The History of Audio Drama 3

In the last post, we saw how Marconi’s ‘Radio Telephone’ made the Théâtrophone obsolete, how it dazzled the United States with opera and musical comedies, and how radio stations were beginning to pop up all across America to get involved in this new medium.

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by Dōhai

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

In the last post, we saw how Marconi’s ‘Radio Telephone’ made the Théâtrophone obsolete, how it dazzled the United States with opera and musical comedies, and how radio stations were beginning to pop up all across America to get involved in this new medium.

One such station was WGY, Schenectady NY: they started broadcasting in February of 1922. According to historians they were the first station to have a troupe of actors dedicated to radio plays, and were transmitting full length stage plays every week, complete with music, and sound effects within a few months of opening. Their first play, ‘The Wolf’ by Eugene Walter, a complete three act play with musical interludes between acts, aired August 3rd 1922.

Another of the first of the major players was Cincinnati’s WLW who, within months of getting a license, were broadcasting one off plays and excerpts from longer works. On November 9th 1922, they ran their first one act play: ‘A Fan and Two Candlesticks’ by Mary MacMillan.

Within a year of these two starting up a score of new radio stations were also broadcasting audio dramas all across the states, and WGY and WLW were holding competitions, inviting listeners to write their own scripts to be performed on the radio.

recording a radio play

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It wasn’t long before Europe too was reveling in this new found medium of entertainment, and on January 15th 1924, the BBC presented its first ever written-for-radio play: ‘Danger’ was written by Richard Hughes in one night.

A play about a group of people trapped in a coal mine, Richard recalled writing it with major sound effects in mind. Sound effects which, come recording time, he had no clue how to create.

They enlisted the help of the sound effects man from the local cinema, and the stars of the show were made to wear buckets on their heads to create the echo effect of being in a mine. But the climax of the play was to be an explosion, and they were still a little stuck as “even popping a paper bag would have blown all the fuses”.

Reporters and critics set up in the press room during recording were very impressed, and they never found out that Hughes had staged a real explosion in the room next door.

recording a radio play

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On the other side of the channel, ‘Maremoto’ (Seaquake), a realistic account of a sinking ship due to be aired in France on October 23rd 1924, was banned from French radio until 1937 because the government feared the SOS message would be mistaken for a genuine distress call.

But of course, the saga of this new medium and its heightened sense of realism doesn’t end there! Next time on #THoAD, we take a look at probably the most famous radio drama the world has ever known ‘The War of the Worlds’ its creator Orson Welles, and the alleged controversy surrounding it.

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The History of Radio Drama 2

At the end of the 19th century, Marconi had been granted a patent for his wireless telecommunication system. Progress on his system was quite slow to start, with only a little amateur and commercial broadcasting taking it up. But with America joining World War One however, these stations were ordered to shut down or were taken over by the government. In fact for the duration of the Great War it was illegal for any US citizen to own a radio transmitter.

In my last post, I discussed the original audio drama system, and huge hit, the Théâtrophone. Bringing live shows and opera into the homes of people, for a small additional fee, via the telephone system… (sound familiar?)

At the end of the 19th century, Marconi had been granted a patent for his wireless telecommunication system. Progress on his system was quite slow to start, with only a little amateur and commercial broadcasting taking it up. But with America joining World War One however, these stations were ordered to shut down or were taken over by the government. In fact for the duration of the Great War it was illegal for any US citizen to own a radio transmitter.

Large government investment accelerated its development and production for military communications in the field to great effect.

Immediately after the war and the lifting of restrictions, the US saw a rise in amateur broadcasting and listening, mainly in peer to peer circles talking about the advances in radio transmission such as the all new thermionic vacuum tube, the invention of which in 1904 revolutionised radio, television, telecommunications, and computing.

Within two years, radio sets, or ‘Radio Telephones’ as they were known then, were commonplace, and commercial radio broadcasting quickly became the preferred choice for news and entertainment. This left the Théâtrophone floundering on the riverbank of entertainment, and obsolete within a decade.

recording a radio play​​

Commonly given the title of first ever English speaking audio drama, was a program called ‘A Rural Line in Education’. This small sketch was aired in 1921, on Newsradio 1020 KDKA from Pittsburgh.

The sketch featured the sound effects of a phone ringing, and a brief conversation between two farmers occasionally interrupted by a switchboard operator.

According to radio historian Bill Jaker, the station didn’t want them to use the telephone sound effects, because they thought it would ‘defraud the audience into thinking they were listening to a phone call, and not a radio program’.

Soon after KYW, another Westinghouse Electric Corporation station, this time in Chicago, broadcast a season of opera. The Chicago Tribune boasted ‘50,000 listen to opera, transmitted over 1,500 miles’.

Ed Wynn ‘The Perfect Fool’​​

In February of 1922, the company playing the musical comedy ‘Tangerine’ on Broadway, headed out to the Westinghouse’s Newark radio station, WJZ, and test broadcast to ‘1 million listeners across America’.

A week later WJZ broadcast Ed Wynn’s Broadway show ‘The Perfect Fool’ in its entirety, across America. Radio stations all over stopped broadcasting their own shows to help boost the signal if the weather was bad.

Radio entertainment had sparked the people’s imagination, and soon radio stations were broadcasting operas, musicals, and plays right across the globe, as we will discover in the next post.

This brand new medium was not without its naysayers however. Talk of ‘destroying theatre’, and vaudeville managers creating contracts that forbade actors from taking part in radio programs, gives us a glimpse into how the wireless telephone was shaking the foundations of the arts.


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