Tag Archive | Theater of the Mind

The Firesign Theatre’s Wax Poetics: Overdub, Dissonance, and Narrative in the Age of Nixon

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 12.29.57 AM

The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.

Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 12.31.54 AM

The Firesign Theatre (wall of cables): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.

The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.

The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.

The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).

While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 12.33.38 AM

Firesign Theatre (pickup truck): John Rose, Image courtesy of author

The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.

The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.

This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.

To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 12.34.37 AM

The Firesign Theatre (mixing board): Bob & Robin Preston,  Image courtesy of  author

It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).

Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.

Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:


“Radio’s “Oblong Blur”: Notes on the Corwinesque”–Neil Verma

The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

The Magical Post-Horn: A Trip to the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale

Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng! teng! teng! We looked round, and now found the reason why the postilion had not been able to sound his horn: his tunes were frozen up in the horn, and came out now by thawing, plain enough, and much to the credit of the driver. —The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1865

At the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale, London, the proverbial “weight of the past” becomes literal for researchers of sound history. Housed in a massive, unattractive hangar-like building in an industrial park to the northwest of London, the archives suit their environment, one which speaks of practical and solid shapes far more than the lyrical, dainty ivory tower.  And by weight, I mean by serious, and sometimes dangerous, poundage:  the very first machine created to record off of radio, invented around 1930, was a steel pedestal with bus wheel-sized reels on either side. Audio Coordinator of the BBC Archives, John Dell, explained that not only was this machine laborious to load, but it used magnetic steel tape as its recording surface, which could come free from the reels and lacerate incautious operators as it unspooled and bunched.

The weight of these objects, however, is also metaphoric. The earliest recording in my personal audio drama library, sourced off the invaluable Archive.org, is a 1933 episode of Front Page Drama, a dramatized version of an American Weekly Hearst publication.  The past stands monumentally huge if this type of machine, the Marconi-Stille Wire Recorder, was the apparatus that allowed those 15 minutes of 1933 to be captured and, eventually, fed into my 2015 headphones as an MP3.


I listen to much of my audio drama, whether old and crackling like Front Page Drama, or new and podcast-y, while commuting, usually on the London Underground.  The episode of Front Page Drama in question I heard during a marathon session when I knew very little could or would interrupt me:  on an twelve-hour transatlantic plane ride.  I quite like the audio-visual play between listening to audio drama that is new to me versus the familiar but never identical sights of the commute; as Primus Luta remarked in 2012, it’s rare for us to engage our full attention on the aural medium.

While listening to Front Page Drama and episodes of Lum and Abner on that flight, I had to wonder how I was prioritizing my listening time.  Who had recorded these episodes from the 1930s?  Who had later taken the trouble to digitize them and upload them to Archive.org?  Why, for example, were these particular recordings freely available yet I couldn’t find an MP3 anywhere of texts I wanted to share more widely, such as Don Haworth’s On a Summer’s Day in a Garden (1975) or Angela Carter’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1978)? Both of these recordings are in the BBC back catalogue; I know, because the BBC supplied them to me—but only the basis of a visit to the archive.

Archive.org is bountiful and accessible, the Perivale archives much more exclusive, but both seem to lack curation. The only hope for accessing things like Haworth or Carter outside the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Archives is that someday a rogue MP3 or BitTorrent will show up online.   The archive does seem, in Neil Verma’s words, then, “transformed before dispersing in space, plucked from the air and mineralized like fossils” (Theater of the Mind, 227);  like Primus Luta’s weighty but playful experiment, Schrödinger’s Cassette, which suspended music in concrete to be risked, or remain aurally untouched forever.  This seems too often to be the impossible choice.


BBC Perivale Field Trip, Image by Flickr User Hatters! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The BBC archive storage is eclectic and generally arranged for access by BBC staff rather than for researchers.  The BBC Written Archives at Caversham are restricted to academics, and likewise, the speed of gaining access to sound files from Perivale is predicated on the amount of time BBC staff have to devote to it—naturally, the BBC’s own departments have priority, such as BBC Radio 4 Extra, the archival digital radio station, whose backlog of requests for digitised material from the Perivale archive apparently covers 20 pages.  The sound collections consist of commercial recordings on shellac (90 RPM records) and vinyl (78 RPMs) as well as impressively dinner-plate sized compilation transcriptions which require a special turn-table on which to play and digitize them. The BBC Sheet Music archive is in Perivale, as well, with original handwritten scores filling shelves.

The second half of the British and Irish Sound Archives conference 2015 afforded a privileged glimpse of the archive storage and technical facilities housed on site.  Most of my fellow attendees were archivists of one sort or another, asking detailed questions about transcription devices, fidelity, and storage.  Having recently completed my PhD from Swansea University in English in radio drama, I had made countless requests to this very facility through the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image request service; now I, at long last, hoped to see where my digitised sound files were coming from.  However, we weren’t shown any recordings made on tape cassette or CD but instead Betamax audio-only.  Unseen, too, were the data banks holding all the digitised content, but what myself and my fellow archivists had mainly come to see were the tangible objects making this content possible.


78s at BBC Perivale, Image by Flicker User Hatters! CC BY-NC 2.0

In the physical copies of the Radio Times of the 1940s and ‘50s, also housed at the British Library at St Pancras (and now available, like all of the Radio Times up to 2009, on BBC Genome), there can be found a little asterisk in the listings for drama, which signifies that the drama was broadcast from a recording, rather than live. The later recording machines of the ‘30s through ‘50s, upon which these recordings would have been made, did not decrease appreciably in size, though perhaps in weight. “If I were to drop this,” Dell told us as he carefully handled a dark blue celluloid tube, about the size and circumference of a toilet paper roll, “it would bounce.  I’m not going to drop it,” he added.  Then the magic began:  via a custom-made device, we heard a few bars of a music hall song from circa 1900.  The recording was surprisingly clear.  It was agonizing when Dell turned it off after only a few seconds.

