Who done it? Students perform classic murder mystery radio plays and more on Northeastern’s WRBB.

Lily McCollum, who studies theatre and American sign language, and Liam Huff, who studies communication studies with a minor in theatre, work on radio plays at the Shillman Hall recording studio. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The audience won’t be able to see the tarnish on the silver spoon that reveals the poisonous murder weapon in Northeastern’s rendition of the 1940s radio play “Death Calls At Dinner.” Instead, listeners must conjure their own images of the homicide aided by the sounds of police mutterings and cutlery clinking in a pot of lethal toadstool soup. 

On Jan. 28, Northeastern’s student-run radio station, WRBB, will air five radio plays directed by Susan Picillo, a voice-over artist and primary lecturer of communication studies.

Lily McCollum sets up a microphone before a rehearsal of the WRBB radio plays. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Three of the plays are five-minute murder mysteries left over from the post-war radio drama tradition. One is a dramatic reading of a poem called “Atonement” by Todd Lewis, and one is Picillo’s abridged adaptation of the novel “A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy” by Sarah Lazarovic. 

“In plays or movies, actors are trying to be realistic. They’re trying to be believable,” Picillo says. “In radio plays, actors have to be so over-the-top because the audience doesn’t have any visual cues.” 

Before the advent of television, radio was a central piece of furniture in many American homes, Picillo explains. 

“Families would gather around the radio after dinner and listen to shows like ‘Superman’ or ‘Gunsmoke’,” she says. “People could come up with their own images of their favorite characters. It really allowed audiences this wonderful expression of their imagination.” 

To compensate for the lack of visuals, Picillo says she cast actors who are incredibly dramatic and capable of evoking a wide range of emotions with just their voices, music, and sound effects. “Everyone really got into the spirit during rehearsals,” she says. 

First-year students Noah Braunstein, Liam Huff, and Antonio Weissinger will act out the murder mysteries and read “Atonement,” and first-year students Lily McCollum, Emily Rosakranse, and Emma Harper, and fifth-year student Marie Siopy will discuss the beautiful things they do and do not own in the book-turned-dialogue piece. 

Each semester, Picillo teaches a class called “The Voice-Over Artist.” Radio plays are a common assignment, and after years of teaching radio drama in her class, Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, the chair of the Department of Theater, asked Picillo to collaborate with his department and broadcast her plays on the university’s station, which airs from the Curry Student Center 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

Picillo did not only use students from her class for these plays, however. Instead, she opened auditions to all students.

“During the auditions, I gave them material that forced them to use different voices,” she says. “I was looking for students who were vocally flexible, students who could just as easily play an old man or a mouse.” 

Unlike traditional radio plays which are often performed live, this year’s plays were pre-recorded with sound effects and music added in post-production. 

Many listeners will most likely not scan the dials of their radios to tune in to the shows—the broadcast will be available for streaming via the WRBB website. But if listeners want an authentic experience that harkens back to a bygone era, the shows can be heard on 104.9 FM in Boston. 

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.