Theater for the Mind


This episode originally aired on Imaginary Worlds. Go subscribe!

The "golden age of radio drama" may have been a stellar period for storytelling -- but the stories weren't all golden bright. Sci-fi and horror radio dramas explored deep anxieties people felt from the Depression through the Cold War, and set the stage for later stories that couldn't be told yet without special effects. Eric Molinsky of the podcast Imaginary Worlds co-hosts this episode as we hear from historians like Neil Verma and Richard J. Hand, and radio drama veterans like Dirk Maggs and Richard Toscan. Plus Emory Braswell recalls the day he thought Martians invaded New Jersey. 

20K is made out of the studios of Defacto Sound and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[SFX: radio drama starts playing for a few seconds, cues up a transmission from outer space. Effect intro line of the show to fit in the old radio drama...]

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.

[music start]

The first radio broadcasts began about a hundred years ago. At the time, some people thought that radio technology was a novelty. They believed it was too complicated to be useful. But over time, radio technology became smaller, cheaper, and easier to operate. Eventually there was a radio in every household and every car.

And it wasn’t just music or news like today, there were full fledged dramatic stories on the radio. When you listen to drama instead of watching it, it forces you to dive headfirst into your imagination.

In this episode, we’re going to take a trip back in time to when radio dramas were king.

[music out]

We made this episode with our friend Eric Molinsky of Imaginary Worlds, which is an amazing podcast about the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Here’s Eric.

[bring in the SFX from the show….]

When Emory Braswell was growing up in the 1930’s, he used to love listening to radio drama serials.

Emory: I listened to The Shadow [SFX] and The Lone Ranger [SFX], Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy [SFX].

But Emory’s parents restricted the amount of radio he could listen to – especially at night -- although, they always made exceptions if Joe Louis was boxing, or if the President was addressing the nation.

And then one night [SFX: crickles cirp as call pulls up] in October 1938, Emory heard his father’s Model-A Ford pull up to the house, and he thought he heard the Franklin Roosevelt on the radio.

[SFX: War of the Worlds Clip]

Emory: So I ran down and got in the car and my mother was sitting there too. I said, "What's happening?" He said, "Well, there's some kind of story going on about an invasion. We're being invaded by Mars or something." My father sounded skeptical [SFX: clip continues]. So I listened to it, and sure enough there was somebody supposedly from either the state department or the “gub-mint”, as my family would say, talking about a meteor that had crashed in New Jersey and there were beings coming out of it and they were destroying all the local militia and stuff [SFX: clip continues]. One of the fascinating parts about the program was it was a music program and they would interrupt the music for many bulletins coming from Jersey.

[SFX: War of the Worlds bulletins]

I was just wide eyed listening to it, trying to decide, is this all happening or not? My father was kind of skeptical because when it was over with, he says, "I think it's a hoax." As I said, the business about the music going on and bulletins coming made it seem much more real [SFX: Bulletin clip]. Then when the program was over, it seemed to go back to regular programming, and we could understand, and we listened for further announcements and nothing came. So my father said, "That proves it's a hoax." I took it seriously.

[music start]

Eventually learned that they were listening to War of the Worlds, adapted by Orson Welles.

Neil Verma teaches radio history at Northwestern University. He says there’s a reason why young Emory Braswell thought he heard FDR during the show.

Neil: There's a moment in the War of the World's broadcast where the Secretary of the Interior comes on the microphone on the world of the fiction and originally, that piece was written to be not the Secretary of the Interior, but President Roosevelt. The CBS Network said, "No, no, no, you can't have President Roosevelt's voice if it's not actually President Roosevelt. People will get confused; we'll get in trouble. We can't do it." Orson Welles says, "Okay, well, we'll change it to the Secretary of the Interior." Then, the actor who portrayed the role goes up to Welles, according to legend and says, "Well, I don't know how the Secretary of the Interior sounds." Welles says, "Don't worry. He sounds just like Roosevelt."

Richard: I mean that's the achievement of War of the Worlds, it sounds like the weather forecast, it sounds like a radio show playing music and then gradually it shifts.