There is something incredibly seductive about old recordings. In “The Recording that Never Wanted to Be Heard and Other Stories of Sonification,” from The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama question the desire for “sonification” of ever-older recordings, especially when such desires manifest in the creation of a digital sound file in 2008 for “the world’s oldest recording,” a phonoautogram from 1860, which was nevertheless never intended to be played back—the phonoautograph was intended as a device to make the aural visual (555).  Radio drama writer Mike Walker really summed up the seduction of old recordings for me in his 2013 BBC Radio 4 ghost story The Edison Cylinderswith a character who is seduced as a scholar and as a participant in a time-traveling mystery by old recordings:  a sound engineer in need of money, she agrees to digitize what seem like boring diary entries from a British imperialist, only to be intrigued by his Victorian domain beyond her rather empty modern existence.  Unfortunately for her, these particular recordings are reaching beyond the grave to try to kill her.


Edison Cylinder Exposed, by Flickr User fouro boros, CC BY-NC 2.0

Although they do reach out from the grave, most early sound recordings aren’t out to kill you. They do however, present common and vexing issues of authenticity.  By this, I mean specifically the provenance of the recording—is the recording of who or what it says it is?  On the first day of the conference, Dell regaled us with tales of two cylinder recordings surfacing in the mid-twentieth century, of William Gladstone giving a speech.  The words of the speech were identical, but the voices were completely different.  Who was the real Gladstone?  How could you authenticate the voice of a dead person?  Dell further deepened the mystery by telling us the tale of two boxes of wax cylinder recordings in the Perivale archive, whose provenance is torturously (and tantalizingly) unclear.  We glimpsed these mysterious, yellow-cream-colored cylinders, somewhat wider and fatter than the celluloid tubes, in situ, but were they original Edison cylinders from the 1880s?  The piercing desire to believe these cylinders might contain the voices of Gladstone, the future Edward VIII, or even Henry Irving, are potentially “perils of over-optimism,” as Dell puts it.

All the archivists at this event referred to the serendipity of discovering surprises on recordings.  Simon Elmes, whose official title reads “Radio Documentarist, Creative Consultant, and Former Creative Director, BBC Radio Documentaries,” made this manifest as he discussed a subject treated in his documentary from 2005, Ambridge in the Decade of LoveThe Archersan exceptionally long-running BBC radio soap which conjures up visions of rural Englishness and persists among a very dedicated, though mostly older, fan baselike much radio drama and emblematic of gendered attitude toward radio soaps, was not recorded in its first few decades.

Empty Shelves at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Bill Thompson, Image cropped by SO!, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Likewise, anyone researching radio drama before the 1930s is playing a game of roulette; whether any scripts survive will depend entirely on the literary reputation of the author who may have had enough clout to publish them in book form.  Even in the case of Lance Sieveking, the acknowledged creative aesthete behind early BBC radio drama, we lack concrete evidence of his most important work, The End of Savoy Hill (1932).  And The Truth About Father Christmas (1923), the first original drama written specifically for British radio?  Forget about it—it was made for children’s radio.

To return to The Archers, though daily 15-minute scripts were being churned out by Ted Kavanagh from the first years of the 1950s, the broadcasts themselves went missing into the ether (after all, no one suspected the show would still be going after sixty years).  Transcription discs, meant for an overseas market, were found in a box in the BBC Archives, giving a reasonably complete overview of The Archers during the 1950s and ‘60s.  Elmes was ebullient about this discovery.

While I got the general sense that the other archivists at the conference were amused but indifferent toward this particular trove, to me it was inspiring.  I believe the future of audio drama will rely more and more on serials, so the rediscovery of these Archers episodes epitomizes to me the past, present, and future of audio drama in that it speaks of audience involvement and even audience interaction or co-production, which seems key for audio drama going forward, and the aspect of serialization which has vastly overtaken the single drama on television if not on radio.

Harry Oakes as Dan Archer and Gwen Berryman as Doris Archer, 1955

Harry Oakes as Dan Archer and Gwen Berryman as Doris Archer, 1955.

Nevertheless, even if pursuit of these aural rainbows is a foolish one, such desire also enables scholarship. The hope of finding “originals” inspired me personally to discover the birth of what can conceivably called audio drama.  Having researched audio drama from the first known broadcast dramas in English (the adaptations: 2LO London’s Five Birds in a Cage in 1922, WGY Schenectady’s The Wolf in 1922, British Broadcasting Company’s Twelfth Night in 1923; original drama: WLW Cincinnati’s When Love Awakens in 1923, British Broadcasting Company’s Danger in 1924), I was astounded to learn that listeners from World War I might have enjoyed short, dramatized stories on the celluloid tubes (according to Tim Crook, the first audio drama of this nature is a war drama from 1917).  While archives such as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara care for these recordings in the same way they do for musical and speech recordings, there is a significant lack of scholarship on them.

If commentary on specific pre-radio audio drama is scarce, it is heartening to read dissections of the performative aspects of “actuality,” such as Brian Hanrahan’s anatomy of Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918.  Wonderfully, in discussing the “staging” of this war-time recording, Hanrahan brings in traditions from theatre and silent film in addition to the phonograph. Professor David Hendy has persuasively argued that some of the organizing tenets behind the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose management was by and large made up of ex-soldiers, was predicated on a desire for silence and calm, ordered, managed sound after the cacophony of war.  Perhaps “cylinder” drama, then, is not really of its time and properly belongs to earlier, or later, cultural milieux.


