Once upon a time radio was an integral part of everybody’s life, and daily listening included at least one radio drama program, often more.
Anglos of a certain age brought up in the States will certainly remember the popular radio dramas of their youth – over 2,000 from America’s golden age of radio are listed by title on the Internet, from ABC Mystery Theater to The Zero Hour. The same is true of those born in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
People raised in Britain come from a radio culture steeped in audio drama – the BBC has always broadcast scores of thousands of hours each year. In addition to the widest possible range of subject matter, in plays lasting 90 minutes or more, millions tuned in to their daily 15-minute episode of Dick Barton – Special Agent, Mrs Dale’s Diary, or The Archers (which, with 20,000 episodes under its belt and still going strong, is the world’s oldest soap opera).
Until the 1990s even Kol Yisrael’s domestic radio channels, Reshet Alef and Kol HaMusica, included a regular radio drama slot in their schedules. I remember sitting in on the recording of drama productions in the 1980s, parts played by some of Israel’s most distinguished actors, under the direction of Kol Yisrael’s then-head of radio drama, Eran Baniel.
It was on account of radio drama that I had come to know Baniel. A popular BBC radio drama slot at the time was Saturday Night Theater. For it I had dramatized The Serpent’s Smile by Olga Hesky – a thriller set in 1960s Israel. The BBC director was keen to have an authentic Israeli soundscape, so we contacted Baniel and asked for his assistance. He sent back recordings of genuine Israeli traffic, the sound of the Israeli telephone, Israeli crowds in a restaurant, all of which were merged into the final production.
That radio world has changed. Plays broadcast as part of a channel’s regular schedule have virtually died the death in much of the world. Gradually, under the pressures of finance, constant news, and cheaper ways of filling airtime, the major radio stations in the US, as very nearly everywhere else across the globe, began dropping radio drama. Nowadays, for most mainstream listeners worldwide, radio means just music, news, chatter and phone-ins.
Not, though, in the UK. Britain leads the world in the art of radio drama. Its domestic radio channels are still replete with plays of all sorts. But it is also up among the leaders of those reviving the art – now designated “audio drama” – in new forms more suited to the digital age.