'Radio Icebox'

A warm story about a cold place

What I learned in England

Two weeks ago, I made the journey to Herne Bay in the Southeast of England for the United Kingdom International Radio Drama Festival. It was my first trip across the Atlantic and my first international festival. And what a treat it was. Producers from all over Europe attended including some representatives from Switzerland and Serbia that I now consider good friends. I served on the festival jury, charged with selecting which of the over 50 plays presented was deserving of the coveted 'Pig & Radio' trophy.

I have a lot to say about this festival, but I'll begin with a summary of what went on to give you a flavor for the event. It lasted from Monday to Friday the last week in February, each day beginning with coffee and cake at 9am. We met in a four-room flat situated on the 3rd Floor of Pettman House, Herne Bay's senior center. The festival organizers transformed the rooms into a 1940's English seaside flat with period furnishings and decor. Each room was equipped with good speakers and a period-looking radio for effect. Transcripts of every play were provided, a good thing given that over half of them weren't in English. As the plays began, each of us found a chair (all of them were comfortable) and settled in with a cup of tea to listen.

There were three hours of plays in the morning, followed by lunch. Herne Bay is a seaside resort town so there was no shortage of restaurants for lunch and a nice waterfront, complete with historic clock tower, to walk them off in. After lunch, it was back to the flat for another 3-4 hours of listening. Then, we headed straight to a pub called The Four Fathoms for jury duty. This involved a free-formed discussion of each play in turn. Some of the best conversations, and most interesting disagreements, grew out of these sessions. After jury, I usually was free to head back to Canterbury where I was staying, though dinner was offered in Herne Bay. I did take advantage several times, but the morning train required me to rise at 6:30 and dinners seldom got me home before midnight. You can see the problem.

That gives you a sense of the UK festival, but that is not what I actually wanted to write about here. The festival gave me a first-hand glimpse into how radio drama is perceived and produced around the world. The most interesting people I met came from Central and Eastern Europe where state-funded radio is still the norm, and radio drama has been in constant production for decades. Throughout the week I was struck by how different our experiences and priorities were. And I came away feeling that in some ways, I was quite lucky to have found the path I followed. But in other ways I was at a disadvantage.

Three people that I most valued talking to were Tomas from the Czech Republic, Karin from Swiss Radio (the German language service) and Slobodan, a dramaturge for Serbian radio and TV. They have the advantage over me in that they all have careers, regular jobs that pay a living wage to produce radio plays, though I got the impression radio drama was not their only responsibility at their respective networks. This would be the obvious disadvantage for me in that I don't earn a lot of money. But I also got the impression that producing a play in their countries involves the approval of higher ups and the contribution of a lot of other people, including (potentially) government officials. This would undoubtably effect what kinds of stories could be produced. I, on the other hand, am free to produce whatever I want. And although I still count my internet listeners in the mere thousands, I can count them. Tomas, Karin and Slobodan send their work out into the silent void of radio broadcast, unsure anyone has listened or cared, spare the occasional letter of praise or complaint from a listener.

But this was not the thing that most impressed me about the festival. What impressed was the variety of plays, and how many of these plays used sound in creative and challenging ways that mirrored the best of avant-garde theatre. This was very intentional on the part of the festival organizers. Jonathan, the festival's artistic director, explained to me that one purpose of the festival was to expose British listeners to the potential of radio drama. He told me that the UK consumes more radio drama than any country on earth. Over 1 million people listen to something every day. But it is not considered art. The Arts Council does not fund it. I got the impression that British radio drama was mostly soap operas and comedy. And when it was time to hand awards at the end of the festival (an improvised ceremony held around a table overflowing with fish & chips) none of the winning plays were in the English language.

This got me to thinking about my own work and why is sounds the way it does. There were three American plays at the festival including 'Silence' by the Icebox Radio Theater. In most cases, the jury found the American plays old fashioned. They were generally well received, but considered quaint, “Like something out of the 1950's” one juror offered. With 90 minutes of train rides each day, I had plenty of time to think about these comments and what they might mean. From this I realized that modern American radio drama was the result of a gap; a 60-year production gap that lasted from the end of network radio until the rise of digital recording and podcasting.

Following WWII, our radio networks jumped to TV. Successful radio shows were given an opportunity on TV, but most failed. Radio became a very profitable jukebox, making tons of money for record companies. Recordings of the old radio dramas only survived through the efforts of engineers and janitors (most named Gus) who saved transcription discs slated for destruction by the stations that had housed them. By the time digital recording and the internet arrived, inspiring a new generation of producers, our only frame of reference was 'Suspense' and 'Lights Out'. Even later shows such as 'Radio Mystery Theater' and 'NPR Playhouse' kept very close to the production values of the past. There was no real artistic growth in American radio drama. While Europe continued to produce radio drama in creative and experimental ways, we stood still.

