- Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling by Jeff Porter
When I read that Jeff Porter’s aim in Lost Sound was to explore how literary sensibilities both radicalized radio and were energized by the medium, I did not feel enthused. I feared a dry read that would inform me on matters about which I probably should want to learn, but did not. Fortunately, my apprehensions proved unfounded. Instead, I was treated to a fascinating perspective on broadcasting history, written in clear, often captivating, prose.
The basic thrust of Porter’s argument is that certain characteristics of modernist literature were adopted and adapted by radio auteurs to such an extent that they revolutionized audio storytelling and stimulated radiophonic experimentation. To make his case, Porter covers select moments from radio history, beginning with the flowering of the “prestige” movement during the early 1930s and ending with the introduction of National Public Radio (NPR) in the early 1970s. Along the way, he takes in such topics as Edward Murrow’s Blitz-time London broadcasts, BBC productions of works by renowned men of letters, and the “contrapuntal radio” of Glenn Gould. Before beginning his romp through the decades, however, the opening chapter—entitled “Acoustic Drift: Radio and the Literary Imagination”—prepares the reader for what lies ahead. “Acoustic drift” is Porter’s term for what takes place when the logocentric nature of sound is destabilized; in other words, when sound becomes untethered from unambiguous meaning. During the early [End Page 225] years of radio, much effort was expended to ensure that no hint of acoustic drift blighted broadcast output. Anne and Frank Hummert, the prolific writing team who dominated the 1930s radio soap market, are a case in point. The Hummerts policed production protocols to ensure that nothing would detract from the listener’s ability to understand the words. Actors were directed to enunciate “with painful precision” (p. 29), while sound effects and music were effectively banned. But as the aesthetic criteria then shaping the landscape of modernist literature began to insinuate themselves into the more creative radio minds—criteria that placed value on disruption, innovation, complexity, and plurality—the deviant potentialities of sound became increasingly attractive, at least to those involved in the emerging “prestige radio” movement.
In radio terms, “prestige” denotes programming with highbrow literary content, and one of the major forces underpinning the movement was the Columbia Workshop. Launched in 1936, the Workshop was the broadcast brainchild of CBS and was established, at least in part, as a response to then-widespread critiques of commercial radio. Its raison d’être was the creation of radio literature that would push “the envelope not only of playwriting but of broadcast technology” (p. 42). The 1937 production of Archibald MacLeish’s verse play The Fall of the City serves as an exemplar of the Workshop’s output. According to Porter, no other piece went as far in adapting the modernist literary style, not least in the way that the “paraphernalia of radio” was used to structure the play (p. 50). Inspired both by the rise of fascism in Europe and by Greek tragedy, the drama is presented as if it were a radio broadcast transmitting from a nameless city’s plaza. The announcer simultaneously serves as Greek chorus and reports on events, which begin with a crowd gathering to hear a prophecy that will foretell an oppressive conqueror’s imminent arrival. The production team took pains to ensure that sound would enhance the drama. For example, to create the impression of the massing throng, they recorded the voices of 200 students, then played back multiple copies of the recording over loudspeakers during the actual broadcast.
Over the 8 years of its existence, the Workshop produced almost 400 works and exemplified the literary turn in radio that enabled the relatively young medium to develop its own unique ontological mode. For Porter, its success can be judged by its effect on other radio artists, not the least of whom was...