From its earliest time, radio has always been interested in science fiction. The depression years during which dramatic radio would get its first wind offered escape in the form of foreign or strange other places or worlds. Storylines were black and white with little room for gray.

With some exceptions, radio took its cue from the pulps and the comics when it turned to dramatic science fiction. The genre was still in its infancy getting its content from the fantastic rather than the scientific. Pulps such as Air Wonder and Amazing Stories offered the kind of dramatic material from which radio developed its plays. Characters leapt from the Sunday comics into the living rooms of many a radio listener. It is not coincidental that radio pioneer Hugo Gernsback was also considered the father of science fiction as well as one of the first publishers in 1926 of a science fiction magazine. His Amazing Stories magazine opened up new worlds for youngsters and radio carried on that tradition fleshing out the characters that appeared in the stories. Gernsback himself was a radio enthusiast and his other magazines inlcuded Radio News for budding hobbiests. Other early pulps such as Weird Tales skirted a broader definition of science fiction that was best called Bizarre Fantasy. Though no copies are known to exist, there was a radio program called Weird Tales based upon stories from the pages of its magazine. Perhaps more research will reveal the information about this program.

One of the first science fiction radio series was Buck Rogers in the Twenty-fifth Century (the example here is from the later series). It told the story of a person from our own time finding himself in the 25th Century. Despite very clear enemies, life in this time was generally wonderful since mankind had clearly conquered space. Here we met the beautiful and strong-willed Wilma Dearing, portrayed by Adele Ronson (The Gibson Family, John's Other Wife) and the brilliant scientist Dr. Huer, portrayed by the character actor Edgar Stehli (X Minus One, The Chase), who invented wonderful machines. Their enemies, who evoked the exotic through their distant land heritage, are out to destroy the universe, but Buck, portrayed by Curtis Arnall, along with Wilma and Dr. Huer always prevailed. Buck Rogers was taken from the comics, which in turn used a story by Philip F. Nowlan as its prototype called Armageddon - 2419 which appeared in Amazing Stories (see cover, right). Some like to call it a time travel story, but back doesn't really travel forward into time; rather like Rip Van Winkle, he sleeps until he awakes in the future. The radio series was produced and directed first by Carlo De Angelo and then by Jack Johnstone who went on to other non-sf series such as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar in the fifties near the end of radio drama. Johnstone recalled in 1988 how he worked with the sound effects of Ora Nichols to produce the sound of the rockets using an air-conditioning vent.

Another sf radio series during this period that came from the pulps was Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon. The series debuted in 1935 over the Mutual Broadcasting System starring Gale Gordon as Flash. Like Buck Rogers, the radio series was aimed at a juvenile audience. The stories' plots were black and white and rather simplistic in their dramatizations. Unlike his counterpart, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon was a product of a future society. With the earth doomed for destruction by the planet Mongo, Flash along with his girlfriend Dale Arden unexpectedly travels on a ship controlled by Dr. Zarkov, portrayed by Maurice Franklin (Famous Jury Trials, Mr. District Attorney) who is trying to save his home planet. It is on Mongo that the trio encounters the deadly emperor Ming, voiced by Bruno Wick (The Goldbergs), his daughter Princess Aura and the Hawkmen. Himan Brown, of CBS Radio Mystery and Inner Sanctum fame, produced the series.

Radio in the mid-thirties rarely produced series that contained Science Fiction as their theme. While it was clearly the stuff of fantasy, America sought other drama through which to escape. However, some series were not without their occasional taste for science fiction. One such story that appeared on radio in the thirties was on NBC's The Radio Guild. Clearly aimed at adults the episode, The Man Who Was Tomorrow, is about a man, the Timekeeper, who is able to stop time to present to one of the characters his life and relationship with his wife both in the future and the past. Time becomes mixed up in this episode. Written by Ranald R. MacDougall, the episode is part science fiction, part morality play. During this period, Mr. MacDougall wrote a series of plays for the program all dealing with the fantastical and touching on science fiction as  it was interpreted at that time. Another of his was The Ineffable Essence of Nothing, which told a story of an odd man who created and sold dreams to people allowing them to step into these dreams to live out their fantasies. There were several from Arch Oboler's Lights Out which, while science fiction in theme dealing with aliens, bordered on the horrorific - such as The Meteor Man.

Probably one of the earliest science fiction stories heard over national radio was R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) based on Karel Capek's groundbreaking 1920 play. It was heard over the National Broadcasting Network on its prestigious Radio Guild series on November 27th, 1933. The play was broadcast again on May 30, 1937 under the auspices of the New Deal agency, the W.P.A. involving Mercury Theatre producer, John Houseman, who along eith Orson Welles would produce probably the most famous science fictional radio play, The War of the Worlds, a year and a half later. It was Capek who coined the term "robot" which comes from the Czech language with its implied meaning of "forced labor." Other non-American radio organizations had already begun broadcasting stories with science fictional themes especially the BBC when it presented R.U.R. as early as 1927.

