Aliens, Robots, Spaceships and . . . Popsicles? SF on American Radio, Then and Now
It took a long time to heat up. It was nothing special, just an old plastic GE radio. First silence, then crackling and hissing static, and then—if you were very lucky, if the weather conditions were perfect, if the stars were in the right conjunctions, who knows—then came the faint strains of a familiar theme song and a voice crying “Johnny Chase . . . Secret Agent of Spaaaaaaace!”
What wonders then awaited a young listener back in 1978—a majestic space borne palace, time travel, aliens, a smug ship’s AI named Dante—and even a brief and highly debatable appearance by William Shakespeare himself. Perhaps it never quite took itself seriously, perhaps it wasn’t the best space opera ever written, but the combination of acting, sound effects and, yes, imagination made it far more vivid, far more fantastic, than any short story or television show.
It was this combination that made radio drama almost ideal for SF: a hint of description, a rush of stirring effects, and the listener saw vast interstellar vistas, gigantic spacecraft, and strange creatures. And yet these visions could be thrown on the screen of the viewer’s imagination for a fraction of what the most primitive visual effects would have cost.
Perhaps this is why in the early days of radio, when few people had yet encountered print SF and even fewer had seen SF in the theaters, SF found a home on the air.
Like the early days of radio drama itself, however, little is known about the birth of radio SF. Perhaps the legendary Carlton E. Morse, creator of I Love a Mystery, was the first to introduce SF elements into some of his stories, on the NBC Mystery Serial (1930-1932).
Then there are a few elusive references to what some claim was the first SF series: Ultraviolet. Supposedly it came from Detroit’s powerhouse radio station, WXYZ, and the pen of Fran Striker, creator of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. It appears to have been a children’s show, but you won’t find anything about it in most of what’s been written about WXYZ, Striker, or station owner George W. Trendle.
It was another children’s show that is generally considered the first real SF radio show: Buck Rogers. It started its long run in 1932.
Buck was born in Amazing Stories, and his comic strip finally freed SF from the pulp magazine ghetto. While aimed at children, it was complex enough to attract adults and tried to keep its super-science believable. The same, however, cannot be said about the radio series.
The radio Buck Rogers was a fairly typical children’s serial. It had the familiar fifteen minute a day weekday format used by so many other shows, and an almost unhealthy obsession with Popsicles. As with most of these serials, the sponsor got almost as much airtime as the hero did, and their spokesman, Popsicle Pete, undoubtedly ranks as the most annoying corporate mascot ever.
Listeners unfamiliar with these shows would probably be surprised at the glacial pace. Very little happens, and it usually takes a week for any major development. The sound effects were minimal and there’s a lot of talk. Fortunately for CBS, children seemed to love it anyway, and it lasted off and on, in various formats, until 1947.
SF showed up in quite a few other children’s serials, most notably Jack Armstrong, All American Boy; Captain Midnight and the Secret Squadron; and Superman.
In 1935, Mutual launched their version of the year-old Flash Gordon strip. Vastly superior to Buck Rogers, its quarter-hour weekly episodes faithfully adapt the stories in the comics, with Gale Gordon (Mr. Mooney on The Lucy Show) as Flash. Oddly, the show moves far too rapidly, jumping from one incident borrowed from the strip to another. Twenty-six episodes later, Flash and his friends return to Earth and meet Jungle Jim (the hero of Flash’s “top strip”) just in time to launch Jim on his own radio show. Flash returned the next year, in original stories in a daily serial format.
But SF was not stuck in the narrow confines of children’s shows: adaptations of SF stories soon followed. Everyone remembers Orson Welles and the exaggerated stories told of the panic caused by his The War of the Worlds(1938), but few remember the 1932 serial adaptation of Frankenstein. Despite memorable efforts like the 1944 version of Donovan’s Brain on Suspense, however, SF remained rare throughout the forties.
SF did find a foothold in the horror shows, like The Witches Tale, Lights Out and Quiet Please, even though most of their stories dealt with the supernatural. SF remained rare, often poorly presented, and sometimes merely a decorative flourish. Perhaps The Mysterious Traveler (1943-1952) made the greatest contributions, thanks to the efforts of its two masterful scriptwriters, Robert A. Arthur and David Kogan (who, according to Arthur, wrote most of the SF). The variety of SF elements—from robots and computers to aliens, distant planets, environmental disasters and even apocalyptic destruction—was astounding, and the shows were among the best written on the air.
