Aural Pleasure

by Rob Gregory Browne

I remember the day vividly.  I was riding in the back seat, my father at the wheel, my mother beside him, and we were headed over the Pali to the other side of the island.  It was a Friday evening and we were going to Buzz’s Steakhouse in Kailua, our favorite.

About halfway there, my father turned on the radio and something very strange happened.  The radio started pumping out TV sound.  One of my favorite shows at the time was The Lone Ranger, which was rerun every afternoon on television.  And there it was, coming out of the car’s tinny speaker.  Hi-yo Silver.

Or was it?

It took me a moment to realize that even though this sort of sounded like the Lone Ranger that I knew and loved, the actor’s voice was different.  Deeper and more commanding.  And as I listened closer, I realized this wasn’t TV sound at all.

My father must have seen my astonished look in his rearview mirror, because he smiled and said, "This is what we used to listen to when I was a kid.  Before we had TV."

I stared at him blankly, not quite believing him, but the more I listened the more I realized he was telling the truth.  And, god, it was wonderful.

That, my friends (to borrow a phrase), is how I discovered audio drama.

Okay, okay.  I know what you’re thinking.  Audio drama?  Oh, please.  Those old shows with the corny acting and the cheesy organ music?

Yes, I became obsessed with it.  And yes, early radio drama WAS pretty freaking corny.  But as the years went on and I managed to collect more and more tapes, I realized that there was a real progression in quality over time.  The latter years of radio drama, here in the US, offered wonderfully crafted stories with great actors, great music, great sound effects.

But by the early sixties, it had all gone down the crapper.  It was a slow, pitiful death, brought on by television, and not all that surprising.  Why bother with radio when you can SEE your favorite actors in living black and white?

Which, of course, is why a large portion of the people reading this have only a vague idea of what I’m talking about.

For those of you in the UK and Canada, however, radio drama is still alive and kicking.  The CBC still produces it.  And every afternoon on BBC4, and all day long on BBC7 and elsewhere you can hear a variety of dramas.  In countries other than mine, radio drama is considered a true art form, and many great artists create it.

If you want to hear an amazing example of "movies for the ears," try to track down a copy of Julian Simpson’s THE LISTENER, which recently played on the BBC.  A near-future spy story that will keep you in your chair until the last, delicious twist.

Or go right now and listen to INFIDEL, Roger Gregg’s epic audio masterpiece.  You will not regret it.

These ain’t your father’s old-time radio shows.  They are, quietly simply, beautiful examples of the possibilities of audio.  The ability to paint a vivid picture in your mind with a few simple strokes. 

Of all the dramatic arts, I think audio drama comes closest to novels, because most of it happens in the listener’s mind.  Listeners are required to use their brains, their imaginations, to help the story come alive.  Using a handful of words, a few sound effects, and some decent acting, audio dramas can take you anywhere, from beneath the surface of the earth to the farthest reaches of outer space.

I love the medium almost as much as I love fiction.

Which is why I’m a little worried. 

Although there now seems to be a minor resurgence of audio drama here in the US, thanks to the iPod, there’s not all that much more interest in it than there was in the early sixties when it died a dusty death.

So why does that worry me?  I mean, who gives a damn about a barely remembered art form?  Radio shows were quaint, but this is the modern age.  We have movies on demand.  The Internet.  Games at our fingertips.  Thousand of songs on our mp3 players.

Why the hell do we need radio shows?

Well, I’m not sure we do.  Maybe we’re beyond them.  And although the art form has grown up quite a bit, maybe it’s just too late.  Too… dated.

But that’s not what worries me.  What worries me is that I think a lot of people are beginning to feel the same way about novels.

Tell me I’m wrong, but I believe fewer people are buying books every year.  Bookstores are closing.  Kids don’t have time for fiction unless it’s written by JK Rowling.  A trip to Costco and you’ll find a table full of novels with all the same old names on them and few new authors are being read.  Of all the people I know personally, at least half of them don’t even read a book a year.  Why read a book when you can, say, shoot a moose?

So I have to wonder, when will it be the early sixties for novelists?

And, trust me, I don’t worry because of a potential loss of income.  This has never been about money for me.  But I worry about the loss of a vitally important art form.  Just like audio.

And if it can happen to something as wonderful as audio drama — an industry that was filled with stars and had people rushing home every night to listen to their favorite shows — surely it can happen to books.

