The History of Commercial Radio – Audio Drama for Schools Lesson 02


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This week we continue posting a unit of lessons on audio drama for use in schools. They will eventually be gathered into a book but for now they are available freely here at www.weirdworldstudios.com . We hope you enjoy them and welcome any feedback you wish to provide.
We also offer a great line of audio drama scripts for sale (designed as a dinner party event but eminently suitable for use in classrooms). Our showcase contains a wide variety of FREE hand picked classic audio drama from the golden age of radio and the resources section of our site provides links to great resources on sound effects.

Enjoy!

The History of Commercial
Radio

In our last lesson we looked at how electro-magnetism allows a radio to operate, how an electromagnet is constructed, how to transmit an electromagnetic signal to a receiver, and how a signal can be modified to replicate sound waves.

This lesson takes approximately 4.5 to 5 hours to complete.  Add time for any audio exerpts you wish to play to the class.

There are no pre-requisites for completing this lesson.

This booklet contains everything you need to complete this lesson.  If you would like to play sections of audio drama as example material then you will need an audio player capable of playing .mp3 files and you will need to download the audio files listed from our website.

Suggested audio includes

 

At the end of this lesson you will be able to…

  • outline the development of radio in three countries (the U.S., the U.K., and Australia)
  • compare and contrast the different paths radio took during this development
  • discuss the impact of radio on culture
  • discuss the impact of censorship, regulation, and commercial sponsorship on creative freedom

  • The History of Commercial Radio
    • The Era of Experimentation
    • Naval and Military Use
    • Amateur Use
    • Regulation and Control
    • Commercial Broadcasting
    • Programming
    • Dramatic Types
    • The influence of Radio
    • Controlling Radio
    • The rise of the Networks
    • Radio during the war years
    • The Death of Radio Drama?
    • The Internet and the Revival of Radio Drama

Advertising Sponsorship
Advertising sponsorship became the main means of funding radio programming in commercial stations.  Advertisers would pay to have their products spruiked to listening audiences and the funds from advertising would cover the costs of developing programs and providing a profitable return to station owners.
Anthology
An anthology was series of individual stories with different sets of characters.
Censorship
The control or suppression of speech and expression on the grounds that it may be considered objectionable, harmful, politically or commercially sensitive, or inconvenient.  The decision to  control information is generally made by governments, industry, or other social power brokers.
Crystal Radio Receiver
A crystal radio receiver was an extremely simple radio receiver constructed from a few simple parts.  It required no power source but drew its power from the radio signal itself detected through an antenna.  In the early days of radio (when commercial sets were very expensive) do it yourself crystal sets were extremely popular.
Golden Age of Radio
The Golden Age of Radio is that period when radio was at its peak in popularity and lasted from the 1930s through the 1940s until its decline in the early 1950s.
Guglielmo Marconi
An Italian inventor known for the development of the first commercial radio telegraph system under the auspices of the Marconi company.
Internet
The internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks set up to exchange digital content.
Propaganda
Communications directed to the public aimed at swaying public opinion.  The information may be true or false but is always calculated to persuade.
Radio Licensing
Licensing was (and is) a commonly employed means of regulating the use of radio.  Two main forms of licensing have been employed.  The first involved charging a license fee to listeners.  With the exception of the U.K this has not tended to catch on.  The second involves the licensing of broadcasters and is the more common approach to licensing.
Radio Network
Radio networks developed as a means of reducing costs, sharing resources, and gaining competitive advantage.  Small stations simply could not profitably create all their own programming.
Radio Play/ Radio Drama
Radio plays were dramatic presentations constructed purely for the ear (with no visual component).  They involved music, sound effects, and voice acting to dramatise a story without the extensive narration of a book reading).  They were made available to the public through radio broadcast.
RMS Carpathia
The RMS Carpathia was a Cunard Line transatlantic passenger ship that received the distress signal from the Titanic and came to the rescue of surviving passengers when the “unsinkable”
Titanic sank.
RMS Titanic
The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg on April 15th in 1912.  It was rumoured to be unsinkable and carried to radio operators working for the Marconi company.
Serial
A serial was a program using a regular cast of characters involving a single ongoing story that developed from episode to episode.
Series
A series was a program using a regular cast of characters involved in a series of stand-alone stories.
Spark-Gap Transmitter
An early form of radio transmitter that created a long range electromagnetic field for the transmission of morse code.  The signal was not modulated and tended to blanket all radio bands
within range.

