Radio drama (or audio drama, audio play, radio play, radio theatre) is a dramatised, purely acoustic performance, broadcast on radio or published on audio media, such as tape or CD. With no visual component, radio drama depends on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story. “It is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension.” (Prof Tim Crook, Head of Radio at Goldsmiths University (1999) in Radio Drama: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, p.8)
Radio drama achieved widespread popularity within a decade of its initial development in the 1920s. By the 1940s, it was a leading international popular entertainment. With the advent of television in the 1950s, however, radio drama lost some of its popularity, and in some countries, has never regained large audiences.
As of 2011, radio drama has a minimal presence on terrestrial radio in the United States. Much of American radio drama is restricted to rebroadcasts or podcasts of programs from previous decades. However, other nations still have thriving traditions of radio drama. In the United Kingdom, for example, the BBC produces and broadcasts hundreds of new radio plays each year on Radio 3, Radio 4, and Radio 4 Extra. Drama is aired daily on Radio 4 in the form of afternoon plays, a Friday evening play, short dramas included in the daily Woman’s Hour program, Saturday plays and Sunday classic serials. On Radio 3 there is Sunday evening drama and, in the slot reserved for experimental drama, The Wire.
The drama output on Radio 4 Extra (formerly Radio 7), which consists predominantly of archived programs and a few extended versions of radio 4 programs, is chiefly composed of comedy, thrillers and science fiction. Podcasting has also offered the means of creating new radio dramas, in addition to the distribution of vintage programs.
The terms “audio drama” or “audio theatre” are sometimes used synonymously with “radio drama” with one notable distinction: audio drama or audio theatre is not intended specifically for broadcast on radio.
Audio drama, whether newly produced or classics, can be found on CDs, cassette tapes, podcasts, webcasts and conventional broadcast radio.
The War of the Worlds
Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre Company production, October 30, 1938