"Anybody here remember radio?”
That was the question satirist Stan Freberg asked the audience in an auditorium one night in 1966. The show was recorded and issued by Capitol Records as Freberg Underground! Show #1, intended to be the first of a series. Radio comedy shows, of which Freberg himself had created quite a few (his summer 1957 CBS series The Stan Freberg Show is a milestone in the field) had virtually died out.1 He hoped to fill the void with recorded programs created as radio performers would have done them, and listened to similarly. Since we the audience would of course have to purchase the records, voilà: “pay radio.”
Alas, the series never appeared. And apart from doing a sequel to his 1961 recording Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Freberg appears to have given up the good fight.2
Why all the fuss, and why discuss it now? Because Freberg knew something that most of us only know in reverse: Every time we add a dimension to our performances and recordings, we not only add to the creator’s workload, we also — in an important sense — limit the audience’s experience.
From Kodak moments to Sensurround
A still photograph captures an instant of time, and is fairly simple (though I must say, out of admiration for professional photographers, simple and easy are by no means the same thing) to put together. To get that photograph to come out right, you must assemble the people or things that are to be in it, pose them properly (or wait until what you see is what you want), make sure lighting and other conditions are suitable, and snap the picture.
Replace the still camera with video, however, and suddenly you must arrange something else: the people or things must move, and perhaps even speak. And they must move and speak the way you want them to. You therefore need a script (written down or not), plus sound control. Should holographic videocams become popular, or extensions that involve touch or smell or taste, look out for a new set of things you’ll have to coordinate just right.
For example, writing about filming T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral,3 director George Hoellering knew he would surprise readers in identifying the crew’s first concern. It wasn’t casting; it wasn’t direction; it wasn’t the style of cinematography.
It was costuming.
A movie is more lifelike than a stage play; the distance between the viewing audience and the action is gone, and with it the sense of the abstract. The “suspension of disbelief” is therefore different for a movie audience, which expects a movie to portray “real” events. The clothing in Murder in the Cathedral consequently had to look authentic, or no one would believe that this story of Thomas Becket and Henry II was “really” taking place in twelfth century England.
Trapped outside our minds
What do I mean by the audience’s experience being limited? Simply this: With each new element the storymaker is able to show us, the focus of our experience moves from the internal toward the external.
It’s the other side of the increased-workload coin. The storymaker can no longer get away with merely suggesting that element (“A stiff breeze blew in through the far window”) for us to envision in our heads; he or she must show it to us in the storytelling medium (“The curtains aren’t blowing! Somebody turn that #$@!*% fan around!”). Flip the coin over: because the storymaker now shows it, we the audience no longer have the task of envisioning it in our heads. Indeed, it’s no longer in our heads; it’s before our eyes. The mind’s eye has been dismissed from the game. We have become one degree less a participant, and one degree more a mere receiver of a packaged piece.
The two-sided coin becomes a two-edged sword. On the one hand, our experience has been increased by advancing technology, in that the images shown by the storymaker are no longer limited by our visual backgrounds. In the mid-1960s, most Americans who heard the word “spaceship” would think of a cigar-shape with fins or a flying saucer; few would likely have been able to visualize the original starship Enterprise until Roddenberry, Jefferies, and company showed it to them. On the other hand, because our images reside in the new technology, we are now limited by and to that technology.
The principle is splendidly illustrated by a classic sequence in Freberg Underground! wherein Freberg — whose 1957 show had taken its audience from the Himalayas (for an interview with the Abominable Snowman), to a gambling mecca in Nevada, to the boardroom of a New York advertising agency that employed a werewolf — is trying to explain to a ten-year-old girl the advantages of radio dramatics over television. When it is clear that she cannot understand how any such benefits could exist, he decides to offer her a demonstration.