Thats Richard J. Hand. He teaches radio drama at The University of East Anglia in the UK.

Richard: And I think that's one reason it had such impact, is that understanding, we can take a genre and jump a form, and use the structures, and formula, and conventions of another form in order to tell a story.

When we think about pop culture in the 20th century, we tend to focus on movies, TV or pop music. It’s easy to forget that radio was the dominant form of entertainment for decades. There were hit shows in every genre, but science fiction in particular kept pushing the boundaries of what the medium could do.

And these radio dramas laid the groundwork for stories that couldn’t be done on film for decades because special effects weren’t good enough. In some ways, they’re like the missing cultural link between genre fiction, and the movies and shows we watch today. But they’re also stand-alone works of audio art that could play with our imagination in ways that the printed word and the visual image never could.

There is such a rich history of sound in radio dramas. They capture your imagination in a special way. It’s really a unique experience compared to watching a movie. So, let’s starting by zooming out and looking at the big picture. When did the golden age of radio dramas really start?

They really seem to have tanek off in 1934 when the FCC was created.Which is The Federal Communications Commission – which is still around today. That’s around the time when the big networks starting forming like CBS and NBC.

Which are also still around today, but mostly in the form of Television.

Yeah. Neil Verma says when the networks got into the business of making highly produced radio dramas, they were not motivated by noble reasons.

Neil: If they couldn't demonstrate a level of public service that they were giving to the listeners out there, then they ran the risk of further government regulation and intrusion, so all of the money they were making out of selling all the bootblack and soup and yeast and tea, they would be taken away. So they enshrined in their mandate the idea to create high culture content, and for a lot of them that meant radio drama.

[music start]

If we look at the big picture, each decade of radio drama had its own style. The radio dramas in the ‘30s were ambitious. They grappled with big nationalistic ideas because it was the Depression. Then in the ‘40s, anxiety around the war got channeled into radio dramas that were like film noirs, or I guess you could call them “radio noirs.” Neil Verma actually had a good way of putting it.

Neil: In the 1930s, radio is kind of a theater in the mind, so it's a big kind of theatrical space that you're supposed to imagine in your mind. In the 1940s, it becomes really a theater about the mind.

And then in the ‘50s, radio dramas are very influenced by the Cold War - with aliens standing in for the Soviets. There’s a really famous radio drama called Zero Hour from 1955, which was written by Ray Bradbury. Actually, a lot of famous Sci-fi writers got their start in radio. And the alien invasion is told from the point of view of a woman who discovers the kids in her neighborhood, including her daughter, have been co-opted by these inner-dimensional beings. The parents think the kids are playing a game, but slowly this one woman begins to realize the truth.

[SFX: Clip 1: Zero Hour]

Neil: The main character, played by Esa Ashdown, is immobile. Almost all of this play takes place in her kitchen or living room. Most of the interplay between her and her daughter the ones where she comes to suspect the daughter is collaborating with this evil alien happen at just outside the edge of our earshot.

[SFX: Clip 2: Zero Hour]

God, that’s so erie. I love it. I think a lot of people have a misconception that radio dramas from this era were goofy or naïve.

Yeah, I used to think it was just two guys banging coconuts together in front of a microphone being like “look the horse is coming”. That was true for some radio serials, especially the ones aimed at kids. But when I listened to these shows, I couldn’t believe how dark and weird they were.

Well for the era, how exactly was the FCC was okay with that?

Well, it’s funny because the FCC was more concerned with obscenity, or overt political messages, or as you heard early, you couldn’t have someone impersonate Franklin Roosevelt. But radio wasn’t under the same kind of moralistic code that Hollywood was back then, where they were really restricted by what kind of stories they could tell or couldn’t tell. Neil Verma thinks the censors feared the power of visual images, but they underestimated the power of audio to create images in our mind.

Neil: Almost everyone talks about radio as a blind medium, which is a particular way of talking about a medium, no one talks about sculpture as a deaf medium, but whenever you hear anything about radio, the first thing people say is it's blind. It's strange to characterize or essentialize a medium by something it can't provide.

