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?”