In the middle decades of the 20th century, prior to and during WWII, radio stations, broadcast dramatic narratives based on classics of fiction and cinema in programs sponsored by commercial advertisers into the kitchens and parlors of homes in towns and burroughs throughout America, to people of all ages, who had never been to a legitimate theater, seen or heard an opera or even hoped to do so.
Interpreting novels by gifted contemporary authors and playwrights as well as classics of literature and great classical music and jazz, for about three decades, radio had a profound effect in shaping the culture of a generation of Americans and establishing national character steeped in altruistic values of justice, freedom, equality, generosity of spirit and belief in good acts and hope.
During the war years, while radio programs supported the morale at home and at the front, technology developed for military purposes led to broadcast quality visual images, called, television and by 1950, commercial advertisers favored this medium and audio theater, which had been nurtured in America by commercial investment, suddenly lost its support in the U.S. and within a few years, audio theater all but disappeared and has not recovered.
Audio theater is a powerul way to present narratives, demonstrated by riots ensuing from Orson Welles's historic broadcast of a radioplay based on H.G. Wells' novel, War of The Worlds and cited as a deciding factor in the evolution of popular support for the 3rd Reich.
The source of this power, which raises the stakes for dramatic narratives, is that imagination creates the illusion of verimilitude; there are no images to accomodate. Imagination is of less interest to product advertisers who want the consumer to identify a logo with an experience. Audio theater works as well as reading; it serves as a catalyst in contrast with television, which relies on credible visual verisimilitude, which may vary considerably.
Audio theater production is the same today as it was 75 years ago, except for differences in the way signals are recorded, edited and modified using digital signal processing. Winn earned a baccaloureate in radio and TV production at California State University, Long Beach, studying under the directio of artists and technicians who made radio theater great in the 1940s and who brought these techniques to the soundtracks of motion pictures.
One of audio theater's great advantages over audio/visual media is the modest cost of producing narrative program, a quality that offers opportunities for actors when there are relatively few legitimate theaters the production costs for which are high as well. And audio offers a way to reach the entire global market.
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Like Hubble's image of a distant star field used for the background of these webpages, audio theater employs a process in the listener's imagination to evoke a view of the world. Imagination transports the listener into the worlds of Cervantes, Marquez, Shakespeare, Wells, Williams, Shaw, Kafka, Li Po, Stapledon, ad infinitum, a feat that can't be achieved in television, cinema or video games because our brains don't process visual information without recalling an individual's references, confusing the viewer nor can this be achieved in reading since the mind must interpret symbols, then words, then sentences then context.
When the focus of an audio theater listener's attention returns from imagination to their other senses, they will relate differently to everything around them, their values will have been adjusted. Advertising and propaganda use this power to manipulate people. Narrative art form is not rocket science.
Can listening to radio theater change your life?
Orson Welles 1938 Production of "War of the Worlds"
Audio content providers are now a specialized node on a universal information matrix. That's the distribution side of a oneway virtual reality medium. Content requires the creative effort that has always challenged playwrights and producers throughout history. The most significant change today is that broadcast is freely accessible and recording technology is inexpensive. In view of the importance of art in the spiritual life of every culture, there is a greater need than ever to nurture, educate and support creative writers, performers, directors and editors in the language of every culture.
Studio in a box: M-Audio's Protools & Sputnik Microphone
"With digital technology its easier to make and webcast shows than it is to write them. Audio and visual signals come to your home through the same pipe, but not every rock you find is a diamond."
Francois Auret V
"The sound of radio and television accompanies every activity imaginable, yet broadcast radio offers fewer interesting choices than Kelloggs, with O'Reilly, Stern and Hannity pathetically representing the top of the dial."
Shirley Q. Liquor
Radio programs once attracted larger audiences per capita than the best television shows achieve. In theory, if an audience is attracted to a radio program, given the low cost of producing audio, blaming mediocrity on popular taste misses the point. There is more good programming in MP3 format on the web each week than is broadcast on AM or FM in a year.
From the Director
"When I was a kid, my mother would shout down the hallway of our little flat in Philly, 'for the last time, Michael, dinner's on the table!' but I didn't move from where I sat, zoned out in my room sans chemical aids, with my eyes wide open, but seeing a more vivid scene in my imagination than presented by the darkening window in the wall opposite me. I wasn't on drugs. I was on radio. It was Sky King or the Green Hornet, The Shadow, The Saint, Jack Benny, George and Gracey, Baby Snooks, Abbot & Costello, Amos 'n Andy, Dale Evans...Television did not replace the genius of radio anymore than it replaced books, but when the advertisers left, they took the talent and genius from radio's comedic and dramatic theater. Leaving hapless generations with nothing but marijuana, cocaine and insipid TV personalities to make them laugh. (And we know where that's taken us.)"
