My first exposure to radio drama was with the adventures and bold heroism of The Green Hornet. My local library had a small collection of old radio dramas, to which my brother and I helped ourselves greedily. Our favorite was probably Star Wars, complete with Mark Hamill. Since, over the years, I’ve occasionally enjoyed a rare radio drama and listen eagerly when given opportunity.
I had such an opportunity again this week and listen to Radio Classics on satellite radio for some of the Christmas in July specials. To summarize the whole experience, it was great fun. But years have passed from my childhood admiration, listening hunched over the cassette player, hanging on every word and sound from The Green Hornet or Luke Skywalker. Now, as an adult and a writer, I have a whole new appreciation for them.
Radio dramas are unlike audiobooks. While the ear is the only method of absorbing the story for both, they play on separate aspects of storytelling. An audiobook uses nearly all the tricks of a visual book. Their lack, the potential implications of alterations in font and formatting, is easily made up for by their use of a reader’s tone and inflection. However, except for rare snippets, radio dramas do not have the advantage of prose description or glimpses into a character’s head. So, how do they manage to pull their listeners to the edges of their seats?
It’s simple. They show everything.
This may sound impossible. After all, the radio drama is purely an aural format. However, radio dramas show through sound and dialogue. They don’t tell you that someone walks into the detective’s office. You hear footsteps and the door creaking open. They don’t tell you that someone got hit over the head with a bottle. Instead, you hear a thump, a crash, a grunt, and often a gasp or exclamation from another character.
Radio dramas must also use dialogue much more exactly than other forms of fiction. The dialogue must at once depict character, reveal plot, give description of setting, convey actions that the listener cannot perceive, and draw out tension. The actors show great skill, especially in the last, but the writers had to provide most of this in their scripts from the beginning. There’s so much that goes into the dialogue in radio dramas that I cannot accurately convey it in written form. Rather, I encourage you to pick one up from the library and listen, really listen to what they say.
In our fast-paced world with TV, computers, iPhones, and so forth, it’s easy to forget these classic forms of storytelling. Yet, it would be a tragedy to lose them. They are, without a doubt, a now rare and engaging form of entertainment and art that I hope remains cherished and preserved.