That Time NPR Turned 'Star Wars' Into A Radio Drama — And It Actually Worked In the 1980s, NPR looked to the film saga to help boost audience numbers. it bought the rights from George Lucas (for $1) and got the original Luke Skywalker. The result was an overwhelming success.
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That Time NPR Turned 'Star Wars' Into A Radio Drama — And It Actually Worked

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That Time NPR Turned 'Star Wars' Into A Radio Drama — And It Actually Worked

That Time NPR Turned 'Star Wars' Into A Radio Drama — And It Actually Worked

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

No surprise - the new "Star Wars" is already posting record numbers. Today's U.S. box office alone is pointing to a more than $100 million gross. There was a time when NPR hoped the galactic fable would send its audience numbers to new heights - really. Back in 1981, NPR aired the first of three radio dramas based on George Lucas's original film trilogy. Derrick John of member station WBEZ takes us back.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "STAR WARS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there came a time of revolution, when rebels...

DERRICK JOHN, BYLINE: Radio rebels united to challenge a tyrannical empire ruled by commercial broadcasters.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "STAR WARS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But most of the citizens of that vast empire of a million star systems took little notice of this tremendous conflict.

JOHN: And that was a problem. NPR figured maybe it could get citizens' attention by reviving radio drama, which had been out of fashion for some 30 years. So network called Richard Toscan, head of the theater program at the University of Southern California. Hero remembers asking a colleague for advice.

RICHARD TOSCAN: And so there was this long pause, and he says, create a scandal.

JOHN: Toscan was at a loss when he mentioned the problem to a student.

TOSCAN: And he said, oh, why don't you do "Star Wars"? There was the scandal.

JOHN: Because "Star Wars" was a commercial juggernaut.

TOSCAN: Folks working at NPR though, oh, good grief; we're selling out to Hollywood.

JOHN: But if this was selling out, it sure came cheap. George Lucas had graduated from USC and was a fan of the campus NPR station. After a little prodding, he gave away the radio rights to "Star Wars" for $1 - a public radio budget if there ever was one. The producers brought in a little-known theater director named John Madden, who had worked with the BBC.

JOHN MADDEN: The idea of doing this seemed a complete hoot, but I was so up for it.

JOHN: And so were some of the movie's stars. Anthony Daniels returned as the uptight protocol droid C-3PO, and Mark Hamill voiced Luke Skywalker.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "STAR WARS")

MARK HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) Wait a minute. There's something showing on the scanner dead ahead. Hit it, 3PO. He should be right in front of us.

ANTHONY DANIELS: (As C-3PO) Look, sir, there he is - R2-D2.

MADDEN: Mark Hamill, who'd never done any radio work, proved to be an absolute natural.

JOHN: But turning a film known for its spectacular visuals into noncommercial radio was not. The producers had to create 13 half-hour episodes from a movie with only about 30 minutes of dialogue. They enlisted the late sci-fi novelist Brian Daley to write more back story and exposition. So for instance, we get an extended scene aboard the Death Star that was never in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "STAR WARS")

BROCK PETERS: (As Darth Vader) Listen to my voice. You are now in great pain, excruciating pain - pain.

JOHN: Darth Vader, played by Brock Peters, interrogates Princess Leia, voiced by Ann Sachs.

ANN SACHS: I actually kind of get shivers thinking back on it. It was really scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "STAR WARS")

PETERS: (As Darth Vader) Your skin is afire. You're burning. Your nerve endings are in flames. Your flesh is being torn apart.

SACHS: (As Princess Leia) Make it stop.

SACHS: I'll never forget. After it was finished, he came out into the greenroom and he gave me a big hug. And I kind of clammed up, and he said, oh, you poor dear. I am so sorry.

JOHN: Sachs says part of what makes that scene work is the mix by engineer Tom Voegeli. Now, it didn't hurt that Voegeli had access to John Williams' music and Ben Burtt's sound effects from the film, but it could still take him and entire day to put together just a minute of audio.

TOM VOEGELI: Like just choreographing Darth Vader's breathing so that he wasn't breathing in the wrong places. And now, you could take those breaths and move them on a computer screen and do it pretty easily.

JOHN: Voegeli was mixing with reel-to-reel tape machines and editing with razor blades.

TOSCAN: It was analog with a vengeance.

JOHN: Again, USC's Richard Toscan, who was executive producer of the radio drama that finally debuted in 1981.

TOSCAN: We were all walking way out on a plank, I think, keeping our fingers crossed.

JOHN: It was an overwhelming success. The sleepy little network received 50,000 letters and phone calls in a single week, and there was a 40 percent jump in audience. For John Madden, the experience eventually led him to direct his own movies, including the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare In Love."

MADDEN: Because we were making movies. We were making movies with the lights turned out, you know, movies to watch with your eyes closed.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "STAR WARS")

HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) If we can pull this one off, we got it made. Here it goes. Yeah, we made it, woo.

JOHN: Yeah, we made it. For NPR News, I'm Derek John.

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