Mission Statement:

Audio drama is one of the most intimate and expressive dramatic mediums, rivaling theater and film in poetic, visual, and narrative qualities. Many people are unaware of this - a stigma lingers that "radio drama" is a scratchy, cartoonish thing of the past, as if people thought that cinema ended with silent movies, unaware of all the great films made since that time. In reality, audio and radio drama is the great frontier of modern theater - with subtle, intimate performances and powerful, gripping stories.

My aim is to promote a discussion of the art, sociology, theory, and future of this remarkable artistic form. The current state of audio drama is precarious, but through careful consideration of how content is presented, distributed, and interacted with, I believe that the radio and audio drama community can grow and prosper and reach an even wider audience.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The War of the Worlds is a Cheap Trick

The War of the Worlds is a Cheap Trick

Dear Americans – please stop talking about Orson Welles. At least in regards to radio drama. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy, there is no filmmaker I admire more, or have studied as deeply and obsessively as Orson Welles. But he was a filmmaker,not a radio dramatist. He called himself a filmmaker and wanted to be known as a filmmaker. He's certainly my favorite.

He seemed to recall his radio days with fondness, but it was not The War of the Worlds that he was most proud of, or The Shadow or The Mercury Theater of the Air. His radio career afforded him great success, and allowed him to launch a career in Hollywood. But radio was always a means to an end – a means to fund his experimental theater, a means to achieve a platform on which he could promote his political viewpoints, a means to achieve stardom and cache and the chance to make movies. He certainly saw the potential of the medium, and he certainly exploited its unique properties effectively. But listening to the Mercury Theater broadcasts today, in comparison to his British contemporaries, or even to Norman Corwin, the great American radio playwright, exposes the thinness of the Mercury productions. They just weren't that great.

The War of the Worlds is the single most well-known radio play in the entire world. That's according to Google. You can look up search rankings via Google, and the number one search related to radio drama is “War of the Worlds.” That's why I included the phrase in the masthead of my blog. It pings well in the search engines. That's one of the reasons I'm talking about it right now. And it's a good piece of radio drama, it's effective and simple and scary – the perfect halloween thrill. But it's not imbued with great artistic merit. It's a piece of decent craftsmanship.

The central conceit of the broadcast, the “trick” of imitating a real news broadcast and using it to tell the story of a martian invasion, is clever, and it works, even all these years later when everybody knows about it. I have no problem with people liking The War of the Worlds. I have a problem with people thinking it's the best example of what radio can be.

I realized the problem when I attended a symposium in New York City on the subject of the future of radio drama. When the panelists were asked to discuss other work they admired, several of them cited Welles exclusively. It was clear that they didn't really know much about the larger world of radio plays. Nobody mentioned Rhys Adrian or Pinter or Stoppard, for example. John Arden, Don Haworth, and Peter Tinniswood were clearly not on their radar. It's not their fault, it's just the way the cookie crumbles. But this vacuum of context is a major problem with developing sophisticated audio drama in the United States. Although it's very easy to access large quantities of BBC radio drama, through various methods, the first step for any potential fan is to know its out there. And when the discussion in the States always returns to Welles' 1938 broadcast, it takes the standards back to the same era. It takes the expectations of producer and audience back as well.

If you have come across this post, and are now wondering “well what shall I do, I thought War of the Worlds was the best thing ever,” here's what you do:

Pick up a copy of Sight Unseen by Elissa S. Guralnick, and read it and listen to the corresponding radio plays she talks about. Or, go to Diversity and poke around the lists of favorite radio plays, you'll find some good recommendations. Another great resource is the list of Giles Cooper Award winners. They're a great cross-section of interesting radio plays, and you can find quite a few of the audio versions in various places on the internet.

All I am asking is that we, the listeners of audio drama, crank up our standards a bit. We don't need to listen to scratchy old recordings of hammy performances that usually get lumped into the category of “OTR”. We can listen to expressive, challenging, dramatic, modern, gut-wrenching, hilarious, tragic, subtle, intimate, and sophisticated radio plays instead.


  1. Reading this and your comments in the recent AV Club Gateways to Geekery, I thought you might appreciate what's happening this October in Newark. Last year, the chief organizers of the Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention called it a day after 36 years (in a large part because their potential guest pool was understandably getting smaller every year), but it turns out that not everybody who was involved in the OTR convention was done with celebrating audio drama in a more general way. To that effect, a number of them are putting together a new convention this October that's dedicated to audio drama's past, present, and future: The Celebrating Audio Theater Old & New Convention. If they can make this new convention as vital as the more narrowly focused FOTR, it should make things very interesting.

    Necessary disclaimer: I'm not attached to this project, just passing the word down the line.

  2. Couldn't War of the Worlds be seen as a "gateway" radio drama for the uninitiated?

    1. Sure, and it certainly is for some people. But it's a confusing gateway that leads backwards, not forwards.

      Let's say you've never seen a movie before. And maybe you don't really know what movies are, but you've heard they exist, and you know that it's something that people used to do years ago.

      If I show you D.W. Grifith's Birth of a Nation and say "that's a movie!" then you walk away from that with...let's say an inaccurate conception.

      That skewed conception does two things - it puts up a wall between that era of radio drama and all of the advances the medium has made since then, because it reaffirms the myth that people have about the medium (that it is an old thing that people used to do but don't do any more). And it also turns a lot of people off, because we're used to hearing audio books and "full cast" audio books and Radiolab and things like that, so we have different standards of performance, nuance, and narrative.

      For example, the plot of The Shadow doesn't hold up very well for modern audiences, just as the plot of an episode of Dragnet or Green Acres doesn't hold up to audiences that are used to watching The Sopranos or Arrested Development. Broad stereotypes and lack of character development used to be acceptable. But it isn't good enough any more.