Radio drama is a form of (mostly) scripted, dramatic storytelling, rendered through exclusively acoustic means; it depends on narration, dialogue, music and sound effects to tell the story, establish character, create mood and engage listeners.
Radio drama was a core element from the very beginning of radio broadcasting in Australia across both the commercial sector and the ABC, and from the mid-1930s through to the late 1950s was the dominant form of popular entertainment in Australia and internationally.
By 1931, small radio drama groups were working out of the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company (the commercial precursor to the Australian Broadcasting Commission) in Melbourne and Sydney, performing a mix of popular stage scripts, variety shows and occasional original radio dramas scripted by local writers.
The establishment of the ABC in 1932 saw a substantial increase in the production of radio drama. By 1935, the ABC was broadcasting more than 930 hours of radio plays annually. Many of the plays were radio versions of stage works or adaptations of novels and stories, but also included works by new local writers. The ABC also ran many hours of popular serials; while many were adapted from popular novels, original scripts by staff writers (such as Edmund Barclay) were also popular. These were genre entertainments—dramatised court trials, historical dramas, adventure stories and family sagas.
Developments on commercial radio followed a similar trajectory, with a rapid growth in the production of plays and serials through the 1930s. In Sydney, former vaudevillian George Edwards and his assistant, Nell Stirling, a one-time chorus dancer and his future wife, were the first stars of the medium. By 1934 George Edwards Players was responsible for writing and performing five hugely popular serials six days a week on Sydney’s 2GB; in 1937 came their most popular serial, Dad and Dave. Actors playing the lead characters of popular serials became household names.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, and into the 1950s, serials with complex storylines, presented in daily 15-minute episodes, anchored the schedules of commercial broadcasters. Dr Paul, based on the American original, lightly rewritten for local consumption, and produced by Grace Gibson Productions, was heard daily on commercial radio stations around Australia from 1949 to 1971. On ABC Radio, Blue Hills, a multi-generational rural family saga, ran from 1949 to 1976, with all 5795 episodes written by Gwen Meredith.
By the late 1930s, radio drama was showbusiness—and it was a big business, underwritten by advertising. Large advertising agencies like J. Walter Thompson, George Patterson and Lintas set up radio production units and owned the major radio theatres (where companies like George Edwards Players performed), which were branded by a key sponsor, such as Lux, Colgate-Palmolive or Lever—hence the designation ‘soap opera’. While Sydney and Melbourne were the main production centres, writers were active across the country.
Stories abound of episodes for serials being written in a day and going live to air without even a perfunctory rehearsal. Successful actors had constant work, frequently recording or going live to air with several shows a day. The gossip, glamour and hyperactivity of the world of commercial radio drama was brilliantly satirised by Sumner Locke Elliott in his stage play Invisible Circus (1946).
Before the rise of radio drama, the evolution of ‘a national theatre’ had been haphazard and fragmentary, with only a handful of works of substance enduring for long. Access to live theatre was limited by the capacity of theatres, touring schedules and the stamina of the performers. While cinema was popular, access was again physically limited, and overwhelmingly the films were imports: no Australian writer or actor could make a living in the local film industry. With the development of the radio drama industry came opportunities for hundreds of actors and writers. And while much of what went to air was adapted from scripts imported from the United States or Britain, dozens of new plays were also being written, and a mass Australian audience was hearing Australian stories told in Australian accents for the first time.
These developments meant writers and actors were able to trade on skills and popularity gained in radio to enable the production of new Australian plays. In many instances, original dramas had their first production on the radio; sometimes the radio production was the only one, and regular radio commissions provided writers of all kinds with good fees and large audiences. Sumner Locke Elliott was one such writer, beginning his career with George Edwards Players, and he gained fame writing and acting in a number of successful radio serials. He went on to enjoy a successful writing and acting career in New York.
The development of a support infrastructure for writers and a national theatre is inseparable from the burgeoning of radio drama. The Playwrights Advisory Board (PAB), established in 1938, was the brainchild of two young writers, Rex Rienits and Leslie Rees, the ABC’s first federal drama editor. The PAB helped negotiate fees for writers, provided professional assessment of scripts, ran competitions and advocated for writers and the theatre, notably in a number of prominent cases of censorship. Nearly all of the PAB membership wrote both for stage and radio. There was intense lobbying (notably by H.C. Coombs) through the 1950s for government support for the theatre. In 1954, Coombs led the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, with the aim of supporting the development of Australian theatre through its own productions but also by arranging tours of theatre from overseas. Its first director, Hugh Hunt, was imported from England. His successor was another Englishman, Neil Hutchison, head of drama and features at the ABC.
Among the thousands of radio dramas written in Australia in the ‘golden age’ of radio are works by writers whose reputations rest on their work as novelists, poets, stage writers and actors: Ruth Park, George Johnston, Hal Porter, Betty Roland, Ernestine Hill, M. Barnard Eldershaw, Coral Lansbury, Colin Thiele and Jessica Anderson all wrote radio plays between 1934 and 1960. Overwhelmingly, their work was heard on ABC Radio.
With its mandate to ‘educate, inform and entertain’ and to encourage the performing arts, and its independence from commercial imperatives, the ABC took on a more explicitly ‘cultural’ character. This didn’t preclude popular success, but providing popular access to literature, music and ideas was equally important; in the mid-1930s, the ABC produced all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays.
The ABC’s cultural ambition was not simply to reproduce the canonical, as was clear from the appointment of Leslie Rees as federal drama editor in 1936. Rees ran writing competitions, and secured new works from overseas for Australian production, such as Archibald MacLeish’s ambitious verse drama Fall of the City.
In Australia, the work that has come to represent successful writing for radio with enduring literary value was The Fire on the Snow, written by Douglas Stewart and first broadcast by the ABC in 1941. Its subject is the doomed expedition to the South Pole led by Robert Scott in 1912. Fire on the Snow and Stewart’s other verse play, Ned Kelly (broadcast on ABC Radio in 1942) are widely acknowledge as masterpieces of radio writing.
With the arrival of television in Australia in 1956, radio drama rapidly lost its mass market appeal and its commercial viability; by the 1970s, only ABC Radio was seriously involved in the production of radio drama, and the form evolved a more exclusively literary character. In May 1964, 2UW Sydney took all its remaining radio drama programs off air, and the rest of the commercials followed soon after, with the exception of one or two serials.
Through the 1970s, radio drama remained a strong presence on the ABC, with several slots each week for full-length drama, a well as the daily serial (until 1976) and book readings. But by the 1980s, the position of drama on ABC Radio was less certain. While the ABC maintained its commitment to radio drama, budgets were steadily reduced, and the number and duration of timeslots for drama diminished; audience numbers also shrank.
At the same time, ABC producers and writers, taking cues from developments internationally, were trying new approaches and new techniques, and a number of writers as well as performers and other artists embraced the creative possibilities of the medium and the freedom to experiment afforded by the relatively marginal status and low cost of radio production. In 1981, producer Kaye Mortley and writer-performer Gillian Jones won the Prix Futura (a prestigious radio competition held each year in Berlin) for The Flight.
These sometimes radical developments did not always sit comfortably alongside the more conventional offerings that continued to make up the majority of the drama output, and audiences were divided between those seeking engagement with the new, and those happy to enjoy the familiar radio plays of the recent past.
But the best of the new work met with critical acclaim and peer recognition. The ABC won the prestigious international radio competition the Prix Italia three times in the 1990s: with Summer of the Aliens by Louis Nowra (1990), Lights of Jericho by Haya Husseini (1994) and Rita’s Lullaby by Merlinda Bobis (1997). This critical success didn’t translate into audience growth. Further budget and staff reductions meant that by the early 2000s it was not possible to sustain local, original drama, offer extended script development or engage the best local writers on a regular basis. In relative terms, radio drama was by now an expensive product.
With one weekly drama slot remaining (on ABC Radio National) and a small production staff, the ABC made the decision to disband the Radio Drama Unit at the end of 2012, ending 80 years of regular production and broadcast of radio drama on the ABC. However, contemporary radio drama continues to be produced on a more occasional basis, in the context of the broader creative brief of Radio National’s Creative Audio Unit (est. 2014), which commissions, produces and broadcasts a range of performance and text-based audio work.
REFs: R. Lane and National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923–1960 (1994); L. Rees, The Making of Australian Drama (1973).