Children's Audio Theatre
Suggestions towards writing radio drama/audio theatre for
children. This is from a post I made to the
radio drama e-mail discussion list.
You may also want to see my advice on
Producing Audio Theatre with Children.
From: Tony Palermo
To: Radio Drama List
Subject: Writing Children's Radio Drama
Someone inquired about how to approach writing radio
drama for children.
I assume this is a radio drama to be listened
to by children, as opposed to a drama to be performed
by children. These are two different animals, but I work
with both and actually specialize in frankensteining them
together. They are not mutually exclusive.
FYI: Since 1996, I've had 20 of my radio workshop plays
performed by thousands of kids, aged 9-14. I've even written
radio plays to be performed by 5-6 year olds--and they can't
read scripts! I'm also the father of an 8 year old and two 5
Writing for children is a different genre than writing
for adults, but not a lesser one. See Mark Twain's
Huckleberry Finn if you doubt me.
1) Consider The Age Group of Your Audience
Kids aged 5 to 9 differ greatly from the 10-13 bunch.
Younger children, despite what you may have observed, are
generally more polite listeners. They still love story time.
They'll go along with your game.
Older kids are more standoffish. They're often "busy
being hip." They only grudgingly surrender their attention
and are quick to reject "lame" concepts (like maybe the
whole suspension of belief required for radio drama.) You'll
have to trick the older kids with cleverness by "letting
them in on the joke."
If you value the future of our society, don't take the
"smart-ass" route favored by contemporary children's TV
programs. Plus, your "cheeky" put down gags may read as
"totally boomer-lame" by a nasty 9 year old who's mainlined
too many teen sitcoms.
2) Don't Write Down to Kids
Once they begin elementary school, kids get clued into
the difference between "baby art" and "cool art". At age 3,
they love Barney the purple dinosaur--but by age 6, Barney
is suddenly "whack". You can choose to lampoon baby art and
you'll probably get some laughs, but that's the comedy of
cruelty. I avoid both the "cute" and the "snoot" routes.
Bring the kids up to your level, but make it the level of a
grown-up kid. Be playful and irreverent without being
sentimental or condescending. And skip the fake-hip in-jokes
like having characters say "I feel your pain" or "Make my
day". They won't get it, and if they do, it's still not
clever or funny. Watch any current TV superhero show for an
example of this terrible writing.
Many writers feel that the way to reach kids is to inject
kid characters into the story. I disagree. Youngsters are
quick to judge character kids--the 9-13 crowd is especially
vicious here. How many of us detested TV's Will Robinson
on Lost in Space? Plus, you'll need to have adult
actors mimic kid voices, which gets really old.
Consequently, I never use kid characters--but also
because my plays are often performed by kids and I wish to
give them an opportunity to play spacemen, detectives,
pirates, crusaders, etc. What kid, when playing, fantasizes
about being a kid? Radio can stretch the imagination, so do
it! Exploit the medium.
Also, the presence of kid characters often telegraphs
"Hey! It's pretend time, folks"--because there's no way kids
could really defeat this evil warlord and his army of
mole-ites--So it harms the drama. You wouldn't let a kid
drive your car, so don't let him drive your plot. If you
avoid kid characters, you're already miles from the cute
trap. Also without kid heroes, adults may listen in too.
3) Use Surprise and Novelty
Kids are learning the ropes and conventions of how the
world works. They're very conscious of "The way things are
supposed to be." That provides you with great opportunities
to pull the rug out from under normalcy. You'll need more
surprise and "wetter" jokes when writing for children. Also,
kids are at the bottom of the social order, if you upend
things you provide them with a glimpse of their ultimate
fantasy--world kid domination.
Far from the recent thread about how to avoid "offending"
kids or their parents, I believe you can always use
subversion as a powerful tool, but you must be clever about
An educational publisher hired me to adapt some folk
tales for the 5-6 age group (for both audio and stage
versions). I was saddled with stories most kids already
knew: Three Billy Goats Gruff; Aesop's The Lion &
The Mouse; and that terrible 18th century ode to
selfishness, The Little Red Hen. How do you add
surprise and novelty to something so shopworn or so
repulsively finger wagging?