Why was this? For one thing, to understand American radio drama you only need to look at its producers. With very few exceptions, audio producers in North America fall into one of two categories: lovers of Old Time Radio and frustrated filmmakers. Some wish to capture the nostalgic feel of the past, others want to tell their stories more affordably. Where are the artists? Where are the people that want to paint pictures with sound? I don't know. I don't even know if I belong in that category, to be honest. I listen to some of the more artistic American podcasts like the series from 'Night Vale Presents' and 'Serendipity' and I feel a disconnect. I think some times they confuse inaccessible with artistic. A story is not automatically good just because the sound design makes it hard to follow.

I do want my own work to reach up toward art, but I also want to engage people in a way that's meaningful. And that may be the greatest artistic legacy of the USA, our surprising way of engaging large audiences with strange and foreign concepts. Don't believe me? Consider that the movie 'Arrival' has made nearly 200 million dollars so far. And that movie introduces some strange and foreign concepts indeed. Perhaps this is our place as American audio producers, to be the bringer of creative sounds to the masses.

I feel like that very thought was worth my trip to Herne Bay. I met new friends, I heard things with new ears, and I considered concepts I hadn't before. There are still tremendous challenges ahead (resources for radio drama are in short supply everywhere) but I feel closer than ever to doing what I really want to do: Tell stories that a lot of people want to hear. You can hear the festival shows at this link, and I encourage you to.

http://radiodramafestival.org.uk/listen-and-vote/

Final Day

Well, here we are! The final festival day is here. I made it to the train station all by myself (9 minutes to spare) and am waiting on this cold morn to begin one last outbound journey. The plays, to be honest, have been mixed. We have heard some wonderful, innovative drama and we have heard some... that wasn't. 
Short day yesterday which was desperately needed by everyone. I got back to Canterbury in time to have dinner with Stephen where I enjoyed a delicacy that I might need to import back to the Falls: the grilled pulled pork and macaroni & cheese sandwich. Then it was back to put my exhausted feet up and catch up with some paper work. About the only real wrinkle on the day was related to weather. Storm Doris hit the UK bringing winds up to 100mph. I had no idea that high winds effect train schedules so much, but they do. And nothing saps your energy like walking out in the wind. I was quite ready for bed by the end.

If we call yesterday the challenging day, today should be known as the long one. We've got a full morning of listening followed by a full afternoon and the usual jury session where we talk about the day's plays. Following that, we begin the discussion of all the plays to decide on the winners. Apparently, the process can take until after midnight. 

Later now. I'm sitting along a pond in Herne Bay listening to the gulls and ducks argue over bread. The sun is out, I'm well ahead of schedule and I think it's time to head to our little festival flat right after I post this. More later.

Festival thoughts from Day 2


Day two of the festival is under my belt and it was an improvement on the first day in terms of the quality of the plays and my comfort with the environment. I should explain a bit about the format of the fest. We listen for 3-4 hours in the morning then another 3-4 hours after lunch. That's followed immediately by a discussion session at a local pub where our chairman Tomas tries to keep us on track. Following that (it's about 8pm by this point) there is a big push by the organizers for all of us to go out to dinner. Only about half take advantage, however, as it's been a long day already. 
I had an interesting experience at jury yesterday. One of the offerings on Tuesday was the only other American play in the festival and I felt compelled to 'explain' American radio drama to the rest of the jury. Here's what I mean: in Europe, production of drama on radio never really stopped. It dropped off sharply after the coming of TV, of course, but it never actually ceased. If you consider how much theatre has changed in the last 70 years, you can imagine how much radio has changed along with it. Anything that has a classic narrative structure is considered a little quaint and old fashioned. In America, however, radio drama came to a near complete stop after WW2. The newest generation of producers ( including me) got our inspiration from old time radio recordings and adapted to their structure as well. The rest of the jury didn't seem to know this and they were interested and generous. They seem to understand that we're all independents in the US with no network backing, and I don't know how experimenting with the form would work at this stage. An artist attempting to be avant garde without the proper training and background is likey to just create finger paintings. More a little later.

Herne Bay Day 1

 I have a few minutes at a train station with for my connection to Herne Bay, so I thought I'd get down some thoughts.
Yesterday was a little overwhelming. The toughest part was trying to fairly judge the foreign language plays. English translations were provided, of course, but you still couldn't help but feel you were missing something. Perhaps a lot of something's.
The festival jury is a diverse lot with the majority of foreigners coming from Eastern Europe. Our chairman is Tomas from the Chech Republic, a festival vet and a very nice guy. Like most radio people I know, he's a bit of an introvert. Me too. Since the festival is actually run by a local theatre troupe (generally extroverted) it's made for some interesting contrasts.
My first night in Stephen's digs was wonderful. The room is huge compared to my first night hotel and his landlords seem like nice people. She is a midwife counting the days until retirement, and he is a retired civil engineer.
The train is nearly to Herne Bay so I'll sign off. I have my postcards ready to send so that's job one today. More later.
Jeff