“Okay, people,” he tells his sound-effects crew, “when I give you the cue, I want the five-hundred-foot mountain of whipped cream to be shoved into Lake Michigan, which has been drained and filled with hot chocolate. Then, the Royal Canadian Air Force will appear overhead, towing a ten-ton maraschino cherry, which will be dropped into the whipped cream, to the cheering of 25,000 extras.
“All right: Cue the mountain!”
And lo and behold, it all happens as promised. With a colossal groan, the mountain rises up and topples into the steaming Great Lake; the RCAF roars overhead in full panoply; the gargantuan cherry cleaves the air with the scream of a dying angel, slamming with a mammoth squoosh into the whipped cream; and the legions of extras witnessing this feat cheer their heads off.
Whereupon Freberg turns to the young lady and says, “Now, you want to try that on television?”
Radio, he insists, was superior to television (and we may add, by extension, movies) in that it stretched the imagination. When the girl asks, “But doesn’t television stretch the imagination?” he replies, “Up to twenty-one inches, yes.”
And there we have it. The first Star Wars film was a magnificent display of the vision of George and Marcia Lucas, John Dykstra, and others. The downside was that it could never be our vision (not until we ourselves could somehow get into the act, which kids did with toys and adults did with fan fiction). It was not and could not be in our heads; it was up (out) there, on the screen. And galaxy (far, far away) or no, it would never be bigger than that screen.4
I said earlier that we know this principle in reverse. What I mean by that is that whereas Stan Freberg and his generation watched the addition of dimensions and media and the accompanying externalizing of the storytelling experience, many of us who grew up as products of that process are now discovering what we can accomplish by subtracting and internalizing.
Because radio is coming back — in the form of podcasting.
Just as desktop publishing and e-books enabled consumers to become producers of books, magazines, and newsletters, the new generation of audio technology has, in effect, created “desktop radio.” Audio-editing software for desktop computers lets us easily create an mp3 audio file, and what we put in that file is restricted only by our budget and imagination. These files can be distributed over the Internet and downloaded by would-be listeners (and thus they are “personal, on-demand,” hence “pod”). They can be played on other desktop computers or on portable mp3 players such as Apple’s iPod. With these tools, individuals outside the broadcasting industry are creating a new wave of quasi-radio programming, “radiating” via the ’Net instead of electromagnetic waves.
Because this programming is driven much less by market factors than broadcast radio has been (indeed, a podcast is often purely a labor of love on the part of its producer), its range goes beyond the mandatory news/DJs/sports formats of broadcast radio, limited only by the daring of those who create it. Some podcast shows are like niche-market radio programs:
- extensions of the conversation genre (e.g., Len and Nora Peralta’s Jawbone Radio)
- solo talk/instruction such as C. S. Lewis and others used to do (Jason Rennie’s The Sci Phi Show)
- music anthology (Brian Ibbott’s eye-opening Coverville)
Along with these, however, podcasting has launched a renaissance of serial stories, whether productions of original audio plays or dramatic readings of prose (think “books on tape/disc,” but often at no cost to the listener). Some outstanding serials I’ve been following are (in alphabetical order by creator, with RSS feeds for iTunes or other podcatching client software)
- Darker Projects, Star Trek: The Section 31 Files. Stories of the black-ops, it-doesn’t-exist branch of Starfleet. Darker Projects produces original horror and science fiction audio plays, plus fan-fiction productions set in existing worlds such as Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Quantum Leap.
- Decoder Ring Theater. Gregg Taylor and his Toronto-based associates tell me this is their hobby, but it’s the most professionally executed hobby I’ve seen … uh, heard. Their group name says it: these radio plays capture the spirit of shadowy adventurers (The Red Panda Adventures, about Canada’s foremost superhero — think “The Shadow meets The Green Hornet,” plus the Flying Squirrel, a scrappy female sidekick I challenge you not to fall in love with) and noir detectives (Black Jack Justice, whose partner calls herself Trixie Dixon, Girl Detective — letting you know from the get-go that she may give ’40s sensibilities lip-service, but that’s as far as it goes, bucko), and who knows what else (Summer Showcase, with a miscellany of offerings, including Matt Wallace’s space-fantasy Deck Gibson: Far-Reach Commander). Taylor writes stories that are surprising, funny, and just plain fun.