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The past is a window that opens onto the present.  Not only does it show us how the present came to be, but also the pressures which shape it, and the trends which are likely to define its future.  This is of particular interest with regard to the new mass medium of the internet.  By looking at and critically comparing radio with the internet we can see some of the competing interests at work and changes likely to come about with regard to the shape of things to come.

I have always had an interest in creativity and creative freedom.  As much as I would like to believe that creative freedom is absolute, it is always being shaped and channelled by other factors, sometimes with good reason, at other times by arbitrary regulation and pointless pressures.  Limits are placed on creative freedom by obvious factors such as the creative ability of the creators themselves and the extent of their vision.  But also, creativity is limited by regulation and censorship.  In some countries politics limits what can be expressed, laws and regulations are enacted to limit expression, creative people self-censor to avoid persecution, and/or commercial factors place limits on creative expression (subject x won’t sell etc.).  The history of radio as a mass medium for creative expression is replete with examples of such external factors at work.  Keep your eyes open as you read through these materials and try to identify these limiting factors.  When do you think they were legitimate and when were they not?  Why?  What direction could radio have taken instead?  And what impact would that have had?

Here are some questions to get you started…

Let’s think for a moment about road traffic.

  • What would result if there were no laws
    governing the use of our roads?
  • Are
    there times when the public use of roads can be banned or curtailed?  Give an example of such a time?  How legitimate do you feel this is?
  • Can you imagine what would happen if your  right to drive
    was determined by your capacity to gain advertising sponsorship?
  • What limits might this place on whether you
    could drive, where you could drive and how you could drive?
  • How might this affect your behaviour as a
    driver?
  • How much power would this give drivers?
  • How much power would this give sponsors?
  • How would living in such a world limit or enhance personal freedom?

The Era of Experimentation

As discussed briefly in our last lesson, the invention of electromagnetism led to a lot of experimentation.  Guglielmo Marconi is credited with being the man who drew the numerous strands of experimentation together to invent the wireless radio.  An entrepreneur as well as an inventor, in 1897 he founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company (which later became the Marconi Company) in England.

Naval and Military Use

The earliest use of wireless telegraphy was in naval
communication via spark-gap transmitters.  These transmitters are no longer in use today as they create static bursts across the entire radio spectrum (all channels and frequencies) but were
used to pass messages in the form of Morse code from ships to shore.  They were used for emergency communication but were also made available for passengers to send and receive telegrams.  The Marconi Company provided the operators to the ships.

Advertisement for the RMS Titanic

Advertisement for the RMS Titanic

Two radio operators from the Marconi Company were present on the Titanic when it sank.  One of them survived.  On April 15 1912, survivors were rescued by the RMS Carpathia.  The Postmaster general, referring to the titanic disaster, stated “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi… and his marvellous invention.”

Amateur Use

During these early unregulated days, radio enjoyed widespread amateur use.  Many industrious individuals built their own crystal receivers and would listen in to radio signals.  One amateur operator picked up the Titanic’s distress call from London and, went down to the local pub to break the news.  He was not believed, of course, since everyone at the time thought the Titanic was unsinkable.

Regulation and Control

Licensing and attempts at regulation were part and parcel of the landscape in Britain almost from the moment of radio’s inception.  In Australia the airwaves were regulated and licensed form 1905 but in the U.S the free for all days of wireless lasted until December 1912 with the passage of the Wireless Act of 1912.  In the U.S a ban was placed on the non-military use of wireless until 1919.

In the U.S the airwaves were considered public property and no attempt to make listeners pay for a license ever succeeded.  Instead all stations and operators had to be licensed.  Australia took after the U.K, using regulation to attempt to charge a fee to listeners as well as stations.  Unlike in the U.K, this proved a major hindrance to the uptake of radio.  Between 1923 and 1924 only 1400 people were licensed to listen and a new arrangement was entered into in 1924 that more closely mimicked the situation in the U.S.