First, I wrote everything in rhyme. It automatically made
things appear clever--and made me write more cleverly too.
It grabs the kids' attention and hooks them to listen for
the next rhyme--the next punch line.
Norman Corwin is
famous for this style with his witty radio dramas, The
Plot to Overthrow Christmas and The Undecided
Molecule. In fact, I believe Norman spawned Dr. Seuss.
In radio, you can't get better than Norman Corwin, so you're
not slumming using rhyme for children, you're stealing from
I also chose rhyme for my folk tale plays because they
had to be memorized by a cast of pre-readers. The rhyme
aided in the kids learning their lines. If an entire rhymed
play is beyond you, perhaps you can introduce only a few
characters who speak in rhyme. Study some Dr. Seuss and try
Second, I actually monkeyed with the traditional stories
of the folk tales, playing upon the audience's familiarity
You may recall the Three Billy Goats Gruff gambit
where the little and then the middle goat trick the hungry
troll by saying, "Don't eat me. I'm too little. Wait for my
other, bigger brother. He'd make a much better meal."
Then the biggest goat comes along and butts the Troll off
the bridge. This could only be entertaining to a
pre-schooler, right? It's "baby art." Yucky!
In my version, when the big goat encounters the troll,
the little and middle goats peek in and whisper, "Pssst!
Pssst! Use the "bigger goat trick!" So, he does. "Wait for
my really bigger brother. He's HUGE!" Confounding the
audience's expectations, the troll says, "OK" and lets the
big goat pass.
At this point the audience knows I have violated
the tale. They are on the edge of their seats. "That's not
right!" "What the???" Well... just as the bigger goat is
about to escape, the troll realizes he's been tricked, and
then the inevitable goat-butting-troll bit occurs.
Now the audience loves it. It's not "baby art"--it's "cool
art!" Actually, I think it's called "suspense" or maybe,
"Alfred Hitchcock for kids."
4) The Challenge of Lengthy Dramas
I don't think you will be able to pull off an entire hour
long radio drama here. Kids' attention spans are limited.
Think about it: NO children's TV shows run more than half an
hour. Even kid feature films are only about 90-100 minutes
long at most--and that's with all the eye candy, silly
animal sidekicks, and ersatz Broadway songs thrown in.
Imagining all the action and settings for radio drama is
a lot of work for modern audiences--regardless of age. Too
many scene changes or too many characters and you'll lose
the audience. Too much action and you risk confusion--And
that's just with adults! For kids, you can bet
they'll get antsy--even if they know the story and
Rule #1 for
writers: "Is it interesting?"
"How long is it interesting?"
So, take a tip from Barnum & Bailey and put on a
three-ring circus. How about breaking up the hour into
several different radio shows? Put in silly commercials,
parody a kid channel, use nonsense songs, etc. Give their
attention spans a short break, then plunge back into the
I suggest you do several stories with totally different
settings or styles. Parody the classic radio genres--kids
understand many of the conventions and you'll be able to
play with their expectations.
If this were my project, I'd keep all the different
stories separated and then, for the last segment, mix them
up. I'd have the dragon rescue Marie Astronette from the
strong, but wooden, detective, etc. That kind of nonsense is
always refreshing. It would be a way to reward the
audiences' attention with a big payoff after listening for
so long. You'd also be "letting them in on the joke"--my
favorite form of humor.
Some Extra Resources:
The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken
This is an excellent little book by the late, but very
successful children's author and playwright. I highlighted
so many lines in it that the whole book is yellow now. You
can find it at
www.amazon.com for about $8.00.
The Complete Rhyming Dictionary -- edited by Clement
This is the granddaddy of rhyme guides. Get the paperback
version, it's faster to page through than the hardback.
sells it for about $7.00.
Zillion Kajillion Rhymes
A $65 software rhymer for Win/Mac that's quick, but not as
thorough as Clement Wood's book. And you can't add your own
A free, rhyming website where you can click on rhyme words
and pop up a dictionary definition. It also features