While most of them retained the familiar structure of the twist ending (found on horror shows long before the advent of The Twilight Zone), the surprises never came at the expense of the story. Some of these stories would reappear on other series, particularly on CBS’s Suspense in its later years. Most of them would have been right at home between the pages of Weird Tales (which ran many of Arthur’s stories).
The two produced several similar if less famous series (including Dark Destiny, The Strange Dr. Weird, and The Sealed Book), creating hundreds of wonderful stories, many of which still survive today—as do many SF stories from other horror shows.
And then the Fifties changed everything.
1950, of course, launched Destination Moon, and the surge of SF film that followed. But it also marked the debut of the first serious SF radio shows. While Dimension X is perhaps the best known of these shows, Mutual’s 2000 Plus actually aired two weeks earlier.
It is hard to judge the quality of 2000+ as so few shows have survived. They seem a wild potpourri of Fifties SF, everything from flying saucers, time travel, rockets, aliens, ancient Egypt, and even a journey into the “germ world”. It was well produced, and the scripts were reasonably intelligent—if nowhere near as good as those of the shows that followed. It was not particularly successful, running for two seasons—but then neither were any of the SF shows of the era. They all managed to attract loyal viewers, but never enough to keep them alive.
With legendary editor John W. Campbell Jr. of Astounding Magazine onboard as an advisor, CBS’s Beyond Tomorrow, officially debuted next, although an audition episode actually predates 2000+. However, no one is sure whether the three shows recorded ever aired.
Dimension X, while it wasn’t first, did something far greater: in an era when SF on the theater screen remained largely unaffected by the golden age of SF, it tore stories right out of the pages of Astounding Magazine and put them on the air.
Its special arrangement gave it access to Astounding’s best stories. Dimension X’s list of authors reads like a who’s who of golden age SF: Jack Williamson, Kurt Vonnegut, Fredric Brown, Murray Leinster, L. Ron Hubbard, Donald A. Wollheim, Robert Bloch, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, William Tenn, Clifford D. Simak, H. Beam Piper, and Isaac Asimov among others. The show’s staff writers did create a handful of originals, and adapted a few stories from other sources, but the bulk came from Astounding.
It was a remarkable achievement, one which later shows copied. But, despite its quality it would only last two seasons.
Not all the SF radio of the fifties aimed for adult listeners—although even children’s fare like The Planet Man and Captain Starr of Space failed to stay on the air for more than a year. Even radio versions of the popular TV shows Space Patrol and Tom Corbett: Space Cadet fared no better.
However, one of radio’s best SF shows actually came from television. Tales of Tomorrow—a half-hour anthology show—first flickered into life in 1951, in the midst of a host of simple children’s shows pretending to be SF. In one titanic leap, the electronic wasteland gained an SF show that was intelligent, serious and adult—and had access to the more than 2000 stories written by members of The Science Fiction League.
Two years later, in partnership with Galaxy Magazine, Tales of Tomorrow launched on radio. While it boasted some of the best SF writing on the air, it still lasted a mere fifteen episodes and was divided between two different networks!
Galaxy Magazine was also involved in what many consider the best SF show of the era, X Minus One. Essentially a 1955 revival of Dimension X, its first fifteen episodes recycled earlier scripts. With many of the same people involved, it is often hard to remember which series ran any given episode. It tended (particularly in its later seasons) towards more humorous episodes than its predecessor.
Sadly, while it lasted longer than any other SF radio show of the era and managed to produce 126 episodes, it found itself increasingly pressured by falling budgets. This forced them to make painful cuts and eventually left its writers and actors seriously underpaid. Radio drama had begun its slow death and advertising dollars became harder and harder to find. But somehow, thanks to the dedication of everyone involved, the later episodes still sound as good as the earliest ones.
After its untimely death in 1958, NBC would try to revive it in 1973 with a single new episode (“The Iron Chancellor”, by Robert Silverberg) and sporadic rebroadcasts of the originals. But it failed to generate enough interest for a full revival, thanks largely to NBC’s erratic scheduling.
Intelligent SF also made appearances on shows like Suspense, Escape, and even the experimental CBS Radio Workshop.