People who are kind of boosters for the medium would say, “don’t talk about what radio doesn’t have, an image, and talk about how its images can be more malleable than images that take on some kind of physical visual form.

So now, I’m really intrigued. Eric, give me some more examples of this really dark stuff?

Well, thrillers were the dominant format, especially in the 40’s. But they weren’t just spy thrillers or detective shows. A lot of these radio drama’s are what we categorize as “horror” today.

Richard: Some things that we might think of post George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, this kind of unhappy ending, you're getting it in the '30s and '40s.

Again, that’s Richard Hand.

Richard: And one great example of that was Arch Oboler's play, Burial Services, which is about a young woman being buried alive in a coffin, and we hear the inside of her head, a kind of stream of consciousness because she's not dead, she's in a catatonic fit or whatever it might be. But no one rescues her. Unfortunately there's no recording of that particular piece, but the response was phenomenal. And there was lots of letters of complaints, and shock and disgust. And Arch Oboler thought he'd get sacked, but actually the station were happy saying, "Wow, if there's this many people complaining, how many people are listening? This is fantastic."

A lot of these shows, especially in the 30’s and 40’s were live, and listeners really were disgusted. If the FCC clamped down, the networks would simply promise not to do it again. And they couldn’t, because it was live.

The most famous horror story from this era was The Thing On Fourble Board from a spooky anthology series called Quiet, Please.

This was around 1948.

It’s mostly a monologue from an oil field worker, and he’s telling the story about he and his friend found this alien creature on a fourble board - which is like a catwalk on an oilrig. And he describes this creature as having the head and torso of a girl, but the body of a giant spider.


[SFX: Clip 1 - Fourble Board]

And as the character is talking, he’s waiting for his “wife” to come out, and eventually we realize his “wife” is the creature. And we’re not a passive listener. We’re her next meal.

[SFX: Clip 2 - Fourble Board]

Oh my goodness. So...It’s like the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. There’s always something that’s lost because these words are being tapped into a different part of your brain, that are triggering this kind of deeper intelect . This whole clip is like the perfect example of how, I don’t want to see any of this stuff. And even if it was visual, you’d lose a lot of this deep inner thought. So this whole audio only communicating, I don’t think could be done the same way visually. Because it’s hitting me in a totally different place in my brain than if I was absorbing that through my eyes.

Yea, when I was listening to this as well, I started to imagine ok if this were live action in the ‘70s or ‘80s, they would’ve used stop motion creature.


Which may have seen scary, or a puppet, but it would have gotten dated. Today the creature would be CG. Which I have a big issue against, a lot of CG stuff I think looks so fake.


Either way something would’ve been lost.

Horror films in the 1940’s we’re nothing like this. When this episode came out in 1948, the big kind of quote, “horror” movie that year was Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.

[music in]

In the 1950’s, the television became more accessible. Because of this, radio dramas began to slowly decline in popularity. But in the 1970’s, and even today, radio dramas have made surprising comeback. More after the break.

[music out]


[music in]

Radio dramas create some of the most vivid and exciting listening experiences. But, one of the things that fascinated me in researching the history of radio dramas was just how people listened to them.

Typically we imagine entire families sitting around staring at the radio, waiting for it to evolve and eventually become a television set.

Which is true to some extent, but in this era, people were used to listening to the radio in the car. And there were these little devices called crystal sets. They were crude pieces of technology with a copper wire that acted as an earbud. So these people were listening on these portable devices just like we do.

Richard: And that makes it such a unique experience. It’s no cinema is it? It’s not these other cultural forms. It’s something that’s invading your domestic space and I think that’s why science fiction and horror understood that on radio.

It’s also fascinating how they used sound effects to stimulate the listener’s imagination. Neil Verma talked about a pioneer in the field named Ora Nichols. She worked with Orson Welles for years.

[music out]

Neil: In the War of the Worlds there's this famous scene where you can hear the Martian vessel cooling and she did that by taking a cast iron pot and rubbing its two sides together to make that really specific, grindy voice.