As well as being regulated almost from the outset, the development of public broadcasts was actively opposed by the government in the U.K (which felt radio should be reserved for military and emergency services use only).   Marconi himself persisted in seeking to bring radio to the masses and, at last, his company (motivated by a desire to sell radio receivers) was granted a license to operate.

Commercial broadcasting

The BBC was established in 1922 and aimed to provide quality programmes consisting of concerts, plays, news broadcasts, and variety entertainment.  The transmission was funded by a tax on the sale of wireless sets and listener licenses.

Broadcasting to the public in the U.S was also driven by commercial concerns.  Westinghouse was planning to market (through RCA) a radio receiver called the Aeriola Jr. but were aware that
without programs to listen to, no one would buy it.  The Westinghouse station began broadcasting commercially in October 1920.

Australia’s first commercial broadcaster 2CM began operating with a regular roster of programs in December of 1922 and the Australian Broadcasting Commission did not come into existence until 1 July 1932.

Programming

Initially radio aimed at the public broadcast music and news.  In 1916 David Sarnoff, then a New York based Marconi wireless operator who would later become a legendary figure in U.S broadcasting, wrote the following :

“I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a household utility.  The idea is to bring music into the home by wireless.  The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple radio music box and arranged for several different wavelengths, which could be changeable with the throwing of a single switch or the pressing of a single button.  Baseball scores can be transmitted in the air.  This proposition would be especially interesting to farmers and others living in outlying areas.”

He would go on to become the General Manager of RCA and help develop the first radio network (NBC).

Music and news (and sports) were the initial mainstays of radio programming.  While the educational and public interest potential of radio was always listed to regulators as one of the great benefits of broadcast radio, in practice educational programming did not attract listeners and was generally avoided (except where mandated by law) or given token attention.

Agnes Moorehead at the microphone

Agnes Moorehead at the microphone

The beginning of dramatic entertainment arguably occurred with the reading of books and stories on air, particularly bedtime stories for children.  It was not long before most stations had “story ladies” reading stories for children at bedtime.

The U.S pioneered the introduction of the radio play.  An actor by the name of Edward H. Smith, associated with a New York theatre group called “The Masque” suggested the idea of adapting popular plays for radio.  The Program Director, Kolin Hager, at WGY (a General Electric station in New York) was concerned that audiences might not have the concentration span to cope with complete plays and made the attempt conditional upon the plays not exceeding 40 minutes of air time.   As an interesting aside, it is arguable that this is the first recorded instance of station management underestimating the intelligence and sophistication of the listening public.

Smith went to work adapting a play by Eugene Walter, entitled The Wolf (1908).  The play was cut down to forty minutes and used a full cast (drawn from The Masque).  The broadcast took place in September of 1922 and occasioned 2000 letters from within a 500 mile radius.  So successful was this initial effort that the WGY Players remained a fixture of the station through the rest of the
1920s.

In the same year, (1922) on Christmas Day in the U.K. the BBC broadcast “The Truth About Father Christmas” – the first play written specifically for radio.

Radio drama very quickly became the most popular form of programming on radio.  In Australia family serials were the most popular entertainment.  The most popular serial in Australia began broadcast in 1937 and was called Dad and Dave (based on Steele Rudd’s classic On Our Selection (1899).  Australia’s longest running serial was Blue Hills (begun in 1946) which ran for 5,795
episodes.  In the U.S the first hit show was Amos and Andy (as comedy about the friendship of two black men starring two white actors).  The show began airing in 1927 and continued until 1953 (when growing anger at black stereotyping drove the show off the air).  The English playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote “There are three things I will never forget about America: The Rocky Mountains, Niagara Falls, and Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

Dramatic Types

Three main types of radio drama developed during radio’s golden age (from the late 20s through the late forties and early fifties); the dramatic series, the serial, and the anthology.

The series involved a continuing set of characters and a different (usually self-contained) plot each week.  Examples include adventure and crime series such as Dragnet, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, The Shadow, and others.

