Old-Time Radio in the Classroom, Pt. 1

This article originally appeared in The Old Radio Times, June 2006.

Golden-Age radio dramatic programs, commonly referred to as old-time radio or OTR, were aired from roughly 1930 to 1960. Preserved and shared by a small number of enthusiasts over the past decades, OTR programs are now gaining a larger audience with the spread of digital technologies. At the same time they are finding their way into the classroom. 

Student Populations 

Audio drama can be a beneficial teaching tool with a wide variety of student populations. Like television today, old-time radio programs were aimed at different audiences, from the very young to the adult. With this range in program content, OTR can be effectively used with all ages in the classroom. Similarly, whether listening to original programs, reading old scripts, or creating new audio plays, activities can be adapted and used across the teaching spectrum. 

Non-native English speakers: Old-time radio can be used with both native and non-native English speakers. Richard Schmauss teaches English to Japanese students. Using a basic audio-editing program on his computer he has strung together clips from Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, a show about a private insurance investigator. After students have listened to the clips, Richard asks questions similar to those found in the Test of English for International Communications. He reports “astonishing success” and hopes to automate the process by creating interactive multi-media web pages. 

Shy/Physically Disabled students: Recreating OTR broadcasts or writing new audio plays can be an effective adaptation of a more traditional dramatic activity. For students uncomfortable performing in front of their peers, possibly due to a bashful personality or a physical disability, an audio-only performance can be liberating. While an audio play is performed classmates can (and should) focus their visual attention elsewhere. The listeners can work on an art project or complete a writing based on the performance. This keeps their visual attention off the actors, thus lessening performance anxiety. 

Hyperactive Students: Audio-only plays can be an ideal task for hyperactive students who have difficulty maintaining control in a full- action dramatic activity. With most of the acting done via vocal inflection, physical action is minimal. The nature of an audio play provides boundaries for students who are prone to struggle with self-control during performance-based activities. 

A good OTR-style performance relies heavily on sound effects to make up for the lack of visual clues and description. The same over-active students mentioned above can find an outlet for their energies in discovering sounds that can be used as effects for the play. It is also an ideal platform for those students who have an uncanny talent at creating novel, and often disruptive, noises. Within the confines of the script being performed, what is usually an irritant (often leading to a reprimand or worse) now becomes a legitimate, even crucial, part of a learning activity. These sound effects are necessary if an audio play is not to be confusing to the listener or dull because of excessive narration. A student waving a sheet of tin foil to create thunder creates much more drama than an actor announcing that a thunderstorm is occurring in the story. 



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