Wax cylinder playback at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! CC BY-NC 2.0

The ephemera of the medium presents a recurring problem in radio drama studies, a weighty feeling of doom. With the future of the BBC’s existence currently perilous, one wonders what the consequences will be for archives like those housed at Perivale.  If the internal function of the archives (for the BBC to make use during Radio 4 Extra broadcasts, for example) disappears, will the archives be opened to wider use?  Or will material without commercial potential simply be discarded?  Who would make the decision as to what was commercially viable and how would they make such decisions?

And the problem with the medium seemingly begins with wax cylinders.  A beautiful, lyrical story from Baron Munchausen—alias Rudolph Erich Raspe, a German author who created a fictional travel writer and chronic teller of tall tales based on a real nobleman infamous for his boasting—cited by many of those fascinated with sound recordings is worth repeating here:  the Baron is traveling in Russia in a snowy landscape and desires the postilion to blow his horn to alert other travellers that their sleigh will be coming around the bend.  Unfortunately, the cold makes the horn incapable of any audible sound.  Disappointed, they make their way to an inn.  Diedre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson cite the “Frozen Horn” from their online Museum of Imaginary Instruments:  “After we arrived at the end inn, my postilion and I refreshed ourselves: he hung his horn on a peg near the kitchen fire; I sat on the other side.”  Warmed by the fire, the horn now begins to play its reserved tunes.


Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1865. Listen to ABC radio feature on the “Frozen Post Horn” and the Museum of Imaginary Instruments here

With a little leap of the imagination, it’s not difficult to see the parallels with the reality of sound recording limitation.  The wax cylinders could only be played a few times before the sound degrades completely.  Tin cylinders are not much better. This is the reason why the two Gladstone voices could be both “real” and “fake.”  Celluloid is more durable, yet witness the reluctance of Dell to play one for longer than a few seconds, for preservation reasons.

Sound recordings are only as good as the medium on which they are recorded, a fact that surprisingly holds true even today.  We were told by our BBC hosts that discs of shellac, vinyl, and acetate whose contents have already been digitised will not be discarded—digital recordings are ultimately taken from these physical originals.

In the future, we might invent means of reproduction and playback which could provide more fidelity to the original event lifted from the physical recording, in which case it will be the MP3s that will be redundant.  There’s something both very modern and very old-fashioned about this. Once at a dinner party, I launched full-force into my postdoctoral rant about the eventual possible degradation of the MP3 as a recording format, that it was not infallible as we had been led to believe.  I was surprised that I was wholly believed; furthermore, the older people participating in the conversation rued the disappearance of their CDs, tape cassettes and, vitally, their LPs, for the oft-cited reasons (which Primus Luta distills as the pricelessness of old recordings to one’s personal history, and the “fuller” sound ans weighty materiality, one resonating with one’s emotional past).

Vinyl at BBC Perivale, including a lot of John Peel's old records. Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Vinyl at BBC Perivale, including a lot of John Peel’s old records. Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I admit, before I came to the UK and experienced the never-perfect but always interesting presence of BBC Radio, I treated radio as a background medium. I suppose recorded sound had always interested me, and I had had a strong relationship with local, classical music radio (Classical KHFM Albuquerque).  However, I could not have predicted ten years ago that I would become a passionate proponent of audio drama and sound studies more generally.  I’m almost embarrassed now at my excessive love of audio drama; I make almost no distinctions between “high” art like Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard and fan fiction radio serials like Snape’s Diaries as produced by Misfits Audio:  I listen to almost anything.

And, truly, the future of audio drama is only assured if people keep listening.  The digitisation and availability of cylinder recordings makes study of them more accessible, so the way is paved for further studies of the earliest audio drama.  It is imperative that researchers continue to request sound recordings from the BBC, even if they have to use the relatively inconvenient system currently available.

There are signs that things are improving and that more people than ever before want to access such materials. As Josh Shepperd puts it brilliantly, “Sound trails continue where paper trails end.”  As Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress, his efforts have underlined the fact that often it is the local and the rural whose radio or audio history vanishes more quickly than the national or the metropolitan.  This would historically be the case with the BBC as well, which for a long time privileged London sound above regionalism (and, some would argue, still does).  Since 2015, the British Library (and the Heritage Lottery Fund) have invested significantly in the Save Our Sounds campaign, positing that within 15 years, worldwide sound recordings must be digitized before recordings degrade or we no longer have the means to play the material.

Out of curiosity, I downloaded the more than 600-page listing, the Directory of UK Sound Collections, assembled rather hastily through the Save Our Sounds project in 20 weeks, and comprising more than 3,000 collections and more than 1.9 million objects.  This document makes for fascinating and eclectic reading, ranging as it does between a Sound Map of the English town of Harrogate to the archives of the Dog Rose Trust, which mainly provides recorded tours of English cathedrals for those who are blind.  Undoubtedly, there are wodges of local or forgotten drama in these archives, too.  The linking up of these archives and making them more widely accessible suggests how important sustained, collective effort is to unfreezing radio’s archival post-horn, delivering more of its unique tunes.

Featured Image: “The Route to Open Data” at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University.  Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras.  Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Only the Sound Itself?: Early Radio, Education, and Archives of “No-Sound”–Amanda Keeler

“Share your story” – but who will listen?–Fabiola Hanna

SO! Amplifies: Indie Preserves

The Sound of Radiolab: Exploring the “Corwinesque” in 21st Century–Alexander Russo

Sound at SCMS 2013


SCMSlogo-roundFor the 2013 Society for Cinema and Media Studies meeting in Chicago, Sounding Out!  enlisted one of our favorite guest writers, radio scholar Neil Verma (whom you’ll remember from our excellent Tune Into the Past series from summer 2012).  When we heard the news that his recent book Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and Radio Drama (University of Chicago Press) won this year’s SCMS first book prize  we were ecstatic. . .and not surprised in the least. It’s brilliant–for a taste read Neil’s SO! blog post from June 2012, “Radio’s “Oblong Blur”: Notes on the Corwinesque”). So, please join us in congratulating Neil, and then,  join Neil for a thoughtful preview of sound studies at SCMS 2013.  He’s one of the reasons why it’s such a great year for the field. —Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

For the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), this year may mark the point at which sound studies became – likely temporarily, and perhaps distressingly – normal. That’s something to ponder at this year’s annual conference of the Society, which takes place from March 6th to the 10th at the Drake Hotel in Chicago.