Serials involved a continuing cast of characters in a continuing plot or series of continuing plots.  Soap operas (which received their name because of the sponsorship of soap companies) are an example of serial drama.  Examples of serials include This Man’s Family, and I Love an Adventure.

Anthology programs presented different stories and a different set of characters in each show (perhaps linked by a single narrator).  Mercury Theatre on the Air (later Campbell’s Playhouse),  Escape, and Suspense are examples of anthology shows.  In order to meet their public service responsibilities (admittedly in a fairly self-serving way) experimental anthology programs such as the Columbia Radio Workshop were developed that toyed with presenting poetry, documentary, and other experimental works.

The Influence of Radio

Radio, when it first came into being, received massive levels of public trust.  To have heard it on the radio was, for many people, to have heard the truth.  Advertisers were quick to capitalise on this
and began to realise that radio sponsorship was almost a license to print money.  The importance of sponsorship grew to become paramount as a means of financing the production of radio content.  This created a number of problems over time.  Even though radio was instituted and licensed as a public service, its money came from sponsorship.  Offending sponsors could kill a program in its tracks and tended to narrow the range of programming to that which was a) popular with consumers and more importantly b) acceptable to sponsors.  It is not a surprise then that the interests of business and the bottom line were disproportionately represented on the air waves.

The influence of radio has rarely been so well illustrated as when Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast The War of The Worlds in October 30 of 1938.  It demonstrated to legislators, radio programmers, and the public alike that a listening audience would, under the right conditions, accept even a fanciful radio broadcast as real.

Orson Welles at the Microphone

Orson Welles at the Microphone

The play was presented as a series of radio news broadcasts breaking into a live dance music program.  Many listeners tuned into the program late (and so missed the introduction which identified the broadcast as a play) because they chose to first hear ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy (Charlie McCarthy) on NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour (the number one show on radio at the time).

Many listeners panicked believing the United States was being invaded by Martians.  People fought over telephones at a North Carolina college campus, more than twenty people were treated for shock in one New Jersey hospital, men walked into bars with tales of the end of the world.  Rumours spread, including one which stated that millions had been killed by a planetoid which struck New York.  Families gathered on rooftops in Boston to try to see the glow of New York burning in the southern sky.

The show’s producer, Mr Orson Welles, was forced to go on half way through the broadcast and appeal to the public for calm and reiterate that it was simply a play.  The switchboard at the radio station had gone out of control.

Boston Headline: Radio Play Terrifies Nation

Boston Headline: Radio Play Terrifies Nation

In the aftermath of the show legislators paid far stricter attention to what could and could not be broadcast.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made a ruling that “you will not use a news style format for a dramatic program again”.  Orson Welles was fired from The Shadow program, the Mercury Theatre on the Air got a sponsor and became the Campbell Playhouse, and Welles and his company of actors received a two movie contract from RKO (a deal which produced Citizen Kane).

In the United States the listening public lost its innocence and began treating radio with a great deal more scepticism after this broadcast, but radio drama also came under stricter scrutiny, control and censorship.  And while official censorship did not result elsewhere to the same extent as in the U.S, the ripples of the broadcast were felt around the world.  Radio producers everywhere were keen to avoid having restrictions placed on them and were careful to self-censor their work.

Toronto Headline: Ottawa Seeks Way to Ban Radio "Horrors"

Toronto Headline: Ottawa Seeks Way to Ban Radio “Horrors”

Controlling Radio

In the U.S. and around the world the new medium was resulting in a number of unsettling conflicts.  The ability to record performances was seen as a threat by actors who demanded the right to be hired for each performance of a play and to perform plays live.  The owners of telephone companies sought to control radio on the grounds that radio was a form of telecommunications and came under their charters.  Newspapers fought to prevent radio from presenting the news and cutting into their circulation.  Various forms of lobbying, relative power, new technology, and money were used to achieve the arrangements we now consider commonplace, but most innovations were resisted when first introduced.  When the dust finally settled control of radio broadcasting in much of the world was firmly in the hands of large networks.