#IBRT2UK Travel Day

Travel Day!
The trip to the UK Int’l Radio Drama Festival is one day in, and I’ve having a ‘slow’ day today.  Diane and I are in a Bloomington hotel room.  In a couple hours, I’ll drive her to the airport for her flight in Florida (she’s visiting our daughter Rachel for a few days) and then I’ll have about 4 hours on my own before my flight leaves tonight.  It’s going to be nearly 60 degrees here today, incredible weather for February.  I might take a walk around one of the many lakes or find a public library and figure out if I can do one of these blog posts on my phone.  It’s all just a reminder that travel is a process, not an event.  More later.  #IBRT2UK

Now: this is a TRAVEL blog!

Okay, here we go!

For the next few days, 'Fridays at the Mic' will be preempted so I can use this blog to journal my trip to the UK International Radio Drama Festival in Herne Bay, UK!  They'll be pics and videos and maybe even a recording or too.  And on the social side, you can follow all the links with #IBRT2UK. 

We'll return to our regularly scheduled ramblings in March.  Thanks!

Friday's at the Mic: The Recipe part 3

The Recipe Part 3 – And out to the world

Last time, I took you through the process of producing an episode of Radio Icebox. We've finished recording (look to the earlier blog entries for that information) so now it's time to distribute the new story to the world.

  1. ARTIST AT WORK. In the OpenOffice Drawing program, I create a new episode icon for the episode trying to be as graphically interesting as possible. Results are usually mixed.

  2. ITUNES HO! We begin with the finished MP3 file of the episode hopefully about 2 weeks ahead of the episode drop date. I import the file into iTunes and open the metadata editor, then add the appropriate information including title, podcast, and – of course – the new episode icon. At this point, the episode is ready for release – to members and patrons, that is.

  3. DESCRIPTION TIME. Next, I write a brief description of the episode, what the play is, who's starring in it, that sort of thing. The iTunes description field is ridiculously short so I try and keep it brief but usually fail. Invariably, my descriptions are cut off mid sentence.

  4. TO THE INTERWEBS! It's off to the website now to the 'Members' page where I upload episode, icon and description. The Members page is set up as a blog so I can schedule the post to go live at a particular date and time. Normally, it's one week prior to the regular drop date at 3pm, Central time.

  5. DON'T FORGET THE PATRONS. From iceboxradio.org, I move over to Patreon and do exactly the same thing with the same file, icon and description. Patreon posts are scheduled to coincide with the website posts.

  6. BUT THEY GOTTA KNOW ABOUT IT. Next, it's off to Mailchimp to design and schedule an email for our members letting them know that the new episode is available for them, and them alone, one week ahead of the podcast drop date. This email is scheduled for 3:30 of the drop day (one half hour after the episode goes live for members and patrons). This email is for members. Patreon automatically emails our patrons when we add something new. At this point, the episode is completed for members and patrons.

  7. BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE. A week or so before the podcast drop date, I re-open the episode in its Reaper file, and insert two commercials; one for Audible.com (usually integrated into the air check section somehow) and a pre-recorded spot for the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. Then, the episode is re-rendered with the commercials included and a different file name. The previous version of the episode will include “M&P” (for 'Members & Patrons') in the file name. This new rendering, intended to go out to the general audience, does not.

  8. OUR PUBLIC AWAITS. The new rendering goes through the same process as the members and patrons rendering. It's imported into iTunes, description and icon is added, etc. Now, the episode is uploaded to our Spreaker server, and scheduled to go live on the episode drop date which is either the 15th, or the last day of each month.

  9. DON'T FORGET THE PRESS Finally, it's back to MailChimp where we write a press release on the new episode and schedule it to be sent 24 hours after the episode drops.

     

That's it! That's the entire process of producing an episode of Radio Icebox. If you have any questions or comments, leave them in the comment field or email us at iceboxradio51@gmail.com.

 

    Friday's at the Mic: The Recipe part 2

    The Recipe Part 2 - Production

    Last week, we got all the way from idea to the initial set-up for a table read. In part 2, I shift focus to the recording and editing.

    1. TABLE READ TIME: The cast gathers at the pre-set time. We hand out scripts, verify who's cast in which role, and begin. This is the writer's first chance to hear the story 'on its feet' and it's not unusual for many changes to be made. Mistakes are found and corrected. Lines that don't work as dialog are changed. Some times, actors come up with better dialog, some times the writer does. We go through the script, have a few laughs, then chat to catch up with each other personally. Finally, we get out our calendars and decide on the record date.

