It was a cold and rainy night and my Dad was telling me to shut up. My whole family was packed into our beat-up little Toyota and we were driving from Seattle to our home in Olympia. I was maybe twelve. Its funny how that space between being a young kid and being teenager really blurs. You can remember the events, but were you ten years old? Twelve? Fourteen? It never really matters.
My father had hushed everyone and turned up the radio. The scratchy quality of the noise stood out on the usually spot-on FM station. Judy Garland’s voice came flowing out of the radio, telling us that yes, she had a blackjack in her purse and if that lousy thug wanted any more trouble he’d get a taste of it. The story unfolded, through simple sound effects and sharp voices: “Give me the gun, Jake.” “I’m taking the money and you can’t stop me!” “Give me the gun, you big fool.” BLAM! The car shook slightly as all four of us jumped in our seats, right on cue. I was hooked.
Radio dramas, like my awkward pseudo-teenage self, are stuck between two worlds. They lack the visuals of television, leaving the entire show to play out in the minds of the listeners. But unlike a book, which is a purely imaginative medium, they still have the basic building blocks of theater: actors, sound effects and framing mechanisms. In this place between worlds, there is a whole genre that has almost faded from public consciousness.
Since that drive with my family, I've tracked down recordings of all sorts of radio shows: the deep resounding voice of Orson Wells in The Shadow; the pure speculative nature of Suspense!; the genuine laughter prompted by the Burns and Allen show; the squealing tires as the Green Hornet chases another mobster; and the quick banter of Groucho on You Bet Your Life. Wonderful. Truly delightful stories.
Radio dramas, unlike their television children, did not air repeats. For the most part. Most shows were rehearsed, then performed live in front of a studio audience. As a result, they faded very quickly from the public’s mind with the onset of television. Unlike Cheers or Friends, which I imagine will live on forever in syndication limbo, the stars of radio only get the spotlight again when someone does a documentary or some hideous remake of their show for the big screen.
My partner Bryna and I set out to make this right. For the last year or so, we have been researching and producing a local drama called Bellingham Terror. Set in 1935, a plucky student from the local college and her boyfriend/reporter with the Herald solve mysteries and unearth strange and supernatural occurrences. The Thin Man, with a creepy twist. Many of the mysteries are based on real life events (i.e. Fairhaven High School burning down on New Year's Eve in 1935, suspected arson, suspect never found.)
But I know all of you regular readers have a few good local stories. We are wrapping up our first season - 9 episodes written, 5 produced - but we are gunning for 12 episodes total and would love some ideas for future plots. So if you want to comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, we would love your ideas.
You can listen to a teaser we produced by clicking here. It's an adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft story “Shadow over Innsmouth,” set in 1928 Skagit County. It was an intellectual warm-up we did in between recordings for the series. While I am in shameless plug mode, I should also mention that Bryna is a photographer and did a whole series of photos to accompany the shows. You can see those by clicking here
Radio stories have a new chance, with the accessibility of the Internet. All that is required is the interest, and I believe there is still an interest in classic radio drama. There could be a market for it with podcasting and the flexibility single sound file has to travel from cell phone to iPod to car sound system and back to the computer. This awkward medium of radio can be, in the end, one of the most accessible of the future; one that could return pleasant associations to the whole idea of listening to the radio
There are some other local groups that do wonderful work. The Midnight Mystery Players produce some top notch re-creations of radio drama. You can catch them at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights at 102.3 FM.