Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sound Drama

Radio drama is a fantastic, nearly dead (I say nearly because it still lives on the BBC and CBC) and beautiful medium. You can still find many collections of the old shows lying around at public libraries and on websites like Thanks to the internet, I discovered CBS Radio Workshop, an experimental radio show developed in the late 1950s, just as the medium was fading in the United States. The internet has provided great information on that program, including this piece written in Time Magazine right as the show was coming to air:

It took three radio sound men, a control-room engineer and five hours of hard work to create the sound that was heard for less than 30 seconds on the air. The sound consisted of a ticking metronome, tom-tom beats, bubbling water, air hose, cow moo, boing! (two types), oscillator, dripping water (two types) and three kinds of wine glasses clicking against each other. Judiciously blended and recorded on tape, the effect was still not quite right. Then the tape was played backward with a little echo added. That did it. The sound depicted the manufacturing of babies in the radio version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Huxley's 25-year-old satire of a scientific civilization was dramatized last week, in the first of a two-part series, on the opening show of the CBS Radio Workshop (Fri. 8:30 p.m.), a revival of radio's famed experimental Columbia Workshop. From 1936 to 1947 (the year before television became a national pastime), the Workshop reigned as the top dramatic prestige program on the air. From the beginning its principle was that production, not the play, is the thing. Through an ingenious use of sound it sought to catch the mind's eye with the ear. The Workshop's, first director, the late Irving Reis, was a onetime control-room engineer, who sweated over electrical filters, oscillators and echo chambers to produce the sound of fog, the footsteps of gods, the dissonance of bells driving someone mad, the witches in Macbeth, the feel of going under ether. A sound made listeners see doors open and close. When someone in the play was stabbed, listeners were made to feel it as a sound-effects man hovered over a mike and knifed a watermelon.

While Workshop directors recognized that radio drama had to be sound drama, it counted words as an important type of sound to stir the imagination. The program counted among its writers Stephen Vincent Benet, Archibald MacLeish, William Saroyan, Dorothy Parker and Norman Corwin, who created an effective impressionistic style of radio writing.

The Workshop has been dusted off and brought back after nine years on the trash heap, says CBS Radio's Vice President Howard G. Barnes, because "drama stands up on radio," and CBS stations have been crying for more of it. Barnes, who put the Workshop back in working order, says that the connection between the old and new shows is that both are "experimental radio theater. We're going to try to go further into the world of ideas. We'll never get a sponsor anyway, so we might as well try anything. We hope to be the fourth dimension of radio programming, up on Cloud Nine in an intellectual and entertaining way." Brave New World, with its ingenious sound effects, its "pneumatic" girls and production-line god ("Thank Ford someone has come! Thank Ford!"), is a good beginning.

I'm personally very impressed that Time had someone transcribe that ancient article and put it on to the Time website. Perhaps there is an audience for this sort of thing.

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