Friday, March 18, 2011


I bought an oddball double LP labeled "Earplay Vol 5" at a record store in Biddeford Maine. It was only a dollar and had some water stains. I almost skipped it; mold being the worst enemy of any personal library. (see dirty sleeve above) For this I risked it. I'd only heard of earplay. I never thought I'd get to hear it. These LPs were not in general circulation. The instruction was printed on the back cover of the gate-fold:
"Cleared for any number of radio broadcasts—only by non-commercially licensed radio in the U.S.A. —only between September 1 1972 and August 31, 1975. No copies of thsi record may be made. Record must be returned to EARPLAY September 1 1975. Acceptance of this record commits the station to conditions enumerated above."
EARPLAY was a project of Karl Schmidt at WHA, and the longest-running series of radio drama anthologies on NPR. I'm not making that up. NPR stands by that claim. Source here. Oficially it ran from 1972 into the 1990s. That claim is dubious. It started with a $150,000 grant. They started with 10-minute dramas and worked up to 4-hour features. It wasn't just a radio drama revival program. They had big name novelists and playwrights writing their scripts: Edward Albee, David Mamet, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Tom Stoppard, Donald Barthelme, Arthur Kopit, Archibald Macleish and many others.

But that multi-decade claim is misleading. Earplay certainly began in 1972, and certainly at WHA. Some sources put the end of Earplay in 1981. In 1981 NPR started overlapping Earplay with another radio drama program called "NPR Playhouse." Playhouse did adaptations of novel and films. They did versions of Don Quioxte and even Star Wars in that era. Some came from ZBS, some from the BBC, WHA WGBH and the Radio Theatre of Chicago. And in 1981, it was being carried on 200 stations. The funding came from the CPB not NPR. That's an important difference. As the program shunted into the NPR fold, NPR Playhouse even drew episodes from the Earplay catalog. To reiterate, even the Radio Gold Index puts Earplay as running only until about 1982 with the last couple discs being comprised of 1940s catalog material from the BBC. The Radio Gold Index has a decent EARPLAY discography here.

As Jack W. Mitchell put it in the book Listener Supported "Although critically successful, Earplay did not attract audiences and did not revive radio drama."  It was inadvertently killed by a funding dispute.  In an interview Tom Lopez, President of ZBS  exlained how it went down
"The thing is that they put forward a proposal. That is Earplay, NPR. The proposal was that they would have 3 centres producing radio drama. One doing classical, one doing popular, one doing serious drama,  I believe.  And it was starting off with 1.1. million and then it would increase to about 2 million. We looked at this proposal and were horrified. We said 'If this thing happens, we're screwed. Nobody else in this country will ever see any kind of money for producing radio drama'.  And so we put up a stink...The National Endowment listened to us, CPB wouldn't listen to us.  And the National Endowment agreed and that year didn't fund Earplay at all. They got zero. And they collapsed."