Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 5 January 2018. Tagged: Theme.


The history of radio sf is badly under-researched, but it is clear that, in some important respects, it anticipates that of Television sf. The major televisual forms – the series, the serial and the anthology – were all originally developed for radio. Many television sf programmes, from Superman and Buck Rogers to The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, were also directly adapted from earlier radio programmes. Radio is cheaper to produce than television, and very much cheaper than Cinema; it is also much more likely to be publicly owned and subsidized. The linked questions of ownership and subsidy seem to have a direct bearing on the kinds of drama available. As a general rule, to which there are necessarily a great many exceptions, public broadcasting's greater immunity from direct commercial pressure seems to allow for more adventurous scripts. Broadcast radio dates from the early 1920s. In Britain, the BBC began broadcasting in 1920, with a state-sanctioned monopoly that lasted until 1973. Thereafter it had private competitors, but nonetheless continued to dominate the market. Many European and Commonwealth countries began with state monopolies, which were eventually opened up to private competition. In the USA, by contrast, radio was organized around a system of publicly licensed but privately owned commercial stations, sustained financially by advertising and sponsorship; several of these stations (see credits below) generated their own series. The first licensed American radio station was Westinghouse's KDKA in Pittsburgh, which began broadcasting in 1920. Hugo Gernsback founded radio station WRNY in 1925, the year before he launched Amazing Stories. Government-funded National Public Radio (NPR) only came much later, in 1971, and continues to be overshadowed by larger commercial rivals.

1. America

Commercial radio seems to have featured broadcast sf in the US almost certainly as early as 1929, when Carlton E Morse (1900-1993) wrote and produced two closed-end serials (single stories, from which the characters do not continue indefinitely) which involved sf concepts. In both The Cobra King Strikes Back (10 episodes) and Land of the Living Dead (10 episodes), Morse created Lost World jungle venues featuring ancient jungle temples, and mystical events rationalized in cod scientific terms, after the fashion of that genre. The same titles and scripts were reprised in the series Adventures by Morse, broadcast between 1944 and as late as 1949; in this and other work, most of it nonfantastic, Morse maintained for decades a reputation as radio's foremost adventure writer, similar (and comparable) to H Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle. Similar themes were developed with only moderately more sophistication by Morse in I Love a Mystery (1939-1942 NBC, 1943-1944 CBS), in one of whose episodes, Temple of Vampires, series protagonists Jack, Doc and Reggie face down both human vampires and gigantic mutant bats (see Mutants). Two other I Love a Mystery episodes, The Stairway to the Sun and The Hermit of San Felipe Atabapo, were set in a plateau (see Lost World) in South America, where dwelled prehistoric Monsters (see Prehistoric SF) and a race of Supermen who controlled the destiny of the world destiny.

It was immediately after Morse's first work, during the so-called "Golden Age of Radio", from the mid 1930s until the early 1950s, that broadcast sf enjoyed its own Golden Age. Thereafter, drama was progressively displaced by music, news and talkback. Amongst the most successful programmes were CBS's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1932-1946), Mutual's Flash Gordon (1935-1936) and Superman (1940-1952), ABC's Space Patrol (1950-1955) and Space Cadet (1952) (see Tom Corbett: Space Cadet), all of which were serials or series aimed at children. Buck Rogers was probably the first real sf radio programme. Based on the comic strip by Dick Calkins and Phil Nowlan, it was written by Calkins with the show's producer Jack Johnstone and its stories dealt with such basic sf ideas as Time Travel and space travel in Space Opera terms. Superman was also based on an sf comic strip, created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. On radio it generally dealt with crime and mystery, but more spectacular sf elements appeared in episodes dealing with the hero's Extraterrestrial origin on the planet Krypton and the consequent threat posed him by Rays emitted from kryptonite fragments (see Elements). Other children's serials with occasional sf motifs included Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy (1933-1934 CBS; 1936-1941 NBC; 1941-1943 Mutual; 1942-1951 ABC) and Captain Midnight (1939-1940 WGN Chicago; 1940-1949 Mutual and Blue Network).

