August 15, 2009

These are complicated times we live in, when almost everyone - even elementary schoolchildren - can have access to the Internet, cable and satellite TV, Sirius satellite radio, mp3 players that can hold hundreds of movies and tens of thousands of songs. It may seem hard to believe that in a simpler time, people were content to tune in to terrestrial radio to hear people acting out short plays, getting by on dialogue and sound effects to tell a story.

The genre of radio theatre enjoyed its heyday during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Shakespeare and other classics were often performed, of course, as well as the usual comedies and melodramas commonly repackaged on "Old Time Radio" box sets today (Burns and Allen, Dragnet, Gunsmoke, Blondie, Hopalong Cassidy, etc.).

By 1964 however, radio dramas were all but unheard of. That's what made the ABC radio network's Theater Five so interesting, as it tried creatively (but unsuccessfully) to keep the theatre of the airwaves alive.

In so doing, they painted a rather odd and idiosyncratic view of the world, one which comes into focus as you step back and look at the totality of subjects they chose to portray. Science fiction and outer space themes were common, and coexisted alongside detective stories, psychological dramas, and just plain uncategorizable tales. In order to cram a lot of plot into their short time slot (half hour programs, including commercials), they used a lot of extreme shorthand in their storytelling, giving some of the episodes a fascinatingly incongruous feel.

So instead of using the Internet for celebrity gossip, porn, "social networking" and video games, I beseech thee to save what neural connections you have left and pay a visit to the Internet Archive's collection of 256 complete episodes of Theater Five.

Although Theater Five was one of the last radio programs to carry the tattered flag of radio plays into the post-Television era, it wasn't the only. From 1963 to 1967, a show called Black Mass aired sporadically on radio station KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles.

Black Mass offered radio dramatizations of dark stories from the likes of Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Saki, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Thankfully, their productions are not completely lost: 31 installments of the show are preserved online.

There is still some good radio drama to be found out there, mostly in other countries such as India, Japan, the U.K., and Germany. The BBC radio serial The Archers is the world's longest running radio soap opera and still going strong today, and in Germany the concept of Hörspiel is as popular now as it ever was. In America, one of the most notable proponents of modern radio drama is Jim French's Imagination Theater, which is recorded before a live audience.

Most people in our visually-overloaded society would rather watch a music video clip than simply listen to the song, and most would rather watch a movie than read a book or see a play. And among those who still love to see plays, I wonder how many of you are still capable of focusing on a radio play, bereft of visual stimulation? Give it a try if you haven't lately.

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Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at