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Writing & Producing
for the
Theatre of the Mind


Projects for the Classroom: An Audio Play from the Comic Section   A Night to Remember    A Radio Drama Project 

Note:  Most of the information found on this page and its related links has been taken from Theatre of the Mind, Writing and Producing Radio Drama in the Classroom.  The revised edition of Theatre of the Mind is now available.

A Brief History of Radio Drama in America

Theatre of the Mind (revised edition)

Turning Passive Students into Active Learners

    With any educational endeavor, student attitude and involvement are critical to the program’s success. For decades educators have known that students learn best when the activities are hands-on. This is a more efficient teaching method than theoretical discussion for the simple reason that a hands-on activity involves the student to a much greater depth than lecture—lecture involves only the mental, while hands-on uses the physical and emotional to enhance mental learning.

    A woodshop teacher attempting to teach the skills involved in building a table without allowing the students to use rulers, hammers, and saws is destined to fail.  These skills could be taught piecemeal— measuring a board, sawing a board, driving a nail—but an effective teacher knows that a project approach works best. For one thing, building a table is an activity that culminates in a practical product—a table. Secondly, all the smaller activities—measuring a board, sawing a board, driving a nail—are obvious steps to reaching an easily understood goal. The student can readily understand that, in order to create a table, he must measure, saw, and hammer. Most students are practical people; they want (and need) to know why they are struggling with a particular skill. If there is no practical end result, they quickly become impatient and find no purpose in learning an isolated skill.

    Effective language skills teaching requires a no less hands-on approach than does woodshop. If anything, it is even more critical that language skills be taught with multi-skill-intensive projects. A language arts project that culminates in a tangible product and involves reading, writing, listening, speaking, visualizing, planning, and group interaction is infinitely superior to a piecemeal, skill development approach to language instruction. Add to this a project that intrigues the imagination and allows for creative self-expressing and you have a winner. The amount of involvement that the student feels determines how much the attitude is altered and, therefore, how well the skill is internalized. In other words, the degree of learning is determined by the student’s depth of involvement in the activity.

    The unmotivated student is probably the biggest hurdle that any teacher faces. Most educators agree that effective teaching requires positive, involved students. In other words, when students want to learn, they will learn; when they don’t, they won’t. Reluctant learners often ask: "Why do I need to read better?"or "Why do I need to improve my writing skills?" What they are saying is that they don’t understand the need for learning what the teacher is attempting to teach.

    There are two kinds of needs: (1) The primal (felt) needs—hunger and thirst, for instance—which cause discomfort when not satisfied. (2) There are also intellectual needs that, in order to be understood, require reasoning—preparing for winter, fixing the roof, and getting an education are examples. "I know the weather will get cold soon, so I’d better buy a coat." "The rainy season is coming; if I don’t fix the roof my bed will get wet." "If I want a good job, I’d better graduate." The closer these intellectual needs are to being felt needs, the more likely they are to be satisfied. When the temperature drops to 25 degrees, the need for a warm coat quickly becomes a felt need.

    It is important for teachers to plan their lessons so that students experience a felt need to improve a particular skill. To do this, teachers need to find an activity that draws the students in. It needs to be an activity that the students feel compelled to accomplish; in other words, there needs to be a student conceived purpose to the activity. When the need is felt, the student becomes active. Writing and producing a radio drama is a real-life activity that not only draws the student in but integrates all the language skills and moves them close to being felt needs, as well.

    Teaching language arts is a challenging profession. No other job in education carries with it more responsibility. In one time period, the skills of listening, speaking, visualizing, reading, writing, thinking, literary analysis, and group process must all be taught. To make matters worse, the visual media have made devastating inroads into language processing territory, and the job of reclaiming this vital area falls to the language arts teacher at a time when more and more students are becoming passive learners. After years of being spoon-fed by TV, many students enter the classroom with the attitude, "Okay, I'm here; do it to me." Quite often, the general public, as well, views the learner as the proverbial vessel to be filled. Of course the truth is that students learn best when pursuing an assignment with enthusiasm. Look closely at any successful educational program, and you will find students actively engaged in the subject matter. In fact, the active learner may be the only essential component of a successful educational program. A generous budget can make a huge difference, if it is used to lower class size and move the classroom through the 21st century, but even with a tight budget, active learners show impressive growth.

    Accustomed to having pictures created for them, many students are turned off and understandably lost, when expected to read. They become confused and discouraged. Students need to view reading fiction as a series of images intended to help them create an internal movie. Most students are unaware of the similarity between reading and watching a motion picture. They do not realize that visualization—the process whereby mental images of people, animals, objects, places, and actions, move from one to another, developing meaning—can turn the printed page into a movie. Realizing this, students can find joy in reading.

