'Radio Icebox'

A warm story about a cold place

Fridays at the Mic: A Brief History of Scripts

Because audio fiction is primarily told with words (apologies to my sound design partners) the art begins with a script. That's the tradition of all dramatic art forms, and it makes a lot of economic sense. Even in Shakespeare's time, sets, costumes and a theatre to play in all cost money, and it only made sense to plan out every aspect of the play on paper before committing more resources. We don't have as much of a financial burden in audio, but time still comes dear to busy actors and it pays to enter rehearsals with a blueprint for the story you're going to build. What I want to write about today, or perhaps over the next few weeks, is how scripting audio today differs from yesterday and why those differences are important.

Golden age radio provided everything to its listeners, from live speeches and sporting events to music and entertainment. First in line of popularity were news and events. Radio's big appeal was its ability to bring events into millions of homes simultaneously, uniting the United States in a way it had not been united before. Drama was often seen as filler. Beloved as those shows were, they were not the most popular form of radio in the day. That distinction fell to comedy variety shows starring the likes of Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen. These included dramatic skits, but focused on giving their audiences a sense of being out on the town attending a theater opening or a night club. Again, the appeal centered on shrinking the massive distances and feelings of isolation that had afflicted the country for much of its history.

Drama programs of the period were acutely aware of their shortcomings not only compared to other radio programing, but compared to the cultural monolith of the time, Hollywood. So golden age radio drama was usually told in a style as close to film as possible. The microphone was a 'fly on the wall' with the audience serving as eavesdroppers on events that actors played out more or less the same way in stage plays or films. It is a fine form of storytelling, but I don't think it ever lost its inferiority complex judging by the number of radio networks and shows that switched to television as soon as that option became available.

Modern audio theater came out of a different kind of radio, public radio. As a form, public radio has always been about stories and tone. It never had the desire (nor the ability, honestly) to compete for the attention of the popular audience, so it went its own way with influences from college radio and foreign services like the BBC. And though music has always been part of public radio in America (Live from the Met has been on the air since the beginning) the focus has settled more and more on stories. Last year, the public media podcast The Pub went so far as to suggest that audio fiction's recent rise was due to the audience's focus on stories. The Pub suggested that this story focus has been misinterpreted as a desire for news. But it seems there's a segment of the audience that doesn't care if their stories are real or not. Actual broadcast space for audio fiction is still very rare. No matter. The Internet has given us a much better medium in podcasting. And that's where I'll pick things up next week.

Next week: Finding the Modern Ear