Blast from the past
To most undergraduates, compact discs are old school, vinyl records are so old school they’re cool, and radio dramas ... well, their heyday is so far in the past, it would be like getting up and dancing to a song that was a hit before their great-grandmothers were born.
Emerging in the days of the Victrola and mostly vanishing – at least in the United States – by the time of the New Frontier, creating a radio drama in a time of Facebook and YouTube would seem to be as quaint as churning your own butter. But last Thursday afternoon, 14 students in a Washington & Jefferson College intersession class on radio dramas settled into the studio of WNJR-FM, the college’s radio station, for a live performance of two radio dramas.
One was “Sorry, Wrong Number,” a classic of the genre that debuted in 1943 and was made into a Barbara Stanwyck big-screen thriller a few years later; and “The Last Ride,” a world premiere penned by Bill Cameron, a professor in the theater and communication department at W&J and the course’s instructor.
Cameron explained that the course was designed to demonstrate the dramatic potential of radio, and how it’s different from the stage or screen and how the writing and performance is different.
“I think they did a pretty good job,” Cameron said at the conclusion of last Thursday’s broadcast.
The retro sensibility was particularly evident in “Sorry, Wrong Number,” where students had a rotary-dial telephone handy to replicate the sound of a 1940s-era phone dialing, and the plot hinges on an hysterical, bedridden woman overhearing a crossed telephone connection, which would have happened in days of yore when operators connected calls from one party to another.
“It’s really cool,” said sophomore Darby McMullen, who has her own show on WNJR along with her roommate, Stephanie Yoo, also a sophomore. “There are just so many different things to put together. You don’t need a screen to enjoy it, which is weird for our generation.”
In advance of the broadcast last Thursday, the class listened to some vintage radio dramas, including the 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds” by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre company, which set off a panic in some pockets of the country for its vivid depiction of an alien invasion.
The programs will be archived at WNJR.org, the station’s website, Cameron said.