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Did you know 'Star Wars' was once an NPR radio drama?

Packaging for the
Packaging for the "Star Wars" radio drama CD collection.

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George Lucas is known for making famously generous donations to his alma mater, the University of Southern California. But he's made lesser-known gifts, too — as in 1981, when he sold the rights to the "Star Wars" movies to KUSC for the grand sum of $1.

KUSC, an National Public Radio affiliate that is owned and operated by USC, wanted to adapt "Star Wars" for radio. As part of the deal, they were granted full access to the sound catalog used for the films — from Ben Burtt's light saber sound effects to John Williams' score.

Backstories that were necessarily cut from the theatrical releases were also made available. Thus, the radio adaptation of "Star Wars: The New Hope" lasted nearly six hours, and included details such as stories from Luke Skywalker's childhood.

The radio adaptations were a massive production. John Madden was the director, Brian Daley adapted the scripts, and a notable cast signed up as the voice actors — Mark Hamill returned as Luke Skywalker, and John Lithgow voiced the part of Yoda.

And it paid off for NPR. The 1981 broadcast saw a 40 percent jump in audience, with 750,000 listeners tuning in for each of the original 13 episodes. So the team returned to adapt the other two movies: "The Empire Strikes Back," broadcast in 1983, and "Return of the Jedi" — delayed by years-long public radio funding woes — in 1996. 

While there was a lot of talent involved in the radio productions, the task of piecing everything together fell to one man: Tom Voegeli. He produced all three of the adaptations, even turning down an offer from Lucasfilm to work as the dialogue mixer on the film version of "Return of the Jedi" so that he could finish the radio adaptation of "The Empire Strikes Back." As he told The Frame:

To this day, I wonder if I should have taken them up on that offer. But my rationale was that I was right in the middle of doing the radio work . . . and I thought, Who the hell is going to carry this on?

Either way, Voegeli contributed to a timeless work: the radio dramas remain a must-have for "Star Wars" fans.

The radio adaptations of the first three released "Star Wars" films are available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

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