Radio Drama: A Classroom Comeback

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A professional radio drama performance. Liz Scott

Radio Drama—the broadcasting of stories told in dramatic form and enhanced by the incorporation of sound effects and music—is considered to be the first form of mass communication entertainment. Many people today recall hearing their parents or grandparents talk about how the whole family would gather around the radio at a specific time to hear the weekly broadcast of a favorite program like The Shadow or Fibber McGee and Molly.

The invention of television and the rapid acquisition of TV sets by Americans caused radio to decline in popularity beginning in the late 1940s. Once people could see as well as hear characters enacting stories, TV shows trumped radio shows.

Podcasts. Fast forward 60 or so years and now the Internet has breathed new life into this genre. Podcasting allows almost anyone almost anywhere to record, produce, and broadcast Internet radio shows. (Note: The word “podcast” comes from a merging of the term “iPod” and “broadcast.”) Podcasts and websites abound with companies as well as single practitioners producing whatever kind of radio programming their hearts desire. Radio dramas are among the online offerings.

Radio Drama Recordings. Teachers who want to access podcasts of radio dramas need only do an Internet search and choose from among thousands of archived recordings. Lean & Hungry Theater, for example is a professional educational radio drama company that adapts and performs classic dramatic works.

Its programs are initially presented for an audience and broadcast live. Then they are archived here on the company’s partner public radio site (WAMU).

Although Lean & Hungry Theater draws its material primarily from the works of William Shakespeare, the company produced an adaptation of Oedipus the King in 2014.

Teachers can access hour-long recordings of Shakespearean plays like Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The ability to create theatre  specifically as a product to be listened to and then archive the recordings means that companies like Lean & Hungry Theater are not restricted by space or time. Their work is available to audiences worldwide for centuries to come. This same opportunity is available to teachers and students in classrooms.

Radio Drama as an Educational Activity. Teachers can use radio drama to motivate students to examine plays that are required curriculum reading and re-read and rehearse portions of these plays to present as radio dramas. The elimination of the need for stage movement, lighting, and costumes makes radio drama a classroom-friendly activity. Adjustments in vocal deliveries enable small groups of students to play multiple roles and thus perform scenes that contain more characters than group members.

Even without all the trimmings of staged theatrical productions, radio dramas are actually quite entertaining to watch. It’s interesting to witness the creation of the sound effects and the actor who plays one role and then changes characters completely by employing different vocal characteristics.

Students can perform and record radio dramas for classmates or the recordings can occur without a live audience.

Since podcasts are relatively easy to create and record, it’s now possible for students to make their own, house them on an Internet site, and share them with family and friends. This article offers some practical advice: How To Create Your Own Podcast – A Step-By-Step Tutorial.

Students can also adapt the stories and novels they read to produce their own radio drama scripts. They can use original dialogue from the work of literature and create additional dialogue. They can add passages to be spoken by a Narrator or an Announcer and indicate cues for music and sound effects within the written script. This script from an old radio drama provides a good example of the script formatting.

Episodes from the history that students study and, of course, original scripts are other ways to create radio dramas. For a detailed description of staging a radio drama, read this article.

Prairie Home Companion. The most popular radio drama still in production over airwaves today is Prairie Home Companion, which is broadcast live on NPR and archived online. Visit the program’s web site to view hundreds of photos, videos, and interviews that provide immediate insight into the production of radio drama.