A brief history of audio drama

A brief history of audio drama


A guest article by Patience “Sibby” Wieland, creator of World Audio Drama Day

This piece was made as part of Acast’s Audio Fiction Week. You can find out more about Audio Fiction Week at acast.com/audiofictionweek, or via #AcastAudioFictionWeek on social.

As podcasting grows in scale and notoriety, more and more major companies are making their way into the fiction space. But audio drama is not a new medium by any means — it has its roots in the early days of radio.

We were inspired to run Audio Fiction Week by World Audio Drama Day, which falls on October 30 each year. Its creator, Patience Wieland, is an encyclopedia of knowledge on the form, and she’s written a brief history of audio drama for us. We hope you enjoy — and learn a little something, too.

​​Happy Audio Fiction Week, and Happy Audio Drama Day for this Saturday — better get the marker out to note next year’s celebration! In 2012, I began developing this idea as a means of supporting — and uniting — audio drama creators across multiple genres and generations.

Since the first observance of Audio Drama Day in 2013, October 30 has been an opportunity to celebrate the entire artform. That means acknowledging the continuity between the “Golden Age of Radio Drama”, what’s been called the “Silver Age” by J. Michael Straczynski, and the most recent “Bronze” and “Platinum” age of later podcasts, broadcasts, and live audio drama on the stage.

After all, audio drama has been around longer than most people realize — and no, I don’t just mean that there have been podcasts for close to two decades. According to historian Elizabeth McLeod’s research, 2022 will be the 100th year that there has been organized, regular audio drama production, led by the WGY Players in upstate New York.

As McLeod notes, experimental productions had been made before actor/director Edward H. Smith approached WGY — a station owned by General Electric in Schenectady, New York. As the technology became accessible, radio had grown in popularity rapidly — that year, the government had already tracked 378 radio stations across the country.

Smith was already leading a community theater troupe in nearby Troy, and convinced station director Kolin Hager that they could adapt a series of plays to his requirements. Beginning with The Wolf in September 1922, the 40-minute plays were extremely popular, and received national coverage in magazines like Radio Broadcast and Radio Digest.

The famous War of the Worlds panic broadcast on October 30, 1938, is by far the most famous early radio drama — and it’s no coincidence I chose its 75th anniversary for the first Audio Drama Day. It is a continuing “gateway listen” and has been adapted by regional producers to their own towns for years. Phoenix, Arizona, however, seems to have been the only city whose War of the Worlds adaptation was followed by a real-life UFO mystery less than two years later.

(Tip: Raised on Radio, by the late drama writer Gerald Nachman, is one of the warmest narratives to help you discover the Golden Age, along with A. Brad Schwartz’s Broadcast Hysteria, a retrospective history based on Schwartz’s exploration of rediscovered War of the Worlds letters to Orson Welles and CBS.)

By the early 1960s, only a few series appeared on American network radio drama — most of the innovative and popular audio dramas, from Jack Benny’s eponymous ‘show about nothing’ to Dragnet, had decamped for television by 1955. Most of these, like Theater Five on ABC, were anthologies.

But the first blockbuster in the Silver Age was CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (CRMT), created by Himan Brown, who had produced Inner Sanctum Mysteries during the 1940s. If you’ve ever guffawed at Elvira or another horror host, or enjoyed Tales from the Crypt, you can thank Inner Sanctum’s attempt to chill and tickle your funny bones at the same time.

With a mix of suspense, paranormal, and science fiction work, CRMT appealed to both older listeners who remembered old time radio, and much younger listeners just discovering audio drama. It also proved there was still an audio drama audience, five nights a week — with almost 1,400 episodes produced during its run.

By contrast, it was kids who were starstruck by, well, Star Wars, a multi-episode adaptation famously produced at USC, George Lucas’s old school, after Lucas offered the rights for $1. This was National Public Radio’s first audio drama mega-hit.

NPR also distributed the Canadian horror show Nightfall, which many Generation X producers credit for inspiring their careers (and also sleepless nights, with new lifetime habits of avoiding long empty roads and all-night laundromats).

Harry Niles, brainchild of Seattle-based producer Jim French, also first appeared in the mid-1970s on Crisis, and on other audio drama shows produced by French over more than four decades. The best known of these shows, Imagination Theatre, was syndicated for two decades on over 100 terrestrial radio stations.

But aside from these highlights, it wasn’t always easy to find audio drama — like an underground rock band, it was all about who you knew, who controlled your local airwaves, or who you could find at your nearest record and tape shop.

