Starting one of these late at night under the light of a dim lamp is an experience few today know. There are modern shows you can listen to, usually as podcasts, but there is also a charm and history worth experiencing by listening to the old radio dramas popular in the 1940s and 1950s. They are awkward at first. They usually open with corny jingles, announcements, and advertisements. Later you’ll hear overly dramatic music blasted at key plot points. But they have the charm of confident, old-timey accents and tell good stories that, because you can only listen, force you to use your imagination and are probably better for your brain than TV.
Before televisions were common in every home there was the family radio. They were often as large as a modern flatscreen TV, quite a bit heavier, and crafted to fit as a centerpiece in the living room so the whole family could gather round and listen to, what was then, a wondrous technology of the modern world. In the 1940s radios were the biggest provider of popular entertainment and the radio drama’s most popular years were the period of 1930 to 1960.
Just like with television today, major networks developed episodic shows that would be broadcast on a fixed schedule. Unlike television, whose visual nature makes it the descendant of plays, the radio drama is closer to oral story telling — tales told around campfires. Although having a cast of characters with added sound effects are features you would find in a play, it’s still only an auditory experience. It’s the kind of story you might enjoy most by closing your eyes.
Luckily for us there are thousands of hours worth of recorded shows online, both old and brand new. Many are now podcast episodes or stored away on sites like archive.org. Listen to one on your way to work, or in the evening as a lot of listeners would have done after dinner, or as a story before bed. Dim the lights, pour yourself a drink, sink into a comfortable chair, and listen to a story. Below are three famous examples from the format’s most popular period as well as a few examples of modern shows.
Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air
No list of popular radio dramas could be made without mentioning Orson Welles. Today, when the format has nearly disappeared, the War of the Worlds episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air is the one radio drama almost all of us have at least heard about.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a series created and performed by Orson Welles and his repertory company. Each episode was an hour long and told the story of a famous work of classical literature. Aside from The War of the Worlds, episodes included Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dracula, and A Tale of Two Cities.
As the War of the Worlds episode was being broadcast on Halloween, reports of mass, national panic began to flood into the CBS station. Some listeners did not realize it was a work of fiction and assumed it was a real news broadcast. Newspapers reported stampedes, traffic accidents, suicides, and general pandemonium. A lighted bulletin on the New York Times building read, ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC. News reports at the time made it seem as though a mass, national hysteria had broken out causing widespread death and terror, however, in reality the level of panic was far more subdued and most of the sensational reports were exaggerated.
It might be funny to us today. We might see it as a view into a world before understanding what was fiction and what was real in mass media was common. But there are a couple things we need to be aware of. First, most of the play was presented as a series of news bulletins that were made to sound very real. It begins with reports interrupting a live concert of strange atmospheric anomalies and sightings of gaseous explosions on Mars. It flips back and forth from these news bulletins to musical numbers and the story builds as the bulletins begin describing what reporters initially think are meteors hitting parts of rural America, and then explodes into reports of the alien invasion with broadcasts from reporters embedded with units in the US military. It isn’t until the final 15 minutes that we get a more traditional narrative where the story follows a single character acting as narrator.
Second, and more importantly, you need to consider the date of the broadcast — 1938, on the eve of the second world war, when anxiety about humanity, civilization, and the future was far worse than most of us alive today have ever experienced. Some listeners who only heard parts of the broadcast did not realize the invaders were aliens and assumed it was reports of a German invasion or natural disaster.
Even if you decide radio dramas aren’t something you can enjoy, you should listen to this one just as a piece of history.
The Adventures of Superman
This is a children’s radio drama. It’s more like the very old cartoon shows than the modern movies. The show first aired in 1940, two years after the comic was first published, and continued until 1951. Individual stories were broken up into episodes 15 minutes long (a few extending to 30 minutes). It’s difficult to listen to a children’s radio show from the 1940s, but I’ve listed it here because of one particular series where Superman battles the Klu Klux Klan, or, “Clan of the Fiery Cross” in the show.
How Superman came to fight the KKK was thanks to an activist named Stetson Kennedy who had infiltrated the KKK and began recording their rituals, code words, and secrets in the mid 1940s. He took his findings to the police, but they were reluctant to act on it because of the increasing political power of the Klan. He decided to pitch a Superman vs the KKK episode series to the Superman writers instead. Superman had spent much of the Second World War fighting Nazis, but now it was 1946 and the show needed new villains. The producers accepted and superhero history was made.
It has great kids show dialogue like the following between young Chuck and his cultic uncle:
“We’re a great secret society pledged to purify America. America for 100% Americans only — one race, one religion, one colour.
“I don’t get it. America has all kinds of races and colours.”
“When we get through there will only be one.”
“But the constitution says all Americans have the same rights and privileges.”
“Constitution… We’ll change that!”
The episodes were so successful that membership in the KKK dropped, causing them to call for a boycott of the show’s sponsor, Kelloggs. Unfortunately for them ratings were high and Kelloggs continued to support the show. Much of their power and ability to recruit came from the shroud of cultic mystery surrounding them. With their secrets exposed they lost much of that power and started to be nationally ridiculed.
A noir series in the form of a radio drama. It follows Randy Stone, a Chicago Star reporter that listeners were invited to join as he “searches through the city for strange stories waiting for him in the darkness.” He looked for human interest stories and would find himself getting involved in the lives of the strange characters he’d find himself dealing with.
What kind of human interest stories do you find in the Chicago night? In one episode Randy finds a young veteran who has just left the military but is suffering amnesia. He’s discovered he has a wife but has no memory of her. Randy finds and tries to talk to her. She wishes her husband had never returned. He was gambler, drinker, and she wants him out of her life. When she learns her husband can’t remember anything she reluctantly agrees to take him and Randy to the bars and gambling dens where he ruined their lives to try and jog his memory, hoping to show him why she does not want to see him again.
Dark, gritty (for the time) stories of strange people and strange situations in the middle of the night. This, along with the original Dragnet show if you’re looking for a police detective series, are perfect for when you are in the mood for a good noir in radio drama form.
Modern Radio Dramas
Luckily for us the modern podcast has allowed storytellers to take advantage of the audio medium far more easily than ever before. Their style, production values, and techniques may be very different from what you’d find in the middle of the 20th century but that may mean you’d like them more. Obviously these aren’t as popular as radio dramas used to be. No podcast has enough listeners to threaten a nationwide panic like Orson Welles, but they are available if you want to hear good stories that better reflect the times we live today, or performed in the styles modern listeners prefer.
Here are three to get you started, but remember there are many more:
The Truth — Short stories from a variety of genres.
The Leviathan Chronicles — Sci-Fi/Fantasy series.
Snap Judgement — True stories pitched by listeners.
The New Yorker: Fiction — Each episode is a short story followed by a discussion.