SCMS last came to the Second City in 2007. A glance at the panels from that year highlights how quickly the conference has expanded. If you exclude ads, this year’s program is 80 pages longer than its counterpart six years ago. Back then, SCMS featured 323 panels and workshops. This year there are 456. And sound studies work has grown disproportionately. In 2007, by my count, there were just 13 panels with two or more papers featuring sound as an “analytical point of departure or arrival,” to borrow language that Jonathan Sterne has recently used to characterize the field. This time we have 31 such panels.

That’s a lot of foot traffic. And it’s extremely good news for the field. But if these trends continue, it is also true that visitors focused on sound may only be able to attend a fraction of all panels and papers on the subject. As a result, sound has transformed from one possible pathway through SCMS into a field of many possible itineraries. Not only is the durability of that situation tenuous, but its intellectual ramifications are as unclear as they are promising.

Sound Art Installation in Downtown Chicago, Image by Flickr user meironke

Sound Art Installation in Downtown Chicago, Image by Flickr user meironke

A Conference in Transition

As it grows, the SCMS conference is restructuring. In a move sure to stir controversy, for instance, the Society has taken the experimental step of dramatically scaling back its slate of screenings, citing poor attendance at such events during recent conferences in Boston and New Orleans. Seen in conjunction with other developments – a focus on social media (follow @SCMStudies on Twitter), expanded online video, and a marvelous new podcast sponsored by Cinema Journal – the reduction of screenings represents a small step away from the cinema as a privileged object of study and experience.

That idea is borne out by the offerings. This year’s conference features as much exciting work on Call of Duty as on The Clock, with more papers on Girls than on Godard, along with compelling offerings on topics ranging from Rancière to Revenge, from Warhol to Lego, and home movies to Grindr. The word “television” appears on 58 pages of the current catalog; back in 2007 it appeared on just 14. As Barbara Klinger points out in her introduction to the program, this year truly elevates the “M” for “Media” in “SCMS.”

Skeptics may see a conference drifting from its raison d’être, while optimists will see an increasingly capacious meeting that is willing to undertake the experimentation for which many members have long been calling. As the conference grows, both sides can expect perhaps less intimacy than in previous years, with more of the action localizing around Caucuses and Scholarly Interest Groups (SIGs).

Neil Verma's Theater of the Mind (University of Chicago Press)

Neil Verma’s Theater of the Mind (University of Chicago Press)

That’s true for sound. This year marks the debut of a new Radio Studies SIG, recognizing an area of scholarship that has been growing steadily for decades. Congratulations to Bill Kirkpatrick and Alex Russo, among others, for bringing this about. Readers interested in the radio SIG should hop over to Antenna to read Kirkpatrick’s terrific piece on the emergence of radio studies at SCMS this year (and be sure to catch his paper on disability and radio on Saturday at 1:00).  In conjunction with the Sound Studies SIG, which has been driving a sound agenda since Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda helped form it in 2007, the Radio SIG is sure to be a magnet for future presenters and an advocate within the institutional SCMS structure.

The Radio SIG’s inaugural workshop features leading scholars to explore critical approaches (9:00 – 10:45 on Saturday), and that should be at the top of the agenda for SO! readers. I’m pleased to report that the Radio SIG’s first official meeting (9:00-10:45 on Sunday) will feature special guest Johanna Zorn, founder and Executive Director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. The Sound SIG, meanwhile, helmed by Norma Coates and Tim Anderson, will hold its annual meeting on Friday (12:15-2:00) with an exciting presentation by John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis, who will speak about Sun Ra and his place in the history of Chicago sound and visual culture. Beyond these marquee events, these two SIGs together will sponsor a total of 13 panels this year.

That’s already quite an itinerary. Now let’s look deeper.

Further Highlights

In her SCMS post last year, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman called for an effort to reimagine sound studies in the larger architecture of SCMS. She wrote,

Very few panels engage with sound as a primary modality and there are far less individual papers threading sound into panel discussions not explicitly about sound.  We need more of both kinds of scholarly engagement […]

Image by Flicker user pbeens

Image by Flicker user pbeens

Indeed. While many problems persist, including an uneven focus on music – it’s odd to see so little on music in a city rich in its history, from Bronzeville to Bloodshot Records – this year’s offerings also show great progress. Panels that engage sound as a primary modality have fresh takes on established subjects (Hollywood film music, voice narration in documentary, archiving, etc.) but many also raise subjects that SCMS might have been wary of in previous years, such as earth-sensing, sound in film noir and video game sound. And there is tremendous creativity in individual papers, with scholars engaging topics from sound in Yiddish Cinema and Russian pop to the Black audio film archive and player pianos in education, all sprinkled among panels considering other issues. There are not one but two papers about sound in Terrence Malick’s films, in two separate panels, neither of which is about sound.

