An in vitro transcription assay has been used to probe drug-DNA interactions during active transcription of the DNA. The method relies upon the formation of a stable, synchronized population of initiated transcripts comprising a short length of RNA, achieved by the absence of one nucleotide in the initiation mixture. Subsequent equilibration of the transcription complex with drug, followed by elongation of the initiated transcripts, yields lengths of RNA determined by transcription up to each drug-occupied site. A variety of site-specific phenomena have been observed, including delayed termination of transcription 5-10 bp downstream of actinomycin binding sites; 10-20% probability of termination at most echinomycin sites; drug residence-time-dependent termination of bacteriophage polymerases; enhanced residence time compared to physicochemical measurement of drug-DNA dissociation rates. The use of two counter-directed promoters separated by 100 bp results in a sensitive bidirectional transcription footprinting procedure able to resolve adjacent drug sites separated by only 1 bp. The significance of the method of in vitro transcription is the ability to quantitate a range of parameters describing individual drug sites in situations where multiple drug-DNA interactions exist.