The final SF offering before the age of radio breathed its last was Exploring Tomorrow (1957), hosted (and probably script-edited) by John W. Campbell.It featured stories by some of the greatest SF authors, who apparently wrote their own adaptations. And yet, despite its heavy-hitting line-up, it isn’t as good as X Minus One—perhaps because its writers lacked scriptwriting experience. Still, it was an interesting experiment, even if it lasted only a year.
The last few network programs would limp on until 1962, with a few final SF stories appearing on Suspense.
We tend to think that television killed off radio drama. Yet many of those who worked in radio in those final days have said that it didn’t die, it was murdered: the Big Three cannibalized their radio networks to move into television. What is definitely true is that radio drama survived in other countries, notably in Great Britain.
But it wasn’t quite dead.
By the seventies, it was back on the air, thanks to a growing nostalgic interest in the Golden Age of radio. Hundreds of recorded shows suddenly became available on cassettes and LP, and Old Time Radio shows ran on many stations.
The first new show was Mutual’s The Zero Hour, a series of mystery and drama shows mostly adapted from novels. Despite having Rod Serling as its host, however, it wasn’t a fantasy show.
Other shows followed, most notably The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which ran for eight years and almost 3000 daily episodes—including an incredible number of SF stories.
This boom produced no new SF series, although some American listeners did get to hear the CBC’s Johnny Chase, Secret Agent of Space (1978-1981) and their 1980 horror anthology, Nightfall.
Nor did it last long. Mutual never made any real effort to advertise The Zero Hour, and while The CBS Radio Mystery Theater was reasonably successful, CBS lost interest and killed it off. Radio drama would not return to the commercial networks again.
Public radio, however, has never quite given up on it. NPR has sporadically released drama shows, including some notable SF efforts, such as their epic series of radio adaptations of the Star Wars movies from the eighties.
Mike McDonough’s labor of love, Bradbury 13 (thirteen of the best Ray Bradbury adaptations ever made) followed in 1984. A series of classic SF stories ran as Sci Fi Radio in 1989 and in 2000, they created Beyond 2000(a.k.a., 2000X), a star-studded anthology of well-known SF stories. They have also rebroadcast many of the BBC’s best audio dramas.
A few SF shows—like Alien Worlds—have gained wide distribution in syndication, with the most successful being radio entrepreneur Carl Amari’s revival of The Twilight Zone. It began in 2002 and the mysterious door is still open.
The idea of audio drama is such a powerful one that it should come as no surprise that it continues to fascinate writers and artists. Many people have tried to find new ways to market it.
One of the most curious was that used by Ruby, the Galactic Gumshoe. While it was extremely difficult to find stations willing to play half-hour shows, it wasn’t hard to sell a feature that was only two or three minutes long although one imagines SF would be a harder sell than cooking tips or even The MAD Minute. Ruby now runs in twenty-three countries and, after thirty-one years on the air, just completed her ninth adventure.
As audiobooks became more popular, their manufacturers released a lot of OTR and BBC radio on cassette. Eventually, they released their own new dramas, but they remain rare. As Mike McDonough discovered, the big companies weren’t interested in shows like Bradbury 13 because they made their own efforts sound cheap (which they were). Still, with a little help from the Sci Fi Channel, a group of Star Trek actors could successfully market the excellent Seeing Ear Theater.
Fortunately, new technologies have given the radio drama new opportunities. Between Sirius XM radio, digital downloads, podcasts, and online radio stations there now are far more new audio dramas being recorded than at any time since Radio died.
Radio drama still remains rare. That isn’t about to change any time soon. But with reasonably priced digital recording equipment and software on the market, radio drama is easier to produce than ever before and far cheaper than filmmaking.
While universities and public radio continue to support small radio theater efforts, radio drama has blossomed in the world of podcasting. Shows like The Leviathan Chronicles, the steampunk drama 1918, or Dark Matter would never have been born without these new opportunities. With Americans busier than ever before, they watch fewer movies and TV shows, and listen more to their MP3 players. SF podcasts can be found on sites like Audible.com and iTunes: some, like SFF Audio, try to collect the best new shows available.
The future of radio drama looks promising at the moment, although ultimately it relies more than almost any other medium on the quality of its writing.
Whether we are heading for a new golden age of radio, or are merely experiencing yet another temporary surge remains to be seen. But hopefully, within today’s decentralized online market (and, with a little luck, free from the often arbitrary control of big corporations) it will have a chance to stand or fall on its own merits.
That would be a nice change.