    2. SET UP TIME: (warning: tech stuff ahead) With the date to record approaching, I set up the studio for the number of mics we need up to a maximum of 5 (it gets too crowded after that). Actor's stands are placed around the room as far apart as possible. Each stand is equipped with a spring loaded mic arm, a pair of headphones, and a microphone. Gobos (large, portable walls on wheels) are positioned to try and limit natural echo and reverb. Mic cables all run to a 'stage snake' which runs to the main desk where our Zoom R-16 interface is located. The R-16 is then connected into the computer which is running Reaper, one recording track per actor. In the event one actor can't make the recording session, I try to have that actor come in early and record their lines. Those lines are then processed into separate sound files (one file per line) and loaded onto an Android tablet as a playlist. The tablet is hooked into the R-16. When it's time to record, a tech will play each of the missing actor's lines so that they are on the recording track, and also in the actor's headphones just as if the missing actor were in the room. Finally, sound from the R-16 is routed back to a headphone amp and then to the headphones of the actors present.

    3. RECORDING TIME: The moment of truth arrives. Usually, this is scheduled in the evenings or on weekends. I've come to appreciate mid-afternoon on weekends as the best time to record. The actors are not tired from a long work day. Not much to this phase, really. We record in order, page one to the end. If a section didn't work or was too low energy, we go back and do it again but that's not actually needed that often. Finish the script, call 'Wrap' and the actors are done. Upon conclusion, I immediately download the Reaper file to a flash drive for safety. Then I export the entire session (bloopers and all) to one big file often to be offered to members and patrons as a bonus.

    4. EDITING – FIRST PASS: A day or so later, it's time to get editing. First, I go over the recording and simply remove anything that I'm not going to use. Mistakes, first takes, etc. This leaves me with a good idea of the final product.

    5. SOUND EFFECTS: Next, I create new channels in Reaper for pre-recorded sound effects. These are divided into 'motivated' (effects which are part of a specific action such as a knock on the door or a phone ringing) and 'background' (which are generally field recordings of an environment such as a shopping mall or a street). Most of these effects either come from our own collection or Freesound.org.

    6. FOLEY: If there are some effects we need and don't have, we'll set up a Foley session in the studio. Mics are set up, the Reaper session featuring the actor's recordings is opened, and we 'loop' the section of the recording we need the new sound effect to join. That way, the Foley artist can listen over and over while practicing his or her effect. Then, we select the prop we need from our collection, hit record and go to work.

    7. MIXING: Now that all the sound effects and music are present, the editor sits down with Reaper and starts changing each channel to mix all the others. Volume levels are altered so that all actors are heard at roughly the same level. In conversations between characters, pan (or left/right) will be manipulated so that the characters will seem to be on different sides of the listeners head. And effects will be added to sections where characters are supposed to be heard over a phone line, over the radio, in a cave, etc.

    8. MUSIC: Lastly, we're ready for our score. Some times the music is from Kevin McLeod at Incompetech.com. Other times, from our own production music collection. If there's just a minor stab, or easy musical element, Jeff may hook up his keyboard in Garageband and play it himself. A new track in Reaper is created for music, and the musical tracks are laid in. The show is now complete...mostly.

      It occurs to me that this subject might actually warrant a 3-part blog. Check in next week for a look at Post Production.

    Fridays at the Mic: The Recipe part 1

     

     

    How do you make an episode of Radio Icebox? Step by step, here's how it's done, by me anyway.

     

    1. GET THE IDEA: Sometimes it's from a notebook, some times it's from the news. Occasionally it bursts into consciousness all at once. Sometimes scribbled on paper, some times it's typed into an 'idea folder' on Evernote. But you gotta start with the question 'what if?'

    2. FLESH THINGS OUT: How many characters are needed? What's a basic story with a beginning, a middle and an end and hopefully some growth and change along the way? Often yellow legal pads come into play at this stage.

    3. OUTLINE: ENTER THE TYPEWRITER: Script writing is a very technical thing. And I learned a long time ago that the requirements of cast, timing, sound effects, etc can bog down the storytelling. So I starting taking time out from the 21st Century in my creative process and simply writing the story without any thought to dialog, sound effects, or any other technical requirement of audio. And I write it on my 1940's vintage Royal portable typewriter (yes, you can still get ribbons). The letters smush together if I go too fast, and the spacebar doesn't always work, but that's okay. The document I produce at this point is for my eyes only. And I don't always refer back to this outline. Some times, just creating the story brings it into a state of existence that makes every subsequent step easier.

    4. CURING: One of the benefits of doing a podcast season is that there are a lot of stories to tell. And one of the benefits of having a lot of stories to tell is that there are natural breaks between one stage of creation and the next. For example, when I finish the outline for one story it's often time to start scripting the next. This means that by the time I go back to that first outline, I have some distance from the moment of creation and can view it a little more objectively.

