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Reviewed by:
  • Lost Sound: the Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling by Jeff Porter
  • Daniel H. Foster
LOST SOUND: THE FORGOTTEN ART OF RADIO STORYTELLING. By Jeff Porter. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016; pp. 296.

Gratitude is rarely the first emotion that scholars feel when opening yet another academic book. Weariness mixed with envy more hits the mark. But Jeff Porter's Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling is a very welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on Old Time Radio (OTR). Until recently, most publications and internet sites devoted to OTR tended to be of the rose-tinted "back then …" variety: either "back then … things were better"—celebrations of a bygone era when radio inspired us to people the theatres of our minds rather than passively consume screen-projected images; or "back then … things were different"—apologies for OTR's treatment of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other types of identity categories to which our ears are more attuned today.

Thankfully, Porter's book indulges in neither of these easy escapes. Instead, he offers a series of clear, keenly argued close readings of key OTR texts like Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and Lucille Fletcher's Sorry, Wrong Number, "prestige programs" like the Columbia Workshop, and avant-garde sound experiments by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas, and Glenn Gould.

But what truly sets Lost Sounds apart from some of the previous research on these works is something you would think is obvious given the focus on radio: Porter actually listens to his texts. He analyzes their use of sound, as well as all of the other domains that interest academics: history, culture, genre, and so on. Invoking Charles Bernstein's notion of "close listening" (13–14), Porter does not simply read radio as if it were an object of cultural and artistic significance transmitted without a medium, but he attends to how the aural elements and conditions of transmission affect our understanding of these sonic texts. And his main contribution to the theoretical tool chest for close listening is what he calls "acoustic drift." Porter uses this bit of compact theoretical poetry to refer "to the uncoupling of sound from sense, to those moments when sound becomes unmoored from the anchor of language" (19).

Introducing this concept in his opening chapter, Porter then weaves it throughout each of the book's following chapters to explore the ways in which its absence forecloses auditory exploration, or its presence provides "the key to unlocking the hidden power of sound" (9). Chapter 2 looks at how the work produced by some of America's greatest radiophonic writers produced the Columbia Workshop, and how their sonic experiments challenged radio to move beyond the logocentricity of the daytime soap. In the third chapter, close listenings to Welles's Dracula and War of the Worlds examine the ways in which Welles used fragmented narrative techniques and inexplicable sound to make audiences question radio's authority and also whether the listener could really trust "his master's voice." Wartime contributions to radio storytelling are examined in the following chapter, with Edward Murrow's use of brute sound to bring the London Blitz into the American living room. Chapter 5 takes on the problem of the female voice in American radio as a threat to masculinity, and compares its perceived hysteria to the mastering logic of the male [End Page 116] voice. Looking at two icons of modernist writing, Thomas and Beckett, the sixth chapter analyzes their contributions to modernist radio, their sonic liquefaction of language in, respectively, Under Milk Wood and All That Fall. Gould's rarity for radio, his Solitude Trilogy, is the focus of chapter 7's discussion of how audio documentary became a test site for this interpreter of Bach, especially his theories of contrapuntal writing for speaking voices. And finally, the last chapter looks into National Public Radio's early days, when it was known more for its experimental formats like the sonic magazine that became All Things Considered, its use of nonstandard, "quirky" female voices, and Ken Nordine's conversation with his own nether-mind in the weird and funky...