"When I first saw the gray-green fluoresence of a tv in our living room, I couldn't imagine why anyone would prefer this to radio. The quality of TV imaging has improved, but your living room will never give you the social experience of a theater, nor can television deliver the intimacy and power of the imagination as radio can. Television does not replace radio theater."
"When I left Long Beach State with a degree in Radio & TV, I was attracted by the glamor and celebrity of motion pictures and the fascinating arts of cinematography, editing, acting and directing. But after I'd made a few films, I felt I'd gotten nowhere. The best film is a flash in the pan compared with a great novel because a novel lives in the imagination. A picture conveys a thousand words but if those words are Neruda's or Nabokov's, this isn't true. When you hear a well-written story on the radio, you pass through emotions evoked by words in much the same way as when listening to music. Here's a sample passage from John Barth's collection called, On With The Story"
"So here's our universe, reader, whatever it's curvature.
Somewhere or other in it is our galactic supercluster, almost unimaginably vast--ah, yes, here it is--from which a mighty close-up resolves our particular Local Cluster, and another just as mighty discovers our very own Milky Way galaxy, bless its unfathomable black hole of a heart: one more bright sand-grain on the dark beach of abyssal space..."
"Zooming right in on it, we may just possibly find our dear solar system and its cozy inner belt of planets, including miscellaneous cometary debris. Sure enough, here's old Earth, complete with atmosphere--into which latter a fist-sized lump of Comet Swift-Tuttle plunges at 11:14 P.M. Eastern Daylight Savings Time on 13 August 1994, said plunge or anyhow, collision effecting its prompt incineration in a meteoric streak over the eastern seaboard of North America, including the Atlantic Coast of Delaware and Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay..." (On With The Story by John Barth)
Radio and The Media Business
While good plays and talented actors are a thriving business, radio theater languishes, even on "public radio".
Even if we could, but we can't travel 50 miles or 3000 to New York or London and pay $300 to see new, exciting topical productions. Mid 20th century, radio shows like Orson Welles' and John Houseman's Mercury Theater of the Air and Campbell Playhouse were bringing this kind of theater to people all over the United States and into their homes. Television attempted this in the 1950s, employing the best writing and performing talents in America and London. Why and how this has changed is an interesting political subject but the fact is that media both television and internet has rightfully been described as a "wasteland".
When advertisers abandoned radio for video in the 1950s only those who had worked in radio understood what was being lost and their concern at the time was how they were going to make a living and many of them sold their talents to TV. Radio came and went so quickly that schools had no time to develop a curriculum. Live action video seemed more exciting. As a result, the possibility of radio as a way to create verbal metaphors with the intimacy of ancient oral traditions through which the earliest notions of human being were passed on at the dawn of time was not realized by people working in the field, who were doing their jobs, earning a meal ticket. The oral tradition, which had been transformed once before by the invention of movable type, which lead to the novel, had taken an interesting step sideways. Radio was transformational but we have yet to see Radio's Cervantes. Perhaps, through the open door of the Internet, there is a new possibility.
Comparing radio to television: TV shows are expensive to produce and the price of commercial broadcast in prime time creates risks for broadcast executives and they manage the risk by avoiding innovation. Anything new that could hit may also bomb. There's a tendency to follow trends and formulas, to flog special effects and freak shows rather than creative ideas, and the result is well-crafted but mediocre shows designed as vehicles for ads of a sponsor's products.
On the other hand, the cost of audio production has been dramatically reduced by digital technology while the technical quality of recordings is more easily controlled. The cost is the same to adapt works from any era, culture, language or location. With talented writers, directors, editors and actors, engaging programs can be made with no additional cost no matter what subject, location, culture, period or scenario. Most importantly, the voice of god or an earthworm may be evoked with equal ease in any listener's imagination if we know a little about him, primarily, his language and customs.
Theater of the Imagination
"Radio, the Theater of Imagination. Limitless and unconfining, relying on the listener's imagination to go anything that can be supplied on stage or a viewing monitor."
San Diego Radio Theater is in part, a lab for broadcast digital audio imagery. In 2006, the first SDRT ensemble produced a mystery and comedy shows broadcast during the 1930s and '40s. We practiced on Sherlock Holmes, Richard Diamond, The Bickersons and produced, Lucille Fletcher's play, Sorry, Wrong Number. Adaptations were written of Cervantes' Don Quixote.
Can listening to radio theater change your life?
Staff and Talent
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