'Radio Icebox'

A warm story about a cold place

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'