It’s been a couple of weeks since our last blog post, and for me, that’s because these weeks were busy! We’ve had two concerts – Music in the Park on the 14th and Live! from Lewisburg on the 21st – both of which were excellent. We’ve had lots of movement on other projects we’re working on here at the Zone, which we’ll probably be focusing on in a post within a week or two! And in my personal life, I’ve had plenty to keep me busy, too, including a family visit and helping my dad move furniture.
With all that going on, I didn’t have time for a post last week, and I’ve been struggling to think of what to focus on for this one. But it’s something during that last event I touched on that’s ended up my inspiration here.
The furniture I went to help my dad move was at a house out in State College, so we made the drive in a rented U-Haul that only had an AM/FM radio: no CD, no auxiliary connection for a phone, not even an old cassette tape deck.
Now, as someone who’s always loved music, I have to admit: our area doesn’t exactly always fit my needs when it comes to the radio stations. There’s a few too many pop-country stations and not quite enough variety in rock for my personal taste, if I’m being honest. And anyone who’s made the drive from Williamsport to State College probably knows that there are a few places along the way where the radio selection is even more limited than that.
My dad and I joked about how there are some spots where you only have the choice of a few very specific brands of station, including one that he’d heard on a previous trip playing some of the old, overwrought radio dramas intended to teach children the lessons their writers thought were most important.
I’m sure some of the readers might know the type I mean. I’ve heard them here and there throughout my life, almost always on radio stations during long drives, and usually in rural areas. They’re artifacts of a bygone age. Nobody these days talks the way characters do in the old shows; it’s hard to believe anyone ever did, with how dramatic and saccharine some of them are. Their messages are often as overblown and humorously forward as the writing and acting. After all, for anyone who didn’t live through the Red Scare of the 1950s, it’s tough to listen to an episode of I Was a Communist for the FBI without thinking about how ironic and silly it sounds now.
But by that same token: Radio dramas are a fantastic and fascinating time capsule of culture. The good ones – the ones that are built on good writing and effective use of sound, instead of just oversimplified ideology – the really good ones really work. They can wrap around a listener in the way that a good book does, in an experience that’s much more primal and visceral and real than even the best movies can accomplish.
At their heart, those old radio dramas are the oldest and most powerful form of fiction that we have: oral storytelling. A well-timed revelation; a bit of manipulation to make a sheet of metal sound like thunder, or air through a pipe sound like a banshee’s wail; a bit of music to set the tone and draw the audience in. Without the distraction of pictures on a screen, your imagination gets to run wild, and with a little help from the production, it creates a more vivid image than anything Hollywood can cook up even today.
It’s that sort of storytelling, that sort of radio show, that I connect to. When I was very young, my father was still in the Navy; he wasn’t always there to tuck me in at night and read me a story. So he recorded himself reading my favorite stories on a cassette tape, and I’d get to drift off to his voice and the sound of the turning pages over the clicking of the deck. When I was older, I still loved to have stories to fall asleep to; one of my favorites was a collection of Greek myths on audio tape, complete with musical interludes. I still listen to a CD collection of a 1980 NPR production of The Hobbit, performed with a full voice cast, music, and sound effects.
And it’s not as though the radio show is some archaic, forgotten medium that has lost any relevance or importance. I’m sure nearly everyone reading this would have at least some familiarity with A Prairie Home Companion, the great American radio program that ran for over forty years on NPR. I spent a great many Saturday nights listening to that show, and other hours listening to its segments on tape or CD.
Today, the podcast has by and large replaced the radio show, but it’s that same idea, just in the new digital format. That same notion carries through: the power and presence of audio, the ability of words and sound to capture a listener’s heart and soul. A good performance can whisk you away, make you believe in whatever story is being told, make you laugh at every comedy and weep with every tragedy, make you clap and dance and sing along to the music.
It may be true that, thanks to the ever-onward march of technology, the heyday of radio has come and gone. It may be the case that we mostly look back on the old dramas with a wry grin at how things used to be. But it’s worthwhile to remember their power. After all, it was a radio drama that convinced people the War of the Worlds was really happening in their own towns.
And who knows? Maybe, in that moment where you have only the words and the music, and your whole conscious thought is filled with the story, the show – Maybe, in that moment, it really is real.
Surprise! This blog post links to one of our upcoming projects: the Live from Lewisburg Variety Show, slated to have its first running on November 19th. The goal of the show is to capture the resonance and sensationalism of radio shows of old, brought up to the modern day. If you’re interested in taking part or learning more, make sure to visit the show’s website: https://www.livefromlewisburg.com/