When Hamlet said, "The play's the thing," he was talking about hiding a message within a dramatic work to find out if his uncle had murdered his father.
At Focus on the Family, radio dramas have a less covert purpose: to entertain and enlighten.
"Dr. James Dobson felt there was so much violence on television, that there was no safe haven for kids," said Dave Arnold, producer and host of "Focus on the Family Radio Theatre," referring to the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family.
Julia McKenzie and John Rhys-Davies perform in 'Traveling Home for Christmas.' "He recalled that as a boy, he and his family used to gather around the radio and listen to live dramas," Arnold continued.
"With that in mind, he tasked the creative department here with making a 13-week pilot series aimed toward children. The stories aired as part of our daily broadcasts of 'Focus on the Family' and we received very good feedback. As a result, 'Adventures in Odyssey,' a weekly radio drama for 8-to-12 year olds, was created.
"That was over 20 years ago and 'Odyssey' is still going strong. In 1996, 'Radio Theatre' was launched in an effort to broaden the type of stories that could be created for the entire family." Its first production was based on Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
The driving forces behind these elaborately staged works are Arnold and Paul McCusker, the latter a director and author of several original stories.
"My background was in sound design," said Arnold. "So I wanted to experiment with telling a story in sound."
Focus on the Family is a nationally known and wide-ranging ministry that uses syndicated radio programming, books, films, magazines, the Internet and a newsletter to extend its reach.
The organization and its founder have generated their share of controversy, and gay activists protested the organization's induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame this year.
Its stated mission: "To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide."
Dave Arnold "Odyssey" airs on approximately 2,000 facilities and is being adapted into Spanish audio and Hindi video, with plans for Mandarin Chinese audio soon as well. "Focus on the Family Radio Theatre" has been heard on some 250 radio stations and is being adapted into Turkish. "Radio Theatre" has won accolades including a George Foster Peabody Award, multiple Audie Awards and the Parent's Choice Award.
Pictures for the ear
These contemporary dramas are created using budgets ranging from $40,000 to $200,000 each, depending on the scope of the particular story. The casts may be as small as 15 or more than 100.
"All our music is custom-composed using a combination of real musicians and synthesizers," said Arnold. "We've even added choirs in a few of the stories. The sound effects are a blend of material from CD libraries and what we record ourselves. We also have a Foley room with loads of props, where we create live effects and add the basic footsteps and body movement sounds."
The "Radio Theatre" actors are recorded in London because of the quality of talent Arnold is able to find there. He has traveled across the Atlantic many times to produce these sessions himself.
"It's a different approach to acting there," he said. "Those actors are familiar with radio dramas because they have recorded so many for the BBC. They are proud to just work at their craft, whether it's in film, TV, stage or radio. Everyone we've used brings something unique to the stories."
Some of those actors are Academy Award winners and nominees; they've included Paul Scofield ("A Man for All Seasons"), Ron Moody ("Oliver") and Joan Plowright ("Enchanted April").
Several have won or been nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Arts laurels, such as Leo McKern ("Rumpole of the Bailey") and Joss Ackland ("Shadowlands"). There are a few Golden Globe nominees among the casts, such as Jenny Agutter ("The Railway Children") and John Rhys-Davies ("Lord of the Rings," "Raiders of the Lost Ark").
After the voices are recorded, post production is done primarily at the Focus on the Family studios in Colorado Springs. Anywhere from one to five new "Radio Theatre" plays are created each year, depending on the availability of suitable material. The same production team also works on the kids' series "Adventures in Odyssey" (originally known as "Odyssey USA") which is recorded Los Angeles.
"Radio Theatre" chooses to produce secular tales with a positive message, such as "The Chronicles of Narnia," "At the Back of the North Wind" and "The Secret Garden."
"More than anything, we're after a good story, and every one we've chosen has a distinct moral message," he said. "They are redemptive; they inform us as we search for meaning in our lives. The purpose of each 'Radio Theatre' is to communicate a Christian worldview without preaching, much in the way Jesus did. He told stories through parables and communicated lessons we can all learn from."
Shows are recorded using Pro Tools and backed up on a TASCAM DA-88 digital tape recorder. There is also an impressive array of other gear. But even with top talent and equipment, not everything on "Radio Theatre" goes as planned.
"We once bought 10 pounds of corn starch to plaster the floor of our Foley pit so that we could walk on it to create the sound of footfalls on snow," said Arnold.
"We didn't know at the time how bad that was for our lungs! There was another moment at the end of the biggest scene of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,' when we had 20 people in the studio slaying Aslan, the lion. It was a perfect take, but the DA-88 tape had run out. The engineer went pale white. Everyone in the room knew what happened. We could have used the icy stares to create a safe snow Foley pit."
Since 2006, "Radio Theatre" has been off the regular air schedule but the dramas are available as syndicated specials and individual stations can opt to run each new production.
"Amazing Grace," a recent example, was picked up by 250 stations as well as BBC Radio 7. Other offerings have been covered by Public Radio International.
All shows are also made available on CD at www.focusonthefamily.com under the entertainment section. The back catalog is sold on CD in bookstores through a licensed partner and Focus on the Family makes a royalty on each sale. Those sold directly by Focus on the Family are offered for a donation, as that organization is classified as tax-exempt. Downloads of each story are also available via Audible (www.audible.com) and soon via the Focus on the Family Web site.
Ken Deutsch says he knows all about drama; he has been married 20 years and raised a stepson.