunset
America would pull her chair up to this little box
and spend a delightful evening as
magically
fiction was made to come alive on programs such as
Escape, The Shadow, Suspense, and The Whistler
In this way
those who lived during the Golden Age of Radio
received a dish of excitement that they have remembered
ALL THEIR LIVES.

 

A Brief History of Radio Drama in America

(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.

    In 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.

    In 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 schedules.

    In 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.

    In 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.

    As a 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.

    In 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 Publishing Company
All Rights Reserved
The above material may be used for non-commercial purposes without permission providing the above copyright notice appears on all copies.

 

 

 
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Last modified: November 06, 2013