Radio drama achieved widespread popularity within a decade of its initial development in the 1920s. By the 1940s, it was a leading international popular entertainment. With the advent of television in the 1950s, however, radio drama lost some of its popularity, and in some countries, has never regained large audiences. However, recordings of OTR (old-time radio) survive today in the audio archives of collectors and museums.
As of 2006, radio drama has had a minimal presence in the United States. Much of American radio drama is restricted to rebroadcasts or podcasts of programs from previous decades. However, other nations still have thriving traditions of radio drama. In the United Kingdom, for example, the BBC produces and broadcasts hundreds of new radio plays each year on Radio 3, Radio 4, and BBC Radio 7. Drama is aired daily on Radio 4 in the form of afternoon plays, a Friday evening play, short dramas included in the daily Woman's Hour program, Saturday plays and Sunday classic serials. On Radio 3 there is Sunday evening drama and, in the slot reserved for experimental drama, The Wire. The drama output on Radio 7, which consists predominantly of archived programs, is chiefly composed of comedy, thrillers and science fiction. Podcasting has also offered the means of creating new radio dramas, in addition to the distribution of vintage programs.
The terms "audio drama" or "audio theatre" are sometimes used synonymously with "radio drama" with one notable distinction: audio drama or audio theatre is not intended specifically for broadcast on radio. Audio drama, whether newly produced or OTR classics, can be found on CDs, cassette tapes, podcasts, webcasts and conventional broadcast radio.
English language radio drama seems to have started in the United States. "A Rural Line on Education", a brief sketch specifically written for radio, aired on Pittsburgh's KDKA in 1921, according to historian Bill Jaker. Newspaper accounts of the era report on a number of other drama experiments by America's commercial radio stations: KYW broadcast a season of complete operas from Chicago starting in November 1921. In February 1922, entire Broadway musical comedies with the original casts aired from WJZ's Newark studios. Actors Grace George and Herbert Hayes performed an entire play from a San Francisco station in the summer of 1922.
An important turning point in radio drama came when Schenectady, New York's WGY, after a successful tryout on August 3, 1922, began weekly studio broadcasts of full-length stage plays in September 1922, using music, sound effects and a regular troupe of actors, The WGY Players. Aware of this series, the director of Cincinnati's WLW began regularly broadcasting one-acts (as well as excerpts from longer works) in November. The success of these projects led to imitators at other stations. By the spring of 1923, original dramatic pieces written especially for radio were airing on stations in Cincinnati (When Love Wakens by WLW's Fred Smith), Philadelphia (The Secret Wave by Clyde A. Criswell) and Los Angeles (At Home over KHJ). That same year, WLW (in May) and WGY (in September) sponsored scripting contests, inviting listeners to create original plays to be performed by those stations' dramatic troupes.
Listings in The New York Times and other sources for May 1923 reveal at least 20 dramatic offerings were scheduled (including one-acts, excerpts from longer dramas, complete three- and four-act plays, operettas and a Molière adaptation), either as in-studio productions or by remote broadcast from local theaters and opera houses.
Serious study of American radio drama of the 1920s and early 1930s is, at best, very limited. Unsung pioneers of the art include: WLW's Fred Smith; Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (who popularized the dramatic serial); The Eveready Hour creative team (which began with one-act plays but was soon experimenting with hour-long combinations of drama and music on its weekly variety program); the various acting troupes at stations like WLW, WGY, KGO and a number of others, frequently run by women like Helen Schuster Martin and Wilda Wilson Church; early network continuity writers like Henry Fisk Carlton, William Ford Manley and Don Clark; producers and directors like Clarence Menser and Gerald Stopp; and a long list of others who were credited at the time with any number of innovations but who are largely forgotten or undiscussed today. Elizabeth McLeod's recent book on Gosden and Correll's early work is a major exception, as is Richard J. Hand's 2006 study of horror radio, which examines some programs from the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Another notable early radio drama, one of the first especially written for the medium in the UK, was Danger by Richard Hughes, broadcast by the BBC on January 15, 1924, about a group of people trapped in a Welsh coal mine. One of the earliest and most influential French radio plays was the prize-winning "Marémoto" ("Seaquake"), by Gabriel Germinet and Pierre Cusy, which presents a realistic account of a sinking ship before revealing that the characters are actually actors rehearsing for a broadcast. Translated and broadcast in Germany and England by 1925, the play was originally scheduled by Radio-Paris to air on October 23, 1924 but was instead banned from French radio until 1937 because the government feared that the dramatic SOS messages would be mistaken for genuine distress signals.
Though the series is often remembered solely for its gruesome stories and sound effects, Cooper's scripts for Lights Out were well-written and offered innovations seldom heard in early radio dramas, including multiple first person narrators, stream of consciousness monologues and scripts that contrasted a duplicitious character's internal monologue and his spoken words.
The question of who was the first to write stream-of-consciousness drama for radio is a difficult one to answer. By 1930, Tyrone Guthrie had written plays for the BBC like Matrimonial News (which consists entirely of the thoughts of a shopgirl awaiting a blind date) and The Flowers Are Not for You to Pick (which takes place inside the mind of a drowning man). After they were published in 1931, Guthrie's plays aired on the American networks. Around the same time, Guthrie himself also worked for the Canadian National Railway radio network, producing plays written by Merrill Denison that used similar techniques. A 1940 article in Variety credited a 1932 NBC play, Drink Deep by Don Johnson, as the first stream-of-consciousness play written for American radio. The climax of Lawrence Holcomb's 1931 NBC play Skyscraper also uses a variation of the technique (so that the listener can hear the final thoughts and relived memories of a man falling to his death from the title building).