What other goodies can you find this year? I’m glad you asked. Here are some highlights

  • There are a couple of terrific panels on gender and sexuality this year. I’d recommend starting off your visit to SCMS by attending a panel on film music that Norma Coates is hosting on Wednesday (10:00-11:45), and following up with Jennifer Wang’s panel “Gender Trouble across the Dial” on Friday (9:00-10:45).
  • On Thursday (from 9:00 to 10:45) I’m pleased to be chairing a panel with Jacob Smith, Mary Ann Watson, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo considering radio writer Norman Corwin as a transmedia author, continuing a project that we started on this blog last summer. Those interested in sites of overlap between radio and other media institutions should also check out “Radio in Transition” (Friday, 11:00-12:45), chaired by Cynthia Meyers, and “Economies of Media Industries” (Saturday, 3:00-4:45), featuring Jim Lastra and Douglas Gomery.
  • The panel “Earth-Sensing” (Wednesday, 2:00-3:45) looks compelling, with work by Lisa Parks on broadcast infrastructure and Google Earth, as well as a presentation by Janet Walker on audiovisualizations of sea level rise. It might pair well with a panel on deep history later that day (4:00-5:45) which will feature, among other topics, Mack Hagood speaking on the work of Irv Teibel.
  • Another great pairing is available on Friday. Try attending “Sounding the Radio Archive” (12:15-2:00), with projects from junior scholars and a response from Debra Rae Cohen. Then check out “Live Sound in Film and Television” (2:15-4:00), featuring exciting work on rockumentary by Michael Baker and sound in situation comedy by Foley artist Vanessa Ament-Gjenvick. Together, these panels should give newcomers a good sense of the future of sound studies.
  • One theme that has emerged this year is a renewed interest in processes of adoption and incorporation of sound technology. For that, consider attending “Transitional Soundtracks” on early Hollywood film music (Thursday, 3:00-4:45), “Channeling Stereo Histories” (Saturday, 5:00-6:45), and “Rethinking Technologies of Audiovision” (Sunday, 9:00-10:45).
  • There are two panels on sound in the mass media in Japan, each in a different period: “Archeologies of Intermediality in Prewar Japanese Cinema” (Friday, 2:15-4:00) and “Japanese Celebrity Cultures” (Saturday, 5:00-6:45). Only one is sponsored by Sound Studies, so the appearance of both may be a fortuitous coincidence.
  • Another cluster of panels forms around issues of voice, talk, and orality. On Wednesday, there’s “Orality and Storytelling” (10:00-11:45), followed by “Speech, Music and the Sound of Film and Media” (12:00-145). On Thursday, there’s “Spectators: Sound and Talk” (1:00-2:45) and “Vocal Projections: The Disembodied Voice in Documentary” (5:00-6:45). Then on Saturday there is “The Actor’s Voice” (1:00-2:45) and “Cinema Sound, Music, and Voice” (3:00-4:45).
  • Don’t forget the workshops! There’s great stuff this year on platform studies, spreadable media, and close reading, as well as several meetings on teaching and job searching. Attending these will give you a chance to hear from Mary Ann Doane, Michele Hilmes, Henry Jenkins, Peter Krapp, Jason Loviglio, Jason Mittell, Elena Razlogova and Jonathan Sterne, to name just a few.

That’s a lot of material, and it’s not even everything, which is precisely my point. For maybe the first time, SCMS has far more sound studies material than you can feasibly attend.

So is it time to indulge the pernicious scholarly habit of naming a moment of change and uncertainty as one of emergence? Should we declare that sound has come of age at last, a cliché that, as Michele Hilmes has pointed out, sound studies has been using for a hundred years?

Let’s not and say we did. There’s much more to do in terms of diversifying objects and cultures for sonic exploration. And rather than seeing papers that study sound in new ways, I’d love to see future presenters using sound in innovative ways to think about objects and events well outside the perimeter of sound studies, drawing experimental modes of listening in to the conference experience and challenging how scholarship itself is fashioned and displayed.

Chicago-based artist Nick Cave's "sound suits," Image by Flickr User Jeremy Zilar

Chicago-based artist Nick Cave’s “sound suits,” Image by Flickr User Jeremy Zilar

As well as being a point of analytical departure and arrival, after all, sound is also a way of traveling between points. Sterne is right when, in the introduction to The Sound Studies Reader,  he argues that sound studies should be a place where sonic imaginations are “challenged, nurtured, refreshed and transformed” (10),  but sound studies can do that for other kinds of imaginaries, too. Sound is a medium to be studied, but it is also a way of doing media studies, and that is a property that should be highlighted in a scholarly society open to transition.

Or, to put it another way, as sound scholarship worms its way ever further into the mainstream of SCMS, let’s do our best to keep it weird.

Note: Below I’ve listed times for panels that I’m guessing will be of most interest to SO! readers, plus special events and a few sessions that touch on professional matters. This year, SCMS has not released the room assignments on the PDF circulated prior to the event, so attendees will have to find that information in the printed catalog. I’m sorry for any errors or omissions. If your panel is missing or I’ve made some other mistake, please email me at nkhverma@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to amend this post. 

Neil Verma is a Harper-Schmidt Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago, where he teaches media aesthetics. Verma works on radio and its intersection with other media, and has taught subjects including film studies, sound, art history, literature, critical theory and intellectual history. His book, Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama, is published by the University of Chicago Press and is the winner of the 2013 SCMS First Book Prize.

Chicago-based artist Nick Cave's "sound suits," Image by Flickr User Jeremy Zilar

Chicago-based artist Nick Cave’s “Sound Suits,” Image by Flickr User Jeremy Zilar

Jump to WEDNESDAY, March 6
Jump to THURSDAY, March 7
Jump to FRIDAY, March 8
Jump to SATURDAY, March 9
Jump to SUNDAY, March 10


Session A 10:00 – 11:45 a.m.

