Old Time Radio dramas alive and well on the Internet

Local stations CKNW and Classic Rock 101 broadcast radio series of yesteryear

For those who want to explore the vast world of Old Time Radio audio drama, there are hundreds of shows coming online each year for listening or free download, as copyrights expire after 50 years. Others are modestly priced (for instance, Twilight Zone 40-minute radio episodes are $2 each on iTunes), or can be purchased on CD.

There is, sadly, a major historical gap: the CBC has not yet archived online the hundreds of fine audio dramas it produced during its Golden Age of 1944 to 1969 (unlike state radio networks in Britain and Australia have done for their shows). Yet a few can be found at cbc.ca/rewind, such as a quirky drama from the early 1990s called Midnight Cab. Notes on this topic are posted by the Canadian OldTime Radio Alliance at cotra.ca

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On live radio, Vancouverites can hear classic radio shows every midnight on CKNW, and Lights Out on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on Classic Rock 101.

Modern audio drama from around the world is broadcast and podcast by The Sonic Society in Halifax at sonicsociety.org and also archived at theaudiodramadirectory.com. As well, Radio Drama Revival, at radiodramarevival.com, is a weekly radio show and podcast of contemporary audio drama, with 200 hours of original shows stored since 2007.

Of the many Internet sites storing older audio dramas for free downloads, the largest and best is the Internet Archive at archive.org. Here there are genres for every listener: classic novels, detective stories, westerns, comedy, romance, horror and science fiction. Plays range in timing from Night Editor, ingeniously packing a crime story into 12 minutes, up to a Shakespeare play staged by Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre at an hour-and-ahalf. (While some run 30 minutes, it usually needs at least one hour to even suggest the sense of a great story.) Another resource is the Old Time Radio Researchers Library at otrrlibrary.org, which includes some shows from Australia and Canada.

My favourite series at archive.org is the 100 audioplays of NBC University Theater, which are based on novels by Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Conrad, E.M. Forster, John Steinbeck, George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

More classic stories can be heard at Favourite Story, Theatre Guild on the Air, and Theatre Royale from England. Many are adapted from stage plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill, Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.

Some people are fans of mystery shows with characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, or Mike Hammer. Still-funny comedy shows are up there too, with Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen. It was traditional for the film stars of the 1930s and 1940s such as Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart to recreate their hit films for a radio broadcast, such as in the 500 plays at Lux Radio Theatre, and the 115 stories at Screen Directors Playhouse.

For others, the best of radio is in the science fiction stories at Dimension X, Science Magazine of the Air, and Exploring Tomorrow. These were written by masters of the genre such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl and Theodore Sturgeon. One local highlight is a fine 1965 CBC Vancouver radio dramatization of John Wyndham's apocalyptic science fiction novel The Kraken Wakes.

To listen to the plays, not even an iPod is needed. Audio drama is the cheapest form of entertainment for those on the lowest incomes. MP3 players that run on one AAA battery with earbud headphones go for $12 at most dollar stores, and through its USB plug can download hundreds of free radio plays from Internet at the public library.

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