Half-hour horror anthologies first appeared on American radio in the 1930s. These were for the most part supernatural in content, but occasionally included sf. The Witch's Tale (1931-1934 WQR New York; 1934-1938 Mutual), written and directed by Alonzo Deen Cole (1897-1971), included a very much abridged 30-minute version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818; rev 1831) in 1931, which was repeated in 1932 and 1935. Lights Out (1934-1935 WENR Chicago; 1935-1939 NBC; 1942-1943 CBS; 1945-1946 NBC; on NBC; 1947 ABC) was written by Wyllis Cooper (1899-1955) until 1936, then by Arch Oboler, whose "Chicken Heart" was first broadcast in 1937 and repeated in 1938 and 1942. Its tale of an ordinary chicken's heart so stimulated by growth hormones that it engulfs the entire world was one of the most highly regarded of radio plays. The most famous drama released by The Mercury Theater on the Air (1938 CBS) was War of the Worlds, adapted from H G Wells's novel by Howard Koch – though Orson Welles, who chose the title and produced the programme, in which he starred as well, took credit for everything – as a contemporary on-the-spot series of newscasts starting on 30 October, the day of the broadcast. This is still the most famous of all commercial radio sf programmes (for further discussion see War of the Worlds). Welles himself also appeared as Lamont Cranston/The Shadow in 1937-1938 episodes of The Shadow. The series itself lasted, under various names, from 1930 to 1954 (see entry for details); the backstory continued throughout to confirm the protagonist's Superhero credentials, and many individual episodes specifically used sf tropes, in Walter B Gibson's fluent Pulp magazines style.

Further late-1930s and 1940s drama anthology series that included some sf are Columbia Workshop (1936-1943; 1946-1947), Dark Fantasy (1941-1942), The Mysterious Traveler (1943-1952) – plus its two spinoff series The Strange Dr Weird (1944-1945) and The Sealed Book (1945) – The Weird Circle (1943-1945), Tales of the Witch-Queen (1944) (see Dark Fantasy), Escape (1947-1954), Quiet, Please (1947-1949) and the long-running CBS Suspense (1942-1962); another, abortive CBS offering was Beyond Tomorrow (1950; vt Beyond This World).

The closing years of radio's "Golden Age" also produced two important sf anthology series aimed at adults, both from NBC: Dimension X (1950-1951) and X Minus One (1955-1958). These included versions of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (coll of linked stories 1950; rev vt The Silver Locusts 1951) stories and Robert A Heinlein's "Requiem" (January 1940 Astounding). Beginning one month before Dimension X, the Mutual Broadcasting System anthology series 2000 Plus (1950-1952; vt 2000+; vt Two Thousand Plus) relied on original radio plays rather than taking advantage of the riches available in the SF Magazines. The short-lived Tales of Tomorrow (1953), sponsored by Galaxy and adapting fifteen sf stories from that magazine, was a radio spinoff from the television series of the same name; Exploring Tomorrow (1957-1958) featured stories from Astounding selected and narrated by John W Campbell Jr. Still further 1950s anthology series were CBS Radio Workshop (1956-1957) – an attempted revival of the above-cited generalist Columbia Workshop from the 1930s and 1940s – and Sleep No More (1956-1957). The mid-1960s saw another generalist series including some Fantastika: Theater Five (1964-1965; vt Theatre-Five; vt Theater 5).