The Rise of the Networks

In the U.S where publicly funded (government funded) radio never caught on to the extent it did in Australia and the U.K., the problem of how to come up with and fund sufficient programming to fill a daily schedule was a difficult one to solve.  It quickly became obvious that every station could not locally create every one of its programs to the high quality level audiences required.  By joining several stations together and sharing materials developed by each economies of scale could be created that made broadcasting far more affordable and profitable.  Of course this also paved the way for the disproportionate market power of the major networks and an eventual squeezing out of locally produced content (one that is still being felt today).

Radio during the war years

Radio served a vital role throughout the Second World War, informing citizens and boosting morale.  On 3 September 1939 Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies of Australia announced Australia’s participation in the conflict on every national and commercial radio station in Australia.  In America entry to the war was heralded by the 1941 Norman Corwin produced special dramatic broadcast “We hold these truths”. It was a reminder to the people of the United States of what was at risk in the great conflict; freedom, democracy, and human rights.  Roosevelt’s
fireside chats were broadcast direct to the public and Churchill’s famous “We will Fight on the Beaches” speech was read to the country by newsreaders across the U.K.  Interestingly, the
speech was never recorded or broadcast live to the public (as is sometimes supposed) but Churchill did record the speech in his own voice after the war was concluded.

In Britain radio coverage of the war tended to be very accurate (at least by today’s standards).  The Vietnam war was still decades away and the military did not yet feel the need to control information as tightly as is now the case.  This did not mean, however, that the war did not change British broadcasting.  Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie shut down (only to be captured and taken over by the Germans).  Regional and National radio programs were shut down and replaced by a single Home service.  Programming also changed. Light morale boosting programs such as Vera Lynn’s “Sincerely yours” and “Hi Gang” were the mainstays along with news.

When the transmitting stations in France and Luxembourg were captured by the Germans they were put to use transmitting propaganda back to Britain and unoccupied Europe.  Lord Haw Haw, a man named William Joyce, was a British citizen who defected to Germany and became the voice of Nazi Germany’s broadcasts in English.  He was hanged for treason after the war’s end.

In Australia the war led to strict censorship and restrictions on radio broadcasting.  Censorship delayed the broadcast of programs and news of the war.  Generally, programs had to be submitted to
censors three weeks before broadcast.  Australians were given false numbers of casualties and false reports of the extent of damage being done to the allied cause.  Some events were never  reported, such as the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese.

In the U.S. the impact of the war can be heard more in the changes which occurred to advertising than in any directly war-related changes to programming.  Materials shortages, bond drives, and, of course, the disappearance of celebrities into the armed services were commonplace, but much of the programming went on as before.

Radio operators during the second world war

Radio operators during the second world war

The death of radio drama?

After the war, radio drama production saw a steady decline in popularity in the U.S and Australia.  The impact of television is generally considered responsible for this.  As audiences switched to the box for their entertainment the advertisers followed and money for radio drama production on commercial stations became more and more scarce.  Humour, talk-back, and music became the primary programs being broadcast on radio and the final broadcast of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar on September 30 1962 (“The Tip-Off Matter“)is often cited as marking the death of radio drama.  Of course, in the U.K,
perhaps because it did not rely on commercial sponsorship to the same extent as programming in Australia and the U.S, radio drama did not die out and has continued to flourish into the present.  Despite this, in very recent years U.K radio drama production has been facing a much more stringent environment with large cuts to its funding base occurring.  This is rather ironic given the recent resurgence in interest in Audio drama.

The internet and the revival of Radio Drama

From 2000 onwards there has been a remarkable revival of interest in Audio drama, just not in commercial radio.  The internet has become home to a growing community of producers, fans and enthusiasts who enjoy both the old works created in the past, and new works created especially for modern audiences.  Some of these shows have huge followings.  Some are commercial, but many are amateur productions made available for free.  Many creative people are finding a new freedom in this story telling medium, partly for its intimacy and immersiveness, partly for the freedom the internet provides (allowing people to tell diverse stories without being constrained by the requirements of advertisers and censors), and partly by the low cost of production.  Shows such as Welcome to Nightvale, Tales of the Red Panda, We’re Alive, 19 Nocturne Ave, Wormwood, Jake Sampson and many others too numerous to list are all great examples of modern drama created for
the listening ear that are available online.

What is Guglielmo Marconi famous for?

