Future Tense

The Renaissance of the Humble Radio Drama

The medium offers unique opportunities for minority voices and independent creators.

Radio dramas may seem like a thing of the past, but they’re still a great way to tell stories.

Louis Joyeux\INA via Getty Images

When you think about radio dramas, you probably recall War of the Worlds or picture a nuclear family hanging out in their living room wearing ’30s fashion. But radio dramas are still around. In fact, we’re entering something of a golden age of radio dramas, thanks to the podcast boom.

Welcome to Night Vale, often considered the quintessential modern radio drama, has been downloaded more than 170 million times since it first premiered in 2012. It’s currently on tour in the U.S. and Europe. In 2015, The Message, a sci-fi drama about a group of scientists and a graduate student who runs her own fictional podcast trying to decode an alien message, hit No. 1 on the iTunes podcast chart. (Disclosure: The Message was co-produced by GE and Panoply; Panoply is The Slate Group’s podcast network.) Limetown, a popular radio drama about a journalist uncovering a conspiracy in a small town, is getting a prequel novel that will be published by Simon and Schuster. For five years now, the National Audio Theatre Festival has run HEAR Now: The Audio Fiction and Arts Festival, which gives prizes to various radio drama submissions. And the Austin Film Festival held a competition for fiction podcast scripts, also known as radio dramas for the modern era. I’ve even created my own radio drama—and I’m a 19-year-old college student.

While it can feel like we’re moving toward immersive forms of storytelling with the advent of virtual reality, there’s a beautiful simplicity, almost a purity, to radio dramas. They’re not overly complicated—they tell a story in a clear, straightforward way. There’s a wonderful intimacy to listening to someone act right in your ear, like a stranger telling you a secret. It’s captivating in a way other forms cannot be. And you can take the story with you anywhere while keeping your eyes up—you won’t accidentally walk into someone because you’re staring at your phone.

Radio dramas first rose to prominence in the 1930s. Rod Serling, most famous for The Twilight Zone, got his start in this medium writing original content for WJEM, a station in Springfield, Ohio. Soon, radio stations began to adapt plays and create their own unique shows to air. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the BBC aired versions of Shakespeare and Greek classics. Families would gather around the radio after dinner to listen to these stories.

Then radio dramas fell out of favor in America, unable to compete with the television. But now they’re starting to come back, thanks to podcasts. Radio dramas (and yes, we still call them that even if they’re primarily listened to as podcasts) are more accessible and easier to listen to than ever.

I have loved radio and podcasts for a very long time, so when I got to college, I quickly became involved with my college’s student station. I went from having a DJ shift to running and co-hosting a talk show about all things geeky, from comic books to video games. And then I absolutely fell in love with radio dramas. I sped through episodes of Limetown and The Black Tapes the way people binge-watch their favorite Netflix original series. So I decided to try writing my own radio drama and pitched it to the student station.

I ended up creating a show called Rise Like the Phoenix about a young journalist in the Phoenix metropolitan area who investigates weird goings-on in her town, from supposed alien sightings to a demagogue mayoral candidate. As I have learned, the worldbuilding for an audio tale is intense. The story has to sound interesting without any assistance: Unlike books, you can’t just describe what’s going on, and unlike movies, you can’t simply show it. If your character is walking, you need a recording of footsteps to convey it, and you have to layer it on top of what is happening in the scene.

Though that sort of thing can make radio drama challenging, the format also offers unique opportunities. For instance, I decided early on that I wanted to make the characters in my show diverse. You might expect that with radio dramas, the race of the characters wouldn’t matter—after all, the audience never actually sees them. However, I think that it matters all the more when you’re listening to the story. With the lack of good representation in mainstream entertainment, many people think of Caucasian as the “default” race, casting white actors to play roles all the time, even when the race of the character is not explicitly identified or important to the storyline. In audio theater, if a character is a member of a minority racial group, you have to be explicit about it by giving her a non-Western name or having her discuss her heritage. There’s a utility to diversity, too. John Dryden, the director and lead writer of the BBC radio drama Tumanbay, which includes a diverse set of characters—including an LGBTQ romance—told Slate’s June Thomas in a 2016 interview, “It is useful … to have lots of different accents, because it makes the characters much easier to tell apart.”

My personal favorite radio drama is The Bright Sessions, which is now is being adapted for television. The story is about a therapist who records her patients’ sessions. Oh, and all her patients have some sort of superpower. Lauren Shippen, creator of The Bright Sessions, has produced a very inclusive work. For instance, most of her main characters are LGBTQ. She told me that thanks to the low barrier to entry, radio dramas offer more opportunities for marginalized voices to tell their stories. She believes it’s a good place for indie producers and low-budget productions to get their start, and compared with television, creators can keep full control.

Because of the challenges of audio storytelling, creators often end up containing the narrative to a constrained physical area for much of the plot. For example, Welcome to Night Vale follows a man giving community updates in a small desert town somewhere in the Southwestern United States. And that isn’t the only radio drama that takes place in a semi-isolated area or in a single room. Unlike other forms, the characters typically don’t move around a whole lot within the episode. There are practical reasons for this, of course—it’s difficult to convey movement. But that forces us to be creative. If the characters are going to be stationary over a long period of time, then the writer needs to have a reason why. The Bright Sessions tackles this challenge by having most of the episodes take place in a therapist’s office. The plot can still move along because the characters tell their therapist everything that’s happening in their lives, and sometimes unexpected guests stop by.

For the second season of my sci-fi show, I’m planning on having the main character talk to various people from her family’s history. Since I can’t show the audience a scene from the 16th century, the tales that the characters weave in their dialogue have to be particularly engaging. In some ways, then, the second season of my show will be like radio drama itself: looking to the past and the future at the same time.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.