A new weekly showcase for classic programs from radio’s golden age, hosted by veteran Chicago broadcaster Carl Amari, is coming to Tribune Media news/talk WGN AM 720.
Starting April 12, “The WGN Radio Theatre with Carl Amari” will follow “After Hours with Rick Kogan” and air from 11 p.m. Sundays to 2 a.m. Mondays. The new addition replaces the weekend show hosted by Patti Vasquez, who moves up to full-time on weekdays.
In addition to featuring classic radio drama and comedy, Amari will present live trivia and occasional newly produced content that celebrates “theater of the mind,” according to Todd Manley, vice president of programming and content at WGN.
It’s a comeback of sorts for the 51-year-old host, producer and syndicator, who often appeared as a guest with legendary WGN late-night host Eddie Schwartz. Amari later hosted a radio adaptation of “The Twilight Zone” drama series that aired at midnight Saturdays on WGN.
From modest beginnings in the basement studio of his family’s Schiller Park home, Amari built an empire on old-time radio. His credits included creating and syndicating such series as “When Radio Was,” “Radio Movie Classics” and “Radio Super Heroes.” He sold his first company, Radio Spirits Inc., to Audio Book Club in 1998 for $12 million.
“I’ve been listening to WGN radio for over 40 years,” Amari said Wednesday. “As a fledgling broadcaster in my early 20s, ‘Chicago Eddie’ Schwartz often had me on his show, where I’d present classic radio episodes of ‘The Shadow,’ ‘Jack Benny,’ ‘Suspense,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Inner Sanctum’ and many more.
“Sitting across from Eddie and watching him skillfully work the broadcast board while taking calls and interviewing guests, I dreamed that one day I might have my own show on WGN radio where I could present classics from the golden age of radio. I couldn’t be more thrilled with this opportunity and I can’t wait to begin.”
1930–1960s: Widespread popularity
Perhaps America’s most famous radio drama broadcast is Orson Welles‘ The War of the Worlds, a 1938 version of the H. G. Wells novel, which convinced large numbers of listeners that an actual invasion from Mars was taking place. By the late 1930s, radio drama was widely popular in the United States (and also in other parts of the world). There were dozens of programs in many different genres, from mysteries and thrillers, to soap operas and comedies. Among American playwrights, screenwriters and novelists who got their start in radio drama are Rod Serling and Irwin Shaw.
In Britain, however, during the 1930s BBC programming, tended to be more high brow, including the works of Shakespeare, Classical Greek drama, as well as the works of major modern playwrights, such as Checkov, Ibsen, Strindberg, and so forth. Novels and short stories were also frequently dramatised. In addition the plays of contemporary writers and original plays were produced, with, for example, a broadcast of T. S. Eliot’s famous verse play Murder in the Cathedral in 1936. By 1930 the BBC was producing “twice as many plays as London’s West End” and were producing over 400 plays a year by the mid-1940s.
Producers of radio drama soon became aware that adapting stage plays for radio did not always work, and that there was a need for plays that were specifically written for radio, and which recognized its potential as a distinct, and different medium, from the theatre. George Bernard Shaw’s plays, for example, were seen as readily adaptable.However, In a lead article in the BBC literary journal The Listener, of 14 August 1929, which discussed the broadcasting of twelve great plays, it was suggested that while the theatrical literature of the past should not be neglected the future lay mainly with plays written specifically for the microphone.
Initially the BBC resisted American-style ‘soap opera’, but eventually highly popular serials, like Dick Barton, Special Agent (1946–51), Mrs Dale’s Diary (1948–69) and The Archers (1950- ), were produced. The Archers is still running (July 2014), and is the world’s longest-running soap opera with a total of over 17,400 episodes.There had been some earlier serialized drama including, the six episode The Shadow of the Swastika (1939),Dorothy L. Sayers‘s The Man Born To Be King, in twelve episodes (1941), and Front Line Family (1941–48), which was broadcast to America as part of the effort to encourage the USA to enter the war. The show’s storylines depicted the trials and tribulations of a British family, the Robinsons, living through the war. This featured plots about rationing, family members missing in action and the Blitz. After the war in 1946 it was moved to the BBC’s Light Programme.
