MANILA (AFP) – Standing in front of a microphone, voice actor Phil Cruz pretends to wield an amulet to defeat the devil for the latest instalment of one of the Philippines’ few surviving radio dramas.
Cruz is part of a small team of voice actors and technicians producing shows that are broadcast in Tagalog by DZRH, one of the oldest radio stations in the country.
Radio dramas were the main source of entertainment for Filipino families after World War II, just like the rest of the world, but their popularity faded with the rise of television, social media and video livestreaming.
Many longtime listeners, including retirees, farmers, factory workers and taxi drivers, still tune in to catch the latest episode of their favourite horror or drama.
“We’re the only ones left,” Cruz, 64, said during a break in recording at a modern studio incongruously located in a Manila theme park.
Cruz followed his father into voice acting in 1979, back when DZRH aired 18 drama programmes over nine hours a day in stiff competition with other broadcasters.
Now it produces seven.
Among them is Night of Horror, the station’s oldest series that has been terrifying audiences for 66 years with tales of devils, vampires and murderous skeletons.
Love, family and poverty are among the themes tackled in other long-running dramas, such as You’re My Only Life and This Is Our Life.
Gerry Mutia produces the sound effects that help listeners visualise the stories and, while many can be computer-generated, he still prefers “the old way”.
Mutia keeps a box of objects in the studio to simulate sounds: coconut shells for galloping horses, a door bolt for the cocking of a gun, and stamping his feet in a box of leaves for footsteps in a forest.
He even uses his own voice for a cat’s meow.
“The computer can replicate the sound of a slap but it is more realistic doing it the old way,” said Mutia, demonstrating by striking together a pair of old rubber shoe soles.
The beauty of radio was that it reached “everyone, even the poor”, said Rosanna Villegas, 63. She, like Cruz, followed her radio actor father into the industry.
“It’s a means of entertainment, which comes on top of what they watch on TV or the movies,” she said.
“They (fans) tell us their stress disappears.”
Among the DZRH team’s loyal fans is Henry Amadure, who lives by himself on a farm about 60 kilometres (km) south of Manila.
Amadure listens to The Promise of Tomorrow on a small radio that he always takes with him to the field as he slashes weeds around taro plants. The series is about a friendship between a poor university student and his rich classmate.
“It makes me happy and keeps me company because I work alone,” said Amadure, 58, who was introduced to radio dramas by his grandfather as a teenager.
“Sometimes you pick up life lessons from it.”
Amadure, who is separated from his wife, spends PHP74 (USD1.30) a week on batteries to keep the radio playing all day while he works on his four-hectare farm.
Like other farmers in the area, he has no electricity.
His neighbour Cristiteta Arpon, 35, said radio dramas were “our only entertainment”.
“We will be sad if it disappears. It’s our everyday companion and the only thing that makes us happy,” the mother of four said.
“We don’t have to waste money” buying Internet access for social media or YouTube.
Food caterer Nerissa Julao, 52, is a member of a radio drama fan club that boasts 17,000 members on Facebook.
Julao tunes in while preparing dishes with two assistants in Guagua municipality, about 80km northwest of Manila. “Listening to radio dramas sharpens my imagination. The scenes take shape in my mind because the acting is very convincing,” she said.
But Julao also said, “drama fanatics like us are increasingly becoming a rare breed”.
The DZRH voice actors told AFP they have no formal training for radio dramas and had picked up their skills by observing their predecessors.
Most of them hold down other jobs such as dubbing Mexican and Korean television dramas or doing voice-overs.
The challenge for the remaining radio dramas is to attract a new generation of listeners.
DZRH has branched out to social media, uploading episodes to YouTube and sharing the links on Facebook, X and TikTok.
“We have a varied audience but it’s true many of them are also growing old,” said Cruz.
“We need to produce material for younger people.”
Villegas is optimistic that the dramas will survive.
“For me, radio is forever,” she said. “It will not disappear because it has such a wide audience.”