A19. Film Music: Gender, Sexuality, and Taste Formations


Jack Curtis Dubowsky, ACADEMY OF ART UNIVERSITY,  “Louisiana Story, Homoeroticism, Hollywood, and Americana Music”

Landon Palmer, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, BLOOMINGTON, “Pre‐existing Film Music as Traveling Text: The Case of 2001: A Space Odyssey”

Zhichun Lin,  OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY,  “Presenting Her through Music: The Theme Music of the Chinese Film Version of Letter from an Unknown Woman”

Norma Coates, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO , “‘5% of It Is Good’: Leonard Bernstein, CBS Reports, and the Cultural Accreditation of Rock Music”


A22. Orality and Storytelling


Kester Dyer,  CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY, “Storytelling and Testimony: Archiving Melancholia in Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance”

Katherine Brewer Ball,  NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, “The ‘Brainwashing’ of Patty Hearst and Sharon Hayes: Forging Alliances and Forgetting the Lines”

Yifen Beus, BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY, HAWAII,  “Deterritorializing Essentialism: Narrating Place and Space in Filming the South Seas”

Sheila Petty, UNIVERSITY OF REGINA,  “Spaces in‐Between: Zahra’s Mother Tongue as Performative Documentary”


Session B 12:00 – 1:45 p.m.

B19. Speech, Music, and the Sound of Film and Media


Nishant Shahani, WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY, PULLMAN,  “‘I Have a Voice’: Speech, Silence, and the Redemption of Empire”

Eric Dienstfrey, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “New Methods of Multichannel Surround Sound Analysis and Contemporary Film Aesthetics”

Brian Fauteux, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “Satellite Sounds and the Transnational Circulation of Music”

Heather Warren‐Crow, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MILWAUKEE, “The Phonetics of Early Video Art”


B21. Workshop on Publishing on Digital Platforms

Chair: Christopher Hanson,  SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY








Session C 2:00 – 3:45 p.m.

C4. Character and Performance

Chair: Matthew Solomon, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

Ganga Rudraiah, INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR, “Singing and Dancing like an ‘Aravaani’: Emerging Articulations of Transgender Performances in Contemporary Tamil Cinema”

Kim Wilkins, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY, “Cast of Characters: The American Eccentrics and Pure Cinematic Characterization”

Elizabeth Alsop, WESTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY, “The Imaginary Crowd: Neorealism and the Uses of Coralità”


C20. Earth‐Sensing: Media Above and Below the Surface

Chair: Nicole Starosielski, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY


SANTA BARBARA, “Moving to Higher Ground?: Documentary Film and (Other) Scientific Audiovisualizations of Sea Level Rise”

Lisa Parks, UNIVESITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA BARBARA, “Signal Territories: Studying US Broadcast Infrastructure Using Google Earth”

Eva Hayward, UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO, “Technologies of Migration: Conservation Science and Whale Media”

Nicole Starosielski, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, “Sensing the Seafloor: Undersea Observatories and the Contours of Media Distribution”


C21.Workshop on Platform Studies: Debating the Future of a Field

Chair: Caetlin Benson‐Allott, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY






Session D 4:00 – 5:45 p.m.

D12. Deep History II Insight from Artifacts


Kyle Stine, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA, “Cybernetic Movie Machines: Norbert Wiener’s Cinema Integraph and Richard S. Morse’s Data Soundtracks”

Sindhu Zagoren, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA‐CHAPEL HILL, “We Want the Airwaves: Early Radio and the Struggle for Airspace”

Mack Hagood, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, “Nixon, Mobster, Bigfoot: The Performative Audio Media Forensics of Irv Teibel”



SANTA BARBARA, “The Role of Spanish Language Radio in the United States”

B7. Brian Gregory, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, “Packaging Sound for Schools: Selling the Player‐Piano and the Phonograph to American Education”

C12. Matthew Malsky, CLARK UNIVERSITY, “Early CinemaScope Sound Experiments”

D4. Lauhona Ganguly, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY “Production Cultures and Cultural Re‐Productions in a Global Television Industry: Rethinking Global Cultural Economy with Indian Idol”

D7. David Harvey, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA,  “Rethinking Voice in the Essay Film Form”


Special Events Wednesday Evening

6:00 – 8:00 pm

Caucus/SIG special event

Remembering the Life & Legacy of Alexander Doty

Grand Ballroom, Lobby Level


6:00 – 9:00 pm

Caucus/SIG special event

Public Media 2.0

A Conversation on the Future of Urban Documentary and Social Change

Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Avenue

Crown Fountain, Millennium Park, Chigaco, Image by Flickr user blg002

Crown Fountain, Millennium Park, Chigaco, Image by Flickr user blg002


Session E 9:00 – 10:45 a.m.

E9. Sounds and Silences

Chair: Charles Kronengold, STANFORD UNIVERSITY

Chelsey Crawford, OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY, “Sound Off: Absolute Cinematic Silence and the Unconscious”

Manuel Garin, UNIVERSITY OF POMPEU FABRA, “Silent Film Gameplay: Keaton, Mario, and the Misadventures of Visual Freedom”

Charles Kronengold, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, “Puzzling Interfacing, Musical Thinking, and Multisensory Experience”


E16. Workshop. Scholarly Social Media: Successes, Failures, and Future

Chair: Elizabeth Ellcessor, INDIANA UNIVERSITY







Session F 11:00 – 12:45 p.m.

F22. Norman Corwin and Transmedia Authorship


Jacob Smith, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, “Norman Corwin’s Radio Realism”

Mary Ann Watson, EASTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY, “Norman Corwin and the Big Screen: Artistic Differences”

Shawn VanCour, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA, “Corwin on Television: A Transmedia Approach to Style Historiography”

Alexander Russo, THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, “Sonic Legacy: Exploring the ‘Corwinesque’ in Radiolab”


Session G 1:00 – 2:45 p.m.