2. Britain and Elsewhere

Worldwide, the two most important public radio sf broadcasters were the BBC in Britain and the French RTF/ORTF/Radio France. Under its first Director-General, John Reith (later Lord Reith) (1889-1971), the BBC defined its mission as to "inform, educate and entertain", very much in that order. Its early exercises in sf were thus overwhelmingly confined to readings from or radio dramatizations of existing "literary" novels. It broadcast dramatizations of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World in 1938 and 1944, the latter version adapted for radio by John Dickson Carr; of Wells's The Time Machine (1895; rev 1895), adapted, produced and directed by Robert Barr, in 1949; and of his The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898), adapted by Jon Manchip White and produced by David H Godfrey, in 1950. Paul Capon's Antigeos novel The Other Side of the Sun (1950) was serialized in 1951, and Wyndham Lewis's The Human Age sequence in 1951 and 1955, the latter parts prior to book publication. In 1953 BBC's radio Children's Hour broadcast a serialization of The Lost Planet by Angus MacVicar. The BBC's most important vehicle for self-contained radio plays was the general anthology series Saturday Night Theatre (1943-1996), which included dramatizations of sf novels by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Wells, and John Wyndham. Programmes of this kind continue to be a staple of BBC radio, which has also broadcast serialized readings from sf work by writers as various as Brian W Aldiss, J G Ballard and John Christopher. In 2008 the BBC broadcast a two-hour dramatization by Mike Walker of Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach (1957) as part of its Classic Serial anthology. The BBC also played a crucial role in adapting and developing radio forms originally devised in America. Examples of the BBC's post-war work include Journey Into Space (1953-1955) (see below), The Day of the Triffids (1957) from John Wyndham's novel, Host Planet Earth (1965), The Foundation Trilogy (1973) from Isaac Asimov's series, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978-1980, 2004-2005) (see below), Earthsearch (1981), Space Force (1984-1985), Nebulous (2005-2008) and Planet B (2009), all of which were serials or series. The most influential were almost certainly Journey Into Space and The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Journey into Space was written and produced for radio by Charles Chilton, as three serialized stories comprising 54 episodes, which went to air: Journey Into Space in 1953-1954; The Red Planet 1954-1955; and The World in Peril in 1955-1956; his own novelizations of these scripts were also successful. Andrew Faulds played Jet Morgan, the Scottish Captain of the Spaceship Luna, Guy Kingsley Poynter was Doc Matthews, the Canadian ship's doctor, David Williams played the Australian ship's engineer, Mitch, and David Kossoff was Lemmy, the cockney radio operator. In 1955 the programme reached five million listeners, the largest ever British radio audience and the last to outrate television at prime time; it eventually sold to 58 countries. The first season was abridged, reworked and rebroadcast as Operation Luna from March to June of 1958, with Alfie Bass in the role of Lemmy. The BBC also subsequently produced three sequels, The Return from Mars (1981), Frozen in Time (2008) and The Host (2009).

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams and produced by Geoffrey Perkins, was first broadcast as a serial over two seasons in 1978 and 1980. These were subsequently novelized by Adams, who then also wrote three sequel novels. After Adams's death, these sequels were adapted for radio by Dirk Maggs and co-produced by Maggs, Bruce Hyman and Helen Chattwell as the third, fourth and fifth seasons of the programme, and first broadcast by the BBC in 2004 and 2005. The Guide has been adapted for television, theatre and the cinema, rebroadcast by all the major Anglophone public radio stations and, in translation, by public broadcasters in Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Germany; but there was no real renaissance of sf radio on the BBC, though James Follett did contribute the serials Earthsearch: A Ten-Part Adventure Serial in Time and Space (1981) and Earthsearch II (1982), and adaptations of the Harry Harrison novels Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965) and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973). The most impressive drama of the decade came in single plays by Tanith Lee, Stephen Gallagher and Wally K Daly. The start of the 1990s brought mixed prospects. The launch of a new network, BBC Radio 5, promised serious programming for a younger audience: the genre material presented (dramatizations of works by Ray Bradbury, Alan Garner and Nicholas Fisk) was pleasing in quantity if poor in production. In 1991 Radio 4 presented a season of adaptations of well known sf works, from the good, such as Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966), to less persuasive work, such as Snoo Wilson's Spaceache (1984), with much else in between. Meanwhile, the broadcasting by Radio 5 of a radio version of Thunderbirds (1965-1966), edited from the original television tapes, showed that, despite technical advances, the cause of radio sf had barely advanced since the Golden Age of the 1960s. BBC Radio 7, the digital radio station established in 2002, broadcasts a daily sf programme, The Seventh Dimension, which includes readings and dramatizations, both stand-alone and serialized, mostly from BBC archives but including original commissions. In 2009 the BBC broadcast a season of sf spread across three of its channels, Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 7, including dramatizations of Wells's The Time Machine, Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973), Ballard's The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962) and Iain M Banks's The State of the Art (1989). Announcing the season in September 2008, Jeremy Howe, Commissioning Editor for Drama at BBC Radio 4, described radio as the "natural home" of such imaginative writing.

