Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I've Got Gum on my Shoe

Another day spent in the car getting to KY. I spent this drive listening to numerous episodes of a great podcast I discovered on iTunes, Jim Widner's Radio Detective Story Hour. Each week for the last year now he samples a different old radio series, with a discussion about its place in radio (and often television) history and tidbits about the actors / writers / producers, etc.. Radio as a storytelling medium, as opposed to a purveyor of corporate-driven pop culture, is one of those topics which has been stewing in my mind for a number of years, and in Mr. Widner I find (naturally) someone who is some years ahead of my own thinking / enthusiasm.

My interest in radio drama was first piqued when I bought, nearly a decade ago now, National Public Radio's complete Star Wars Radio Drama Series on CD. These were produced after the completion of the the first three movies, and were for a long time (and maybe still are) NPR's high water mark for audience numbers. At the time, I just thought about getting them as a neat addition to the Star Wars movies, and I was not expecting anything revelatory. But I was surprised by the experience. Chalk it up to my pathological antipathy toward television or to my being an aural (as opposed to a visual) person, but this was my first real exposure to radio drama and I was blown away; in this format, the Star Wars saga became quite a different animal from the movies. Of course we lost the fantastic visual effects, but with the original sound effects and music, and with an expanded storyline, I hardly noticed.

And that was the point, I guess. "Theatre of the mind" is a cliche, I suppose, but the phrase really captures a key difference between TV / movie drama and radio drama. Radio is more like reading a book to me, in that all the visualization must be done internally, and each person's experience of the story is personal and unique--certainly to a far greater degree than with the visual media. It requires intellectual and psychological engagement. Movies (like TV) are fundamentally passive--you sit there and they happen to you, whereas radio drama, like reading, is an experience we fundamentally construct for ourselves. The radio provides the framework, the basic story, but our imagination is required to flesh it out. In practice, it seems a huge difference.

We don't listen to radio in this way anymore, with the kind of focus and dedication and commitment of time required; television has taken over this entertainment role completely. But I emerged from my Star Wars experience convinced that radio is really the superior storytelling medium. Perhaps there's a touch of nostalgia (OK, a lot of nostalgia) about life at a slower pace, where an hour could be taken to sit with one's eyes closed and really listen to--and process--an intricate story told to one. Nowadays even our TV experience is much more likely to be a mindless unwinding after work than an immersion in something thought provoking. But that kind of focussed listening is what serious music lovers do, and there are things gained from this pointed concentration that can't be got any other way. Maybe like eating your carrots or practicing your piano (not that I do either of those), this just seems a thing that it would be in our interest to learn to like, a taste we ought to re-cultivate. Books on tape are a similar experience, but the assignment of different voices and actors to the different characters, and putting in a full range of sound effects, seems a valuable next step.

I had this idea in mind a few years ago as I was reading the works of Dashiell Hammett, particularly his detective fiction featuring the anonymous dick from the Continental Detective Agency, who, like Chandler's Sam Spade and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, seems just the perfect hard-boiled tie-in between Noir fiction and the radio dramas of the time. I even took a stab at converting one of these stories to a radio play, a process which taught me (if nothing else) that I'm not really sure what I'm doing. But I sensed that it wouldn't be a huge leap from where I am now to where I might like to go: the editing tools available now on anyone's humble Macintosh enable us to do at home what it used to take an expensive network studio to accomplish; my lovely wife has a buzillion actor friends; great fiction abounds. Hmmm. (An aside: one thing that drove me crazy as I listened to the Star Wars series was their almost manic need to cover all the story's exposition within the dialog. This seemed artificial and silly to me, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out why there could not be a narrator who stepped in to describe things. Hell, a book on tape is ENTIRELY narration, really; so how can a bit of it ruin a dramatization? But I remember reading somewhere that this narration-as-exposition was a great sin. I don't buy it, and my little first stab at a radio play reflects this conviction.)

Anyway, yesterday I listened to eight or nine episodes of the Radio Detective Story Hour as I drove through the afternoon and into the evening. Being a certified Nostalgia Whore, I'm naturally taken by all the cues of the era--the subtle differences in the sound effects, the live announcers plugging sponsors' products--and by the changes that have taken place in how stories are told today. I'm hesitant to say that we're more sophisticated now, and that some of these stories seem simplistic and a bit hokey; because, like with Shakespeare, a certain acclimation must occur, an adjustment to older ways of thinking and doing things (e.g. cell phones have radically changed how we do most everything, but you don't necessarily notice until you see the hoops people just jump through without them). People are not smarter than they were 50--or 500--years ago. But it's a legitimate question to ask whether modern life--and specifically, modern crime drama--would slot into these old forms, or whether something new must be created to accommodate. Each of the old series had its own theme music, sometimes with a studio orchestra but more often on an organ--an UTTERLY lost convention. That'd have to be updated (or reintroduced with a modern synth twist). But the same Macintosh will enable a composer to assemble a soundtrack single-handedly.

But crime drama is still crime drama, and detective work is still essentially the same now as then. And, come to think of it, it's a silly notion that some stories cannot be told on radio, as those same stories seem to work fine in book form. If you can read it, it can be read to you (and dramatized, methinks).

And that led me, finally, to a tantalizing thought: What about Law & Order for radio? What could be better on radio than the fundamentally ORAL (and AURAL) phenomenon of a jury trial tacked onto the radio-proven genre of detective work? Now THAT'S an idea!

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