The Music of Sound

D.I.Y. Old-Time Radio

Telling stories with sound


Age range: Good for 8-18 year olds

Estimated Time: The history of old-time radio podcast is under ten minutes in length. The ‘produce a spooky radio play at home’ podcast is under four minutes.

Key Technology: Computer, Internet, Speakers or headphones, iTunes or QuickTime

Terrifying Tales!

Sound and sound effects can help bring stories to life. Things are about to get seriously spooky. While learning about the “Golden Age of Radio,” we’ll explore why the medium seemed to specialize in suspense and horror. And we’ll find out how old-time radio’s sound effects wizards came up with all of those cool (and super creepy) sounds. Finally, we’ll produce our own spooky mini-drama inspired by old-time radio; and we have tips on how to record your own old-time radio sound effects at home!

Think About


  • When was the “Golden Age” of radio? 
  • What brought about the demise of radio’s golden age? 
  • According to Sound Designer Ben Burtt, what is different about doing sound effects for radio – compared with creating sound effects for a movie?

Critical Thinking

  • Why would it have been necessary for the sound effects crew to invent small sound effects devices that could fit on one table – like a mini squeaky door – instead of using actual squeaky doors in the building? 
  • Which sound effects sounded the most “real”?


  • Why do YOU think radio produced so many creepy shows during the golden age? 
  • Can you think of any TV shows or movies that sound like they evolved from the old creepy radio dramas? 
  • Using only common household items, we recorded a spooky story with our own sound effects. How would you do it differently? Can you come up with some ideas for your own radio play? How would you make the sound effects?

Before you get started, think about different media you use that don’t have any visual element – radio, podcasts, iPod, “books on tape,” and so on. Do you ever listen to stories/dramas this way – without any video?

As you listen, think about how powerful radio must have been in an era where nobody had television, computers, iPods, or other electronic media in the home.

After listening to each podcast, make a list of the main points presented in it. Also, write down at least one question you had after listening.

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

The National Capital Radio & Television Museum

For more on the legendary The War Of the Worlds broadcast:

To hear more episodes of The Inner Sanctum:


What makes radio so great? Here’s one argument:

For The Educator


This interactive can help kids think about the way stories are told when there is no visual element. The ingenious work of the sound effects specialists during radio’s golden age helps inspire creative thinking and problem solving. This podcast can also help kids think about history and the ways families were entertained in the first half of the 20th century. They’ll also hear about one of the most famous pop culture moments in history – the legendary 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. In our second podcast, we hear a spooky story inspired by the golden age of radio. This was recorded using sound effects made by common household items. Our simple drama can inspire kids to write and record radio plays of their own – or to spark a classroom performance using one group of kids to read the script – while another group of kids performs the sound effects.

Instructional Strategies 

A brief discussion should follow the podcast. Some topics for discussion include:

  • If you were writing a script for radio and some action was taking place, how would a listener know what was happening? Aside from simply having a narrator describe the action (like a car chase or a fight), how can your script make what is happening more engaging? 
  • What sounds can you use to help bring your script to life? 
  • In old-time radio dramas, some sound effects were used to represent concrete actions happening in the story – footsteps, punches, and so on. But we also hear sounds in the background that help set a mood. What sounds can be used to set the mood in a spooky story? 
  • Our “at-home” spooky radio drama used a few sounds that were manipulated by a computer; for example, we slowed down a sound to make the simple musical instrument, the triangle, sound like a huge, ominous tolling bell. But you don’t need any fancy equipment to do a pretend radio show in the classroom. If a student reading a script talks about walking through dry leaves, another student can rustle a plastic bag to simulate those footsteps. Close your eyes… and presto!

Assessment Ideas 

  • The examples of old-time radio heard in this podcast may sound ancient to us. For one thing, the old recordings are not always up to the technical standards of today. The voices and acting styles also sound like they came from another age. Ask students about their reactions to the examples of radio drama. Did they make you giggle? Did they come across as really scary? Are they creepy in a “fun,” Halloween party sort of way? Ask students to come up with their own radio drama scripts.


For more on old-time radio:

Radio Lovers

Old Time Radio

Most computers come pre-loaded with software that allows you to record AND manipulate sound. On Windows, you can download the free audio software, Audacity. On Macs, use Garage Band.



David Furst

Editors & Producers


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