The purpose of this presentation is to reveal the history of fantasy, horror and terror in historic radio drama, and suggest the use of audio theater as a new channel to reach directly into the imagination of the audience, to grab their brain by the spine - and chill it.

Let me take just a quick moment to define the terms. You cannot be expected to know something until someone tells you for the first time. And the marketing of OTR - Old Timer Radio doesn't bother to define terms at all. What we call "The Golden Age of Radio" lasted from the early 1930s until the last national network shows signed off in 1962. They were on CBS and they were Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

After that radio belonged to news and music with Sunday morning public service talk shows and church services.

Varieties of Radio We are aware many styles of popular radio, but for our purposes we are talking about three specific areas of storytelling that figure into this retreat's focus:


Fantasy involves settings and characters the audience member is not likely to encounter. People were more likely to believe in a visitation from an angel in the previous century, but today they are about as likely to believe in the visitation of an angel or abduction by aliens.
Most of what people call "Science Fiction" like Star Wars and Star Tre are actually Fantasy. If it has interstellar jumps and aliens, it is fantasy. There might be science involved, but that's why they call it "science" fiction. But that shouldn't stop you from writing a good yarn about brain sucking aliens from Zeta Reticuli. It will not be likely to be mistaken for modern religious experience, or as having anything to do with "science". It may be Fantasy, but it can be great fantasy.


Horror is a different flavor of Fantasy because it involves an aspect of subjects and stories that make you want to keep the light on all night. They are horrible things that involve dead people, misshapen limbs, ancient curses, and revived evil beings. But they aren't quite something you have to worry about encountering in your walk home from the grocery store. You may have people who claim to be supernatural horrors, and they might be horrible people, but they aren't quite what we come to expect in "Horror"

America's most popular genre in recent years has been Vampires and Zombies. The make up has been outstanding and the sales have been through the roof.

But your audience is very unlikely encounter the undead in either form, and there is a good argument that these undead are expression of suppressed anger. You need to let it out and if you really kill someone, you will probably get in trouble — you can't stake a Vampire, or chop the head off a Zombie without getting one of those nasty "prison term things.

But you can do it on film. Sometimes on Stage. Definitely in a book. And on Radio. Terror Terror was the real chiller for American radio theater. They had some great vampires, but it was the murder mystery and what we now call "mass murders" that could be counted on to give a daily minimum of real fear.

With Terror you have the possibility that a real, flesh and blood person you know, might do that thing to another flesh and blood person you might know, and maybe even do it to a flesh and blood YOU! An early Columbia Radio Workshop, one of the high water marks or experimental radio in the 1930s, was a show titled "Nine Prisoners" about World War I POWs. Remember, this is in the 1930s. POWs who were executed because their captors didn't want to have them as a burden to a squad who was needed in the next big battle.And the captors were Americans.

Writing for Radio is "Hot"

Most modern writers are used to only one "hot" medium in the terms of Marshall McLuhan. 

McLuhan defined media - the channels for information and entertainment. A "cold" medium leaves nothing for the audience to imagine. It is all in front of them - like a movie, or a television show. The casting is done, the costumes are chosen, the lighting and camera angle are accomplished fact - all the audience has to do is sit there and take it all in. They can leave their imagination at home.

There are two others that use the imagination as much as reading a book; listening to radio or playing a role playing game.

The radio play give clues to the reader (or the listener) and requires that the audience becomes active participants in the creation of the final scene. With ˜hot™ media the audience cannot help but filling it their personal perfect picture to show what the characters look like, what made that sound, what their movement of the characters looks like with each individual reading or hearing deciding what the clothes look like, the faces of the characters, their bodies and movement, the location, the lighting, and exactly what made that horrible sound.

Before CGI, Computer Generated Imagery, it would have impossible to do Stan Freeberg's classic scene to encourage advertisers to come back to Radio in the 1950s.

Listen: Freburg's "Imagiation" scene

Around the world Radio continues to be an avenue of Fantasy, Horror, and terror. In England the art of radio is still taught with public school and university courses, and an active program of apprenticeship program and BBC 4, the radio channel devoted to audio theater past and present.

How We Present This

  • 1Learn. First you educate yourself in Radio Theater by studying the masters. And the crappy people (so you don't repeat those mistakes or silliness). Study them by listening to individual shows or full series. Listen to a few episodes to see what appeals to you, then do some focused listening. These may remind you of a story you have already written that would make a good radio presentation - or maybe a plot for something new to move through full production. On these pages you have the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and the Bronze Age. Each of those pages offers dozens of individual shows to hear and learn from. We will include videos and some PDFs to download for further study.
  • 2The Script. Now the Writer uses those tools is EVERYTHING to making a radio drama.First is the pre-production work. It begins with the writer, the story, and the script that tells that story using the only three tools available to a radio production:
  1. The Human Voice (Announcer and Characters - exterior and interior),
  2. Music (Themes, Stingers, Beds, Transitions, and Characterizations), and
  3. Sound Effects.
  • There are no visuals. There are no footnotes. There are not smells or textures. There is sound, which is an amazingly flexible tool. How the writer uses those tools is EVERYTHING to making a radio drama.
  • 3Production, the group that does the production and the roles to be played in addition to the actors around the microphone. The Producer. The Director. The Engineer. The Music Director. The Sound Effects Technician. And the Actors. There is a lot to be said about actors: finding actors, auditioning actors, evaluating actors, working with actors, feeding actors, and the overall care and feeding of actors to creat a natural habitat an audience can visit.
  • 4Post Production. After the voice tracks and sound effects and music and announcer have all been recording, if it was dont' live, there is the question of how to assemble them into a final show. The Mix. Then getting copies to the people who made it happen - performers, sponsors, technicians, etc.. Distribution – getting copies to the audience; actual broadcast over a local radio station, or a network, or web audiences, or driect sales as MP3s, or CDs, or cassettes... Lots of options.


About The Author

The author, Joseph Kessler Adams, was a journalist who turned to radio comedy in 1972 with Pacifica Radio in Lost Angeles, but quickly became involved in radio theater production. it was a unique time where classic talents of "Old Time Radio" were still around and visited the station. He was lucky enough to be present at recrations and new productions with peole like Arch Oboler, Ray Bradbury, The Firesign Theater and scores of recognizable voices of actors and actress most of America grew up with.

As he moved into stage and screen writing, he kept his interest in radio through production of his own shows, (like CHAPEL PERILOUS, DREAMSMITH, and INVISIBLE RADIO THEATER), co-productions with David Krebs (like DIMENSION OF IMAGINATION, DEAD AIR, BERTHA AND..., AMERICAN RADIO THEATER, and NEWRADIO.

For AMERICAN RADIO THEATER Adams, Krebs and OTR director Edwin Duerr (author of RADIO AND TELEVISION ACTING), wrote teaching materials for the writer's workshop. He and David Kerbs also joined the writing staff at the first Midwest Radio Theater Workshop in Columbia, Missouri in the summer of 1980.

He is now retired, living near Raleigh, North Carolina, and writing for novels and role playing games.


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