    Radio drama encourages and develops internal visualization. Listening to radio drama is very like reading, but the images are much more accessible to reluctant readers. If the student understands the spoken language, the visual images come with almost no effort. After acquiring vivid images from heard words, it is but a short leap to visualizing from the printed word, and this is a big step toward literacy.    

    Reading and writing are mutually supportive skills. Students who learn to visualize from the printed word can easily become effective writers. When they understand that what they read can be seen, they can more easily understand that the reverse is true—that images created in the mind may be written on paper. Good descriptions of actions, characters, and settings must be visualized before they can be put into words, and clear exposition requires that the writer visualize concrete examples and ideas. Students need to see the imagery in what they are reading or writing, if they are to be successful at either. Readers need instruction and practice in visualizing what they read, and writers need to learn that visualizing the characters, actions, settings, emotions, concepts, and ideas, as well as the relationships between these elements, is an important part of every stage in the writing process—prewriting, writing, revising, editing, evaluating.

    There is a competition for our students’ minds between the printed word and the visual media. The visual appeal is strong, and too much ground has already been lost to TV and video games, but it is futile to forbid young people access to these things. It serves better to help our students discover that a creative mind can generate plots and images that make television sitcoms look like a first grade reading text. The mind was intended for much more than a receptacle for computer generated images and some TV producer’s profit motivated images of life.

    Stage, film, and television dramas are media of the eye. A simplified definition of these dramas is that they are stories told to an audience by a series of visual actions. Here, the spoken word is mainly used to communicate information that cannot be communicated by action. The visual media, therefore, must operate within the limitations imposed by the physical world, because the eye can only see physical images. The immense power of the computer, with its ability to process graphic images, has pushed these limitations back, but the limitations are no less imposing. The Star Trek and Jurassic Park type images, though spectacular, must always be physical (visible).

    Unlike the visual media, radio drama requires no elaborate sets. The sets are created in the audience’s mind and can be struck and rebuilt instantly. The set can change from the Amazon jungle to the streets of New York in the blink of an eye. The possibilities are endless; anything that can be imagined can be shown. Common ground is needed to bridge the gap between the media of the eye and the media of the mind. Radio drama—fiction written and produced to evoke mental images in the listener's mind—can fill that need. Used with imagination, radio drama can simply and inexpensively bridge that enormous gap between where our students are and what needs to be taught in the classroom. Writing and producing radio drama can stimulate the student's imagination and uncover a power long hidden in many students—the urge to create.

    When we think of creating we usually think of starting with something and reshaping it into an original image. An artist, in his imagination, envisions an image then arranges paints on canvas to represent that vision. A sculptor reshapes clay into an imagined image. A carpenter takes lumber and various other materials and creates a house. A writer, however, shapes not just an image, but a whole world, a world filled with beauty and ugliness, good and evil, man and monster, fact and fantasy. To write—possibly mankind's ultimate expression of power—is to make a world and populate it with people, objects, and ideas unique to the writer. Students can experience this power. All they need is a pencil, some paper, their imagination, and a teacher's guidance.

The Radio Drama Project

    There are several reasons why a radio drama project is ideal for teaching language skills: (1) Students love to pretend, to create, to act. (2) They love stories. Read them an exciting story and they’ll sit for an hour with seldom a twitch. (3) Every group has students who are fascinated by technology; they want to tinker with it every chance they get; some even consider themselves experts. (4) Radio drama is new to most students and something new intrigues far better than something old. (5) And, most important, a radio drama project can involve the students in every conceivable language related skill.

    The underlying purpose of a radio drama project is to provide a venue for student activity where skills can be acquired/practiced/improved. A radio drama project involves two types of goals: (1) the outcome goal (the produced play) and (2) the process goals (the procedural activities that integrate the individual skills involved in planning, writing, and producing the script). The process goals must develop mind skills—speaking/writing, listening/reading, analyzing/problem solving, and collaborating. The outcome goal is extremely important; it is the motivator—the bait that persuades the students to proceed through the process goals. The outcome goal, however, must be kept in perspective. Too often, with multi-media projects, the outcome goal becomes the main focus. Sometimes even to the extent that the process goals are neglected altogether. An example would be a film making project where students get a general idea for a film project, then take the camera out and shoot the film. When this happens, the project's underlying purpose may be lost. The process goals—speaking/writing, listening/reading, analyzing/problem solving, and collaborating—must be the primary focus. Once students are sufficiently motivated for the radio drama project, maintaining a focus on the process goals is a natural development.