As Rachel Maddow would say, somebody please talk me down.  Convince me that, sometime in the future, I won’t have to fly to the UK or Canada whenever I feel like cracking open a book.

————

By the way, they still do hold book festivals, so if you’re in Santa Barbara this Saturday, stop by the SB Courthouse around noonish, where Gayle Lynds and I will be on a panel talking about thrillers and mysteries.

18 thoughts on “Aural Pleasure

  1. Jake Nantz

    I guess my first wonder is, how many novelists will try to grow as the number of media outlets for storytelling grows? How many will take up writing for video games, or try their hand at screenwriting, or holographic stories (just speculating on the future, ’cause I have no clue what’s coming)?

    Truthfully, I think books will always exist, because if you think about it, audio books are not too distant cousins to radio plays. Yes, I’m aware they are very different, but there’s still a market for people who want to hear/live a story in their head while in the car, or relaxing on the sofa, or what have you. I just wonder what new form books will take, y’know?

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  2. Naomi

    Audio drama of the 21st century: This American Life

    Ironically, I think sales of audio books are really picking up.

    Books will still be around, Rob. But I think that the onus will be on us writers–that we write ones worth reading.

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  3. Dana King

    It bears remembering that the heyday of audio drama in the United States was only about twenty-five years, if that. Novels has a history and culture spanning hundreds of years. They are a part of our shared culture much more than radio, or even television.

    Novels will evolve, both in form and in reading format. I think we should work against our tendency to envision their too speedy demise.

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  4. Rob Gregory Browne

    Yes, novels have a long history. And that’s a great thing, but there’s no denying that people are distracted these days and readership is down. There will always be novels, just as there are still audio plays, but the interest in them will never again be as strong as it once was.

    Think about it. How many people will actually click on the link for the audio drama I included? Most people probably think, hmm, interesting, then move on without bothering to give it a listen.

    And they have no idea what they’re missing.

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  5. Becky Lejeune

    Oh, I certainly hope that books are always around. I do think kids are reading more than just HP, though. I think they’ve got so much more of a selection than we did when I was a kid that the readership will increase because they’re learning to love it so much earlier. Let’s face it, my generation of readers either moved into adult books much earlier than they should have or gave up altogether. I think things will improve. I see the silver lining in this at least!

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  6. Becky Hutchison

    I listen to Garrison Keller’s Prairie Home Companion on Saturday nights. Although it’s a variety show, a few miniplays are scattered throughout (Guy Noir, Private Eye being one of them). I went to a live broadcast when the show was in DC and was fascinated with how the show was produced, which is quite a different story in itself. It’s a shame that it’s one of the few shows like that on US radio.

    However on Sunday nights in DC, one of the public radio stations presents a whole evening of the old shows…The Lone Ranger, Dragnet, Fibber McGee and Molly and others I can’t remember right now. And like you, Rob, I listen intently and can’t wait for the next installment the following week. I don’t remember listening to radio shows when I grew up, even though I must have, since we didn’t have a TV until I was about five years old. But I sure do like listening to them now, thanks to our local Sunday night radio programs.

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  7. Louise Ure

    Maybe the electronic downloads to Kindles and iPhones are indeed the “early sixties” for books. Not an end to them … but the next generation of them.

    (Love the Rachel Maddow reference, Rob. Isn’t it nice to see a news/opinion anchor who’s neither a wrinkly old guy nor a fembot?)

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  8. pari

    Rob,I think we’ll have books and, as Naomi writes, the onus will be on us to continue to write better and better ones.

    Though I hear so much about kids not reading, my own experience with the kids I know is very different. I’m raising two rabid readers; my daughter with a vision impairment much prefers books to books on tape (don’t ask me why) and many of my readers are in their early 20s.

    The thing about books and radio plays is that they leave so much more to the imagination and, I think, there are people in all age groups who yearn to depend on themselves rather than someone else’s vision of what they should see.

    Call me a PollyAnna . . .

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  9. lucidkim

    I remember as a child listening to CBS Radio Mystery Theater (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CBS_Radio_Mystery_Theater) – and I was sad when we moved and we could no longer find a radio station that played it. I know my kids would love that even today (they are 6 and 9).

