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Toward a Radio Drama 101

Advice from Tony Palermo


 My notes towards helping people get started creating radio drama. These come from a post I made to the radio drama e-mail discussion list and my reply to a college instructor seeking advice for a radio course.


From: Tony Palermo
To: Radio Drama List
Subject: Toward a Radio Drama 101

Fellow radio-ists,

There's been a bit of discussion on radio books and I thought I might be of some assistance here.  While many members of this list are practicing audio dramatists, I know there are always radio newbies looking for advice.

In the late 1990s through 2001, I produced the educational radio workshops at the Museum of Television & Radio in Los Angeles and several of my plays were produced every week at both the L.A. and N.Y. museums. If you were in N.Y. or L.A., please inquire about attending their "Re-Creating Radio workshops" which were held on Saturday mornings. While these were production workshops for families, the scripts were a veritable "how-to" demonstration of a variety of radio techniques. For a $5 fee, you could produce a classic-style show, get to keep the script, and they sent you a recording of your production. We did everything from soaps to Sci-Fi. And it was fun!

As for books about how to write for radio, I just found a copy of Erik Barnouw's "Handbook of Radio Writing" (1940) at a flea market for $1. It's a well written book by a Columbia University "radio professor" that takes a very comprehensive approach to the unique challenges of the medium with many examples from golden age programs. You could try a search at http://www.bookfinder.com/

While it's not a "How to" book, I found Leonard Maltin's "The Great American Broadcast" (1997) to be inspirational. This overview of the golden era made me want to tackle more adventurous techniques and helped set my imagination free. http://www.amazon.com has it used in paperback.

Then there's what I consider "the canon of Radio Drama", The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century (selected by Walter Cronkite.) It is put out by the Radio Spirits label ( http://www.radiospirits.com ) and features "War of the Worlds", "Sorry, Wrong Number", "On a Note of Triumph"--Norman Corwin's famous V-E day show, "The Hitchhiker", "Cat Wife"--Arch Obler's Light's Out hit, "Three Skeleton Key", "Brave New World", Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles", plus examples of the greatest detective, western, comedy and variety shows. Just about every technique you'll need to know is covered here. Here's a link to my review.
 

HOWEVER:

While all this information is useful, you will learn much more by doing than studying. Review the materials above and then start writing, writing, and re-writing. At first, try creating just scenes or sequences instead of a whole show from top to bottom. Write a show stopping scene, then work your way backward and forward from there. Write something that can only be done best on radio. I tend toward the fantastic, because the medium lends itself well to fantasy, but I've also written soaps and westerns.

The key thing to remember in this age is that people aren't used to hearing radio drama, so you can't just give them an "audio movie". You have to work hard to hold their attention. Above my desk is a copy of the sign that hung in film director Sam Fuller's office: "Is It Interesting?" and right next to it is a copy of the sign that director Billy Wilder had over his desk: "How Would Lubitsch Do It?" (referring to genius film director Ernst Lubitsch's wildly imaginative approach). So, see if you can make interesting radio. If not, re-write it until it IS interesting.

I chaired a master's workshop with Norman Corwin at the MT&R some months ago and he really stressed how radio is it's own genre. It must be approached with different rules than books or films and you should always push the techniques that are it's greatest strengths--with Norman especially, it's the powerful "narration with accompaniment" approach to be found in his tremendous "On a Note of Triumph" and "We Hold These Truths". Norman said, "Don't be timid! Do what you are afraid to do." Norman's work is so original--and so powerful, that you MUST seek it out to hear radio drama's potential being realized. His essay-style works may not be directly applicable to your own attempts at straight fiction, but his ideas and approach will inspire you to really exploit the medium.

I've learned radio, not by reading or listening, but by writing. As I tackled the various radio genres (soap, detective, horror, western, comedy, sci-fi) I've reverse-engineered the techniques that work the best; (Small cast on mic at one time, establishing scenes, injecting workable action, using montage, keeping the audience focused, etc.) The more you try, the better you get at it. What's the epiphany? "Talent increases with use!"

Whenever I sit down to write a radio play (I'm working on a Pirates and Ghosts program this month), my motto is always "Do the impossible!"  While that may be beyond a newbie radio writer, it is the target that you want to shoot for. Audio drama is the most intimate of arts, but at the same time it has the world's largest stage and biggest special effects budgets. Put them all to work.

If any general concept can help you it is that radio is akin to the cavemen sitting around the fire while some sage relates the story of the spirit of the woolly mammoth--with a friend making spooky sounds in the background. Radio's the little voice in your head--make it speak expressively.



From: Tony Palermo
Subject: Radio Drama Course

Marssie  wrote:
 > Here's my question.  If you could recommend two-three books to use for
> this course, which would you choose?  I am currently inundated with
> material and am looking for a little direction to find truly classic,
> seminal books for my students.

Marssie,

Wow! I'd love to teach this course! I think I'll pitch one to UCLA's extension classes. At the Museum of Television & Radio, we teach middle and high school students, but college kids would be much more interesting--and satisfying--to teach.

As to which books to use in your course. I assume you're looking for textbooks for students to BUY. I've already addressed this issue a bit on my Radio Drama Books page.