    5. SCRIPTING: Dust off the template. It's time to go to work. I start by creating macros for each character's name (keeps the flow going). Then, like a mason building a wall, I go to work brick by brick and row by row. Line followed by sound effect followed by another line until I've told the story that I created back on that typewriter. Some times I am aware of technical things like over-all length and number of characters but I try not to think about that. And with practice, I've gotten to the point where my scripts tend to come out the right length. Roughly a minute a page means 20-30 pages is a radio play.

    6. MORE CURING: That's right, it's gotta sit for a little while (just so you know, I start writing episodes slated for Autumn in the early Spring).

    7. EDITING: At some later point, it's time to open up the script and start going over things. At this point I'm both looking for mistakes and considering structure and dialog choices. Often this involves several days of reading the script and making changes. When it seems like I'm making fewer changes than I was earlier, I figure the script is about ready. I'm never NOT making changes, and I take it for granted that there are some typos still present (a downside of fast typing). That's okay. The cast will catch them at first table read and they always find them funny for some reason.

    8. CASTING: Time to start thinking about getting this show on the road. First step, go through the script and figure out who of our wonderful corps of actors would fit into which role. Obviously, this job is done for me if we're recording a Radio Icebox episode. Next, I send messages to every actor giving them three potential times to get together for a table read. For you fledgling producers out there, this is vital. I learned a long time ago that asking people “When are you available?” is the path to insanity. You get a dozen different answers which creates hundreds of variables. Better to just come up with three date/times in the near future. You'd be surprised how often one of those times rises to the top. When it does, I send another message to the actors with the scheduled time for the table read. I do not try and schedule subsequent sessions at this time.

    9. SET UP FOR TABLE READ: We begin with a big table in the middle of the studio with our odd assortment of hand-me-down chairs around. Two jars on the table, one for highlighters, one for pencils and pens. Then – finally – it's time to lock-in that script by printing it out. I only print out the copies I need (one per actor), usually on scratch paper with old scripts on the back because I'm cheap. On the day of first table read, I might bring some drinks or snacks depending on the time of year and my mood. Actors some times bring these as well. That's it. We're ready for Table Read. The story is ready to take the leap from my brain to the real world. Next week: Production!

    Friday's at the Mic: A Break for Deep Thought

    Events of the last month (again, sorry for the delay in this blog) warrant a look, so I am taking a one week break from audio fiction to touch upon a few things.

    We have just completed a presidential election in the United States in which a very unpopular candidate won. The election results have caused a lot of anger among the populace and a lot of soul searching in the media. Some journalists take these election results as a personal failure, the logic being that if those in the media had done their jobs better, someone considered so unqualified would not have been elected president. There is also a fairly robust conversation about what is being called 'fake news', stories made to look like regular news content but with no journalistic intent. Instead, fake news is propaganda which uses false statistics and non-existent facts to favor one candidate or point of view. It's existence on your Facebook wall – fake news and the Washington Post sitting side-by-side – is being cited as the problem. I, however, am not so sure that the fault lies with Facebook.

    First, I should point out that I feel I owe a debt to the creators of the Internet so I may not be impartial. My art form, audio fiction, had been left for dead by radio decades ago and it was only with the coming of digital that producers like me were able to create stories. With the coming of the Internet we could distribute those stories, and with social media, we could promote them. Still, I approached my work aware that even though I had access to an international distribution system, I was still not in the same class as the old school media outlets like CBS and NBC. They measured their audience in the tens-of-millions, me in the thousands. So even though I feel a debt to the creators of the Internet, I didn't really think they provided me with a REAL global stage. That privilege is reserved for the Big Boys like the aforementioned TV networks. But the results of this election made me wonder: how big is that difference in 2016? How much power does big media really have? They are certainly blamed for a lot of woes, and if this last election is any indication, they are willing to shoulder that blame. But I can't help but wonder if this is a calculated move on the part of Big Media. After all, it would be better to be blamed for an election of a president than to be exposed as irrelevant.

    Television viewership is down. This is not a secret. The networks are well aware that today's ratings do not compare to those of 30 years ago. Every year, tens of thousands of young people move out of their college dorms and into their first apartments with a big screen TV that has never known a cable hookup or an antennae. Television's style - a steady stream of content delivered either via cable or the air - is losing out to systems that deliver content on-demand. And as viewership changes, older styles of journalism start to look threadbare and hokey. Younger viewers notice more readily that live coverage like that offered at the recent election is very repetitive. Wolf Blitzer and his ilk attempt to keep the viewer's attention with 'new' information that, in reality, has already been reported four times.

