Not too long ago, it seemed like the era of the audio drama was limping towards its inevitable end. The radio-based art form, which many historians trace back to a sketch performed at a Pittsburgh commercial radio station in 1921, had enjoyed immense popularity throughout much of the twentieth century, enthralling audiences worldwide with comedies, thrillers, mysteries, soap operas, and adventures that quickly became appointment listening. Playwrights Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard made their professional debuts with audio dramas, and Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter all wrote prolifically in the medium. There was also a grand tradition of literary adaptation for radio, with authors and playwrights working together to bring classic and contemporary novels and short stories to life on the air.
Then along came the television. In 1946, there were 6,000 television sets in the United States; by 1951, there were over 12 million. By 1955, over half of all U.S. homes had one. And by 1962, all the major network-produced radio dramas had been cancelled so studio executives could turn their attention entirely to television. Though a few stubborn iconoclasts continued to write for radio for the next half-century, it was widely assumed that audio drama was no longer a relevant artistic medium, and likely never would be again.
In recent years, however, several factors quietly began to challenge that assumption. The digitization of sound design over the 1990s and 2000s meant hobbyists and amateurs soon had the tools they needed to produce BBC-quality work from the comfort of their own homes. The release of the iPod in 2003 gave creators a cost-effective way to deliver serial stories directly to their audiences, and the growth of social media over the 2000s and 2010s helped audio dramas find and retain their fanbases. All considered, though, perhaps nothing has changed the fortunes of the audio drama quite as much as the pandemic. Faced with empty houses and out-of-work artists, theaters worldwide (including Book-It!) decided to revisit the form, and many have been pleasantly surprised by what it has to offer.
Playwright Simon Stephens noted in The Guardian that the English-language theatrical tradition is steeped in listening and sound: “Samuel Pepys wrote about ‘hearing’ a new play at the Globe, not ‘watching’ it. […] The noun for the collection of people coming together to engage in theatre is ‘audience’. The etymology of that word denotes listening. In other languages, they talk about ‘spectators’.” Playwright Mike Bartlett added that he considers audio drama to be perfectly suited to this moment in time, when we’re “absorbing culture in quite a one-on-one way. We’re bingeing on TV series on our own, making Zoom calls on our own, we have got headphones on a lot. Leaning into the intimacy of that is interesting.”
Book-It certainly found our 2020-2021 audio-only season (which was listened to across 6 continents, 16 countries, 47 states, and 318 cities!) to be a deeply rewarding venture – so much so that we returned to audio drama this season with Tochi Onyebuchi’s Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown and Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, and hope to continue exploring the form for many seasons to come. We pride ourselves on the work we’re able to create when we’re all together in the Center Theatre, but there’s something magical, too, about knowing our audiences are enjoying a Book-It play on a long drive, or while working in the garden, or maybe while sitting around a radio (well… an iPhone) in the living room—just like they might have a hundred years ago.Buy Audio Drama Tickets
Annika Bennett is Book-It’s grants coordinator & content specialist, as well as a freelance playwright, dramaturg, and writer for the fiction podcast What Happened in Skinner.