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Hear Us Out: Audio Dramas, Then & Now

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

By Celine Dirkes

Buzz, crackle--static and then a voice coming into focus as we tune in…

Sound has always played a major role in our experience of storytelling. Actors AUD-ition, and re-HEAR-se a play. Legend has it, Shakespeare’s audiences would not go to SEE a play, but to HEAR one. As long-distance broadcast radio developed, at the beginning of the last century, it was only natural that radio dramas and sound-based storytelling would develop alongside it.

In the summer of 1922, WGY, a radio station in Schenectady, NY, began broadcasting radio adaptations of full-length plays on a weekly basis. Based on their success, the trend took off, and by 1923, original works written for radio were broadcast into homes from coast to coast. Today’s media giants have roots in broadcast drama: NBC was founded as a radio station in 1926, and would later become CBS in 1927. In the late 1920’s, radio provided listeners with the cheapest form of entertainment, yet the highest production value, and by 1934, 60% of American households owned radios.

Radio dramas had two unique characteristics: they were live and had no visual medium. These two factors captivated audiences and encouraged listeners to tune in with their friends, family and neighbors, and use their imagination to complete the story. But, in order to engage that collective imagination, the plays required a special type of artistry: live sound effects. Sound effect artists would create--alongside the actors--elaborate soundscapes using simple props. The term we use today, “Foley Artist”, takes its name from Jack Foley, a sound pioneer who made the crossover from radio broadcasting to “talkie” films, and the tradition lives on with many contemporary films still making use of foley effects in post-production.

As the century cycles around again to the 20’s, audio dramas are resurging, with the podcast boom mirroring the growth of local radio stations. Using techniques like foley art makes audio-storytelling low-cost. Pair this with the wide-spread accessibility of recording devices like smartphones and computers and the internet, and audio dramas becomes an easily accessible form of storytelling. Plus, with 85% of Americans owning a smartphone, according to the PEW Research Center, podcasters have a much wider audience than the radio broadcasters of the 1920’s.

These are just some of the factors that make audio dramas perfect for ReThink Theatrical’s return to live programming with ReThink On Air. Using foley art to create outlandish soundscapes allows us to transport audiences to science-fiction settings, which would otherwise be far beyond budgetary allowances and the capabilities of set design. Not to mention, audio programming is accessible. We can reach those with visual impairments, asynchronous broadcasting through a podcast adaption allows us to reach more than just our community in Middlesex county, as well as those who may face transportation difficulties or mobility issues. During the pandemic, many of us have suffered from video-call fatigue being that we’ve had to strain to engage with visual social cues our brains are built to process in person. An audio-centric experience allows us to relax those circuits, while still experiencing a story together.

The resurgence of audio-dramas reminds us that we are a part of a larger pattern of storytelling, and yet also constantly on the cusp of new innovations. Join us on this journey by tuning in to ReThink On Air!

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