Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling

Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling

Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling

Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling

Synopsis

From Archibald MacLeish to David Sedaris, radio storytelling has long borrowed from the world of literature, yet the narrative radio work of well-known writers and others is a story that has not been told before. And when the literary aspects of specific programs such as The War of the Worlds or Sorry, Wrong Number were considered, scrutiny was superficial. In Lost Sound, Jeff Porter examines the vital interplay between acoustic techniques and modernist practices in the growth of radio. Concentrating on the 1930s through the 1970s, but also speaking to the rising popularity of today's narrative broadcasts such as This American Life, Radiolab, Serial, and The Organicist, Porter's close readings of key radio programs show how writers adapted literary techniques to an acoustic medium with great effect. Addressing avant-garde sound poetry and experimental literature on the air, alongside industry policy and network economics, Porter identifies the ways radio challenged the conventional distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow cultural content to produce a dynamic popular culture.

Excerpt

In 1941, John Cage received a commission from CBS to write a score to accompany a radio play by poet Kenneth Patchen, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, a surreal tale that follows the urban wanderings of a mysterious man called “The Voice.” Divided into thirteen scenes, the play chronicles the various encounters “The Voice” has with city dwellers, including a panhandler, thief, nightclub goers, bartender, cabdriver, street vendors, thugs, sobbing woman, and random phone callers. Like radio’s “Shadow,” “The Voice” has psychic powers he calls upon to disarm gun-toting thugs and predict the future. The play concludes with “The Voice’s” retreat to a rock in the ocean, where he encounters another man who has left the noise of the city behind for the beating rhythm of the ocean waves. Both join in howling and laughing to the sound of the sea.

With its many sound cues, Patchen’s script was rich in acoustic opportunities for sonic experiment, and when Cage was told by CBS that anything was possible, he let his imagination run free, producing a 250-page score written exclusively for electronic sound effects intended to be treated as musical instruments. When that ambitious attempt proved unworkable, Cage quickly rewrote his score, scaling back his original ideas, using only percussive instruments (tin cans, gongs, alarm bells, whistles, bass drum, Chinese tom-tom, maracas, foghorn, thundersheet) and various acoustic effects. Still, Cage was able to match many of Patchen’s sonic cues with live and recorded sounds. The resulting score is a musical cacophony of percussive bangs and knocks that defines the chaotic energy and unrest of the urban landscape. Some listeners were baffled by what they heard, but others found The City Wears a Slouch Hat profound and moving. Whatever their response, listeners understood that Cage and Patchen’s avant-garde collaboration fit an emergent tradition that we are only dimly aware of today. The City Wears a Slouch Hat may have been an extreme example, but it stood alongside a panoply of literary radio art that had flooded the airwaves since the mid-1930s.

This is a book about a literary tradition that, while now seldom noted, was a vital part of broadcast radio in the 1930s and 1940s. Tracking that tradition’s high points in American radio, the following chapters focus on . . .

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