Old-Time Radio in the Classroom, Pt. 2

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

Student Skill Sets

Many skill sets are utilized with old-time radio depending on whether students are listening to a program or enacting one.

Writing: Writing can be used with either aspect of the medium. While listening to a historical program, students can make note of historical references from their readings and keep track of new information acquired. Students can also write a description of the show’s setting, or of the characters. As there is no right or wrong outcome to such activities it can lead to interesting comparisons and debates after the listening is done.

When teaching 8th grade Kansas history my students enjoyed listening to Gunsmoke (later a television series), a program set in post-Civil War Dodge City, Kansas. Students made notes of issues studied in class that were mentioned in the show such as the buffalo hunters and the tension between farmers and ranchers.

A more in-depth writing activity is creating an original audio play. Traditional writing themes of structure and characterization all apply but an extra challenge is added when information cannot be imparted through visual clues or extended monologue description. This activity can easily be added to any teacher’s toolbox.

Analysis: Howard Blue, a former social studies teacher in New York, used original radio scripts about D-Day and the Black Plague in teaching secondary students. He found it to be an effective tool in analyzing propaganda in both historical and contemporary settings. Some students were interested enough to recreate these old scripts. Greg Butler, a reading teacher, uses an episode of Suspense to analyze how a writer can create and build tension in a story.

Speech: Audio plays can be used in building speech and public presentation skills as a “part-way” activity. Students stand and speak before their peers but with less pressure since the audience’s visual attention is elsewhere. Speech skills such as tone, speed, inflection, and projection can all be practiced with an audience but without all the usual pressure.

Fine Motor/Listening: Creating an audio play provides the opportunity to develop fine motor skills with younger students. As mentioned above, sound effects in such productions are very important, thus creating extra incentive for students to focus on the required actions. Audio plays are also a discrete way to reinforce such basic skills as listening and following directions. A mist-timed line or sound effect due to inattention can hamper the rhythm and atmosphere of the piece.

Listening comprehension: Michael Kallam, now a professor of special education at Midwestern State University in Texas, found OTR programs extremely effective while teaching in a special education environment. After discovering that many of his students had poor listening comprehension, he “started looking around and found that there was really no place in the school where listening comprehension was taught or practiced. It was simply an ‘enabling skill’ that was presumed to be intact and functional for all students.”

In order to build listening comprehension skills Michael chose Adventures By Morse (by highly regarded radio writer Carlton E. Morse), an adventure serial from the 1940’s, in the hope that the stories would engage the student’s attention. Despite initial skepticism, the students found themselves engaged by the material and Michael was able to track improvement in listening comprehension by using questions he formulated based on the performance. In fact, the students were so engaged that eventually he used the show as a reward.


As outlined above, old-time radio provides a number of fresh learning avenues in the classroom. These brief ase studies offer a glimpse of the range of activities in which OTR has been used successfully in a variety of classroom settings. Though long gone as a major entertainment medium, old-time radio can still facilitate learning and creativity in young minds.


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