The Original Star Wars Trilogy Adapted into a 14-Hour Radio Drama by NPR (1981–1996)

When it opened in 1977, Star Wars revived the old-fash­ioned swash­buck­ling adven­ture film. With­in a few years, Nation­al Pub­lic Radio made a bet that it could do the same for the radio dra­ma. Though still well with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry, the “gold­en age of radio” in Amer­i­ca had end­ed decades ear­li­er, and with it the shows that once filled the air­waves with sto­ries of every kind. Radio dra­mas seemed extinct, but then, before George Lucas’ space opera turned block­buster, so had movie seri­als like Flash Gor­don and Buck Rogers. The episod­ic nature of such source mate­r­i­al res­onat­ed with the sim­i­lar­ly episod­ic nature of clas­sic radio dra­ma, and that must have brought with­in the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty a bold and near-scan­dalous propo­si­tion: to re-make Star Wars for NPR.

The idea came from a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, who sug­gest­ed it to USC School of the Per­form­ing arts dean and radio-dra­ma enthu­si­ast Richard Toscan. There could have been no insti­tu­tion bet­ter-placed to take on such a project. Since Toscan had already pro­duced dra­mas on the school’s NPR-affil­i­at­ed radio sta­tion KUSC, he made an ide­al col­lab­o­ra­tor in the net­work’s effort to breathe new life into its dra­mat­ic pro­gram­ming. And as Lucas’ alma mater, USC inspired in him a cer­tain gen­eros­i­ty: Lucas sold KUSC Star Wars’ radio rights, along with use of the film’s music and sound effects, for one dol­lar. Found­ed just a decade ear­li­er, NPR still lacked the expe­ri­ence and resources to han­dle such an ambi­tious project itself, and so entered into a co-pro­duc­tion deal with the BBC, which had nev­er let radio dra­ma go into eclipse.

When the Star Wars radio dra­ma was first broad­cast in the spring of 1981, fans of the movie would have heard a mix­ture of the famil­iar (includ­ing the voic­es of Mark Hamill as Luke Sky­walk­er and Antho­ny Daniels as C‑3PO) and the unfa­mil­iar. With sci­ence-fic­tion nov­el­ist Bri­an Daley brought on to add or restore scenes to the script of the orig­i­nal dia­logue-light fea­ture film, the sto­ry stretch­es out to thir­teen episodes for a total run­time of six hours. The series thus stands as an ear­ly exam­ple of the expan­sion of the Star Wars uni­verse that, in all kinds of media, has con­tin­ued apace ever since. An Empire Strikes Back radio dra­ma fol­lowed in 1983, with Return of the Jedi fol­low­ing, after pro­longed devel­op­ment chal­lenges, in 1996.

You can hear all four­teen hours of these orig­i­nal Star Wars tril­o­gy radio dra­mas at the Inter­net Archive (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), or on a Youtube playlist with fan edits com­bin­ing the orig­i­nal­ly dis­crete episodes into con­tin­u­ous lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ences. NPR’s gam­ble on adapt­ing a Hol­ly­wood hit paid off: the first Star Wars radio dra­ma drew 750,000 new lis­ten­ers, many from the youth­ful demo­graph­ic the net­work had hoped to cap­ture. It was the biggest sci­ence-fic­tion event on Amer­i­can radio since Orson Welles scared the coun­try with his adap­ta­tion of H.G. Welles’ The War of the Worlds more than 40 years ear­li­er — a broad­cast pro­duced by John House­man, who in his capac­i­ty as USC’s artis­tic direc­to­ry in the 1970s, encour­aged Toscan to bring radio dra­ma back. In recent years, NPR’s audi­ence has con­tin­ued to age while the Star Wars fran­chise has in the­aters, on tele­vi­sion and else­where, gone from strength to strength. Has the time come for radio to use the Force once again?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sci-Fi Radio: Hear Radio Dra­mas of Sci-Fi Sto­ries by Ray Brad­bury, Philip K. Dick, Ursu­la K. LeGuin & More (1989)

30 Hours of Doc­tor Who Audio Dra­mas Now Free to Stream Online

Hear Five JG Bal­lard Sto­ries Pre­sent­ed as Radio Dra­mas

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

The Com­plete Star Wars “Fil­mu­men­tary”: A 6‑Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Doc­u­men­tary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Com­men­tary

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (9) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (9)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Peter says:

    I have a num­bered spe­cial edi­tion of all 3 movies of the radio dra­ma on CD. It’s one of the few CD’s I have left, and will nev­er get rid of.

  • Richard says:

    Nice! Glad you’ve liked them so much.
    Richard (the guy who did the orig­i­nal 13-part series for NPR)

  • DON says:

    I’VE ALWAYS LOVED RADIO MYSTERY pro­grams. Did­n’t real­ized these exist­ed. Thank you

  • Lee Shackleford says:

    Wow, I did not expect Richard Toscan to be in this con­ver­sa­tion! Bless you for­ev­er, sir, for this out­stand­ing series … I pro­duce audio dra­mas today and your STAR WARS ser­i­al is 95% of the rea­son why. I felt it con­firmed that the Gold­en Age of Radio did not die but was mere­ly sleep­ing, and now the pod­cast rev­o­lu­tion has proven you right. (Oh, and no dis­re­spect to Car­rie Fish­er, but Ann Sachs IS Princess Leia…)

  • Jack says:

    Can we get these released as pod­casts???

  • Matt says:

    I remem­ber lis­ten­ing to the orig­i­nal at home as it aired; it was a big deal and I lis­tened with my old­er sis­ter and a cou­ple friends in the neigh­bor­hood. It was a gath­er­ing point type mem­o­ry. Still a child­hood high­light.

  • Don Maue says:

    Sad to report that as of this writ­ing (9/22/2020) the Inter­net Archive no longer has the episodes avail­able.

  • Blair Nelson says:

    I have the lim­it­ed edi­tion set of the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back radio dra­mas, and the reg­u­lar edi­tion of Jedi. Does any­one know of a place to lis­ten to the extras for Jedi that were only avail­able through the com­plete, lim­it­ed tril­o­gy edi­tion? I can­not find them any­where, and I’m very sad about that. I am most grate­ful for any help. Great series!

  • Felix says:

    Where can one lis­ten to these gems in 2023? I’ve nev­er had an inter­est in WATCHING Star Wars but would love to HEAR Star Wars.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.