Radio Docudrama: The March of Time (1931-45)

Curator's Note

One of the most popular docudramas during the “Golden Age” of radio was The March of Time (1931-45). Time magazine, assisted by its advertising agency Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn, oversaw the weekly live broadcast that dramatized key news events each week, such as the Hindenburg explosion, the trial of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and Hitler’s speeches. Each live broadcast featured an announcer, “The Voice of Time,” who segued between unrelated dramatic scenes, which were performed by actors (such as Orson Welles) impersonating famous newsmakers. Each scene included live sound effects and full orchestral accompaniment. While the editors of Time selected the news stories, the radio department staff at BBDO actually produced the program, having developed expertise producing programs for companies such as General Motors and General Electric.

     BBDO and Time sought to develop a new sonic form of journalism. Because actuality sound was too difficult to achieve with recording technologies at the time, the live re-enactments were promoted as so accurate that radio listeners would not be able to tell the difference between the actors’ vocal impersonations and the actual newsmakers. Although some dialogue was scripted verbatim from actual events, in many cases BBDO writers simply fictionalized dialogue and characters.

     In this 1:30 clip, we see photos of BBDO performers and staff performing a live broadcast as we hear a British ship being torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea in 1938. As we hear explosions, water crashing into the ship, and crew rushing for lifeboats, we also hear the captain call for his wife Laura to save herself. An orchestral flourish dramatically closes the scene—leaving us to imagine the last moments of the captain and the wife he loved. Since no one survived the sinking, this scene was entirely fictionalized. But, in contrast to a soundless print news story, the sound effects, actors, and orchestra allowed the audience to feel as if they had “witnessed” the event. Time and BBDO created this sonic form of docudrama to humanize and personalize distant news events for audiences sitting safely in their living rooms.

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