- Escape Artists, Inc., Escape Pod. A weekly (not counting additional “flash” items) magazine of short, “fun” SFF stories by various authors. “Fun” is founder Stephen Eley’s chief criterion, and they haven’t failed yet. Like print magazines, Escape Pod purchases the stories it runs — but it’s available to listeners on a donations-cheerfully-accepted basis. This is the show that hooked me on podcasting, and it has proved excellent company especially on cross-country road trips.
- Christiana Ellis, Nina Kimberly the Merciless. Nina may be a “warrior princess,” but certainly not in the Beverly Hills sense. She’s smart, scrappy, and just itching for a Quest. Her story is hilarious and always surprising.
- J. C. Hutchins, 7th Son (feed). Assassination, military ops, memory theft, and cloning — all add up to a fast-paced, absorbing thriller. (It’s also the subject of a discussion at the Scriptorium.)
- Mark Jeffrey, The Pocket and the Pendant (feed, also print). Why has time suddenly frozen? What are these craft that appear in the skies from time to time and just as suddenly disappear? Why are young Max Quick and certain others immune to the timestop, and for that matter, who is he?
- Tee Morris and Lisa Lee, Morevi: The Chronicles of Rafe and Askana (feed, also print). There’s political intrigue afoot in Morevi, a land in a world beyond a dimensional portal. Into this land, whose queen is as adept at armed and unarmed combat as she is at government, comes a swashbuckling privateer licensed by Henry VIII.
- Matthew Wayne Selznick, Brave Men Run: A Novel of the Sovereign Era (feed, also print). In our world, Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent led to the comic-book industry policing itself. In another, however, it resulted in comics being banned entirely in the U.S. So when people with unusual powers appeared, that world had no paradigm ready to use when dealing with them. Now they’re calling themselves “sovereign.” Can society adapt? And how can adolescent Nate Charters, with his own enhanced abilities and unusual appearance, fit in?
- Scott Sigler, Infection (feed). Jeffrey, Morris, and Sigler pioneered the podcast-novel trend; Sigler did his colleagues one better by being the first to podcast a novel (EarthCore [feed, also print]) in its entirety for free even before its print edition appeared in stores. As a result, a substantial market for the print version was ready and waiting.
Although Infection — like EarthCore and Ancestor (feed) before it — contains profane language “and lots and lots of violence” (listeners be warned!), his monster tales are noteworthy for their grounding in plausible biochemistry, making them “hard” science fiction as well as horror.5
- TD-0013, A Different Point of View (feed). Think you know the Star Wars story? Hah. Remember that adage about history being written by the victors? Here’s what was really going on — the inside scoop, from an Imperial sandtrooper. Get the real nitty-gritty about those Jedi thugs. (What’s interesting to me about TD-0013’s reports from the field is that they’re consistent with the movies. Listen to them, and then read your newspaper and listen to your TV news more critically. The stuff doesn’t come from Mount Sinai.)
All of the above are available free of charge (although donations are welcomed). Give ’em a listen.
Hey, Mr. Freberg! Care to have another go?
- Even today, the seemingly unique exception is NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, which demonstrates the point of the following discussion nicely. [↩]
- In the entertainment world, that is. The advertising world, however, hasn’t been the same since Freberg Ltd. opened up shop. [↩]
- T.S. Eliot and George Hoellering, The Film of Murder in the Cathedral (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952). [↩]
- Hence the suitability of IMAX for some films. Yet for some tales, even a three-story-tall screen won’t be enough. [↩]
- Scott has also been kind enough to use some pieces I’ve created to introduce phoned-in comments from readers. So if for some reason you want to hear what my voice sounds like, check out Infection episodes 1, 8, 9, 10, 12, and 13-“post-mortem.” [↩]