Despite a dry spell, another true science fiction story that made its way to radio in the thirties is probably the best known and would shake the foundations of belief for listeners coming at a time when the world was already clashing on the European continent. This was Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds. Loosely adapted by Howard Koch (Casablanca) from H.G. Wells' book and broadcast on Halloween, 1938, the radio play, called "Invasion From Mars," bordered more on horror than escapist science fiction. Welles' production was about the real world, a reflection on what was occuring in Europe at the time told in future tense. By taking something fantastic and placing it into a world already on edge from depression and fear of war, Welles conjures even more horrific images in the minds of his listeners. Just recently past the Munich Crisis, in which Europe nearly turned to war, when many listeners heard bulletins interrupt regular programming, Welles used that technique to break the news of alien invasion to listeners. Believing there truly was an invasion, some panicked. Though Welles claimed innocence at the time in the play's affect on listeners, he later in life actually took credit for it. For all else, the play put the term Aliens and Martians in the public mind for years to come.

With the dawning of the forties, the onslaught of World War II, and the rise of the United States both as a world and technological leader, more science fiction stories began making their way to radio. Arch Oboler wrote several stories which were science fiction in form for his Lights Out and Arch Oboler Plays series: Rocket From Manhattan, The Immortal Gentleman and others. Rocket From Manhattan was in keeping with Oboler's sense of horror with its theme of Armageddon, while The Immortal Gentleman focused on other dimensions of time. Terror From Outer Space was an episode on Murder At Midnight. In the latter forties one could hear Donovan's Brain produced for Suspense. There is a two parter that was broadcast in the mid-forties starring Orson Welles. The version here to download is a one parter with John McIntire.

There was still a horror element in much of the science fiction produced at this time, though this was changing just as it was in written form thanks in part to editors/writers such as Horace Gold and John W. Campbell Jr. who began focusing more on the science in science fiction. Campbell had a philosophy at the time which attempted to focus his stable of writers on science fiction using only scientific elements that do or could exist. He steered away from the fantastic unless the story was written as pure fantasy. One writer said of him: "What [he] brought to Astounding...was not editorial experience. It was something far more important - a new and more sophisticated conception of science fiction, derived from a new and more sophisticated conception of the nature of the universe." (Alexi and Cory Panshin)

The fifties are when science fiction on radio came of age. America was facing a different threat, nuclear in nature. Instead of looking to the stars and seeing monsters, it began to look to the stars and see possibilities. At the start of the decade, there were at least four series for adults plus several for children. The first adult science fiction series to make it to radio was 2000 Plus. At the same time were NBC's Dimension X and CBS' Beyond Tomorrow though it has never been determined if Beyond Tomorrow ever made it past the audition stage. Dimension X used stories mostly by the best of the science fiction writers of the day. Others in the series were by the scriptwriting team of George Lefferts and Ernest Kinoy. While 2000 Plus was the first, it was Dimension X that shined. With excellent scriptwriters adapting stories of excellent science fiction writers, this series stood above its competition. Van Woodward, the producer said "We went the adaptation route simply bcause that's where the best stories are. Bright ideas for science fiction tales don't come on order; they're usually the product of a moment's inspiration, by a writer who is steeped in the field."

Not all science fiction of the period was for adults. The children's series included Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Space Patrol. These shows were in keeping with the other juvenile series of the day and the science fiction was only a vehicle for these simplistic stories. You can download a log of the Space Patrol radio series by clicking here!

Much of science fiction at this time was technological, less horror, flirting more with possibilities rather than a destructive side. Stories such as A Logic Named Joe and Marionettes, Inc. have a humorous side to technological wonders. In fact many of the episodes on a later NBC adult SF series, X Minus One, focused on humor as a theme. (The series did have its horrific side too - as in Ray Bradbury's Mars Is Heaven.

With SF popularity on the rise, Galaxy Magazine, edited by H.L. Gold, offered a tie-in with the NBC series X Minus One. The series was also tied-in to Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction as well. Astounding Science Fiction was also involved with Exploring Tomorrow, which Campbell hosted. All of these arrangements were not sponsorships, but rather an ad in the magazines for use of the stories for adaptation.  Other radio programs continued to include SF related stores including George Stewart's Earth Abides (pt1) and Part 2  heard over CBS's Escape. 

Unfortunately, like all radio drama in this country, Science Fiction on radio went into hiatus as dramatic radio declined. However, dramatic presentations did not disappear as can be witnessed in many of the cassettes for sale featuring modern radio drama. Most available have been broadcast at one time or another, but some have been produced primarily for cassette sales. With the coming of George Lucas' Star Wars, there has been a new interest by the general public in Science Fiction. There are many programs available with an SF theme including radio productions of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Dramatic Science Fiction in Britain continues to be popular including the hilarious Douglas Adams' series The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, William Gibson's Neuromancer and Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside. Much modern Science Fiction drama is found at the following web sites: Lodestone, ZBS Foundation and Jerry Stearn's Science Fiction on Radio pages.



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by James F Widner and Meade Frierson III


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Created: Saturday, August 19, 1995
Material in this web page, copyright 1995-2011 James F. Widner.
Photo courtesy Associated Press
Audio clip of the War of the Worlds available under Section 107 of fair use; copyright Howard Koch Estate; distribution/licensing rights: Radio Spirits.