As I’ve stated before, I’m a huge fan of what’s called “Old-Time Radio” (OTR)— the dramas, comedies, mysteries, adventure, science fiction shows (and other genres) broadcast on radio primarily between the 1930s and the early 1960s.
There’s no reason why full-cast audio programs can’t work today with as much— if not more— success than in the era of OTR. After all, in addition to traditional radio, there’s satellite radio and the Internet, to say nothing of programs recorded on MP3s, CDs and other formats.
There are also repertory theatre groups that put on full-cast OTR-style performances, complete with sound effects. One such group is All Ears Theatre in Kalamazoo, Michigan (www.allearstheatre.com). I’ve written three radio plays (a science fiction story, a mystery and a western), which have all been performed by All Ears Theatre and broadcast over radio station WMUK FM.
In fact, even though radio is “dead”, people are making full-cast audio dramas. To give just two examples, Big Finish (www.bigfinish.com) offers audio dramas related to Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, and other series; and The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas (http://twilightzoneradio.com/) provide audio re-creations of Twilight Zone episodes. Though some are adaptations of scripts that were never filmed.
I’ve also listened to episodes of Star Trek: The Continuing Mission, which relates the adventures of the crew of the USS Montana, transported (no pun intended) from the Kirk-era 23rd century to the Picard/Sisko/Janeway era 24th). Unfortunately, their website seems to be down.
While these aren’t technically full-cast audio dramas, I’m currently listening to Doctor Who The Lost TV Episodes Collection 1: 1964-1965, which combine soundtracks of now-lost early Doctor Who episodes with narration by one of the original actors.
The first story in the collection, the seven-part “Marco Polo” is narrated by actor William Russell, who played Ian Chesterton. In the episode itself, Marco Polo (Mark Eden) occasionally provided a voice-over narration about the progress of the characters’ journey as he wrote in his journal. That and Russell’s narration “painting a picture” for the listener helps a visual story translate well to an audio format.
In 2011 I wrote a newspaper article about “timeless” radio shows, those programs that remain more or less “evergreen”, despite being made decades ago. These include The Jack Benny Show, The Green Hornet, Suspense and I Love A Mystery. To some degree these all reflected the times in which they were made, but, by their very nature, they aren’t limited to a specific time period.
In The Jack Benny Show, Benny, a generous man in real life, created the persona of a vain skinflint (a characterization he’d carry on to his TV series). There will always be vain people or skinflints; and there’s no reason why an audio series similar in tone to The Jack Benny Show couldn’t work today.
In The Green Hornet, Britt Reid was the “daring young publisher” of the Daily Sentinel, a crusading newspaper that fought for the common man and woman against corrupt politicians, racketeers, and other criminals. Not only did Reid write hard-hitting editorials and send his reporters out to expose corruption, he fought corruption head-on as the Green Hornet, a man who took down criminals by pretending to be a criminal himself.
The Hornet’s exploits may have begun during the Depression, but graft and corruption didn’t go away when it ended.
The Green Hornet is one of my favorite radio shows for many reasons. I like that he’s someone who could exist. He wasn’t a superhero. Except for the mask, he wore ordinary clothes. And there are people in real life who pretend to be criminals in order to take down criminals. They’re called undercover police officers. The Hornet was doing the same thing, just on his own. And with less paperwork.
Suspense offered stories of… well… suspense. The classic “Sorry, Wrong Number”, which was so popular, it aired eight times, could be broadcast today, with only minor changes.
I Love A Mystery offered serialized tales of mystery and suspense. Some of the dialogue and characterizations might need polishing for today’s audiences— and the back stories of Jack Packard, Doc Long and Reggie York would need to be updated— but some of the stories themselves could still work.
Shows like Jack Armstrong The All-American Boy and Captain Midnight, which were aimed at kids, could also be re-worked for modern juvenile audiences. Jack Armstrong’s 1940-1941 adventures in the Philippines not only offered excitement, but the storylines tied in the then cutting-edge technology of walkie-talkies. Kids today might well go for an audio adventure series in which current cutting-edge technology played a role.
And kids today would probably be as interested in whatever premium might be offered by a modern-day audio adventure as Captain Midnight’s fans were in the decoder wheel offered on his show.
I believe there’s a large untapped market for original audio dramas, mysteries, comedies, etc. As my friend Stephen Jansen, who heads up a group in Chicago called “Theatre of the Mindless”, often says, “Old-Time Radio never dies, it just changes formats.”
Radio Spirits (www.radiospirits.com) offers a wide variety of OTR shows, many with accompanying informative program booklets.
And if you’d like to watch— and possibly participate in— a live performance of radio-style scripts, be sure to come to the 2014 Cincinnati Nostalgia Expo (formerly the Cincinnati Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention), May 16 and 17 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash. It’s a very open and relaxed environment and the OTR stars mix and mingle with everyone else.
Visit http://expo.wayback.net/ for more information.
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating