On Radio: The Truth, and Other Jeopardies
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.