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!