    Meanwhile, the vast, impossible to control Internet continues to grow. What does this mean? Will a new service, perhaps created by Google, eclipse the old TV networks? Will we be lost in a sea of misinformation, pining for the days when Walter Cronkite spoke with god-like credibility? As attractive as that might be, it's impossible. Television, radio and cable networks were built by men looking to turn a profit. As such, the networks were designed to be controlled. The Internet, on the other hand, was designed by academics aiming for infinite expansion and access. It might be possible to put some controls on the Internet, which could conceivably lead to editorial control of what the system can and cannot show, but totalitarian governments have tried that with mixed results. What I think it all means is this: the age of accountability is upon us. We greet this dawn with childish whining and adolescent sulking, wishing 'someone' would just take care of media for us. Or more to the point, take care of our neighbor's media so he didn't have so many crazy opinions. We don't know what to watch because there is so much to choose from. We don't know who to believe because we lack the critical thinking skills to discern, skills we can only require when we shift our focus away from our immediate desires and which ideological pacifier would best satisfy them.

    But these critical thinking skills can be gained. It will take practice and we will not be particularly good at it at first. But we need to gain these skills because, in truth, we don't have a choice. The world changed and the fact we didn't want it too is irrelevant. It happened. The future belongs not to those who pine for the past, but to those who can understand the present. If you want peace of mind, you must begin to cultivate the delicate balance between skepticism and cynicism.

    Journalism did not fail in 2016. The times simply changed, and we didn't recognize that. The future belongs to the smart and the wise. Reacting emotionally will make you feel worse and worse until just living day to day will seem impossible. Let the crazies on the fringes binge on their simplistic, binary ideology. They have the right to do so in a free society. But you don't have a responsibility to follow them. Journalism did not fail in 2016. We were not yet wise enough for the new journalism.

    Fridays at the Mic: Scribblin' in a Digital Age

    Scribblin' in a digital age. What a nonsensical, bullshit title. But I stand by it not because it makes sense or because it attracts attention by being funny and cute (it doesn't) but because the idea of mashing a colloquialism like 'Scribblin' with an over-used phrase like 'The Digital Age' perfectly captures the whole dichotomy of trying to entertain people in 2016. We are living in the digital age but to really see what that means is to stare into the void and court madness. It is to realize that writing should be obsolete by now, but is actually more important than ever.

    Human communication has always been more about barriers than connections. Languages keep us from understanding each other. Technology limits understanding by controlling perception. And even when two people do understand the same language and are in a position to communicate unfiltered by technology, they misunderstand anyway because of any number of little mental tricks we play on ourselves just to get the through the day. Two people meet on the street. Both are obsessing over some small, petty injustice they suffered, and they know they are obsessing so they slap on a happy face to avoid talking about it. And because they are obsessing, they tell themselves they don't have time to listen to the other guy's problems. So, they don't and their 'conversation' (sarcastic quotation marks) is reduced to a series of banal, pre-scripted speech McNuggets filling the appropriate amount of conversation time with words but meaning nothing.

    In short, people are self-centered. Not selfish, you understand. Most people don't consider themselves above everyone else. They just lack the ability to perceive objectively, to see (and by extension, describe) things in a such a way as to to convey that image with written words. The poet sees a sunset and struggles to put it into words because she knows that it is really impossible to use this limited, improvised and obtuse system to create emotion in another human being. But that's still the goal. I see and feel. I want to make people feel the same thing. And I want them to feel it no matter where they are or when they are. I want to be a time traveler and a mad scientist creating something in others through this mystical system called words.

    Isn't it strange that we're still using written language? We can record our voices and we can record moving pictures of our faces creating those voices, and yet we still use this system of symbols that are tied to sounds. And it seems the more difficult and complex a language is to use (Chinese and English) the more common its usage. Maybe we are tied to this old system by habit, but maybe we are tied by something more. As I talk with people in my town and write back and forth with people on the internet, I'm struck with how often people utter something stupid, racist, elitist or all three, then claim that their meaning was obscured by language. “Oh, you know what I mean. I'm just not saying it right.” Maybe we want language to be the problem because otherwise the problem is ourselves.

    Here's a simple conclusion, and something to think about. The telephone changed the world in that it changed us into a spoken word society. Before the telephone, the only form of long-distance communication was the written word and we had beautiful written words. Letters from the 19th century were clear, often poetic, and don't get me started on the penmanship. But that all changed when we could talk to each other. And make no mistake, speaking is different than writing. Here's my idea of where the problem comes in: when a present-day person sits down to write, they don't actually write. They transcribe. They mentally create a conversation then write down what their imaginations 'heard'. Emails and blogs lack clarity because they are written transcriptions of 'conversations' that needed body language and inflection to be complete. Real written communication feels stilted and stiff by comparison, but it's a damn site clearer and more 'true'.

    Next week, I think I'll talk about all this in the context of a radio script: the blueprint for heard art.

    Fridays at the Mic: "Can Grandpa join the band?"