G13. Spectators: Sound and Talk

Chair: CarrieLynn Reinhard, DOMINICAN UNIVERSITY

Leo Rubinkowski, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “‘When You Know the Words to Sing . . .’: Sing‐Along Exhibition and Participatory Audiences”

Annie Dell’ Aria, THE GRADUATE CENTER, CUNY, “Doug Aitken’s Song 1: Cinema‐in‐the‐Round”

Carter Moulton, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MILWAUKEE, “Reading Accents: Subtitles and Spectatorship in Multiplex Cinema”

CarrieLynn Reinhard,DOMINICAN UNIVERSITY, “Answering the Whats, Hows, and Whys of Film Spectatorship: An Empirical Investigation and Comparison of Film Reception”


Session H 3:00 – 4:45 p.m.

H16. Transitional Soundtracks: The Vicissitudes of Hollywood Film Music, 1927–1933


Lea Jacobs, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “Words and Music: Dialogue Underscoring in the Early Musical”

Michael Slowik, KUTZTOWN UNIVERSITY, “From Presentational Aesthetics to Narrative Absorption: Film Music in Warner Bros. Part‐Talkies, 1927–1929”

Jeff Smith, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “What Exactly Is a Partial Cue?: Jurisdictional Conflict in Warner Bros. Films of the Early Sound Era”

Katherine Spring, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY and Maggie Clark, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY, “Trading on Songs: The Emergence of the Musical Genre in the Trade Press”


H23. Workshop on Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture.







Session I 5:00 – 6:45 p.m.

I7. Vocal Projections The Disembodied Voice in Documentary


Shilyh Warren, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT DALLAS, “Documentary Attunement and Earthly Crisis”

Maria Pramaggiore, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY, “‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’: The Disembodied Voice in Rock Documentary”

Jean Walton, UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND, “Animating Voices, Onscreen and Off, in Kathleen Shannon’s Working Mothers”

Respondent: Jason Middleton, UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER


I22. Off Beat
Music/Film Mismatches


Caryl Flinn, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, “Christopher Plummer Learns to Sing”

Kathryn Kalinak, RHODE ISLAND COLLEGE, “How the West Was Off‐Beat: Howard Hawks, Dimitri Tiomkin, and the Score for The Big Sky”

Krin Gabbard, STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY, “‘What Is This Music?’: Jimmy Knepper with Charles Mingus and Tom Cruise”

Respondent: Kay Dickinson, CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY


I23. Workshop on Success and Survival in the 21st Century: Career Strategies for Under‐
or Unrepresented Graduate Students and Early Career Faculty in Film and Media Studies

Chair: Theresa L. Geller GRINNELL COLLEGE









E20. Mark Hain, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, “Visualizing the Great American Songbook: Queer Archiving, Class, and Memory”

F3. Joan McGettigan, TEXAS CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY, “Play This Movie Loud: Sound and Silence in Terrence Malick Films”

F4. Michelle Cho, BROWN UNIVERSITY, “K‐pop, YouTube and ‘Pop Cosmopolitanism’ in the Digital Age”

F7. Diego Zavala, MONTERREY INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY AND HIGHER EDUCATION, “Voice, Testimony, and Reflexivity in Werner Herzog ́s Documentary Films”

F11. Shannon Mattern, THE NEW SCHOOL, “Echoes and Entanglements: A Sonic Archaeology of the City”

F13. Colleen Montgomery, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN, “Pixarticulation: Vocal Performance in the Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Franchises”

G5. Steven Rybin, GEORGIA GWINNETT COLLEGE, “Beyond the Voice: Patterns of Performance in Terrence Malick’s Films”

URBANA‐CHAMPAIGN, “Noise in Chinese Neorealist Cinema: A Temporary Reverse Hierarchy (TRH) Model and Political Statements”

G20. Hannah Hamad, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON, “Musical Moments of Women’s Work and Affective Labor on Contemporary British Television”

H4. Regina Arnold, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, “Hardly Strictly Utopia: Race, Space, and the American Rock Festival”

H22. Maura Edmond, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE, “Here We Go Again: Making (and Remaking) Music Videos After YouTube”

I3. Melissa Click, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI, “Making Monsters: Lady Gaga, Social Media, and Fan Culture”

I9. Vanessa Chang, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, “Audiovisualizations: Musical Screens and the Sound Image”

I12. Rachel Haidu, UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER, “Triangulation and Transmission in the Works of Black Audio Film Collective, James Coleman, and Steve McQueen”

I17. Desiree Garcia, ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, “Everything Old Is New Again: The Sing‐Along Musical Film”


Special Events Thursday Evening

5:30 – 7:00 pm

Youth Film Festival—Competition

DePaul University, Downtown Campus, 14 E. Jackson


8:00 pm


Rediscoveries in the Phil Morton Archive

Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State Street


9:00 pm

Chicago Symphonies: Nontheatrical Shorts from the Chicago Film Archives

Cinema Borealis, 1550 N. Milwaukee Avenue, 4th floor

(Please note: there is no elevator)

Seating is extremely limited. (Reservations Martin Johnson (martin.johnson@nyu.edu)

Frank Gehry-designed sound system at the Pritzker Music Pavilion in Millennium Park, Chicago, Image by Flickr User anita 363

Frank Gehry-designed sound system at the Pritzker Music Pavilion in Millennium Park, Chicago, Image by Flickr User anita 363



Session J 9:00 – 10:45 a.m.

