Today I'm binge-listening to Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama, produced by NPR and aired in 1981. I was inspired to check it out by the Theater for the Mind episode of Eric Molinsky's Imaginary Worlds podcast.
I heard the 10-episode radio version of The Empire Strikes Back in 1983 live on WKAR when it first aired, and was riveted by it. Empire was always my favorite Star Wars movie (at least, before Rogue One) and honestly, I think a large part of the reason was that listening to the NPR radio drama gave it a kind of deep mythos that the other movies lacked.
But I had never heard the 13-episode radio version of A New Hope, or the much later radio version of Return of the Jedi (1996). And it’s amazing.
Sure, it’s a little hokey (spoiler alert: so were the movies!) but it authentically captures the spirit of Star Wars. Indeed, the radio version of A New Hope has so much backstory that it doesn't even catch up with the action in the movie until the end of the third episode! (Sadly, these backstory details are no longer canonical, as they conflict with events from Rogue One.)
All the voice actors in the audio version are different, except for Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels. But it doesn't matter—the characters come alive in a different way through audio. On top of that, the sound design wizards at NPR, led by Tom Voegeli, son of the legendary Don Voegeli, create a whole world using bits and pieces of sound effects from Lucasfilm. And of course there's John Williams' majestic score, used almost to better advantage here than it is in the movie.
How crazy is it that NPR even tried this!? It’s the kind of project that’s unimaginable today. Yet Molinsky reports in his audio-drama episode that Star Wars boosted NPR’s audience by 40 percent.
If you want to listen, don't buy the exorbitantly priced $99 CD boxed set of the Star Wars radio dramas; they're all available free on the Internet Archive. I downloaded the episodes and put them on my phone, and I'm listening on my walks with Gryphon.