There were probably earlier examples of stream-of-consciousness drama on the radio. For example, in December 1924, actor Paul Robeson, then appearing in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, performed a scene from the play over New York's WGBS to critical acclaim. Some of the many storytellers and monologists on early 1920s American radio might be able to claim even earlier dates.
Perhaps America's most famous radio drama broadcast is Orson Welles's The War of the Worlds, a 1938 version of the H. G. Wells novel, which convinced large numbers of listeners that an actual invasion from Mars was taking place.
By the late 1930s, radio drama was widely popular in the United States (and also in other parts of the world). There were dozens of programs in many different genres, from mysteries and thrillers, to soap operas and comedies. There were occasional efforts at more "literary" works, such as Under Milk Wood (1954) and "Play for Voices" by Dylan Thomas. Many playwrights, screenwriters and novelists got their start in radio drama, including Caryl Churchill, Rod Serling, Irwin Shaw and Tom Stoppard.
After the advent of television, radio drama never recovered its popularity in the United States. Most remaining CBS and NBC radio dramas were cancelled in 1960. The last network radio dramas to originate during American radio's "golden age", Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, ended on September 30, 1962.
There have been some efforts at radio drama since then. In the 1960s, Dick Orkin created the popular syndicated comic adventure series Chicken Man. Inspired by The Goon Show, "the four or five crazy guys" of the Firesign Theatre built a large following with their satirical plays on recordings exploring the dramatic possibilities inherent in stereo. A brief resurgence of production beginning in the early 1970s yielded The Zero Hour, hosted by Rod Serling on the Mutual Broadcasting System, NPR's Earplay and veteran Himan Brown's CBS Radio Mystery Theater, later followed by the Mutual Radio Theater and works by a new generation of dramatists, notably Yuri Rasovsky, Thomas Lopez of ZBS and the dramatic sketches heard on humorist Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Thanks in large part to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, public radio continued to air a smattering of audio drama until the mid-1980s. From 1986 to 2002, National Public Radio's most consistent producer of radio drama was the idiosyncratic Joe Frank, working out of KCRW in Santa Monica. Also, the dramatic serial "It's Your World" airs twice daily on the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show".
Radio drama remains popular in much of the world. Stations producing radio drama often commission a large number of scripts. The relatively low cost of producing a radio play enables them to take chances with works by unknown writers. Radio can be a good training ground for beginning drama writers as the words written form a much greater part of the finished product; bad lines cannot be obscured with stage business.
On the BBC there are two ongoing radio soap operas: The Archers on BBC Radio 4 and Silver Street on the Asian Network. A third soap, Westway on the World Service ended in October 2005 but continues in re-runs on BBC7.
The audio drama format exists side-by-side with books presented on radio, read by actors or by the author. In Britain and other countries there is also a quite a bit of radio comedy (both stand-up and sitcom). Together, these programs provide entertainment where television is either not wanted or would be distracting (such as while driving or operating machinery).
The lack of visuals also enable fantastical settings and effects to be used in radio plays where the cost would be prohibitive for movies or television. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was first produced as radio drama, and was not adapted for television until much later, when its popularity would ensure an appropriate return for the high cost of the futuristic setting.
On occasion television series can be revived as radio series. For example, a long-running but no longer popular television series can be continued as a radio series because the reduced production costs make it cost-effective with a much smaller audience. When an organization owns both television and radio channels, such as the BBC, the fact that no royalties have to be paid makes this even more attractive. Radio revivals can also use actors reprising their television roles even after decades as they still sound roughly the same. Series that have had this treatment include Doctor Who, Dad's Army, Thunderbirds and The Tomorrow People.
Regular broadcasts of radio drama in English can be heard on the BBC's Radio 3, Radio 4 and BBC 7, on Radio 1 from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and on RTÉ Radio 1 in Ireland. BBC Radio 4 in particular is noted for its radio drama, broadcasting hundreds of one-off plays per year in strands such as The Afternoon Play, in addition to serials and soap operas. The British commercial station Oneword, though broadcasting mostly book readings, also transmitted a number of radio plays in installments until it closed in 2008.
In the U.S., radio drama can be found on ACB radio, produced by the American Council of the Blind and on XM Radio, and occasionally syndicated, as with Jim French's production Imagination Theatre. A growing number of religious radio stations air daily or weekly programs usually geared to younger audiences, such as Adventures in Odyssey (1,700+ syndicated stations), or Unshackled (1,800 syndicated stations - the longest running radio drama of all time), which is geared to adults. The networks sometime sell transcripts of their shows on cassette tapes or CDs or make the shows available for listening or downloading over the Internet. Transcription recordings of many pre-television shows have been preserved. They are collected, re-recorded onto audio CDs and/or MP3 files and traded by hobbyists today as old-time radio programs. Meanwhile, veterans such as Yuri Rasovsky (The National Radio Theater of Chicago) and Thomas Lopez (ZBS) have gained new listeners on cassettes, CDs and downloads. In the mid-1980s, the non-profit L.A. Theatre Works launched its radio series recorded before live audience, which continues a tenuous hold in public radio, while marketing its productions on compact disc.
With 21st-century technology, modern radio drama, also known as audio theater, has begun an exciting new movement. Local radio drama groups have kept the spirit of radio drama alive, as has the National Audio Theatre Festival, a national workshop and performance series which has continued to teach audio drama and the audio arts since 1979. The advent of inexpensive computerized production technology brought an explosion of activity. Not From Space (2003) on XM Satellite Radio was the first national radio play recorded exclusively through the Internet in which the voice actors were all in separate locations. XM continues to air modern radio dramas on its Book Radio channel (formerly Sonic Theatre). As the podcasting phenomenon continues to grow, radio drama has found a new lease of life on the Internet. Podcasting provides a good alternative to mainstream television and radio because it has no restrictions regarding content.