[SFX: Clip - War of the Worlds, vessel cooling sound]

Neil: She also built machines and there were companies that would put together what would we think of as sound effects libraries on transcription discs.

And Richard Hand says audio engineers had all sorts of short cuts ready to go like that. If you wanted to simulate a gunshot...

Richard: Sometimes they'd use a metal rod and hit a leather seat, and you get that crisp bang sound, and that would work really well [SFX]. And this is one of my favorite things I demonstrate with while doing a practical session of radio, where you can take a cork and wet it, and squeak it against the side of a bottle or a saucer. And that was effect they would use for the sound of rats, because you get this squeaky, squeaky sound [SFX].

[music in]

But none of this mattered if the mic wasn’t placed properly. That may sound like a minor detail but Neil Verma says mic placement was crucial – not only with props but with actors too.

Neil: The world that is the off-mic environment, that's where radio drama happens. And that's how you create really important relations, like what character are you close to? What character do you listen to?

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, radio dramas were performed live, so there was a limit to how many of tricks you could do. But in the 1950s, they moved over to pre-recorded magnetic tape, which gave the audio engineers a lot more creative freedom. And radios themselves became more sophisticated, so listeners could hear this subtler sound design.

[music out]

Speaking of advances in technology, the conventional wisdom of the time is that radio dramas went out of fashion in because TV came along.

That’s true to some extent. The networks moved a ton of money and talent to Television. But something else pushed radio dramas off the air: It was rock n’ roll. Remember, these were commercial radio stations. They catered to the marketplace.

But radio dramas kept going in the UK.

Well, that’s because the BBC is government funded and that’s not something that happens in the States as much. They also have multiple outlets so they could play rock on one channel, and radio dramas on another, and on top of all of that they could create a television network and multiple television networks.

It wasn’t a zero sum game.

Not at all. And you talked with someone who’s worked with the BBC at that time?

Yeah, Dirk Maggs. He’s been directing radio dramas for decades.

Dirk: I try and think through the sequence of events of even the shortest, quickest sound.

He’s mostly worked with BBC, but he’s been working with Audible lately. He did this adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, this big flat world on the back of a group of elephants that are on the back of a giant turtle -- that’s swimming through space.

Dirk: You know, you're thinking, "How the hell'd you do that?" But, you take it sequentially. Describe the turtle, describe the elephants, describe the world that's on there, and then go into the world. That would be my way of going at it.

But, when Dirk got to the BBC in the ‘70s, he says radio dramas were still going, but they were feeling a little stale creatively. There were a lot of legacy shows that had been around for years. Then in 1978, Douglas Adams – who was a writer on Doctor Who – created this really unusual radio drama called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In fact it wasn’t even a drama. It was an epic sci-fi comedy, which had never been done before at least on the radio.

Dirk: They really didn't think it was gonna get much of a listenership, so they put it on at half past 10 at night. It was not expected to do much business. And by the third week the listening figures they were getting back were through the roof. For myself, going into the BBC as a technician, it was the only thing everybody was talking about.


The radio show was such a hit; Douglas Adams adapted it into a best selling novel – actually a series of novels. And the BBC adapted those novels back into radio. And eventually, Douglas Adams chose Dirk Maggs to work on the later radio shows.

Dirk: I think Hitchhiker’s worked as a radio drama for the reasons that it really didn’t quite come off as a television series or as a movie. If you have a story, that the very beginnings of it, is the end of everything. That’s the conceit. The first episode of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy destroys the Earth and everybody on it and it leaves just two humans, actually only one human in the first episode alive. That is so vast and so ambitious an idea that, for a start, you're gonna listen to the next week's episode to know where does this go from there. But secondly, the enormity of it -- if you are in that imaginative state where all these images are coming to you and you combine that with writing, which says, the Vogan ships hung in the air and in precisely the way that bricks don't. You know, it could only be born in an audio medium. It's too big, in a way, to combine those elements, and that was Douglas' achievement.

[music start]

Eventually radio drama got a second life in the U.S. too.

