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Students at U of M recreate the "golden age" of radio - live on stage

May 6, 2016

Some say you can mark the day the “golden age of radio” ended.

CBS Radio aired the final episode of the radio drama Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar at 6:35 p.m. on September 30th, 1962.

(You can find that last episode here.)

One English teacher at the University of Michigan says there’s a lot to learn from that era.

Mike Byers is teaching his students how this kind of radio was made. He’s the author of the book Percival’s Planet. A story that takes you back to the 1930s -- right into the lives of the people who lived back then. 

So this radio drama class –- a class that studies what radio shows were like from 1930 to 1962 –- is kind of a perfect fit for him.

Byers says the radio made back then wasn’t just all cop shows, comedies, and sci-fi freak outs.

Other shows were produced too.

“A great show called Destination Freedom,” Byers says.

A great address of all kinds of long-standing racial inequities in this country addressed in this very straightforward, matter of fact way, in a way that we don’t really have anymore. You don’t hear that.

"... these guys who were writing a lot of this stuff were more thoughtful, or more willing to share that stuff than we are maybe today."

So in that way these guys who were writing a lot of this stuff were more thoughtful, or more willing to share that stuff than we are maybe today.”

Byers says this English class is also a secret history class. It’s history and an art form that he’s passing on to his students.

The week before graduation Byers’ class prepared for its final test. These students all wrote original radio dramas, and they voted on three of them to perform in front of a live audience.

They prepared for that night’s performance in a nearby classroom.

Byers says he has taught this course before.

“And this is the third time we’ve done it. Every time is a little different. And this time the shows I think are pretty ... ," Byers stops and laughs. He was about to say "solid," but he knows they aren’t radio engineers.

This is English 346. He says he usually teaches books.

But the students manage to create a live radio show with the materials they can drum up.

They tested a series of gadgets for their sound effects.

Byers showed me that thing that all radio dramas need – a door.

“And I turned it sideways because it was falling apart. And now it’s not falling apart anymore,” he said.

And let’s say that door leads you outside. Student Eric Zugabe showed me their wind machine – a wooden frame with a handle. It spins inside fabric running around the outside of it.

And for the sound of the doll that can cast a curse?

Senior Sean Danaher scored a homemade theremin from the physics department.

The students in this room also ran through their lines.

Sarah Sisk is a junior in English. She came up with the cursed doll idea for her show McQuinn and McQuinn – Soup Detectives.

“So they’re detectives who investigate curses and hauntings and other paranormal activities, like a regular detective would,” says Sisk.

She says she has a tendency to let a French accent bleed into her German one.

She’s also performing in two of the other dramas. Sisk is playing the part of an evil German woman in an episode of The Adventures of Tintin.

She says she has a tendency to let a French accent bleed into her German one.

Senior Randy Lockett was busy highlighting his script. He wanted to be sure to hit his cues.

“In two of the episodes, I’m playing the shoes, the footsteps,” he said.

Byers joked that Lockett is basically the star in one of the dramas. There are a lot of running scenes.

A couple of hours later and the show started in the auditorium of the U of M Art Museum.

The students and their gadgets were up on stage as Byers introduced his class.

The students performed all three dramas, all in a row.

“We’re not going to stop, no matter what happens,” he told the audience. “What you see here is as close as we can get, given our own constraints.”

The actors approached the microphone, holding their scripts.

They didn’t always get close to the microphone, but close enough, I suppose.

Sarah Sisk does well and and Randy Lockett did well. The students put on about an hour and a half of live radio.

Sure there were some pregnant pauses, and a few missed cues.

But when the students worked their way off the stage, they were all smiles and hugs and high fives. Not your typical ending for an English class.