What part did radio play in the rescue of the Titanic?

When did the airwaves begin to be regulated?

What were the main reasons for the development of commercial broadcasting?

How did radio drama come to be?

How did the broadcast of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” demonstrate and subvert the power of radio?

How was radio employed during the second world war?

What factors led to the decline of radio drama in Australia and the U.S?  Why was there no corresponding decline in the U.K?

Where can radio drama be heard today?

Compare and contrast with examples the development of radio in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

AustraliaUnited StatesUnited Kingdom
Regulation and control 

 

 

Licensing models (listener or broadcaster based) 

 

 

Funding models (commercial and public) 

 

 

Use of drama 

 

 

War use 

 

 

Decline? 

 

 

How would you account for the similarities and differences in each of these countries?

How did radio create new opportunities for creative expression?

What limits were used to keep that expression in check?

How similar and different to radio is the internet as a creative medium today?

Do you see evidence of efforts toward establishing commercial and political control occurring today?

How successful would such efforts be and what might the impact be (both good and bad)?

What services did the Marconi Company supply?

Why was regulation of the airwaves required?  How was regulation extended?

How did attempts to market radio receivers influence the development of commercial radio?

What contribution did Edward H Smith make to radio programming?

Discuss some of the conflicts that have surrounded the control of radio with reference to both propaganda and censorship.

Despite the invention of television, radio drama continues to thrive in some areas of the world and with the help of some new technologies.  Why do you think this is the case?

For assessment: (300 – 500 words)

Choose to answer either

What accounts for the different trajectories regarding the development of radio in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K?  Give evidence for your view.

or

“Radio has always been a bastion of free creative expression.”  Discuss and evaluate this statement.  Provide evidence for your view.

We’ve taken a brief historical overview of the development of radio (and radio drama) as it occurred in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.  Each country had a unique trajectory and also influenced the others.  As a medium of creative expression and communication radio provided great opportunity but was also subject to a variety of regulations and controls.  In many ways the development of radio and the development of the internet have much in common.

In our next lesson we will begin listening to some of the great audio-dramas of the past, breaking them down, and learning to appreciate them as an art form.


Guglielmo Marconi was arguably the first to combine the various areas of electromagnetic research into a fully functioning technology.

His company played a key role in seeing to it that the sinking of the Titanic did not result in even more death than otherwise occurred.

Regulation of the airwaves was present almost from the beginning and was fairly well established by 1912.

Commercial broadcasting and the development of popular programming was driven by a desire to sell radios to households.

Radio drama as an art form was first attempted by Edward H Smith in the U.S in September of 1922 (beating the U.K presentation of “The Truth about Father Christmas” by a mere two months).

Radio drama was by far the most popular content being delivered on radio until well after the war ended.

The influence of radio was such that a radio play presented in the form of a series of news reports regarding a Martian invasion panicked a significant percentage of the population in the U.S.  The play was Orson Welles’ adaptation of “The War of the Worlds”.

During the second world war radio served a significant propaganda role abroad and morale boosting role at home.  It was also subject to strict censorship in some jurisdictions.

Radio has been subject to both political and commercial attempts at control.  These attempts at control have been overt and deliberate at times and at others have been simply a function of market economics.

In those countries where radio drama was commercially funded radio declined as audiences shifted to television and advertisers followed them.  Publicly funded radio, however, has maintained a tradition of creating great radio drama.

Today radio drama is undergoing a significant revival on the internet.  Many productions, both old and new, can be found online.

Radio, like all new mass mediums, had an unsettling impact on society.  It was seen as both a public benefit and danger, depending on the time and place.  It was the catalyst for numerous conflicts over its control, and it was a new means of creative expression that made its way into almost every home with, until that time, unparalleled capacity to influence public opinion and consciousness.   Today the internet is creating the same social ripples.  Compare and contrast radio’s impact on society with that of the internet today.

In our next lesson we will begin listening to and critiquing some of the great dramatic radio productions of the past.  We will learn what made radio drama such a unique and engrossing medium and  what unique elements enhance the quality of radio drama and separate it from other mediums.

The content of this lesson is copyright © 2015 Weirdworldstudios.com

Lessons

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