Thanks again to science fiction again. This was around the same time, late ‘70s. NPR was struggling – which is hard to imagine because NPR is a powerhouse today but it was pretty new back then. The president of NPR, Frank Mankiewicz, thought that a radio drama event could bring in new listeners. So he asked John Houseman for advice.

John Houseman was an actor and one of the founders of Juliard. He also worked with Orson Welles back on War of the Worlds. Houseman recommended that they hire an audio engineer named Richard Toscan to create this big radio drama event.

Richard T.: Having been handed this hot potato, I went back to John Housman, and I said, "Okay, you got me this job, how do you think I could develop an audience for public radio in America?" "How would you do that?" And in his Professor Kingsford voice he, after thinking a moment, he said, "create a scandal."

[music out]

This was the late 1970s, I mean at that point what is still shocking? And a friend of Richard said, sort of jokingly, why don’t you do Star Wars on the radio? And he thought, huh.

[start music]

Richard T.: Here was, at the time, the most visual film Hollywood had ever made, and to say you were going to turn that into radio just sounded so outlandish that it had to be possible. And I think the other thing that was feeding into that is everybody at NPR, or anybody under Frank Mankiewicz, that is anybody below Frank, was scandalized by the idea. This was seen as, you know, the most lowbrow, boring kind of thing. The result, of course, was that after the 13 episodes aired, despite all the sniping, and whatever, of NPR, the measurements that then came in showed, according to NPR, that it had raised the audience of NPR by 40%.

[music out]

NPR’s Star Wars was groundbreaking in other ways. It was also in stereo – which was not common back then. They got LucasFilm to lend them Ben Burtt’s sound effects, and the John Williams score. They had to recast most of the actors, except Mark Hamill. But Richard Toscan says the recasting worked in their favor.

Richard T.: Part of the idea is that we didn't want the series, or at least I didn't want the series to be a clone of the film. I didn’t want people to sit down in front of their radio and say oh, I remember this from three years ago or whatever.

Remember, Star Wars was a 2-hour movie. This was a 6-hour, 13-part radio drama. So they got the late writer Brian Daley – who had written Star War spin-off novels – to add additional scenes that were not in the movie [SFX]. So we got to hear Leia’s relationship with her father on Alderaan.


And, we got to hear Luke’s training with Obi-Wan Kenobi:


And Neil Verma says that NPR’s Star Wars had a huge influence on the generation coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s, that may have seen radio dramas as passe.

[music in]

Neil: You know a lot of people who make audio dramas today look back at this as the gold standard. But I think it's not just the gold standard because of the great score or the great sound effects or any of those sorts of things. I think because it really creates these deep senses of character out of what had been relatively two-dimensional characters and that's something that a lot of audio dramas these days like to explore. It's become a much more writerly medium.

Most of those old radio dramas are available for free online… so it’s a hidden treasure trove to discover. I find it amazing that these shows were built for the analog world, but they’re also perfect for the digital age. Today thanks to podcasting, audio dramas are making a huge comeback. ...and not only that, they’re becoming so popular that there are major television networks are starting to notice. We’re now seeing television adaptations of audio shows. Look at Homecoming, Lore, Startup and others. I believe audio dramas are going to continue to grow in popularity. And who knows, maybe we’ll make one. In the meantime, if there are any big shot studio executives looking for a television series about sound, wink wink nudge nudge.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. Find out more at defactosound dot com.

This episode was was written by Eric Molinsky with help from assistant producer Stephanie Billman. You should take a moment to immediately go subscribe to Eric’s podcast, Imaginary Worlds. I have no doubt you’ll love it. Just search Imaginary Worlds in any podcast player.

Over on the 20k side, thanks to Sam Schneble who helped produce this episode, along with Nick Spradlin who mixed and adapted the episode. Thanks also to our guests - Emory Braswell, Richard J. Hand, Richard Toscan, Dirk Maggs, and Neil Verma.

The music in this episode is from of our friends at Musicbed. ...and now you can also use their music too! For the first time ever they now have membership plans. Check it out and sign up at music.20k.org. Finally, you can engage with me and the rest of the Twenty Thousand Hertz team through our website, facebook, twitter or by writing hi at 20 kay dot org.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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