    I think the reasons behind why people don’t read books as much as they once did isn’t something you can say is because of one reason…nor can we say there is only one reason why the same few authors seem to be the only ones on the bookshelves.

    Just a couple of examples come to mind – but when I grew up (I was born in 1966) I had almost no homework, we did everything we needed to do at school. In the evenings I had plenty of free time (after the chores my mom insisted we do!) for reading. Kids today have homework every night starting from kindergarten on up – by the time they are done with all of that they don’t have the time to dig into a good book. When you don’t develop the habit of reading early on it’s harder as an adult to make the time to do it.

    When I think of why there are fewer new authors being pushed – one reason is because publishing has become a business run by MBAs and not necessarily by those who love reading and love books. The focus has changed to what is good for the bottom line.

    kim

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  10. Catherine

    Like Pari, I can use my own children, 19 and 24, as examples of current readers.The 24 year old has a book case filled with books covering ancient civilizations,(celtic,roman,greek)and world religions, and a variety of fiction.The younger one has a pile of books just near her bed, and swaps books amongst her friends (currently a lot of Paulo Coelho, some local authors + plus some Noir crime from me).There has even been talk of a bookclub, however so far it’s just swapping and discussing over coffee. They also buy books for each other as gifts.

    They recently went and watched a performance of Titus Andronicus. That was revealed in amongst just a run of the mill this is what we’ve done lately conversation. Apparently tickets are discounted if you’re under 27.

    They both lead busy lives, where they consume/create an enormous amount of music(the youngest is in a punk/funk band), they both cook from scratch and the eldest has her own organic garden.I think the common thread I see in young readers beyond my daughters, is they are at heart creators and they appreciate the product of other creators.So I’m not too worried about a bookless future, based on how I see the next generation fold reading into their often fevered lifestyle.

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  11. Lisa Hendrix

    You brought back memories. You probably heard The Lone Ranger on a CBS Radio station. They used to play old episodes of The Lone Ranger and other radio dramas on Sunday afternoons. If we were driving home from someplace, my dad would try to find a CBS network station and we’d all listen as the miles rolled by. And yes Prairie Home Companion and This America Life are our current versions of this kind of drama, and I try to listen in the car as often as I can.

    I think human nature demands storytelling. Yes, the technology changes some, but ultimately it’s the same thing–before the published novel, Homer and his brethren told stories that took days. Now e-publishers are sprouting up and some are doing quite well, plus I think formats not even invented yet will provide new audiences who demand long-form content. Novels may not come in dead-tree form, but they’ll be around.

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  12. Allison Brennan

    I’m not big on listening to books, unless I’m on a long drive. Even then my mind tends to wander. I’m a very visual person, so if I’m listening to someone or something I don’t remember as much as if I read it. I’ve often said if I see your name on a name tag I’m 10 times more likely to remember it than if you tell me your name.

    Storytelling was part of the human experience long before there was pencil and paper. Storytelling will continue to be valued, though my fear is as fewer people participate in storytelling in ANY form that society will be worse off–more depressed, more lethargic, less creative and less inspired. But I can only write books, I can’t make people read.

    BTW, my pet peeve of the week: on the Levy tour, Chip St. Clair who was sitting next to me (he wrote a true crime/memoir) spoke to a mother who came up because her teacher assigned Chip’s book as reading. Chip talked to the daughter (a 14 year old) and then asked the mom, what types of books do you like? We have everything here — historical romance, thriller, romantic suspense . . . to which the mother said, “I don’t have time to read.” In a tone that said, “And I don’t care to make the time.”

    She had three daughters standing there. What lesson is that to teach them? I wanted to shoot her. I refrained.

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  13. Catherine

    Allison you showed great restraint.

    On my inner monitor, (which plays great slapstick), I could of seen myself finding a large copy of War and Peace and just giving her a good wallop upside of her head…

    If I’d been within earshot, in reality, I’d be hardpressed not to look at her with sympathy, smile and say,’ Wow you really miss out on a lot’. Yes I am that obnoxiously cheerful…

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  14. Jake Nantz

    Now see, I’m crude enough that I probably would have said something like, “What do you do in the powder room, play Scrabble?”

    But that’s just me. Ms. Brennan, I think your way is much more civilized (and less likely to land you in jail for verbal abuse).

    And that’s definitely the PG version of what I would have said….

    Reply

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