The Spirit of Radio

One important part of this week’s checklist was to listen in on “three” separate episodes of This American Life, Radiolab, or The Truth, and try to identify how effective the use of audio was for telling these specific stories, with one episode of The Truth consisting of three sketches of our choosing. Given our playlists, I chose “Getting Away With It,” from This American Life; “Ghost Stories,” from Radiolab; and three sketches from The Truth, which you’ll hear about later.

Throughout the events of “Getting Away With It,” the anecdotes feel like intimate conversations, disguised as on-location interviews. As the narrator, Glass is talking about the situation itself, not from his own, personal perspective, but from a neutral corner, wherein both he and the person he’s interviewing share the spotlight.

After Glass has his moments of reflection, the co-narrator has theirs, and vice versa. While this is going on, the background noise gives off the feel of actually being there as the story unfolds; the sound of an airplane, in mid-flight, makes you sympathize with the Knee Defender user, as he explains his situation to the stewardess in the most awkward fashion you can imagine.

At the conclusion of the prologue story, Glass brings up the recurring theme of that week’s stories, as people don’t just want to get away with something, but they also want to make it so that no one judges them for what they did. “If we can get away with something completely, with no one ever knowing, nobody judging us, and, just as important, nobody really hurt, we give it a shot,” he said.

The main stories are told exclusively by the co-narrator, again from a neutral corner, telling Glass and the listeners everything they recall about their respective stories, as if it had just occurred. The choice of background music ensures the audience pays attention to what’s going on, despite some cases where it doesn’t fit the given situation; a story about a trucker smuggling marijuana to keep his family out of debt features “Wild West” music for one scene, about said trucker’s wife and son making sure the local customs office was closed, to prevent the father from being fined further.

As for “Ghost Stories,” things take a turn for the eccentric. While the opening to This American Life reveals the call letters of the show’s parent station in a straightforward manner – Ira directly announces the introduction of each episode by saying, “From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life…” – Radiolab‘s intro splices several sound bytes together, to make it sound like multiple people are saying the same thing: “You’re listening to Radiolab, from WNYC, and NPR.”

Another difference between This American Life and Radiolab is that Glass eases you into the experience, by showing you one story out of the many to follow, while the co-hosts of Radiolab cut to the chase, and tell you what to expect that week. This episode, as the title explains, is “a whole hour about ghosts,” and the possessions and hauntings associated with them, or caused by them.

The audio, when it does show up, fits the scenes more coherently in “Ghost Stories,” from cues introducing Jad Abumrad’s guests, to background music and sound effects allowing listeners to visualize a given scene, as it takes place. Several moments of silence, save for Jad and the guest’s dialogue with each other, take place, with the only exceptions being several bits of audio editing, to further emphasize key points of the current story; an echo effect temporarily amplifies the voices of both Abumrad and Mary Roach, as they tell the tale of Thomas Lynn Bradford’s quest to confirm that there is, in fact, an afterlife.

The sound effects, when they don’t tell the story directly, are there to set the atmosphere of a given scene in a Radiolab story, whereas This American Life lets the story sell itself, providing background noise when necessary. From time to time, several seconds of dead air emphasize moments of suspense, making you feel like you’re hearing this story while huddled around a campfire after dark.

In a case of reading between the lines, another cut of the opening segment features not only a promo for the encore presentation of a “Cast Party” event involving several other WNYC shows, including Radiolab, but another advertisement, starring Abumrad himself, promoting a sponsor for that week’s broadcast, while the episode, in its entirety, only aired the “Cast Party” encore promo. Instead of using foley artists to provide the sound effects, the bonus ad was recorded outdoors, uncut and unedited, while construction equipment and wind could be heard in the background; Abumrad even points this out, in a show of humanity, before going into the promo proper.

My final selections for the evening were three sketches from The Truth: “Third Party,” “The Modern Prometheus,” and “The Death of Poe.” These radio dramas, marketed as “movies for your ears,” can be summed up as a modern-day equivalent of anthology shows like The Outer Limits, Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone; each episode contains a separate story, intended to show the world from a lesser-known, and much more imaginative, perspective.

Compared to Radiolab‘s use of sound effects when the best reactions possible can be brought out of the audience, and This American Life taking a down-to-earth approach to sound editing, making any situation feel like something a listener might have some day, the layering of sounds in episodes of The Truth makes you feel like you’re right there, in the middle of a given scene. In “Third Party,” the opening minutes are spent in Mike Coleman’s campaign office, with a series of typewriters playing in the background, during Coleman’s talk with two FBI agents, a sound effect used repeatedly throughout the episode; this, combined with the suspenseful music that plays as the conversation gets creepier, provide not only a feeling of realism for the characters, and the world they live in, but an aura of dread for listeners to pick up, as well, knowing that Coleman could very well be the next victim of a serial killer, intent on preserving what he believes to be the order of a two-party system.

“The Modern Prometheus,” on the other hand, capitalizes on the Citizens United decision of 2010 by literally giving a random corporate computer sentience, in a similar vein as HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the bloodless body count. Any two specific scenes in this story are interwoven with a series of election-themed attack ads, “paid for” by the fictional Healthcare United, which represents all the political action groups founded in the wake of Citizens United, to say nothing of the “Obamacare” scandals that were dominating the news a few years ago.

To prove how serious “Obamacare” was at the time, the opening ad, sounding like something straight out of a Fox News telecast, uses a piano riff that sounds like the theme to John Carpenter’s Halloween, a well-timed use of the Headless Horseman’s laugh from Walt Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and a thunderstorm sound effect at the conclusion, complete with gusts of wind, for good measure; the acting of the announcer, specifically, fits the Fox News archetypes – he has a smug personality, a smarmy tone of voice, and thinks he knows everything, when he most likely doesn’t – perfectly, to the point that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between him and an actual tabloid news announcer.

As for what’s going on behind the scenes, the personality provided by each character’s respective voice actor, gives off an illusion of bearing witness to everything that occurs, and being powerless to stop any of it. This feeling is strengthened as things get increasingly scandalous for everyone that gets caught in the proverbial crosshairs, up to, and including, Elizabeth, the HAL stand-in for this story, activating the fire alarm in self-defense after her creator threatens to unplug her, further connecting this story to 2001, while also distancing the two from each other, in the process.

Both in the ads and in the actual story, the layering of sounds and music in each scene is methodically paced. The reason for this is twofold: to add to the realism of the situation, as much of a fantasy as stories like this tend to be, but most of all, to make you feel like this is either currently happening, or might actually happen someday, especially given how advanced technology has become in the past few decades alone.

This brings us to a very special episode of The Truth, and my final review subject for this evening: “The Death of Poe,” previously based on Matthew Mercier’s real-life short story, “Poe and I,” about Mercier’s time as the caretaker of Edgar Allan Poe’s final estate before his death, wondering how the author of The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue spent his last days. Given how crazy the first two stories were, from both an auditory and an atmospherical aesthetic, the last one, suffice it to say, wasn’t going to let up on those feelings of fear and terror any time soon; while the scenes leading up to anyone’s death is going to have a hint of tragedy to them, the voice actors added a comedic tint to the affair, from time to time, namely Edgar’s initial run-in with a female representative of the Whig Party, and how he becomes increasingly obsessed with killing the oversized rats in her estate, even as he’s being forced to vote for the Whigs, under penalty of death, despite being under the heavy influence of opium, as the story brings up at one point.

For this episode, the production staff decided to re-air Mercier’s original short story, from start to finish, while editing their own dialogue over the original lines from the story, as if it were an original tale made specifically for the show; the episode even begins with a cold open, similar to the one from “It’s a Good Life,” an episode of The Twilight Zone, while still keeping its focus on the story it wants to tell. The end result is basically a scene from an episode of Radiolab, if it leaned less towards science-fiction, and more towards horror; the “Man in Purple’s” warning that he would “raise up the spirit of Poe” is rather jarring when it’s first shoved into Mercier’s original narration, fitting for the state of shock such an announcement would likely make in real life.

The story uses the right amount of sound editing to keep up the illusion of bearing witness to any given scene, be it in a bar, or Edgar’s old estate, but makes sure that this can also fit in as something from This American Life, as Mercier’s short story is performed in the same, up-close manner as Ira Glass and his guests tend to do on air, flashbacks and all; there’s as much of a focus on Edgar’s brief opium addiction, and subsequent Election Day cooping, as there is the caretaker reacting to the Man in Purple’s story of how Poe died, as well as when a giant rat invaded Edgar’s old estate on his watch. Ultimately, the mixture of the two makes this experience even more worthwhile when you first hear it, as it’s a bonafide example of the truth being stranger than fiction.

Overall, these episodes and sketches show me a myriad of ways that a story can be told without visual aids; whether I do so with the direct, human approach of Ira Glass, the bizarre, attention-grabbing methods of Jad Abumrad and company, or the slow-burning, heart-pounding means of the cast and crew of The Truth, is all up to me in the end. I don’t have to worry about what identity I’ll take to the big stage just yet, but now that I see the world of radio with new eyes, I’ll make sure not to take it, or any medium I use to get my points across, for granted.

September 18th, 2015 by
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