On Radio: The Truth, and Other Jeopardies

February 7, 2013
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Seventy-five years ago this summer Orson Welles inaugurated his Mercury Theater on the Air on the Columbia network with an adaptation of “Dracula.” Among the mixed reviews, Variety’s opprobrium stands out, calling the broadcast a “confused and confusing jumble of frequently inaudible and unintelligible voices,” and then dismissing it altogether, since “Columbia, being merely a radio network, has no dramatic standing to jeopardize.”

In coming months another idea of “standing” would preoccupy Welles and his fellow radio dramatists, many of whom concentrated on manipulating the standpoint at which listening rests in the world of the play, a property that I’ve called “audioposition.” By cleverly conveying “where listeners listen from” 1930′s dramatists felt they could convince audiences to accept radio drama as a legitimate platform worthy of assessment and appreciation.

Only dramatic “standing,” in other words, could produce “dramatic standing.”

This connection between audioposition and value is being rediscovered today, as podcasters seek recognition as dramatists, and various groups (on air, in cinemas, on stage, online, and elsewhere) rethink drama’s place in the “new golden age” of radio. In this column, I want to consider a few podcasts by The Truth, an American Public Media group responsible for some of the most interesting dramatic audio in recent memory, arguing that a new sense of audioposition – or, more precisely, of its instability – may be emerging today.

The Truth is a project of producer Jonathan Mitchell, who works with a group of actors recruited from The Magnet Theater in New York, as well as several other writers and radio editors. A long-time enthusiast of musique concrète, Mitchell’s plays “Eat Cake” and “Moon Graffiti” had been featured on such programs as Studio 360 for years, but most listeners likely first encountered his material when “Tape Delay” aired on This American Life last April. After that broadcast, The Truth’s downloads went from a few hundred per day up to 20,000. Today, the podcast has more than 35,000 regular subscribers.

Between story workshops, improvisation, recording sessions and editing, production of each podcast can take up to a month. Mitchell balances experiment and control. “The interesting thing to me,” he explains, “is the way the improv gets combined with the editing stage.” Just as there is no script dictating things at the outset of work, there is none at the end. In the latter phase, the most compelling recordings are assembled irrespective of the initial plan, a process that Mitchell likens to film editing.

The result has remarkable variety. In “Mirror Lake,” a young man returns to a scene from his childhood, only to discover that his memories have led him astray. In “The Death of Poe” a night watchman at the home of the great writer relates a a story-within-a-story of Poe’s mysterious death. And The Truth maximizes its settings, large and small. In “Do You Have a Minute for Equality?” the openness of a city street is contrasted with the claustrophobia of the dentist’s chair. In “In Good Hands,” urban explorers stumble into a dystopian society hidden in the bowels of New York, traveling through sound caverns in a story that segues rapidly between dozens of locations, including a subterranean garden and swimming pool.

Some of the best scenes emerge through auditory deceptions and stutters, something thematized in plays like “Interruptible.” At the outset of the recording, we hear an interviewer (Ed Herbstman) chat with the author (Melanie Hoopes) of a recent book entitled I Lived as a Dog for One Year. There is some crackle and a sense of distance, as if our ear is not quite as flush against the conversation as we expect it to be. “There’s a full moon out, does that affect you?” quips the interviewer, before the scene is interrupted by a telephone and the sound of a car’s turn signal, both of which seem clearer and closer to us than the preceding passage. Instantly the volume of the interview drops, as a new character, a taxi driver (Christian Paluck) argues with his wife about taking an extra shift on the day of their wedding anniversary. Mitchell insisted on using a car with a vinyl interior, to provide the right bounce for the sound, and the result is a beautiful sonic illustration of the taxi as a miniature soundscape.

The sudden “appearance” of that soundscape is just the first in a series of interruptions that structure the piece, but the sense of dislocation it provides lingers longer than most. Rather than listening to the interview, we had been listening to someone else listen to it. We haven’t moved audioposition in the space of the fiction at all, but misrecognized our audioposition from the getgo.