In brief, here's what I recommend--in order of importance:

HISTORY TEXT:
1) "The Great American Broadcast" by Leonard Maltin. ($15 trade paperback at Amazon). This handles both radio drama history and a look at the various crafts. Maltin's book really spurred me to be more adventurous in my writing and production.

HISTORY AUDIO:
2) "The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century" - selected by Walter Cronkite. ($40 on cassettes/$70 CDs when bought direct from Radio Spirits.) I consider this the "canon" of radio drama--since just about every genre and technique is employed here--often to great effect. Here's a link to my review.

If each student can't afford this collection, then play excerpts in class and loan out certain tapes or CDs--especially Norman Corwin's works as well as, "Sorry, Wrong Number", "Three Skeleton Key." Hold off on "War of the Worlds" until the class has an idea of what standard radio drama was like.

HOW TO RADIO DRAMA:
I'd stop here, because the best "How to Write Radio Drama" books are all out of print. In fact, nearly ALL radio drama writing books are out of print. I, myself, didn't learn from a book and I'll cover that below.

The best "How to" book I've seen is the out of print 1940 "Handbook of Radio Writing" by Erik Barnouw. EVERYTHING is in here--all broken out with examples from real programs. It also contains a true "radio adaptation" of Macbeth--with annotations as to why certain decisions were made. I just found one at a flea market a month ago, so it didn't teach ME very much, but it's excellent. As an educator, YOU should have this book in your library. You can find it for $10-$15 at http://www.bookfinder.com/

The one book I've found that's in print is "The Complete Book of Scriptwriting" by J. Michael Straczynski ($17 hardback at Amazon). He mostly covers film, TV, stage plays, and animation, but has a few chapters on radio writing. It's not nearly as comprehensive as Barnouw.

While not about writing, "Radio Sound Effects" by Robert L. Mott ($43 hardback at Amazon) is a lively history from the inside by a CBS sound effects artist from the golden age. It has plenty of photos of SFX devices and funny stories about back-of-the-mic life. It's a nice compliment to the Maltin history book and offers invaluable advice on sound effect artistry. It's price probably puts it out of the student budget range, but it's another book YOU should have.

Other Class Suggestions:

Of course, I didn't learn from ANY book and feel you may be able to better serve your students by "teaching from life."

1) LEARN FROM REAL SCRIPTS
Print out some scripts and analyze them. I think reading along with a script while listening to a show would be a great exercise. In my experience, it's really hard to get people in a group to focus when listening to radio drama. Radio drama is an intimate art--perfect for the car, terrible in a classroom or auditorium. The reading along will help direct attention greatly. The Old Time Radio Script Collection website has producible scripts available on-line.

2) PRODUCE A SIMPLE SHOW
If the students have hands-on knowledge of production techniques, they'll be better able to work within the conventions of the medium.

They won't write
                    SOUND:         COFFEE STIRRING IN STYROFOAM CUP.

3) TRANSCRIBE
As a project, assign your students to transcribe a classic radio show from the "60 Greatest" collection. Don't let anybody choose the same show. Just assign what you consider the best ones. This will go a long way towards their understanding the actual structure of classic radio drama. They'll see the transitions and flashbacks and use of Walla, etc., from the best seat in the house. Then you can pass the transcriptions around to the rest of the class. I suggest that they transcribe the shows on a computer using a word processing template.

On my website's main page is my free MS Word template for radio scripting. It contains a dummy script that demonstrates all the conventions of radio script formatting and can be used to guarantee that students transcribe--and later, write--in the proper format.

4) ASSIGN SMALL PROJECTS
Have the students begin by writing a radio commercial or parody of a commercial--a contemporary commercial. These spots are short, can employ all the techniques of radio drama, and will be very entertaining. I'd then have them take an urban legend or joke and dramatize it for radio. You could choose to really produce these spots, or just present them live to the class. Use "vocal" sound effects and simple music, along with the voices.

5) CREATE A SEQUEL/PREQUEL
At this stage, the thing I'd avoid would be assigning them to "write whatever you want." I doubt they would have the plotting skills necessary to create a substantial radio drama totally from scratch. It's always hardest to invent a story, characters, theme, back-story, etc. An original story would really add unnecessarily to their burden of learning the form.

For the MT&R, I suggest students take one of our multi-part shows and  write a concluding--or starting--episode. Find a series script or use one of your transcriptions of a series show. You can choose to provide a synopsis or let them come up with something on their own. They are essentially writing a "spec" script for a series they are familiar with. This is exactly the way TV pros suggest for wannabees to learn how to write.

The problem for amateurs with creating from scratch is the "chicken & the egg." Left entirely to their own, they'll steal a plot from a TV show or comic book. They also tend to use only stage-bound sound effects like doors and footsteps. If you "limit" them to sequels/pre-quels, they can hone their drama skills while not overtaxing their plotting/character skills.

6) WRITE A TOTALLY ORIGINAL SHOW
You'd want to delay this step until they've mastered the fundamentals via the previous steps. I'd encourage them to really use their imaginations and exploit the medium. Challenge them to "Do the Impossible!" Let them listen to one of Norman Corwin's "radio essays with sound and music" like "We Hold These Truths" or "On a Note of Triumph," and create something entirely different from the full dramatizations we've been working on. Radio is the oldest form of storytelling--using sound to create a world between the ears. Teach them to make good use of it.


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TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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