    Last week, I suggested that a very important person in modern audio fiction was against, or at least concerned about, a production style that I'm going to call OTR, or Old Time Radio. OTR is the style I've worked in, and the Icebox Radio Theater has worked in, for a long time. I don't feel the need to sum up last week's blog when you can click on the title and read it for yourself. Go ahead, it's not long.

    Back? Good. Did you catch that part when I pointed out that Anne Heppermann, head of the Sarah Awards and a very important person in audio fiction, probably isn't really anti-OTR, but is concerned artists will revert to that style as opposed to seeking new and creative ways to use audio? I just need to underline that point: I don't think of Anne Heppermann as the devil, or someone who has it in for me. I might FEEL that way some times, but I don't THINK it; at least not with the rational part of my brain. But (and this is a big but) I disagree with her. I disagree with her because I think her concern originates from a misguided idea. I think Anne Heppermann, and others who shy away from OTR style, blame that style for the original demise of the art form.

    Let's do a little background. Audio fiction began during the Golden Age of Radio which lasted roughly from 1930 to 1955. For much of that time, radio was the only technology that could provide nation-wide communication in an immediate form. One voice speaking from New York could talk to millions simultaneously. That immediacy was much of the initial appeal of radio, and early television. For a country defined by, and often vexed by, great distances and isolation (especially in the West) the idea of being connected by live voices was almost intoxicating. I think this helps to explain why the style of OTR changed so little during the golden age, and why some of those recordings have aged so poorly. Writers and producers probably figured it didn't much matter what they did so long as big stars were at the center of things. And if ratings were an indication, they were right. Of course, in hindsight, this led to some awful and awfully aged radio shows.

    I must admit that some OTR recordings from the Golden Age sound silly to my ears. But that's because golden age radio was a race against time. Shows were cranked out so fast there was little thought to style. Other than Norman Corwin and the Colombia Radio Workshop, few artists working in that era experimented with the form. The result, I'll admit, was a certain sameness. But was that sameness the result of flaws in the style? Or was it due to overuse? And do the negative effects of that overuse really matter to today's audience considering they are too young to remember the golden age, and few have ever even heard audio fiction on radio?

    It gets down to the question of whether you want your STORY to be featured, or your STYLE. In film, there are plenty of fascinating experimental filmmakers out there who present their movies as a visual feast. But they share the screen with realistic films that tell their stories using a film grammar that dates back to the silents. Take the 2016 Oscar winner 'Spotlight', the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that uncovered a massive sex abuse cover up by the Catholic Church. There's not a single image in that movie that isn't right out of a basic filmmaking text, but that doesn't matter. 'Spotlight' succeeds because of its story, and its actors. Yet its success doesn't appear to detract from visually unique filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze. So in the movies there appears to be room for both the stylist and the storyteller. I believe audio fiction has room for both, too.

    Hepperman's right. It would be a shame if all we made was 'black and white movies'. But it would be an even bigger shame if we shunned them. Traditional OTR has to have a place because it is the most direct storytelling style we have. We need OTR style for the same reason the 'band' of this blog's title needs grandpa: he's forgotten more about making music then the rest of the band has ever learned.

    Next week: 'Scribblin in a Digital Age'

    Fridays at the Mic: Carrying the OTR Tag

    How sad would it be if we went back to just making black and white films.”

    -Anne Heppermann

    Recently, two articles appeared on my news and Facebook feeds that filled me with a rare hope and optimism. Two major media journals, 'The Current' (a public media trade magazine) and 'Wired' (the definitive journal of online culture that still, oddly, insists on paper publishing) did articles on audio fiction. Wired went so far as to declare it officially 'A Thing' thanks to sci fi and horror (more good news for yours truly). This development is important for two reasons. The first is self-evident. Publications which focus on the Internet and public media both took the time to examine our art form. And second, the reason they did this was not out of a sense of duty or a desire to promote audio fiction, but because recent events warranted a closer look. There have been plenty of articles about 'the return of radio drama', but these are the first in the 'Night Vale' age; the age in which all of us, regardless of how meager our own download numbers, can point to Night Vale and say, “See? There's the proof that people listen.” The trade media is paying attention now not because they want to, but because they have to.  That is a very good thing.

    The piece in 'The Current' was of particular interest to me. It featured an interview with Anne Heppermann, creator of The Sarah Awards. Started by Heppermann at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, The Sarah's look like the odds-on favorite to become audio fiction's premiere award series. The award has the backing of the college, and Heppermann has Peabody winning credentials. She is, simply put, the Real Deal.

    The Current's text article is HERE, but that article was originally taken from a podcast called 'The Pub' hosted by Adam Ragusea. If you haven't checked it out, you should. It's an excellent discussion of public media. The Pub's interview with Heppermann appears in podcast #33. You can go straight to the Heppermann segment at the 21:40 mark. It's a good interview. The conversation ranges though many topics, but what grabbed my attention was the discussion of form or style.

