Why Do We Celebrate Audio Drama on October 30th?
The date is no accident – audio drama has long had a special connection with the “witching hour” and the Halloween season.
On October 30th, 1938, the Mercury Theater on the Air, a sustained radio show airing on the Columbia Radio network, and piloted by Orson Welles and John Houseman, broadcast Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”, a Victorian novel about the invasion of Britain, then the entire planet, by Martians. The rest is pop culture history… and now World Audio Drama Day history. But this year also marks a milestone that started even earlier than Mercury’s frightfest.
Bookended between October 30th, 2022 and the tenth Audio Drama Day in 2023, we also honor a centennial of broadcast drama, all leading from an experimental collaboration at WGY Radio (Schenectady, NY). In the late 1990s,
historian Elizabeth McLeod first noted that the summer 1922 radio premiere of “The Wolf” inspired the first broadcast drama series. (Likewise, famed scripter Lucille Fletcher, writing in the April 13, 1940 edition of The New Yorker, credited “The Wolf” with the first audio special effects to go over the air. Thousands of Foley tables for radio – as well as TV and film – would also follow in its wake.)
“The Wolf” was a full-length play produced by theater director Edward H. Smith, a successful community producer with his group “The Masque”. In response to its broadcast of “The Wolf,” WGY received thousands of letters and cards from listeners, including some across state lines. (In those days, stronger AM signals made for easier tuning of geographically distant signals – some stations observed “Silent Nights” to allow their audience to tune further away.) Heartened by the response, Smith and WGY founded a new troupe, the WGY Players – who experienced a smash success with the first series of dramas in a regular time slot.
The WGY Players’ initiative also led to the first network radio setup, as linked stations in New York City and Washington D.C. simulcast their shows – influencing network radio and television. In fact, the WGY Players also featured
in the 1928 television broadcast “The Queen’s Messenger”. Their pioneering spirit lives on in every audio drama – no matter what technology is used to share it with listeners.
Surprisingly, UNESCO – the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – almost chose to celebrate World Radio Day on October 30th. It was a date that was very popular with some decision-makers within the international organization, but others were concerned about such a pivotal day being connected with a “hoax” or “trick”. (Others were concerned that this might be a too Western-centric date – a good point, considering that pivotal radio moments happen every day in rural locations across our Global South. Regional broadcasters in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe may not have the commercial cachet of Clear Channel, National Public Radio or the BBC World Service, but their audio dramas can actually change lives for the better.)
And still, the most famous audio drama of all time is not a popular podcast nor one of the earliest dramas heard over radio.
How did Audio Drama Day happen?
Like virtually everyone who has ever written or produced an audio drama, my first exposure to audio drama was as a listener.
During the Bronze Age, audio dramatists struggled to improve awareness of the artform. I believed the 75th anniversary of this broadcast – October 30, 2013 – was a good day to celebrate the artform of audio drama. Not just “old time radio” or “fiction podcasts”. All audio drama – whether it was broadcast on radio, streamed over the web, performed live on stage or in a classroom, or listened to as a podcast on a smartphone. At the 2013 Parsec Awards held in Atlanta that Labor Day, hosts Scott Sigler and Veronica Belmont generously took a moment to mention that October 30th would be the first Audio Drama Day. (Thank you so much, both of you.)
The Parsec Awards ended in 2018 – but in a way, for an exciting reason. Even though the Parsec Awards honored speculative fiction podcasts – genre work like science fiction, fantasy and horror – the Parsecs eventually ended due to the sheer number of nominees, and not enough people to referee the work! Meanwhile, Audio Drama Day continues as an opportunity for all of us to celebrate audio drama, no matter how we came to it, or when.
I want to also point out that this entire idea of announcing a regular date for audio drama enjoyment and history, in hindsight, seems pretty crazy. The Friends of Old Time Radio, a terrific organization that held large get-togethers each year in the Newark area, had closed shop in 2011. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had, under the Stephen Harper regime, slashed drama in 2009, and then completely cut it – all funding, all production – in 2012. (This may give heart to those BBC creators who found their own budgets recently slashed in 2022.) Other than Sound Stages Radio, which I ran after taking over from its creator, long-time producer Jeff Adams (Icebox Radio), in 2013 I knew of no other station in North America still running a modern audio drama format.
And I often tell people about a top NGO media strategist I spoke to at South by Southwest in 2015, who told me that she thought podcasts were “dead” – which made me feel a little less pompous about moderating one of two audio drama
panels at the festivals. And yet – audio drama not only endures, but is in the midst of a Platinum age renaissance of creativity. There are literally hundreds of excellent audio dramas to choose from today, as you can find simply
by checking social media or the Audio Drama Directory.
My favorite aspect of Audio Drama Day is seeing people on social media sharing the works by others that they enjoy most – not just the ones they produced or worked on, but that give them joy (or more appropriately for Halloween, shivers).
Happy World Audio Drama Day! Long live Audio Drama!
Philadelphia, PA / Austin, TX
P.S. Would you be interested in a celebration of the 85th anniversary at real-life Grovers Mill, New Jersey? RSVP me in 2022 for 2023. Maybe we’ll even have company.