The Drama of Radio: The past and the future

Audio drama’s special quality? It builds a private, exclusive picture in the mind of each audience member.

VINTAGE RADIO by Philips (photo credit: EVA THE WEAVER/FLICKR)
(photo credit: EVA THE WEAVER/FLICKR)
Once upon a time radio was an integral part of everybody’s life, and daily listening included at least one radio drama program, often more.
Anglos of a certain age brought up in the States will certainly remember the popular radio dramas of their youth – over 2,000 from America’s golden age of radio are listed by title on the Internet, from ABC Mystery Theater to The Zero Hour. The same is true of those born in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
People raised in Britain come from a radio culture steeped in audio drama – the BBC has always broadcast scores of thousands of hours each year. In addition to the widest possible range of subject matter, in plays lasting 90 minutes or more, millions tuned in to their daily 15-minute episode of Dick Barton – Special Agent, Mrs Dale’s Diary, or The Archers (which, with 20,000 episodes under its belt and still going strong, is the world’s oldest soap opera).
Until the 1990s even Kol Yisrael’s domestic radio channels, Reshet Alef and Kol HaMusica, included a regular radio drama slot in their schedules. I remember sitting in on the recording of drama productions in the 1980s, parts played by some of Israel’s most distinguished actors, under the direction of Kol Yisrael’s then-head of radio drama, Eran Baniel.
It was on account of radio drama that I had come to know Baniel. A popular BBC radio drama slot at the time was Saturday Night Theater. For it I had dramatized The Serpent’s Smile by Olga Hesky – a thriller set in 1960s Israel. The BBC director was keen to have an authentic Israeli soundscape, so we contacted Baniel and asked for his assistance. He sent back recordings of genuine Israeli traffic, the sound of the Israeli telephone, Israeli crowds in a restaurant, all of which were merged into the final production.
That radio world has changed. Plays broadcast as part of a channel’s regular schedule have virtually died the death in much of the world. Gradually, under the pressures of finance, constant news, and cheaper ways of filling airtime, the major radio stations in the US, as very nearly everywhere else across the globe, began dropping radio drama. Nowadays, for most mainstream listeners worldwide, radio means just music, news, chatter and phone-ins.
Not, though, in the UK. Britain leads the world in the art of radio drama. Its domestic radio channels are still replete with plays of all sorts. But it is also up among the leaders of those reviving the art – now designated “audio drama” – in new forms more suited to the digital age.
I HAVE spent more than 35 years as a radio dramatist, both for BBC Radio and for Shoestring Radio Theater, an American radio production company whose output is syndicated and broadcast across the States.
Audio drama never loses its fascination for me as an art form. What is so special about it?
The unique quality of audio drama is that it builds a private and exclusive picture in the mind of each separate member of its audience. Film and TV productions put before you what the director wants you to see. A stage play is more or less restricted to the time and place of what is being enacted. Audio faces no such restrictions. It is free of time, place, persons. In a radio play you can have animals or even inanimate objects converse, you can be whisked from Israel to Antarctica, from earth to Mars, from the top of Mount Everest to the deepest coal mine, in an instant. All the action takes place in the listener’s mind.
What is more, that picture is unique to each member of the audience. Through a combination of aural elements – dialogue, sound effects, music, technical devices – audio drama becomes a personal experience, individual and different, for each person listening.
Before Shakespeare launches on his account of Henry V’s adventures in France, he has his Chorus address the throng of groundlings waiting in anticipation for the play to begin.
“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts...,” he begs of them.
“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
“Printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth....”
Aware of the restrictions that a stage, scenery and props impose in recounting great events in dramatic terms, Shakespeare knew how much depended on the words he conjured up and on the actors who mouthed them. He was also anticipating what audio drama would be able to help an audience achieve 400 years later. The radio medium would allow its listening audience to overcome the restriction of perceiving only what was set before it. With nothing to see, the radio listener would nevertheless “see” horses, hundreds of them, whinnying and stamping.
ONLY A few years ago, in order to catch a radio play you had to switch on your set when the program was scheduled for broadcast, and select the right channel. These days audio drama has broken free of those restrictions.
Almost the whole of the BBC’s radio output, for example, as well as more than 80,000 hours of its radio archive, is available to stream or download at any time convenient to the listener, to be heard on a cellphone, a tablet, a PC or a digital receiver.
In addition, its 24-hour online digital radio station, BBC Radio 4 Extra, is dedicated to resurrecting archive radio programs. BBC radio dramas originally broadcast decades ago form a major part of its schedules.
The BBC is not alone in disseminating this type of output on the Internet. There are scores of UK and US companies offering free streaming or downloads of old-time radio drama. The Wireless Company is UK-based; American organizations in this field include Radio Classics,, TuneIn, RelicRadio and USA Today. Google Play and Apple both offer free access to thousands of classic radio shows on their apps. Then there is WON, which describes itself as “America’s nostalgia station,” running a full 24-hour schedule of classic US radio shows, including a goodly number of drama programs.
Audio culture is booming worldwide. In addition to archive drama, original audio productions known as podcasts are being produced and made available digitally not only by the BBC, but by producers across the globe. The audience eager to listen is mushrooming, and specialist radio drama providers are continually increasing. Scores of them are listed online.
Third Coast is a Chicago-based audio podcast hub. Its executive director has described audio storytelling in the US as “in a Wild West moment,” expanding beyond all measure.
US producers have been building up podcast networks like Radiotopia and Serendipity, which advertises itself as “radio drama for the 21st century.” Launched a few years back, Serendipity is linked to the Sarah Awards, a US audio scheme which rewards the best audio fiction from around the world. In Britain, too, there is a podcast competition. Established in 2017, the British Podcast Awards welcomes podcast makers, big and small, to enter their productions in a whole variety of categories.
Audio drama gives the widest possible scope to the imagination of both writer and listener. It allows writers almost limitless freedom of expression, and perhaps that is why it has attracted the most brilliant writers, poets and directors, often at the beginning of their careers – among them Orson Welles, of course, who created a sensation with his 1938 radio production of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. So realistic was his production that more than a million Americans panicked, believing that the US was indeed being invaded by creatures from Mars.
In Britain Louis MacNeice, Henry Reed, John Betjeman and Laurie Lee started in radio, and major works have been created for the medium, including Samuel Becket’s All That Fall, Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. The list of writers who made their dramatic debut on BBC radio is long and distinguished, and includes Joe Orton, Tom Stoppard, John Mortimer, Brendan Behan, Angela Carter and Susan Hill.
Somebody once wrote to the papers about how disappointed they had been at a stage performance of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. I responded, pointing out that the piece was originally written for radio, and represents the high-water mark of the now-defunct BBC Radio Features department, which raised the art of radio to its greatest height. Under Milk Wood is perhaps the greatest piece of radio drama ever conceived.
The producer who brought it to listeners was Douglas Cleverdon, and he later wrote that he had persuaded Thomas to drop his original idea of a plot in favor of exploiting the versatility of the radio medium. It is precisely because Under Milk Wood is constructed as a collage of voices, moves rapidly in time and space, and alternates speech and unspoken thoughts, that it makes brilliant radio and indifferent theater.
Audio drama in all its forms has a glittering past, and – fortunately for listeners who recall it, as well as new generations who may never have heard the original productions – a great deal is being preserved and made available on the Internet.
But the art form – for such I consider it – is far from defunct. Thanks to the continued interest of both listeners and producers, and the exponential growth in new podcast productions, audio drama seems assured of an equally glittering future. 
The writer is a veteran BBC radio dramatist. He published Audio Drama: 10 Plays for Radio and Podcast in 2019.