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.