Preparing Your Students

  1. Become familiar with radio drama yourself. Get hold of some recorded radio dramas and listen to them. As you listen to the plays, concentrate on how best to intrigue and motivate your particular students to enjoy radio drama.

  2. Give your students some background on the history of radio drama.

  3. Let your students listen to some radio dramas. Recordings that have word-for-word scripts help students understand how the sound effects fit into the dialog. Scripts also help them make the connection between writing/speaking/listening/reading/visualizing. As the students listen to the plays, discuss how the sound effects are worked into the recording. Everyone loves a story and adding sound effects to that story opens a whole new world inside the mind.

  4. Compare and contrast radio drama with television and film drama. Radio drama, like reading, is a medium of the mind, where all actions, characters, settings, and emotions must be imagined by the audience. No images are seen with the eye; instead, the ear perceives sounds—words, sound effects, music—and the mind must create all images from these sound combinations and sequences. Film and television dramas, on the other hand, are media of the eye. Every action, emotion, and setting is seen. Little is left to the imagination. In film, heard sound effects are only meaningful as they are tied to seen action. Words are used only when an idea cannot be communicated by action.

  5. When the students are more familiar with the medium, let the students do a radio drama project. Depending on your students, it may be best to begin with a simple project.  Let the students try their hand at doing a readers' theatre production. Let them select some appropriate music to play in the background and, perhaps, create some manual sound effects to fit into the reading.

Script Structure

    Commercial radio drama script writing has its own unique structure and format. During the "Golden Age of Radio," radio drama script writers found it necessary, because of commercial demands, to conform to a formal structure that dictated everything in the script from its subject matter to the exact length of individual sections. The structure of the commercial radio script has changed since the 1940's, but because this manual deals with non-commercial radio drama, I will not spend time discussing these differences. For our purposes here, we will define the structure of a radio drama script as including the following: (a) a prologue; (b) one or more acts; (c) with each act consisting of one or more scenes alternating in length. Ideally, each scene should be told with dialogue and sound effects using narration only when dialog and sound effects will not do the job. I believe other elements of "Golden Age" radio drama structure should be considered when discussing classroom script writing. What follows is radio drama structure pretty much as it was during the 1940's (see Script Structure information sheet).

  1. Prologue. (1 or 2 minutes) This is usually a narrative introduction to the story and its characters. It often includes a brief dialog involving those characters. The prologue serves one of more of several purposes. (a) It sets up the situation and gives any important background the listener needs to know. (b) It grabs the listener’s interest and reveals just enough about the story to make the listener want to keep listening. (c) It may be used to show something about the characters and the circumstances surrounding them at the moment
  2. Hooks. In commercial scripts, these are used at the end of each act as a device to make the listener want to come back to see what happens next. In Old-Time Radio, they were often dramatic high-points just before a commercial break, usually emphasized with music or sound effects. In non-commercial scripts there are fewer needs for hooks. The idea, however, is no less important; details that intrigue and keep the listener listening should be scattered throughout the script.
  3. Acts. These are the longer units that tell the story. In the commercial radio drama scripts of the 1940's, a half-hour program might have three acts. In these shorter commercial scripts the acts served to provide points in the script where commercials could be inserted. Act I was about 5 minutes long, Act II about 10 minutes, and Act III usually a little shorter than Act II. The length of the entire half-hour script was about 24 minutes. Hour long plays often had more than three acts.
    Short plays, such as your students may write (or short non-commercial scripts) may require only one act. The number of acts should be determined by the story. Examples of the need for two or more acts would be a story where a great gap in time or space is spanned by a transition or where two sub-plots are interwoven. These kinds of stories, however, would require more time to tell and would become long plays. For our purposes here, a general rule of thumb is that short plays should consist of one act of several scenes of alternating lengths (see Scenes below).
  4. Scenes. These are the shorter units that make up the acts. During the 1940's, radio drama producers varied in their demands relating to this part of script structure. Some felt that no scene should be more than two minutes. Others would accept a script where an entire act is one scene.
    Because we, in the classroom, are more interested in telling a story than in selling a commercial product, scenes should be as many or as few as the story requires.
  5. Variety is important in script writing. In order to eliminate monotony, the scenes should alternate in length–a longer scene followed by a shorter scene. Another technique for adding variety is alternating setting. Script writers shouldn’t stick to one setting and only change the time and characters. This may sometimes be necessary when writing a stage play, but changing the set in a radio drama can be done easily and quickly, so let your imagination be your guide.
  6. Transitions. Any change in location or time represents a transition. Simply playing music between scenes certainly lets the audience know that one scene ends and another begins, but there needs to be more. The listener needs to know the "where" (place) and, depending on the scene, even the "when" (time) of the new scene. Dialog can be very useful in telling the "where" of a scene when it done in the previous scene. For example, in "The Last Leaf" Sue tells Johnsy:

SUE: Johnsy, dear, will you promise me to keep your eyes closed, and not look out the window until I'm done working? I must get these drawings done by tomorrow. I need the light, or I'd pull the shade down.

JOHNSY: Couldn't you draw in the other room?

SUE: I'd rather be here with you. Besides, I don't want you to keep looking at those silly ivy leaves.

JOHNSY: All right, but tell me as soon as you've finished, because I want to see the last one fall. I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of thinking. I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves.

SUE: You try to get some sleep, now. I must go downstairs and see if Mr. Behrman will come up to be my model for the old hermit miner. I'll not be gone a minute. Don't try to move 'til I come back.

When the next scene opens in Mr. Behrman’s apartment, the scene’s "where" and "when" are easily understood. (Using dialog to communicate time and place can sound contrived, however, especially if it is used too often and at the beginning of the scene. Usually dialog sounds less contrived if the conversation reveals more than just "where" or "when" the scene is taking place. Using sound effects to set the scene is a much more interesting and natural way. For instance, if the scene is on the street, traffic noise could be the first sound heard.)

Examples for Students

    It is also important for radio drama writers to listen to as many radio dramas as possible. I prefer using the AOld Time@ productions, after all these were done by the masters. It will take a bit of effort and time to come up with some AOld Time@ recordings, but the time will be well spent. If you are able to get some of the really great classic radio dramas, students will be motivated to imitate the masters of radio drama in their own scripts and productions. You will find recordings of some of the classic titles in bookstores. Others may be ordered from the Internet. Our Read-Along Radio Dramas include scripts, which adds to the listening experience. Read-Along Radio Dramas scripts are not production scripts, but they do help students understand how the different elements of script structure move from one to the next and how the sound effects support the dialog and action.

Production Style

    Production style determines how the script must be written.  If you have unlimited equipment and sound effect sources, this is not important.  In the classroom, however, the writer must create a script that considers available equipment. A script that requires recorded, synchronized sound effects, for instance, isn't practical unless your equipment allows a technician to cue and play the sound at the precise instant required. The production style, then, determines the types of sound effects that must be written into the script. For this reason, the writer must know the production style, before starting to write the script. Be certain that all writers understand the technical limitations of your equipment.  Some common classroom production styles are:

  1. Simple reading with no sound effects.
  2. Recorded music and unsynchronized background sound effects only.
  3. Recorded music, unsynchronized background sound effects, and manual sound effects.
  4. Recorded music, recorded synchronized/unsynchronized sound effects, and manual sound effects.

Some of the questions you will need to answer are:

  1. How many tape/CD players will you have available for recorded SFX (sound effects) and music?
  2. Do you plan to use a CD player to include synchronized recorded sound effects?
  3. If you plan to use microphones, how many will you be using?
  4. Is your production more of a reading with background sound effects and music only OR do you plan to include manual synchronized sound effects as well?
  5. Will you be performing for a formal audience OR is the production to be for classroom use only?
  6. Will you be recording the production?
  • A Simple Reading. If your production choice is a simple reading of the play, no technical equipment is required. All you need do is: Write C Cast C Rehearse C Perform.
  • Recorded music and unsynchronized background sound effects only. The technical demands of this production style are easy to satisfy. Two or three good cassette/CD players will do the job. If you wish to record the performance, you will need an additional recorder and a good microphone for the actors. Be aware that the sound effects in this kind of recording may be weak.
  • Recorded music, unsynchronized background sound effects, and manual sound effects. If you chose to do technically simpler productions, but you want to record them with more satisfactory results, you will need a means of attaching the microphones to the recording equipment. This would include a mixer, a microphone for the actors and a microphone for the manual sound effects. Having a third microphone for the recorded SFX will increase the quality of the recording.
  • Recorded music, recorded synchronized and unsynchronized sound effects, and manual sound effects. When synchronized recorded effects are included, this style is technically challenging. A great deal of practice is required to get everything just right. This style is recommended for experienced groups that have considerable time to devote to the project.

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Last modified: June 04, 2015