Friday, November 26, 2010


I've just stumbled across the weekly radio drama, "Unshackled!" Each episode dramatizes the true story of someone who converts to Christianity, or converts someone else, or has their faith in Jesus strengthened. It's done in the style of old-time radio theater, with actors playing the roles of the convert, the preacher, the family members, or other characters; an organ playing incidental music, not unlike the flourishes in "The Shadow" or other programs of radio's golden era; and a roster of sound effects to enrich the atmosphere. The show first aired in 1950, making it radio's longest-running drama. It's broadcast on over 1,800 outlets in 148 countries on six continents in eight languages. Sounds promising, right?

So why is it so staggeringly dull? Or, to be fair, why were the half-dozen episodes I listened to (admittedly, out of more than 3,000 in its 60 years on the air) so flat?

It could be the pitiful sound effects. Nor does it help that there seems to be a slight echo in the studio, equalizing all environments -- whether outdoors, or in a church sanctuary, or a small room. Or maybe it's the tone-deaf actors, who sound as if they've been plucked off the street at random, handed a script, and told to read. Worse still is the excessive use of voiceover, in which major plot points are explained by an omniscient narrator, rather than dramatized by actors. One recent episode tells how the protagonist, Norma, has a big argument with her father over religion, but the only dramatization of this argument is a three-sentence exchange between them. Even at the risk of the show turning into soap-operatic melodrama, I'd much rather have heard a real smackdown over her evangelicalism and his resistance to it; that could have made for some terrific drama! And there must be plenty of people who have similar conflicts in their families. Instead, we get the daughter asking her father -- who at length agrees to attend a church service with her -- if wants to go up front and get saved; he tersely says, "No!" End of scene. 

But if pressed, I'd have to say the clincher is the lack of suspense and the strictures of convention. In the episodes I listened to, it's a foregone conclusion from the start that the protagonist will, no matter what the starting point, end up happy and strong in his/her faith. Again, in the "Norma" episode, Norma calls her foster mom to say that working and going to Bible college at the same time is just too taxing, so she might quit school and just work for a while. Her foster mom's cheery response is, "Well, that may be the Lord's plan, too!" Instead of blithe acceptance, why couldn't we hear whatever struggle Norma may be going through? Sure, it may be God's plan for her to drop out of school, but must (or did) our heroine instantly accede? Why doesn't she argue with God? Why do we hear none of her doubts, none of the prayers she makes in a pained effort to understand God's plan for her?

Maybe it really just didn't happen that way. If so, fair enough. But the other episodes I listened to all lacked the same basic dramatic tension. The protagonists are so resolute in their faith to begin with that there's never any question where things are going. They are walking with the angels, not wrestling with them. And while that may make for a pleasant reminder of faith -- precisely what the handful of listeners' comments on the website suggests they enjoy about the show -- it certainly doesn't make for drama. The major turning points may be acknowledged, but not the other turns that might have been taken, or why a particular choice was made. 

And -- not unlike at twelve-step meetings -- certain conventions are learned over time. I imagine that regular listeners have learned how to craft their story to fit the show's strictures. Even casual listeners, I would think, get to know what a typical "Unshackled!" testimonial includes, and therefore what they should write about. Just as new contestants on a reality-TV show know "how to act" to please that show's producers, or perhaps as Alcoholics Anonymous members have learned how to tell a story in a twelve-step style, so, too, may "Unshackled!" listeners become schooled in the conventions of a testimonial. If only the conventions leaned more towards thorny religious questions, the struggle of faith, rather than the fact of it. Of course, more than a little bit of the uniformity of voice here might be due to the writing staff (or the lead writer), who have their own defined style. 

Still, who cares if the show interests me? I'm not the target audience. The show may win some converts: apparently, in circular fashion, some of the "Unshackled!" episodes actually feature people who have been saved thanks to the radio show itself! Still, if I had to guess, I'd say that the show is primarily for an Evangelical Christian audience. They're preaching to the choir. And that's not a bad thing. Ministers do it every Sunday. 

On the "Unshackled!" website, you can listen to back episodes, read about the program's history (and that of the Pacific Garden Mission that launched the show), learn how to submit your own story, and get information on where you can see the show recorded live in studio. In spite of my misgivings about the show, I totally want to do that next time I'm in Chicago!


  1. I remember hearing this radio program as a child in the 1970s, in my parent's evangelical home. I didn't know it was still on the air! Even as a child, I recognized the strict pattern for stories that you describe. Having been baptized at the age of eight, I remember worrying that I didn't have a suitable "redemption" story that fit into the "Unshackled" model because I had never been a drunk on skid row, or otherwise hit bottom.

    Your point that, despite the redemptive story lines, the characters do not seem to wrestle with doubts or difficulties, resonates with my subsequent experiences in conservative evangelical communities. I notice that in Bible studies or prayer meetings there are certain standard types of narratives of redemption that people repeat, but almost never do they seem to reveal the experience of real struggles or doubts, and they always end with a positive resolution of faith. I think people do struggle and doubt, but they do so alone, because stories about doubt are not welcomed in evangelical communities.

  2. I don't know. I listen to a lot of old time radio, I also listen to Unshackled every week, I think it's pretty well done.

  3. I didn't find out about Unshackled until after i got saved. I enjoy the old timey Radio feel to it. (I'm a young person) Much better then sitting in front of a TV allowing it to "Program" it's "Reality" Garbage into your mind! The testimonies are powerful, and the message of Salvation by The Lord Jesus Christ is always there in the end. That's the most important part of it. Unshackled edifies. It's up to the listener, if they chose to Nit pick at meaningless things during the broadcast, and complain that the stage sound was of poor quality, and the accents were horrible etc. Or they could really Listen to the story, and have a seed planted in their hearts, feel convicted by the Holy spirit, and even maybe repent to the Lord Jesus Christ and get Saved! Some people will sadly just miss the boat all together.

  4. Your so wrong. I enjoy the stories from this program.

  5. I have to agree with Jeff and the two other anonymous commenters. I've been listening to this program since the early 1990's and one of the most enjoyable aspects of this show for me are the fact that it is done in the style of the old 1940's radio programs. I believe some of the sound effects, less-than-stellar acting and organ music add to the program's charm. This is not supposed to be an award-winning drama. The point is to tell the story. Daytime soap operas do not exactly feature the most impressive acting either, but they have the ability to reel people in. I think Unshackled! does the same thing. I'm glad it's still on the air. It's the only program of its kind I can still listen to, unless I go to YouTube where some of these old programs from Radio's Golden Age have been made available for new generations of listeners.

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