NBC University Theater Adapted Great Novels to Radio & Gives Listeners College Credit : Hear 110 Episodes from a 1940s eLearning Experiment


Cre­ative Com­mons image by Joe Haupt

Before the inter­net became our pri­ma­ry source of infor­ma­tion and entertainment—before it became for many com­pa­nies a pri­ma­ry rev­enue stream—it promised to rev­o­lu­tion­ize edu­ca­tion. We would see a demo­c­ra­t­ic spread of knowl­edge, old hier­ar­chies would crum­ble, ancient divi­sions would cease to mat­ter in the new pri­mor­dial cyber-soup where any­one with entry-lev­el con­sumer hard­ware and the patience to learn basic HTML could cre­ate a plat­form and a com­mu­ni­ty. And even as that imag­ined utopia became just anoth­er econ­o­my, with its own win­ners and losers, large—and free—educational projects still seemed per­fect­ly fea­si­ble.

These days, that poten­tial hasn’t exact­ly evap­o­rat­ed, but we’ve had an increas­ing num­ber of reasons—the threat­ened sta­tus of net neu­tral­i­ty promi­nent among them—to curb our enthu­si­asm. Yet as we remind you dai­ly here at Open Cul­ture, free edu­ca­tion­al resources still abound online, even if the online world isn’t as rad­i­cal as some rad­i­cals had hoped. Fre­quent­ly, those resources reside in online libraries like the Inter­net Archive, who store some of the best edu­ca­tion­al mate­r­i­al from pre-inter­net times—such as the NBC Uni­ver­si­ty The­ater, a pro­gram that comes from anoth­er tran­si­tion­al time for anoth­er form of mass media: radio.

Before pay­ola and tele­vi­sion took over in the fifties, radio also showed great poten­tial for democ­ra­tiz­ing edu­ca­tion. In 1942, at the height of the Gold­en Age of Radio, NBC “rein­au­gu­rat­ed” a pre­vi­ous con­cept for what it called the NBC Uni­ver­si­ty of the Air. “Through­out the mid-1940s,” writes the Dig­i­tal Deli, an online muse­um of gold­en age radio, “NBC pro­duced some twen­ty-five pro­duc­tions specif­i­cal­ly designed to both edu­cate and enter­tain. Indeed, many of those pro­grams were incor­po­rat­ed into the cur­ric­u­la of high schools, col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties through­out the U.S. and Cana­da.”

After 1948, the pro­gram was retooled as NBC Uni­ver­si­ty The­ater, then sim­ply NBC The­ater. “Irre­spec­tive of the title change,” how­ev­er, the pro­gram “con­tin­ued to main­tain the same high stan­dards and con­tin­ued to expand the num­ber of col­leges offer­ing col­lege cred­it for lis­ten­ing to and study­ing the pro­gram­s’s offer­ings.” Dig­i­tal Deli has the full details of this pro­to-MOOC’s cur­ricu­lum. It con­sists of lis­ten­ing to adap­ta­tions of “great Amer­i­can sto­ries,” great “world” stories–from Voltaire, Swift, and others–and adap­ta­tions of mod­ern Amer­i­can and British fic­tion and “Great Works of World Lit­er­a­ture.”

In short, the NBC Uni­ver­si­ty The­ater adap­ta­tions might sub­sti­tute for a col­lege-lev­el lit­er­ary edu­ca­tion for those unable to attend a col­lege or uni­ver­si­ty. In the playlist above, you can hear every episode from the show’s final run from 1948 to 1951. We begin with an adap­ta­tion of Sin­clair Lewis’s Main Street and end with Thomas Hardy’s “The With­ered Arm.” In-between hear clas­sic radio dra­ma adap­ta­tions of every­thing from Austen to Faulkn­er and Hem­ing­way to Ibsen. There are 110 episodes in total.

Each episode fea­tures com­men­tary from dis­tin­guished authors and crit­ics, includ­ing Robert Penn War­ren, E.M. Forster, and Kather­ine Anne Porter. “Apart from the obvi­ous aca­d­e­m­ic val­ue” of the series, writes Dig­i­tal Deli, “it’s clear that con­sid­er­able thought—and dar­ing—went into the selec­tions as well.” Despite the tremen­dous increase in col­lege atten­dance through the G.I. Bill, this was a peri­od of “ris­ing hos­til­i­ty towards aca­d­e­mics, pure­ly intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits, and the free exchange of philoso­phies in gen­er­al.”

The ensu­ing decade of the fifties might be char­ac­ter­ized cul­tur­al­ly, writes Dig­i­tal Deli, as an “intel­lec­tu­al vacuum”—anti-intellectual atti­tudes swept the coun­try, fueled by Cold War polit­i­cal repres­sion. And radio became pri­mar­i­ly a means of enter­tain­ment and adver­tis­ing, com­pet­ing with tele­vi­sion for an audi­ence. Qual­i­ty radio dra­mas continued—most notably of excel­lent sci­ence fic­tion. But nev­er again would an edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram of NBC Uni­ver­si­ty The­ater’s scope, ambi­tion, and rad­i­cal poten­tial appear on U.S. radio waves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Very First Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Star­ring David Niv­en (1949)

Hear Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and 84 Clas­sic Radio Dra­mas from CBS Radio Work­shop (1956–57)

Dimen­sion X: The 1950s Sci­Fi Radio Show That Dra­ma­tized Sto­ries by Asi­mov, Brad­bury, Von­negut & More

Free: Lis­ten to 298 Episodes of the Vin­tage Crime Radio Series, Drag­net

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (2)
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  • Martine says:

    Hey Josh, I was sam­pling the shows com­piled here and just real­ized you wrote the piece! So nice. Thank you.

  • Helen says:

    73 years after this was orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived I’m sit­ting here a world away in year two of covid ‑19 lock­down lis­ten­ing — what an amaz­ing resource and how far­sight­ed the NBC radio exec­u­tives were! Thank you to every­one involved in bring­ing this to us here in 2021!

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