Can Radio Drama Be Tuned Out So Easily?

Public-radio station KCRW-FM (89.9) has pulled down the curtain for listeners who savored the offerings of its weekly “KCRW Playhouse” series (“Radio Drama Troupe Assails KCRW’s Cancellation of ‘Playhouse,”’ by Elaine Dutka, July 24). This decision to delete radio drama from the schedule leaves a huge cultural void for the Southland, as contemporary radio theater is now found nowhere on the dial.

In Sean Mitchell’s recent Times article about public radio in Los Angeles (“Public Radio, Under the Influence,” May 27), he described KCRW as a “creative mix of cutting-edge music, smart talk and radio drama.” Well, you can cross out radio drama. At the end of March, KCRW abruptly dropped “KCRW Playhouse” and its star attraction, L.A. Theatre Works’ series “The Play’s the Thing.”

What has been the flagship of the Los Angeles public-radio scene has suddenly become a lot less eclectic, no matter what it calls its music shows. Radio theater accounted for less than 1% of KCRW’s weekly schedule, so it is hard to imagine that they can’t find the time to air this important programming.

We are talking about a unique medium, one that stirs the imagination and satisfies the intellect. Plays on radio offer sustenance to theater lovers who may not have the financial resources, the time or convenient access to enjoy live theater. They also provide a tantalizing introduction to the world of theater for young people and others who haven’t experienced live theater.


Sure, we have the delights of old-time radio on KNX-AM (1070), which airs such hits from the ‘40s and ‘50s as “The Jack Benny Show,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Lux Theater,” but these are more about nostalgia than the excitement of today’s theater experience. The vintage radio reruns are hardly a substitute for John Lithgow and B.D. Wong re-creating their performances in “M. Butterfly,” or Anthony LaPaglia and Mercedes Ruehl in Tennessee Williams’ “Rose Tattoo,” or capturing the great performances of Jason Robards and Judith Ivey in Israel Horovitz’s “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard,” or the great Nathan Lane in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Mizlansky-Zilinsky,” or even us reprising our London staging of Neil Simon’s “Prisoner of Second Avenue.”

Hollywood is blessed with an array of actors, directors and writers that equals or surpasses the talent pool found in New York or London. Unfortunately, the logistics and economics of the film and TV business make it difficult to commit to long stage runs, even here in our own backyard. That’s where radio theater comes in.

As two of the 34 founders of L.A. Theatre Works Radio Theatre Co.--which included John Lithgow, Stacy Keach, Julie Harris, Edward Asner, JoBeth Williams, Hector Elizondo, Helen Hunt, Ted Danson and Richard Masur--we are dismayed that our services and those of 1,300 other great actors who have recorded more than 300 plays for L.A. Theatre Works are no longer required by our local broadcaster

Staged and recorded on a compact schedule, radio theater offers us the chance to perform first-class material and experience the joy of live theater before a discerning and appreciative audience. The work is challenging and the pay is lousy, but the experience is priceless. From George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde to Neil Simon, Joyce Carol Oates, John Guare, Paula Vogel, Charlayne Woodard, Luis Valdez and Jon Robin Baitz, there are magic words out there that stir the acting juices. The audience loves it and so do we.


Of course, the show must go on, and it will. L.A. Theatre Works’ “The Play’s the Thing” will continue its live performance series at Skirball Cultural Center and the productions will continue to be available on audiocassette, CD, satellite radio and other public radio stations. Many of the pieces will be heard around the world on Voice of America. Public radio outlets such as KQED in San Francisco and WETA in Washington, D.C., continue to enjoy our homegrown product, but as of now, contemporary theater just doesn’t have a place on Los Angeles radio.

Hopefully, the drought won’t last long.

Maybe KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena will pick up on this form of “intelligent talk.” Maybe KNX will decide to slip in a night of contemporary radio theater. Maybe KCRW will reconsider. Let’s hope so. The fans of radio theater deserve their place on the dial.


Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason starred together in “The Goodbye Girl” (1977), for which he earned an Academy Award and she an Oscar nomination.