The BBC continued producing various kinds of drama, including docu-drama throughout World War II and amongst the writers they employed was the novelist James Hanley and poet Louis MacNeice, who in 1941 became an employee of the BBC. MacNeice’s work for the BBC initially involved writing and producing radio programmes intended to build support for the USA, and later Russia through cultural programmes emphasising links between the countries rather than outright propaganda. By the end of the war MacNeice had written well over sixty scripts for the BBC, including Christopher Columbus (1942), which starred Laurence Olivier, The Dark Tower (1946), and a six-part radio adaptation of Goethe‘s Faust (1949).
Following World War II the BBC reorganized its radio provision, introducing two new channels to supplement theBBC Home Service (itself the result of the fusion in September 1939 of the pre-war National and regional Programmes). These were the BBC Light Programme (dating from 29 July 1945 and a direct successor to the wartime General Forces Programme) and the BBC Third Programme (launched on 29 September 1946).
The Light Programme, while principally devoted to light entertainment and music, carried a fair share of drama, both single plays (generally, as the name of the station indicated, of a lighter nature) and serials. The Third, destined to become one of the leading cultural and intellectual forces in post-war Britain, specialized in heavier drama (as well as the serious music, talks, and other features which made up its content): long-form productions of both classical and modern/experimental dramatic works sometimes occupied the major part of its output on any given evening. The Home Service, meanwhile, continued to broadcast more “middle-brow” drama (one-off plays and serializations) on a daily basis.
The high-water mark for BBC radio drama was the 1950s and 1960s, and during this period many major British playwrights either effectively began their careers with the BBC, or had works adapted for radio. Most of playwrightCaryl Churchill‘s early experiences with professional drama production were as a radio playwright and, starting in 1962 with The Ants, there were nine productions with BBC radio drama up until 1973 when her stage work began to be recognised at the Royal Court Theatre. Joe Orton‘s dramatic debut in 1963 was the radio play The Ruffian on the Stair, which was broadcast on 31 August 1964.
Tom Stoppard‘s “first professional production was in the fifteen-minute Just Before Midnight programme on BBC Radio, which showcased new dramatists”. John Mortimer made his radio debut as a dramatist in 1955, with his adaptation of his own novel Like Men Betrayed for the BBC Light Programme. However, he made his debut as an original playwright with The Dock Brief, starring Michael Hordern as a hapless barrister, first broadcast in 1957 onBBC Radio‘s Third Programme, later televised with the same cast, and subsequently presented in a double bill with What Shall We Tell Caroline? at the Lyric Hammersmith in April 1958, before transferring to the Garrick Theatre. Mortimer is most famous for Rumpole of the Bailey a British television series which starred Leo McKernas Horace Rumpole, an aging London barrister who defends any and all clients. It has been spun off into a series of short stories, novels, and radio programmes.
Giles Cooper was a pioneer in writing for radio, becoming prolific in both radio and television drama. His early successes included radio dramatisations of Charles Dickens‘s Oliver Twist, William Golding‘s Lord of the Fliesand John Wyndham‘s classic science fiction novel Day of the Triffids. He was also successful in the theatre. The first of his radio plays to make his reputation was Mathry Beacon (1956), which is about a small detachment of men and women still guarding a Top Secret “missile deflector” somewhere in Wales, years after the war has ended. Bill Naughton‘s rado play Alfie Elkins and his Little Life (1962) was first broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 7 January 1962. In it Alfie, “[w]ith sublime amorality… swaggers and philosophises his way through” life. The action spans about two decades, from the beginning of World War II to the late 1950s. In 1964, Bill Naughton turned it into a stage play which was put on at London’s Mermaid Theatre. Later, he wrote the screenplay for a film version, “Alfie“, which starred Michael Caine.
Other notable radio dramatists included Henry Reed, Brendan Behan, Rhys Adrian, Alan Plater; Anthony Minghella, Alan Bleasdale and novelist Angela Carter. Novelist Susan Hill also wrote for BBC radio, from the early 1970s. Henry Reed was especially successful with the Hilda Tablet plays. Irish playwright Brendan Behan, author of The Quare Fellow (1954), was commissioned by the BBC to write a radio play The Big House (1956); prior to this he had written two plays Moving Outand A Garden Party for Irish radio.
