- Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling by Jeff Porter
By Jeff Porter. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. 296. $29.95.
The premise for this book by Jeff Porter, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, is that the content of radio has not been adequately explored by scholars. While some might argue otherwise, citing Neil Verma’s Theater of the Mind as one example of prior scholarship, it is true that radio has not generated the same level of scholarly attention as literature, cinema, and television. This discrepancy, coupled with the medium’s hundred-year history, suggests that there must be some aspects of its programming that remain fertile ground. Porter addresses this void by focusing on particular types of radio programs, particularly those have taken full advantage of the acoustical possibilities of aural storytelling.
The book follows a traditional chronological narrative, with eight chapters that range from the beginnings of broadcasting in the 1920s to innovative radio dramas of the 1930s and ’40s, WWII coverage of Edward Murrow, and postwar avant-garde productions from Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett, and Glenn Gould. A final chapter on National Public Radio (NPR), which also covers the ongoing podcasting phenomenon, brings the story into the twenty-first century. This is not document-driven scholarship, looking at new or previously unexplored archival material, but rather a deep analysis of audio production techniques. Reading several pages of a scholarly dissection of The Fall of the City, a landmark 1937 radio drama, or Sorry, Wrong Number, the famed thriller first broadcast in 1943, may be frustrating for some readers. The emotions evoked by specific sounds do not lend themselves easily to written explication, which is indeed one of the issues that makes the academic study of audio inherently challenging. Serious [End Page 199] readers will no doubt find themselves searching online for recordings of the programs under analysis. Other readers may be frustrated by the intense level of analysis, which can approach the level of heavily theoretical discourse often associated with film studies.
The second chapter, focusing on the Columbia Workshop, is one of the stronger sections. The CBS radio network, in second place to the larger NBC, developed an innovative solution to fill some of its non-sponsored airtime. The Columbia Workshop was introduced in 1936, featuring dramas that borrowed techniques from modernist literature, such as multiple points of view and unreliable narrators. These “prestige” dramas, as the Columbia Workshop and its imitators were known, deliberately embraced what Porter dubs “acoustic deviance.” This term emphasizes that sounds are open to interpretation, and producers created vivid mental landscapes in listeners’ minds. This attempt to encourage subjectivity is contrasted with the so-called “mastering effect,” in which radio shows simplified their storytelling, leaving little room for interpretation. As a counter-example to the prestige dramas, Porter describes the assembly line production of the soap operas of Frank and Anne Hummert. Their scripts included explicit emotional directions for the actors, and sound effects not delineated in the script were forbidden. Another strong chapter is one on Glenn Gould, the renowned pianist who abandoned traditional instruments and turned to avant-garde radio drama. For Canadian radio, Gould produced the Solitude Trilogy, three hour-long radio documentaries that wove voices together in overlapping, sometimes disjointed montages. For Gould, the human voice itself could be an instrument, with meaning that was not always literal.
All of the chapters include fascinating glimpses into radio’s past. In 1934, for example, an episode of Calling All Cars dramatized a police standoff with escaped convicts, a mere three hours after the actual events had transpired. A discussion of the privileged position given to the male voice is highlighted in the discussion of Betty Watson, a CBS war correspondent who was banned from the airwaves because her voice was considered inappropriate for serious news. The section on NPR also includes mention of Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz series, one of the more playful and intriguing uses of radio and verbal gymnastics. Readers with a particular interest in radio or sound studies will find this...