“What the hell, Tom? What have you done?”
Nevada Public Radio News Director Joe Schoenmann uttered those final words the night of Oct. 26 as ominous music began. Schoenmann and Crazy Tom, a former physicist, had just come face to face with a mysterious alien. A year earlier, the duo had watched as extraterrestrials invaded Las Vegas and began harvesting humans as food.
These alien encounters were live on air for all of Las Vegas to hear — and they were complete fiction.
Schoenmann’s latest capers made up Beneath Area 51!, a sequel to Nevada Public Radio’s first-ever radio play, Live From Area 51! That November 2020 broadcast was among the station’s highest-rated shows all year. Together, the dramas mark the station’s expansion into an increasingly popular genre and have helped to keep Las Vegas actors and musicians employed during the pandemic.
Schoenmann wrote both dramas in addition to starring in them. The news director had never tried his hand at theater but saw an opportunity for the station.
“Part of the inspiration for me when I was thinking about it was people are so into podcasts these days,” he said. “I thought maybe it’s time people listen to a radio play.”
After a golden age on the air, radio dramas started waning in popularity in the early 1960s. But amid the growth of podcasts, dramas have seen a resurgence. During the pandemic, the downturn in live performances also prompted theaters to move into audio dramas, some in collaboration with public radio stations.
“There’s an opportunity for people that I think they’re comfortable just sitting still for a while,” said Jerry Nadal, CEO of Nevada Public Radio. “Everybody’s got a radio. So we thought that you can provide entertainment that way.”
Schoenmann had pitched the idea of a radio drama before the pandemic started. Nadal gave him the go-ahead after COVID arrived and the station needed content. Schoenmann had always been fascinated by Area 51, the U.S. Air Force base in Rachel, Nev., that has long been the center of alien conspiracy theories, and had reported on the mysterious military installation.
The news director started working on the script for Live From Area 51! as the pandemic set in. It took him eight months to write the drama, which Schoenmann worked on at a local coffee shop after work and on weekends. Schoenmann drew inspiration from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, the 1938 radio reenactment of the science-fiction novel that convinced many listeners that an alien invasion had actually begun.
“I want to see people in this day and age think of something like that as potentially real,” Shoenmann said.
Schoenmann had no experience directing radio plays. However, Nadal had worked for Cirque du Soleil for 21 years and reached out to a former colleague for help.
An adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Kate St-Pierre had been teaching a directing class about radio dramas. When Nadal asked whether she was interested in directing Live From Area 51!, St-Pierre said, the request was “serendipitous.”
“It sounded perfect. We were still in September 2020, I’m teaching online, and we were all trying to figure out how to create really strong opportunities for students to challenge themselves to still learn and be creative,” St-Pierre said. “When Jerry brought this up, I was like, ‘Awesome.’ And aliens, well, that’s just part of living in Vegas.”
Live From Area 51! was the first radio drama St-Pierre had ever directed. She edited Schoenmann’s script, ran rehearsals and cued up hundreds of sound effects.
One of the hardest parts of directing radio plays is describing scenes with only audio, St-Pierre said. “The car doors have to open … and before even that the car pulls in and slows down on the gravel,” St-Pierre said. “All that story — we’ve got to create those smells and the sights in your mind.”
Live From Area 51! did not cause mass hysteria, but Schoenmann said that some listeners might have thought it was real. “We got one email … I don’t know if it was in jest, but it was something to the effect [of] ‘I’m glad Joe’s still alive,’” he said.
For this year’s sequel, Schoenmann adopted a less serious tone. Beneath Area 51! featured trekking through subterranean tunnels under McCarran International Airport and a dimension-jumping quantum computer that controlled the minds of Las Vegas residents.
Each drama ran about 40 minutes so as not to test listeners’ attention spans. Cast and crew performed both shows live in the station’s studio, with accompaniment from members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. Schoenmann, who had had no acting experience since playing Ernie in I Remember Mama in fourth grade, said performing live was like “climbing a mountain” — if an actor made an error, they had to keep going or “freeze to death.”
Nevada Public Radio didn’t invite an in-studio audience last year, and St-Pierre said performing without any reactions felt “weird.” This year, about 20 people in studio gasped and clapped when prompted by cue cards. The drama was also broadcast via Facebook Live.
The third and final installment of the Area 51! trilogy will air next year, and Nadal said that Nevada Public Radio will continue to make radio dramas an annual event.
“We think that there’s an opportunity for it,” Nadal said. “I think if we keep it as a special once, maybe twice a year … that’s something you can build anticipation for.”
Nadal said the audience also reacted positively because the dramas included local performers and were about the community.
The dramas have given many unemployed Las Vegas performers a chance at a job, St-Pierre said. “Vegas was really hit hard by the pandemic, and we have over 52 independent producing organizations, and there aren’t even shows on the Strip,” she said. “This really gave an opportunity to create some work for people that had nothing, and it also created joy and [a chance] to come together safely during COVID.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Kate St-Pierre is a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. St-Pierre is an adjunct professor.