Why you should write for radio

By Timothy Daly

Writers burn out. They get tired, get dispirited, distracted or drunk. Writing usually has a long lead-time between the conception of a dramatic idea and its full realisation in a stage production. From opening page to opening night can be a journey of years. It’s not uncommon for a writer to be thoroughly sick of his/her play by the time it is actually produced. Staying refreshed and interested, and even growing creatively—is the focus of this article. Let’s look at some alternatives to spending Christmas on Draft 15 of The Stage Play:


You should consider radio writing for these reasons:

    • It is a rich and imaginative medium, but one surprisingly easy to master (compared to the behemoth of stage).
    • It’s much easier to get a radio play produced than a theatre piece.
    • Publically-owned radio stations in the U.S.A., Britain, Australia, France and Germany still produce many hours of radio work in each. Dozens of new writers get their first professional credit from radio play.
    • There’s a surprising amount of artistic and professional recognition (not to mention satisfaction) from writing a radio play.
    •  Radio writing allows for a much wider range of writing styles than our current theatre scene does.
    •  Radio writing is, on one level, much closer to film writing than to play writing, so two things will occur: a) your writing will broaden; and b) you will learn how to write for film by starting out in radio.
    • The most common form for radio (currently) is the thirty-minute radio play. It’s a very achievable creative ambition for new and developing writers. A 30-minute radio play can be written in weeks, or less.
    • The money’s okay: about what most first-time novelists earn for their first novel (which took them three years).

Writers need creative refreshment and variety, so short of lying on the beach, writing for a different medium might be a road to consider.



The first step in writing for radio is having an idea, a story, an image, a ‘moment’ that you think will resonate in radio space. (Correction: the first step in writing for radio is to listen to it. Listen to radio plays on your local public radio network, for that’s where your work will most likely be done).

Until you develop the ‘radio instinct’ (that comes form listening to upwards of thirty hours of radio plays), here are some rules-of-thumb to assist you in answering one crucial question: Is my story/idea right for theatre or radio?

Some criteria to help you decide:

    • Does the idea have sound built into it, or implied? Radio should be described more as a ‘theatre of sound’ rather than a ‘theatre of words’. Sound images, music, the non-verbal utterances of the human body, the acoustic landscape (or an imposed one) are all possible in imaginative radio writing.
    • Is the idea set outdoors? Radio loves the outdoors (much more than rooms; in fact, radio is at its weakest when depicting ‘scenes set in a room’.
    • Is the idea/story an intensely interior one? (For example, I once heard a radio play made up almost entirely of the interior thoughts of a hospital patient in a coma. The outside world couldn’t hear a thing, but the radio audience could hear everything; the convention of radio allows for inner voices (more easily than theatre or film does).
    • Is fear built into the idea/story? Radio does fear very well. Think of the original radio “Mystery Half Hour” types of programmes.
    • Is intimacy and closeness part of the world of your story? Again, radio does that well.
    • Is it funny? To put it mildly, radio does humour well. The range of comedy styles that radio can accommodate is amazingly wide: from the subtle, near-interior intimacy of ‘smiling comedies’, to the histrionic, mad-manic performances of the Goons (whom you can still hear, fresh as ever, on Sunday afternoons and Friday mornings).
    • Is coldness or austerity a part of the story or its world? Again, radio does sparseness and ‘cold’ very well, especially if the narrative idea is strong.
    • Is fantasy built into the idea? Radio does most of the F’s superbly: fear, frigidity, fun, fantasy– and sex.
    • Does it have a central character or central relationship? Radio thrives on cast sizes with up to four or so main characters. Of course you can have more, but a concentrated cast size (especially in a 30-minute piece) allows for great intensity and focus.
    • Does the story have numerous locations? Like film, the rhythms of radio’s story-telling thrives on changes of place. In fact, it’s not going too far to say that unlike theatre’s medium (time/space) radio’s basic parameters are time and place. And ‘place’ in radio is a lot less expensive than film. “Scene 2: the Sahara” is a radio sound-effect; in film, it’s the beginning of an ambitious French/Algerian co-production.
    • Does the idea have a central narrator? The use of narrators is a vexed question (both for radio and stage; and a lot of film-makers suffer greatly over the use of the filmic equivalent: voice-over). But there’s no doubt that radio has used central (and focussing) narrators very effectively (The Goons, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and lots of one-off radio plays)
    • Is there a metaphysical level to the idea? For example, I have heard stories where characters talk to their dead fathers or lovers; where foxes have voices, where stones weep, where a woman talks to the young girl she once was. Radio does this so easily.
    • Is the plot basically a one-action story? A thirty-minute radio play is (more or less) the equivalent of a one-act theatre piece. If the idea has a natural ‘second part’, then it’s possibly too long for the current format. Alternately, it may be possible to write a play in two parts of thirty minutes each. Be sure, however, that the idea/story justifies such extension.

As a writer, I believe strongly in the notion of ‘creative refreshment’ where one’s powers of invention are restored and strengthened through trying new media, reading in new areas, developing new skills, analysing other forms, or simply, taking the chance to ‘sit back and think’.

For more on the techniques of radio writing, see my book The Techniques of Radio Writing.