    I think it's fair to say the Heppermann loves audio fiction that stretches things. Just give a listen to the Sarah Awards podcast 'Serendipity' (which she produces with Martin Johnson) to see what I mean. But when their conversation drifts to the past and what came before Night Vale, the tone changes. When Ragusea and Heppermann talk about old time radio (Little Orphan Annie and Flash Gordon were mentioned) a certain uncomfortable embarrassment enters their voices. It was as if OTR was a batty grandpa who wears a monocle and shops at unfashionable thrift stores; the type of character always welcome at family gatherings, but whom you'd never invite to a fancy cocktail party, certainly not one where funding people might be present.

    The gist of Heppermann's point of view is summed up near the end of the interview when she says, “I do think we're poised at this place to create a revolution. I do think that this is the next revolution in radio, the next frontier. And what I don't what to happen is that we re-emerge and simply go back to the old form. How sad would it be if people start doing audio fiction again, and then all we do is make black and white films?”

    Get it? Black and white films = old time radio.

    Now if you listen to Heppermann's own voice (again, follow the link and listen to her voice!) you'll hear how careful she is not to sound didactic or even authoritative. She's just a person offering her opinion; her very, very weighty opinion. And her opinion clearly comes down against groups like The Icebox Radio Theater. I'll leave a closer examination as to exactly what the IBRT's style is for another week (I did want to keep these blogs brief, after all) but I do want to touch on what I think the 'old' style is and why it's still relevant.

    OTR style can be described as movies without pictures. The microphone is present but invisible at a scene involving characters speaking dialog, and other sounds. It is a style directly tied to theater and film form. These are stories built of scenes in which characters interact with each other and their environment. Usually, established dramatic grammar conveys basic information to the audience like when the scene is over or what the emotional weight of events might be. For example, a music cue signals the end of a scene and when the cue is over, the next scene begins. Whatever the case, the audience is a fly on the wall in OTR style, always present, hearing everything. The relationship between this style and theatre and film form is indicated by the number of stories that traveled back and forth from one art form to another. Classic movies usually had radio adaptations, and numerous classic TV programs started on radio.

    I really doubt that Ann Heppermann is 'against' old time radio. I think she is concerned that the style will become dominant again, that people will default to what used to be out of laziness. But this is not how laziness works. People who are lazy look at what's popular in the moment and imitate it. Today, it's much more likely that we'll see a slew of Night Vale clones, a show which is closer in style to an audio book than anything Arch Obler produced. Meanwhile, are we who end our scenes with music cues and occasionally indulge in expository dialog doomed to obscurity? Is there no room for a straight-up audio movie?

    And one last thing: people DO still make black and white movies. Some of them, like 'Schindler's List' and 'The Artist' even win the biggest awards – hint, hint.

    Next week: “Where do we go from here?” Or “Can Grandpa join the band?”

     

    Fridays at the Mic: Hello

    For most of my life as a writer, I have resisted writing a blog. I'm not much of a wordsmith. I tend to make mistakes, then miss them in the editing. It's embarrassing when the cast of a new radio play spots (and laughs at) these mistakes at a table read, but at least it's just a small group of actors who will say the correct word during recording even if I didn't write it. But as I move forward writing radio scripts and studying other groups doing the same, I'm struck by how many producers write blogs. And more importantly, what an vital and unique role blogs serve.

     

    For the past three years, I've done a news and info podcast called The Crisper on Sunday afternoons. I have thought of this feature as my substitute blog, a chance to talk out my thoughts so I would not have to write them out. But though a personal podcast can be a good forum for personal thoughts, there are ideas that run deeper and require more contemplation. A blog gives people the chance to go back and re-read a section, to think deeper on a point or to write something back. In short, a blog is a good place to slow down. And as I get older, slowing down is becoming my natural pace.

    So, I shall write. I think we'll call this blog 'Fridays at the Mic' to give me a regular deadline to shoot for. I cannot promise I'll post a new entry every Friday, but I will aim to. Fridays at the Mic will be about producing audio fiction, both my projects and the work of others. I'll do my best to raise interesting points and the comments field will always remain open. Finally, I think I'll keep the entries short. Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and subjects requiring something deeper can always be expanded in subsequent entries giving me a ready-made cure for writer's block.

    I'll conclude this first entry with a confession about why I'm doing this after resisting it for so many years. I am 50 now. I have been producing audio fiction for 17 years, 12 of which with the Icebox Radio Theater. In that time, I've felt a lot of support from fans and fellow artists. But there have also been days filled with self doubt and jealousy. And through it all, the constant and annoyingly vague desire for 'more'. What 'more' do I want from this life? What 'more' do I want from this art? I don't know, but I feel it's time to work that out. To write that out.

    NEXT WEEK: Carrying the OTR tag