BBC radio sf programmes were often sold on to other Anglophone broadcasters, notably the Australian ABC, the Canadian CBC, the South African SABC, Radio New Zealand and the American NPR. Australian commercial radio had actually had its own "Golden Age", but this consisted mainly of local adaptations of American shows, such as Superman and The Shadow. Original material was produced, however. The first Australian sf radio play was Radio 3DB's 25-part 1934 adaptation of Erle Cox's novel Out of the Silence (19 April-25 October 1919 The Argus; 1925; exp 1947). The best-known Australian commercial radio sf serial was The Stratosphere Patrol (1947) written by the Sydney Futurian Vol Molesworth. The ABC broadcast a series of children's sf programmes written by the New Zealander, G K Saunders, beginning with The Moon Flower (1953). It produced a serialization of Colin Free's Limbo City in 1979 and a wide range of individual sf plays, often as parts of more general anthology series. The latter included original Australian work by writers such as Bill McKeown, Free, Barry Oakley, Alfred Behrens, John Blay, Louis Nowra and Damien Broderick. Broderick's radio adaptations of his novels Transmitters and Striped Holes were broadcast by the ABC in 1984 and 1986, and his plays written for radio – Time Zones and Schrödinger's Dog – in 1992 and 1995. Original ABC radio adaptations of sf classics included Vladimir Mayakovsky's The Bed Bug (1981), Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1985), Cordwainer Smith's A Planet Named Shayol (1986) and Karel Čapek's The Macropoulos Secret (1988). CBC broadcast dramatizations of Wells's The Time Machine in 1948 and of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in 1956. It produced an sf radio anthology series, The Vanishing Point, which ran from 1984 until 1991 and included versions of Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974); and also the fantasy/horror anthology Nightfall, which ran from 1980 until 1983 and included some sf. CBC has also produced comedy sf, such as Johnny Chase, Secret Agent of Space, which ran from 1978 to 1981, and Canadia: 2056, which premiered in 2007.

Radio New Zealand broadcast a three-part dramatization of Doyle's The Lost World, produced by Peggy Wells and Barry Campbell, in 1980-1981. NPR produced highly acclaimed radio dramatizations of the first Star Wars trilogy, featuring some members of the original film cast: A New Hope in 1981, The Empire Strikes Back in 1983 and The Return of the Jedi in 1996. All three were produced as serials, adapted for radio by Brian Daley and given George Lucas's formal approval; all three were rebroadcast in Britain by the BBC. NPR's Radio Tales anthology series (1996-2002), created and produced by Winnie Waldron, included a number of sf plays, notably adaptations of Frankenstein and The Time Machine in 1999; "Time Warp" (1999), based on Wells's short story "The New Accelerator" (December 1901 Strand); adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1863; trans 1872) and Doyle's The Lost World, all in 2000; of Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1870; trans 1872) and Wells's The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds, all in 2001; "Apocalypse" (2001), based on Frank L Pollack's story "Finis" (June 1906 Argosy; vt "The Last Dawn" August 1963 Magazine of Horror); "Asteroid" (2001), based on Wells's short story "The Star" (December 1897 The Graphic); and "Moon Voyager" (2001), based on Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901).

In France, the state-run RTF (which became ORTF in 1964 and Radio France in 1975) was also very actively involved in sf radio. It created and broadcast the popular daily serial Malheurs aux barbus ["Woe to the Bearded Ones"] (1951-1952), which the private station Europe1 subsequently adopted by way of the sequel, Signé Furax ["Signed: Furax"] (1956-1960). RTF's various radio stations, especially France-Inter and France-Culture, produced a string of SF radio serials and series: Les Tyrans sont parmi nous ["The Tyrants are Amongst Us"] (1953), Blake & Mortimer (1960-1963), L'Apocalypse est pour demain ["The Apocalypse is for Tomorrow"] (1977), Le Mystérieux Dr. Cornelius (1978), Le Prisonnier de la planète Mars (1978), Trois hommes à la recherche d'une comète ["Three Men in Search of a Comet"] (1980) and Renard, Maurice (1981). Like the BBC, French public radio also used the anthology series as vehicle for self-contained SF radio plays, notably Le Théâtre de l'Étrange (1963-1974), Les Tréteaux de la nuit ["The Night Stage"] (1979-1980) and La Science-Fiction (1980-1981). The latter included French translations of Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, Philip José Farmer, Robert A Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon. From 1957 on, the French-language service of Swiss public radio, SRG-SSR, broadcast the long-running Passeport pour l'inconnu ["Passport for the Unknown"], directed and produced by Roland Sassi and written by Pierre Versins. The series included French translations of novels and short stories by Asimov, Heinlein and A E van Vogt as well as original plays by Francophone writers such as Robert Pibouleau, Laurent Lourson, Martine Thomé and Sassi himself. In 1967 Versins also co-hosted the documentary series, Littérature et Paralittérature, on France-Culture.

