The History of Radio Drama

The Primitive Days of Radio

Woman at
                the MikeThe type of writing we are discussing has been with radio since the beginnings.

Part of the schedule for the first commercial station, KDKA went on the air in November 2, 1920 Pittsburgh, PA.

Listen: KDKA 50th Anniversary Show

Audiences were small - sometimes with headphones for one or two people listening to a home-made contraception made with a cat's hair crystal set (using a real cat's hair and a real crystal). Later, tubes let speakers carry the sound from a station, made stronger with amplifying tubes in the station transmitter and the home receiver. The whole family could hear at the same time and radio took off. Stations didn’t know what to do. There weren't that many radios - they were expensive. But as sets became cheaper, stations began to open to feed the problem.

One of the biggest stations in the midwest - WLS out of Chicago - was named for Sears - The World Largest Store (WLS) and it existed just to help Sears sell radio sets to farmer. There was a radio station they could hear so there was a reason to buy a radio. These radios were battery powered, or even hooked up to a treadle sewing machine to generate power to allow people to listen. Not everyone had electricity yet, but it was coming.


Read: WLS Family Album 1944 (PDF)

And if you had a radio, you were popular. The whole neighborhood would come to your house to hear the president speak, or a baseball game, or a boxing match, or just hear some band play.

The early shows were not sophisticated. They had an announcer or a local amateur actor sitting before a microphone, reading out of a book - classic literature - for 15 minutes a day to fill out their schedule of singers, cooking shows, news, religious speakers, and single voice "personality" shows with records to play. It was cheap. It was "educational"

Carter's Little Liver Pills presents...Sponsors loved putting their name as the backer of a program of Cervantes, or Victor Hugo, or Charles Dickens. The novelty of these academic readings were a thrill for a bit, then the interest died off and sponsors turned to original programs to draw in the audience. These were the days of "broadcasting" where you might only have one station, but Sponsors wanted their show to be unique. To attract a loyal audience that would spend money on their product. Because of the beliefs of different sponsors, if you listened all day, you'd hear recorded music, soap operas, the news, children's serials, and more sophisticated programming in the evening for the grown ups. Musical Variety, Orchestra Remotes, westerns, science fiction, classic adaptations, original plays, fantasy, murder mysteries and horror shows.

Mercedes McCambridge on CBSRMTFiction show began with locally produced, 15-minute and 30-minute shows filled the radio dial from 6 in the morning to 1 in the morning. Stations signed off at night - just like they did in early television. Anybody hear old enough to remember stations signing off and nothing all night long? Listening to the radio when the sun went down, with the lights off, maybe even under the covers because you were supposed to be asleep in bed, made it possible to send goosebumps up and down the listener's arms – and every listener, of every age, knew exactly where to put every single goose-bump for the best effect. They scared themselves silly by listening to a show they knew would scare them silly.

Soap Operas

NBC Soap OperaIn those early days the sponsor dictated the shows more than any audience survey or market research. If the sponsor wanted polka music from Lithuania, the sponsor got polka music from Lithuania. Or hillbilly music. Or his brother-in-law's orchestra who couldn't get a job. Or three singing sisters for 15 minutes a day. Or a radio anthology with a different story of ghosts, creatures, murders, mad scientists, or maniacs to populate our dreams and drive the sponsor's sales.

Five times a week, 15-minutes a day, brought to you by Ivory soap, or Palmolive, or Duz laundry detergent, or some other bubble making sponsor - and the soap flew off the shelves. Many sponsors wanted the housewives during the day.

Working women were rare and a woman left at home all day to care for kids, laundry, cooking and cleaning could do all her chores while listening to people on the radio have lives much more difficult than hers. Housewives listened and then went shopping for fresh vegetables and cleaning supplies. Soap companies sponsored the Monday thru Friday and they became known as "soap operas".

Dick TracyWhen husbands got home they kids were kept out of the way with children's adventure serials. Superman, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Tom Armstrong - the All American Boy, Chick Carter - Boy Detective, Sgt. Preston of the Mounties, the Lone Ranger - and everybody had their own secret decoder ring. The secret messages flew and all you needed was a box top and ten cents in stamp or coins.

After dinner was the news for Mom and Dad then you looked in the paper to ask "What's on tonight?" Or you had your own personal schedule of Tuesday at 8PM you were tuned into NBC Blue, Wednesday at 8:30P the dial was twisted to Mutual, On Thursday at 7:30P it was CBS, and Friday evening at 8:00 you were always on NBC-Red. The kids went to bed around 9PM Mom and Dad settled in for some "serious" shows. It could have been Lux Radio Theater, or Screen Directors Playhouse, but other times it was something terrifying, like Light's Out, Inner Sanctum, The Witch's Tale, The Book of Fate, The Mysterious Traveler, The Whistler, or one of the best shows to ever grace a tube set, Suspense. People had four networks to choose from and sat near the dial so they could reach out at the hour and half hour to catch their next favorite show.

Listen: Sampler (single episodes of various shows)
Listen: Hayward Sanitarium
Listen: Jeff Green
Listen: MRTW 10th Anniversary Teaching Tapes
Listen: Arch Oboler
Listen: Quiet Please
Listen: RadioWorks
Listen: The Witch's tale
Listen: Vic & Sade (Personal Favorite/Great Writing)


How to Listen to Shows

Double click on the title of the show and it should play in your web browser.

How to Download Shows

Windows - Right Click (Macintosh, Option-Click) on title, choose "Download link as..." and save it to the directory of your choice.


In body subsection.


Contact the Author