I wouldn’t be writing this today if Orson Welles’ iconic radio program The War of the Worlds didn’t have one of the most highly visible and significant legacies of any soundwork in radio history, as proven by the recent events of #WOTW75. A few months back in the series, Eleanor Patterson made a strong and convincing argument for the program’s long survival as an example of “residual media,” tracing its migration from recording to recording and limning its cultural impact; Neil Verma proposed it as “one of the great works of the twentieth century” on a par with key films, novels, and paintings.
Its approach to literary adaptation was innovative, as Shawn VanCour argued; Josh Shepperd demonstrated its impact on the history of communication research; and both Debra Rae Cohen and Jacob Smith showed us that the innovative aesthetics of The Mercury Theatre on the Air were not limited to WOTW alone. Kathy Battles pointed to its cultural resonance at the time, and Cynthia Meyers to its continuing relevance as a teaching tool.
Yet what happened to this legacy of innovation in American radio drama that Welles’ career so emphatically marks? We can trace the tradition of creative radio drama forward through the suspense serials of the 1940s and 50s, jump to the 1970s with Himan Brown’s CBS Mystery Theater – and then virtually nothing, certainly not on a regular basis, until we get to the present radio revival.
The conclusion to Neil Verma’s Theater of the Mind eloquently discusses the “mineralization” of works like WOTW, since we can never hear them as audiences in the 1940s did – and I would argue as he does that at least in part this is because listening to radio drama of any kind is no longer part of our everyday experience.
But let’s not forget that this is not true everywhere, or even very many other places – elsewhere in the world, radio drama has an unbroken tradition that incorporates old work with new, and where American radio’s influence is a living thing. Just yesterday, from my temporary perch in England, I listened to a group of British and American actors perform their version of James M. Cain’s The Butterfly, complete with Western drawls and sound effects, in a joint BBC/Cymru Wales production. It’s part of a Cain series.
Here, The Archers continues its 63-year daily run, and on the BBC Radio 4 Drama page, a list of 13 genres in the sidebar helps the listener sort through the hundreds of currently running dramatic productions: originals, adaptations, serials, and revivals of old time US radio shows. You can listen to them, too. The launch of Radio 4 Extra in 2011 created a permanent digital platform for radio soundwork, though subject to odd release windows.
So – what happened here (putting my American hat back on)? This is something that has never been adequately explained. I’ve taken a stab at it, in my “Rethinking Radio” piece written some 10 years ago, but besides pointing to the re-localization of radio in the 1950s and its turn to musical formats, the other obvious difference is the lack of a national public broadcasting sector that remained strong, on task, and well funded throughout the post-TV decades and into the digital present.
The BBC never stopped producing innovative radio drama. Welles’ tradition jumped ship and emerged on distant shores. Thanks to digital platforms and other nations’ public broadcasting systems, the legacy of American radio drama lives on – just not primarily in America.
This is the tenth post in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!, From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years. Stay tuned, as there are still more entries to come! The next Antenna post in the series will be arriving from Jennifer Hyland Wang on January 20th.
Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.