Among the most famous works created for radio, are Dylan Thomas‘s Under Milk Wood (1954), Samuel Beckett‘sAll That Fall (1957), Harold Pinter‘s A Slight Ache (1959) and Robert Bolt‘s A Man for All Seasons (1954).Samuel Beckett wrote a number of short radio plays in the 1950s and 1960s, and later for television. Beckett’s radio play Embers was first broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 24 June 1959, and won the RAI prize at the Prix Italia awards later that year.
Robert Bolt‘s writing career began with scripts for Children’s Hour. A Man for All Seasons was subsequently produced on television in 1957. Then in 1960 there was a highly successful stage production in London’s West End and on New York’s Broadway from late 1961. In addition there have been two film versions: in 1966 starringPaul Scofield and 1988 for television starring Charlton Heston.
While Alan Ayckbourn did not write for radio many of his stage plays were subsequently adapted for radio. Other significant adaptations included, dramatised readings of poet David Jones‘s In Parenthesis in 1946, and The Anathemata in 1953, for the BBC Third Programme, and novelist Wyndham Lewis‘s The Human Age (1955).Among contemporary novels that were dramatised was Stan Barstow‘s A Kind of Loving (1960) in 1964; there had been a film in 1962.
In Australia, as in most other developed countries, from the early years of the medium almost every radio network and station featured drama, serials and soap operas as staples of their programming and during the so-called “Golden Years” of radio, these were hugely popular. Many Australian serials and soapies were copies of American originals (e.g. the popular soap Portia Faces Life or the adventure series “Superman“, which featured future Australian TV star Leonard Teale in the title role), although these were typically locally produced and performed live to air, since the technology of the time did not permit high-quality pre-recording or duplication of programs for import or export.
In this period radio drama, serials and soap operas provided a fertile training ground and a steady source of employment for many actors, and this was particularly important because at this time the Australian theatre scene was in its infancy and opportunities were very limited. Many who trained in this medium (such as Peter Finch) subsequently became prominent both in Australia and overseas.
It has been noted that the producers of the popular 1960s Gerry Anderson TV series Thunderbirds were greatly impressed by the versatility of UK-based Australian actor Ray Barrett, who voiced many roles in Anderson’s TV productions. Thanks to his early experience on Australian live radio (where he often played English and American roles), Barrett was considered better than his English counterparts at providing a convincing “transatlantic” accent, and he could perform a wide range of character voices; he also impressed the Anderson team with his ability to quickly and easily switch from one voice/accent to another without the sound engineers having to stop the recording.
The effect of the introduction of television there in the late 1950s had the devastating same effect as it did in the USA and many other markets, and by the early 1960s Australian commercial radio had totally abandoned radio drama and related programming (including soapies, variety and comedy) in favour of music-based formats (such as Top 40) or talkback, and the once-flourishing Australia radio production industry vanished within a few years. One of the few companies to survive was the Melbourne-based Crawford Productions, which was able to make the successful transition into TV production.
Despite the complete abandonment of drama and related programming by the commercial radio sector, the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) maintained a long history of producing radio drama. One of its most famous and popular series was the daily 15-minute afternoon soap opera Blue Hills, which was written for its entire production history by dramatist Gwen Meredith. It featured many well-known Australian actresses and actors, ran continuously for 27 years, from 28 February 1949 to 30 September 1976, with a total of 5,795 episodes broadcast, and was at one time the world’s longest-running radio serial. It was preceded by an earlier Meredith serial The Lawsons, which featured many of the same themes and characters and itself ran for 1299 episodes.
In the 1960s and later, the ABC continued to produce many original Australian radio dramas, as well as works adapted from other media. In recent years original radio dramas and adapted works were commissioned from local dramatists and produced for the ABC’s Radio National network program Airplay, which ran from the late 1990s until early 2013. In late 2012 ABC management imposed budget cuts and axed a number of long-running arts programs, thereby ending the national broadcaster’s decades-long history of producing radio drama (as well as its equally long history of providing daily serialised book readings).