That use of slight-of-hand to create positional misconceptions is everywhere in Truth pieces. In “Domestic Violins,” we hear the auditions of violinists both from their own audioposition and also from that of the judges, a separation punctuated by an intercom in which we move from side to side abruptly. In “Tape Delay,” the sound of a conversation as we hear it enter a cell phone sounds quite different from when we are given the phone’s “perspective.” The Truth‘s most recent piece, “False Ending” starts as the lights come up on a college screening room for a post-show discussion after a swell of music that provides a sense of “returning to reality,” until the audio begins subtly changing again and we discover that the post-show discussion was itself a film, and the lights come up in another screening room in another college, where another post-show discussion is about to begin.

It’s significant that many of these inside/outside instabilities and switches of audioposition involve some other medium. The mechanism empowering each game is another device – a car radio, an intercom, a cell phone, a TV broadcast, a screening – that works as a hinge between sound and meta-sound. In an age that understands itself to be one of media convergence, perhaps something speaks to us about the joys, blunders, and terrors of misrecognizing mediation for immediacy, of mistaking one ongoing mediated state for another. Today, the way for a medium to acquire “a dramatic standing to jeopardize” might lie precisely in dramatizing the jeopardy of mediation.

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5 Responses to “ On Radio: The Truth, and Other Jeopardies ”

  1. Eric Dienstfrey on February 8, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    Thank your for this interesting blogpost, Neil! After reading your book, I’ve been meaning to ask you about the distinctions between your newly coined term “audioposition” and the alternate “point-of-audition,” a term previously used in both film and sound recording scholarship. The way I understand it, both refer to the way in which the volume, timbre, and exclusion of sounds can imply that audiences are hearing a scene from a physical location inside the storyworld. Are there differences between these two terms?

  2. Neil Verma on February 8, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    Thanks for the question, Eric! Yes, the term points to the properties you enumerate (and others), but I chose not to use “point of audition,” as well as others in the literature on radio – “focalization,” “sound perspective,” “point of view,” “sound vectors” – in part because many of them use metaphors of vision that are not always helpful. As Michel Chion points out, “point of audition” only exists as a companion to “point of view,” and it works best when discussing relations between those two properties in sound films. Since radio plays have no “point of view,” I felt it was better not to adopt a frame of reference that presumes one.

    There was also a more practical concern. I wanted readers to notice is how audiopositions are composed and shaped – they are selected, developed, complicated, maintained and broken. To explain how that was done, I needed a term that I could easily use as a verb (i.e. “the audience is positioned” and “William Spier positions the audience”), which is much harder to do with “point of audition.” That’s not to say that point-of-audition sound isn’t also a deliberate choice in filmmaking (far from it), only that it’s such a pressing issue in radio that I needed a term I could use extensively and adapt into different parts of speech more readily. To put it another way, I wanted a term that behaves a little like “shot” in film studies.

    As a rule, I think it’s bad form to coin words unless you really need to. In this case I felt that I did, since there is no common touchstone term for the phenomenon, and it seemed better to create one than to pick one over another another, when each has merits and deficiencies. Thanks again for reading! nv

    • Eric Dienstfrey on February 8, 2013 at 1:35 PM

      These are good points. While I very much disagree with Chion’s conception of a “point-of-audition” (as its function and value in the cinema have less to do with its relation to the restricted narration of a “point-of-view” and more to do with its relation to the omnipresent sound designs that are more typical of diegetic construction), I like your observation about there not being an analog to the word “shot” in radio discourse.

  3. Jason Loviglio on February 10, 2013 at 6:54 PM

    Thanks Neil for this wonderful analysis of The Truth. You’ve helped me understand why these little “movies for your ear” are often both compelling and discomfiting. There’s something so disorienting about these intense shifts in audioposition. It’s suddenly easy to understand why so many old-time radio shows veered towards suspense, horror, and gothic themes and with such success.

  4. Neil Verma on February 11, 2013 at 2:17 PM

    Discomfiture is a great term for it! It’s a quality that’s rediscovered and reinvented often. Thanks, Jason.