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?
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.