Why Science Fiction Didn't Last on Radio

Illustration of astronauts landed on a planet that looks like a town on Earth from Mars is Heaven by Ray Bradbury
Illustration from the Dimension X episode "Mars is Heaven" by Ray Bradbury

They should have made the perfect pair. Think of the action, the drama, and the adventure of science fiction -- now add a dash of good sound effects, a dash of imagination, and away you go, off on the hottest radio series ever.

And yet ... the marriage didn't last.

It's too bad, too. The five United States SF series, which should have been the best shows in radio history, were weak and short-lived. They ranged over the years 1945 to 1958, yet the longest run was only three years, Dimension X is touted as the best, but even that falls way short of its potential. How come?

One of the biggest reasons is timing. If only SF had hit radio sooner, it might have stood a better chance. As it was, by the time SF gained enough popular appeal, radio was already being overshadowed by TV.

Also, science fiction was a popular medium when it hit radio in 1945. Of course it had come a long way from the first SF novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Even so, it took until April 1926 -- only 19 years before the first U.S. SF radio series -- for the first SF magazine Amazing Stories to be published by Hugo Gernsback. And though this and other magazines helped to create some popularity for SF, it was a long time before SF fans were taken seriously. Most people considered them a bunch of crackpots. Probably the October 30, 1938, broadcast of War of the Worlds on the CBS Mercury Theater of the Air did little to help public opinion. The broadcast was aired without commercials or station breaks, so the show convinced a great number of people that the world was really going to end! Because of this, public outrage was vented against CBS and Orson Welles (the star of the show) for the production.

So the majority of the American public were just beginning to understand SF when it came to radio. Britain was the leader with long SF series, sometimes running two to six hours. Suspense and Escape also produced occasional SF shows in their series. But the first U.S. series devoted to SF was aired in 1945 called Exploring the Unknown. The shows, aimed at the "science at work, searching for knowledge that will shape your future, were produced by Sherman H. Dryer for broadcast on Mutual. Revere Copper and Brass Co. sponsored the show for two years from Dec. 2, 1945, through 1947. Then the show went to ABC for one season as a sustained program.

Mutual's second series, Two Thousand Plus, explored the years beyond 2000 A.D. Dryer also produced this show which began March 15, 1950, and ran through the 1951 season. Mutual then offered a third series, Exploring Tomorrow, during 1957 to 1958. This rather obscure series asked you to "step into the incredible, amazing future."

NBC offered the U.S. its first SF series with broad appeal to adults by way of the show Dimension X. This series, beginning April 8, 1950, and running through Sept. 29, 1951, concentrated on adventures in time and space "told in future tense." The show dramatized works by writers such as Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Bloch. Ernest Kinoy, an NBC in-house scriptwriter, also contributed a story or two, in addition to adapting about half of the stories from the original pieces.

Dimension X was also one of the first shows to be recorded on tape. The story has it that the recording technique was so primitive that "Mars is Heaven," written by Ray Bradbury, had to be recorded three separate times -- because the NBC engineer, in editing the show, kept erasing it!

NBC's second attempt at SF, X Minus One, appeared in April 24, 1955. In some ways it can be considered as an extension of Dimension X, since X Minus One used several of the earlier series' stories. This time, the series lasted three years, going off the air on January 9, 1958. NBC tried to make a comeback with the show in the 1970s, but due to bad scheduling, and lack of publicity, the show gained few listeners and was dropped again.

X Minus One also employed more comedy than the earlier series. Kinoy again adapted about half of the scripts, and George Lefferts was a frequent contributor. Fred Collins announced, and Daniel Sutter directed. John Dunning, in his book Tune in Yesterday, notes that X Minus One offered some of the best drama of the mid-1950s and was also one of the few places where radio veterans such as Santos Ortega, Jack Grimes, Joe Julian, Reese Taylor, Luis Van Rooten, Joe DiSantis, etc. could find work.

Both Dimension X and X Minus One broadcast some of the best of SF radio. Dimension X's "Mars in Heaven"and "Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury can both be considered classics. "The Light" by Poul Anderson is one of the excellent radio shows aired on X Minus One. But, all in all, the SF series cannot compare to many of the other radio series throughout its history. For instance, Escape easily beats any of the SF series in terms of excitement, adventure, and sophistication.

Probably one of the biggest problems of SF radio is the nature of SF itself. In creating science fiction -- a "theory" about what could happen in the future, specifically with regard to scientific achievement -- the authors of the '50s seemed to limit themselves. For one reason or another, they tied themselves to their own time and place and then saw all of the future in these terms. Thus, for the most part, the stories produced on X Minus One are about human beings doing depressingly human things, only in outer space.

Also, X Minus One worked in cooperation with Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. Horace Gold edited the magazine at that time, and though many top authors were published by him, Gold appears to have had a rather narrow-minded view of what constitutes good science fiction. He liked slick writing and would reject even very original concepts if they did not fit into his editorial framework.

As a result, the stories -- and therefore the shows -- are often alike. There's usually no hint of anything nice or enlightening to be found in outer space -- only humdrum tales of machines that don't work, near fistfights in spaceships and often human beings condescending to straighten out some planet's business. To the 1970s listener, these storylines can seem corny. Also, there's no real sense of the moral crisis that inevitably contributed to the adventure in so many of the Escape programs. In comparison, the SF series seem like space soap operas.

But that doesn't mean the SF series should be shipped to outer space! The stories are fun, some of them are very exciting, and they make for good listening. My only regret was in thinking what could have been.

Janet Chapman in Airwaves, May 1977

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