This winter has been relentless in its snow and ice storms, so I've spent most of my time at home the last month. I would have gone stir crazy weeks ago if I hadn't found a slew of old radio plays online.
Radio plays have so much to teach a writer, I could probably write 3 or 4 blogs on each aspect (and maybe I will). Unlike TV, radio dramas have no sets, costumes, props, gestures, facial expressions, or body language. They can't rely on simple visual action to convey plot. Radio plays are told mainly with words, and so they have more in common with novels than other types of media.
Still, radio plays shouldn't be confused with audio books. Radio plays, like the stage variety, employ several actors and at least one sound effects man. If you've ever watched a radio play performed live, you know sound effects is an art unto itself, and greatly enhances the telling of the story. But also, radio plays are often skillful adaptations of books or stage plays, or original plays themselves, made to fit into a half hour or one hour slot. They cut all the non-essentials out and hone in on the vital parts of a story. Some, of course, are more successful than others. I listened to an Orson Welles adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town the other day that I thought worked beautifully. Last week, I heard a play based on the novel (not the musical) Showboat. That, it seemed to me, was too abridged. Though worth the listen because the author, Edna Ferber, played the part of the captain's wife, and was very good indeed.
Agatha Christie wrote radio plays. Her most famous stage play, The Mousetrap began life as a 30 minute radio play called Three Blind Mice (written in honor of the Queen Mother's Birthday), then she rewrote the plot into a short story, then into the two-act play from there. Unfortunately, it's pretty much impossible to listen to one of her plays online. However, a few of her books were adapted for radio. I highly recommend The Campbell Playhouse adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Orson Welles plays both Hercule Poirot and Dr. Shepherd. Other mysteries under the link above include The 39 Steps, The Immortal Sherlock Holmes, and Rebecca (with a Daphne Du Maurier interview at the end). And don't miss the infamous War of the Worlds.
You can find a great apaptation of The Thin Man on Lux Radio Theater, as well as many good comedies and dramas. And for the hard-core mystery fan, try CBS Radio Mystery Theater.
I also must mention a modern-day radio program called Prairie Home Companion. You can hear it Saturday nights at 6 pm by tuning your radio to NPR, but you can also find the show's archives online at prairiehome.publicradio.org/programs. This is a variety show but writers ought to pay particular attention to the skits. It's amazing how they can weave elaborate and incredibly funny tales into a 4 to 10 minute time slot. Plus, their sound effects man is an artist. The video above is one of their "Lives of the Cowboys" skits and seemed especially appropriate to this winter. Enjoy!
Peace (and keep warm),