If you were lucky, you first heard Erik Bauersfeld, ZBS Media, Firesign Theatre, or Mind’s Eye Theatre, during the late 1960s and 1970s. Many young producers of the 1980s were also taught at the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop (aka HEAR NOW Festivals), started in 1979 by the late Jim Jordan, a star as radio’s “Fibber McGee”.

Increasingly, though, the best audio drama of the 1980s and 1990s was localized. For instance, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company had its own broadcasts, but gradually turned to more live productions, becoming an institution at the city’s giant DragonCon.

There are other audio drama standard-bearers — a weekly broadcast, a producer or troupe — in most major North American cities. But before social media, it was difficult for most audio dramatists to collaborate in person or across the internet, especially if their work had an unusually regional appeal.

That began to shift in the 2000s. It would be an awful pun to say one of the “icebreakers” was created in International Falls, Minnesota — home to Icebox Radio Theater. But the pun would also be true. Jeff Adams’ audio drama troupe performed live in his community, then on the Icebox Radio station which streamed online. It would later be called Sound Stages Radio, which I continued to run after Adams shifted gears. In recent years he and Icebox have released almost 500 episodes of podcast The Crisper.

There were more and more audio dramas being released and, in turn, inspiring new creators. Listeners discovered these dramas airing on Sound Stages Radio, broadcast stations, satellite radio, and podcast anthologies like Radio Drama RevivalMidnight Audio TheatreSonic Society and the Moonlight Audio Theatre app. Audio dramatists were beginning to talk more over social media, and video conferencing.

Experimental collaborations, such as Sound Stages’ Transcontinental Terror — a live feed of audio drama horror passing west to east from the US, through Canada, to Great Britain — united more fans regardless of where they lived. You didn’t have to live in the same region to discover a fantastic audio drama troupe or series — just stream or download their work.

In hindsight, this was the Bronze Age — led by standard-bearers like We’re Alive19 Nocturne BoulevardAfterlives, and many more podcasts or broadcast audio dramas produced in the early 2000s, as the dotcom era passed into Web 2.0 — about 90 years after the WGY Players.

Audio Drama Day was first announced at the 2013 Parsec Awards, a speculative fiction award ceremony held with celebrity guests in Atlanta, GA. Welcome to Night Vale was already a new hit, and Serial would become a blockbuster for NPR months later. This would become a new “Platinum Age” for audio drama — but where is it going?

Well, the pandemic has generated numerous stories of isolation and a need for social connection. The next “killer” podcast probably won’t be about true crime, but something that encourages listeners — something life-affirming. Arguably, it’s time for podcast creators, who often first win their listeners one at a time, to consider how their stories or ideas can help others, one person at a time.

Serialized drama is a strategy that has been widely used around the world, especially in community-collaborative work by the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, Population Media Center, and Soul City in Africa.

Likewise, while enhanced audio continues to become important to more sophisticated technologies like extended reality (XR) and immersive video games, crowdsourced wisdom has been a powerful tool in the recent growth of audio drama. Inexpensive, decentralized methods of learning to make audio dramas are crucial, like the techniques taught in KC Wayland’s book Bombs Always Beep, and episodes of the Audio Drama Production Podcast.

But there are still unmet needs. Underrepresented communities are also making podcasts but, even after the high point of Laurence Fishburne and Larenz Tate’s historic Bronzeville, activists have had to point out, Black Audio Dramas Exist.

And, while families can download Bronze age podcasts like Bell’s in the Batfry and Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, few modern producers focus on pulling younger generations away from Minecraft, Fortnight, and TikTok, in favor of audio drama. Besides Tony Palermo’s RuyaSonic website and scripts, there’s the Audio Drama Alliance, a mostly Christian-based group of creators promoting family-friendly audio.

One of the winning qualities that makes “old time radio” popular with so many listeners born after their heyday is the stories’ broad interest — creating more accessible work the whole family can enjoy together could be an even bigger win for audio drama, inspiring future creators. On the other hand, the 11th Hour Challenge is a horror competition for Audio Drama Day that generates many new collaborations between neophyte and experienced podcasters.

Ultimately, audio drama will continue to thrive as the conversation expands, and quality work continues to be produced. The main joy to be found in Audio Drama Day is not just to listen, but also to help others to be heard.

Patience “Sibby” Wieland is a writer, creator, and new media researcher who launched Audio Drama Day in 2013. Her research explores narrative media, including games, virtual reality, and immersive audio. She’s produced live audio dramas and sound design for the stage, and an influential SXSW panel on audio drama and filmmaking. She’s a multi-episode guest host for the Radio Drama Revival podcast and ran the streaming network Sound Stages Radio for several years.

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