German public radio also produced radio plays, or Hörspiele, some of which were sf: important examples included Bayerischer Rundfunk's 1955 version of Das Unternehmen der Wega ["The Mission of the Vega"] by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) and Westdeutscher Rundfunk's 1969 broadcast of the Hein Bruehl translation of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952) as Die Triffids. In 1981-1982 a consortium of three German public radio stations, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Südwestfunk and Westdeutscher Rundfunk, co-produced Benjamin Schwartz's German translation of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as Per Anhalter ins All ["Hitchhiking in Space"]. A second series, Per Anhalter ins All 2 ["Hitchhiking in Space 2"] was translated and adapted for radio by Walter Andreas Schwarz and broadcast in 1990-1991. Hörspiele are very popular in German-speaking Europe, but are increasingly produced directly for CD rather than for radio. Good sf examples include the two Commander Perkins series, Der Weganer-Sechsteiler ["The Vega Series"] (1976-1978) and Die Arrow-Trilogie ["The Arrow Trilogy"] (1980), produced by Europa, and Das Sternentor ["The Stargate"] (2002-2009), a set of sequels produced by Maritim. The entire sequence and the related print novels were written by Hans Gerhard Franciscowski (1936-    ) under the pseudonym H G Francis.

Elsewhere, the English-language service of the commercially-owned Radio Luxembourg broadcast The Adventures of Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future as a 15-minute serial, Monday to Friday, from 1951 to 1956, with Noel Johnson in the title role and Francis De Wolfe as the villainous Mekon. The programme was broadcast in Australia by Radio 4AK and in Spain, with Spanish actors, by Cadena SER. The South African commercial radio station, Springbok Radio, which operated from 1950-1985, also broadcast sf, including No Place To Hide (1958-1970), Strangers from Space (1961-1963), Probe (1969) and The Mind of Tracey Dark (1974-1978).

Japanese radio sf of note includes adaptations of novels by Hiroshi Mori and Issui Ogawa (whom see), and one of the many media iterations of Nippon Chinbotsu (1980).

It is a commonplace that, where written sf has often aspired to be a literature of ideas, film and television sf are more concerned with special effects. This view can be overstated, but it clearly does have some basis in fact. Part of the appeal of sf to radio producers and consumers must also lie in the opportunity for special effects. But the tension between ideas and effects seems to be resolved differently in radio, primarily because of the comparatively low-budget nature of aural effects. Radio, like print, also requires the listener/reader to put in more effort to conjure up its alternative worlds than does either film or television. This suggests the possibility that the medium might sometimes reverse the cinematic prioritization of effects over ideas. However, this seems more likely to be true for public broadcasting, insofar as it enjoys a greater comparative freedom to explore smaller "niche markets", than for commercial broadcasters compelled to maximize audiences so as to maximize advertising income. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, radio drama seems more alive than for several decades; and the imaginative possibilities of trusting to the human imagination may be further exploited in this medium.

The Mark Time Award for sf audio theatre has been presented annually since 1996; further Mark Time Awards for other aspects of audio productions (including the Charles Ogle Award for fantasy and horror, from 1998) were subsequently added [see under links below]. [AMi]

see also: Irving Crump; Keith R A DeCandido; Max Ehrlich; Herbert W Franke; Robert L Hadfield; Norman Hunter; Franklyn Kelsey; Philip Levene; George Lowther; Charles Eric Maine; Mandrake the Magician; Phillip Mann; Radio Boys; Sax Rohmer; SF Music; When the Wind Blows.


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies