Serial to What?

Sarah Koenig in Studio Serial

The sound of footsteps approaching, made by clapping two coconut halves. As World War I ends, radio evolves from military tool into medium for civilian entertainment. Programs are first broadcast in 1922, and in March of that year Variety runs the front-page headline: “Radio Sweeping Country: 1,000,000 Sets in Use.” The dramatic genres proliferate—adventure, comedy, drama, horror, mystery, musical variety, romance, thriller—and they air alongside big band concerts, farm reports, sports broadcasts, quiz shows and weather forecasts.

The splashing of water in a bucket. When daytime serials are invented in the 1930s, they’re known as “soap operas” because so many are sponsored by detergents. But these sudsy dramas aren’t the only thing people are tuning in to every week. Cut to a deep-voiced announcer (in this case, Paul Holler writing in Critique): “Radio, with its power to excite the imagination and actually involve the audience in the creative process, had huge potential as a medium for serious drama. It seemed inevitable that the day would come when this medium, which had made Orson Welles a household name across the country, would become a part of his serious theater ambitions. That day came in 1938.”

Some consider the weekly adaptations from literature, theater and films on The Campbell Playhouse and The Mercury Theatre on the Air the greatest radio dramas in history. They usually starred Welles in the leading role, and it was on Mercury Theatre that Welles presented his infamous 1938 rendition of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, formatted to sound like a breaking news program.

A room full of laughter. Pull a wet cork from any bottle and then prick a balloon for the sound of opening champagne. Or rattle some spent flash bulbs in a can of water to simulate a cocktail shaker. By the 1940s, families gather around the radio to listen to popular dramas like The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Suspense, Escape, The Mysterious Traveler and Inner Sanctum Mystery. In 1947, a poll declares that 82 out of 100 Americans are radio listeners! But the very next year—sound of gunshots made by slapping one board against another—brings the first TV programs.

A lone cricket chirps (fingernail running along the edge of a pocket comb). The Golden Age of Radio has ended. Scripted radio comedy and drama become rare, developing the stigma of kitsch. There are, of course, holdouts. Like the BBC, where The Archers, the first episode of which aired in 1951, continues to be the longest-running radio drama, and where in 1955 Samuel Beckett was invited to write a radio play, All That Fall, and four other scripts written specifically for the medium. And National Public Radio, whose Prairie Home Companion runs narrative pieces, as does This American Life, whose three- or four-act format is a winking callback to the bygone days. But in general, the radio drama landscape lies barren.

Until—a cowboy hoists himself onto his saddle with the twist of a leather wallet—there’s a new medium in town. Suddenly, in the aughts, audio can be produced more cheaply and distributed over the internet. The podcast—a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast—is born. A fire suddenly ignites, indicated by the sound of an umbrella snapping open. Podcasts proliferate—to find out how, listen to StartUp, the podcast about starting a podcast business, and watch this video made by TAL host, Ira Glass. What’s certain is that with episodes available for download and streaming, listeners once again tune in while driving to and from work, folding laundry and cooking in the kitchen.

Crumpling cellophane indicates a healthy, crackling blaze. This American Life becomes popular enough to warrant a spin-off. Enter Serial (pictured—to the extent that that’s possible). Host-reporter Sarah Koenig strings together real police interrogations, phone calls from prison, interviews and scripted accounts of her investigation, and she strings audiences along for roughly a dozen weekly episodes. Serial is something new. It’s suspenseful. It tops the Apple download rankings before the first episode gets released, and it garners critical raves. Ladies and gentlemen, radio drama is back!

Photo courtesy of Elise Bergerson