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Voices From the Ether: The Birth of Radio Drama

By John C Alsedek:

As you probably know—because I mention it ad nauseam—I write/direct/produce a revival of the classic old-time radio anthology SUSPENSE (same name, all-new scripts). The original ran from 1942–1962 and was arguably the greatest radio drama to ever air. But was it the first? Not even close.

Radio drama dates back to 1921, a time when commercial radio was in its infancy. The first-ever commercial broadcast had come on November 2nd, 1920, when KDKA in Pittsburgh transmitted the results of the Harding-Cox presidential contest. At that time, there were only four radio stations in the entire United States, and just a few thousand radios to tune into them.

Less than a year later, KDKA had another first when it broadcast “A Rural Line on Education,” which was not only the first-ever radio drama, but also the first-ever dramatic piece written especially for the nascent medium. The funny thing is that it kind of happened by accident! A pair of agriculture professors from West Virginia University, H.B. Allen and Paul C. Rouzer, were to deliver a talk on farm-extension courses on the “National Stockman and Farmer Hour” . . . but they came to the studio bearing a short script that they wanted to perform. After some hedging, KDKA relented, and history was made.

The play itself was pretty simplistic: a telephone conversation between two farmers, interrupted on occasion by an operator and other people wanting to use the line. But it was absolutely groundbreaking, and before long, radio dramas began to take off nationally. In September of 1922, WGY in Schenectady, New York began airing weekly studio-based performances of stage plays as put on by their in-house troupe of actors, the WGY Players; WLW (Cincinnati, Ohio) followed suit just two months later. By spring 1923, WLW, and major stations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, were not just producing radio plays but were producing completely original content—even running script contests to procure new material. Well before the end of the decade, there were dozens of radio dramas airing daily: comedies, detective shows, soap operas, westerns, anthologies, etc.

This tremendous increase in programming corresponded with an explosion in the number of radio stations and radio sets. The four stations broadcasting in 1920 became over 600 just two years later, while the few thousand radios in existence in 1920 swelled to an astonishing 100 million before the end of the decade. And while that growth would most likely have taken place regardless, it’s fair to say that “A Rural Line on Education”—and all the programs it inspired—played a very significant role.

Anyway, that’s the story of the first radio drama. Or is it? Not according to a certain someone . . .

Wyllis Cooper

“Radio drama—as distinguished from theatre plays boiled down to kilocycle size—began at midnight, in the middle Thirties, on one of the upper floors of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The pappy was a rotund writer by the name of Wyllis Cooper.”

That certain someone was writer & producer Arch Oboler, and the program he referred to in that quote was Lights Out, which Oboler himself was the mastermind behind for most of its thirteen-year run.

Now, even though Oboler credits Lights Out—under original creator Cooper—as the first radio drama, it’s unlikely he truly believed that to be the case. Lights Out wasn’t even the first horror/mystery anthology series, as both Mystery House (NBC, 1929) and The Witch’s Tale (Mutual Radio Network, 1931) predated Lights Out by 3–4 years. But what Oboler more specifically believed was that Lights Out was the first radio drama to truly make use of the unique qualities of radio in its productions.

Was he right? Come back next time when I take you through the history of that groundbreaking series!

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