J12. Gender Trouble across the Dial: Disrupting Conventions of Women’s Mediated Representation in Radio and Television, 1930–1960


Jennifer Wang, INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR, “‘Recipe for Laughs’: Comedy While Cleaning in Housekeeping Radio Programs”

Kathryn Fuller‐Seeley, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY, “‘What Are You Laughing At, Mary?’: Transgressive Women and Gender Performance on the Jack Benny Radio Program”

Catherine Martin, BOSTON UNIVERSITY,  “Adventure’s Fun, but Wouldn’t You Rather Get Married?: Gender Roles and the Office Wife in Radio Detective Dramas”

Joanne Morreale, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY, “Dreams and Disruption: The Fifties Sitcom”


J18. Workshop on Surface Tension: The Stakes and Fates of Close Analysis


Co-chair: Karl Schoonover, UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK






J19. Sound in Video Games and Interactive Media


Chris Russell, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, “The Atari VCS and the Making of Digital Sound”

Costantino Oliva, UNIVERSITY OF MALTA, “Soundmarks in Digital Games Soundscapes”

Lori Landay, BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC ,“Sound, Embodiment, and the Experience of Interactivity in Video Games and Virtual Environments”

Respondent: Benjamin Aslinger, BENTLEY UNIVERSITY


J23. Workshop on Digital Humanities and Film and Media Studies: Staging an Encounter


Co-Chair: Jason Mittell, MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE






Session K 12:15 – 2:00 p.m.

K14. Sounding the Radio Archive

Chair: Ian Whittington, MCGILL UNIVERSITY

Katherine McLeod, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, “Acoustic Archives: Listening to the CBC Radio Archives of Anthology”

Melissa Dinsman, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME, “Clogged Networks: The Theoretical and Practical Difficulties of Radio Archivization”

Ian Whittington, MCGILL UNIVERSITY, “Tracing the Voice: Una Marson and the Ethics of the Radio Archive”



* Meeting of the Sound Studies Schoarly Interest Group *

12:15 – 2:00 pm

The Club International Room, Lobby Level


Session L 2:15 – 4:00 p.m.

L4. Live Sound in Film and Television


Co-chair: Randolph Jordan, SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY

Benjamin Wright, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ,“We’ll Fix it in Post: The Professional and Creative Constraints of Production Sound Mixing”

Vanessa Ament‐Gjenvick, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY,  “Mad About You: Production Sound Challenges in 
the Television Situation Comedy with Live Studio Audience”

Randolph Jordan, SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY, “Hearing the Cinematic City: Location Film Sound and Soundscape Research in Acoustic Ecology”

“The Sound of Rockumentary: Location Recording and Documentary Sound Practice”


L11. Archeologies of Intermediality in Prewar Japanese Cinema


Keiko Sasagawa, KANSAI UNIVERSITY, “Silent Films with Popular Music: The Intermediality of Kouta Films, 1896–1929”

Michael Raine, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO, “A Revolution in Film Accompaniment: Record Playback Systems in Japanese Silent Cinemas”

Chie Niita, WASEDA UNIVERSITY, “Japanese Cinema and the Radio”

Johan Nordström, WASEDA UNIVERSITY, “Songs that Bind: Connections between the Early Japanese Sound Cinema and the Record Industry”


L14. Genre Studies: Variations on the Musical


Paulina Suarez, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, “Stage, Backstage, Everyday Life: Scenes of Transition in the Cabaret Picture”

Sean Griffin, SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY, “‘And Then I Wrote . . .’: Enshrining the American Songbook in the Postwar Musical Biopic”

Amanda McQueen, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “Songs and Shadows: The Question of the Classical Film Noir Musical, 1941–1958”

Frances Smith, UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, “‘(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life’: The Afterlife of Dirty Dancing (Ardolino, 1987) in the Contemporary Romantic Comedy”


L16. Workshop on Graduate Education in Film and Media Studies

Chair: Masha Salazkina, CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY








J9. Anastasia Saverino, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, “Liveness Ever After: Popular Music and the Aesthetics of Referentiality”

J14. Richard McCulloch, UNIVERSITY OF EAST ANGLIA, “‘When Camp Goes Mainstream?’: Eurovision Audiences, Ironic Appreciation, and the Production of Comedy”

L5. Martha Shearer, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON, “‘Don’t You Realize a Big City Like this Changes All the Time?’: The Hollywood Musical and the Rise of Cold War New York”


Special Events Friday Evening

4:15 – 5:30 pm

Awards Ceremony

Grand Ballroom, Lobby Level

Noise Canceling Tunnel at the Illinois Institute for Technology, image by Flickr User Zol87

Noise Canceling Tunnel at the Illinois Institute for Technology, image by Flickr User Zol87


Session M 9:00 – 10:45 a.m.

M6. “Hot‐Jazz in Stone”: 
The Urban Landscapes and Soundscapes of Film Noir


Michael Dwyer, ARCADIA UNIVERSITY, “It Takes the Village: The Neighborhood outside Hitchcock’s Rear Window”

Jans Wager, UTAH VALLEY UNIVERSITY, “From Paris to Ishpeming: Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and the Landscape of Noir”

Richard Ness, WESTERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY, “Killer Riffs: Music as Cultural Identifier in Contemporary Neo‐Noir”

Michele Schreiber, EMORY UNIVERSITY, “David Fincher1s San Francisco as Neo‐Noirscape”


M17.  Workshop on Strategies for the Academic Job Market

Chair: Ashley Elaine, York UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA






M23. Workshop
 on Critical Approaches to Studying the Radio Industries








Session N 11:00 – 12:45 p.m.

N1. Networked Media

Chair: Patrick Jagoda, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO

Doron Galili, OBERLIN COLLEGE, “Networked Media Fantasies and the Project of Networking the World”

Max Dawson, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, “‘It’s the Network!’: Broadcasting, Cellular, and the Politics of Networks”

Patrick Jagoda, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, “Between: Network Aesthetics and Networked Games”

Respondent: Wendy Chun, BROWN UNIVERSITY


N4. Radio in Transition, Past and Present


Kyle Barnett, BELLARMINE UNIVERSITY, “Rethinking Radio’s Rise through the Phonograph’s Fall”

Cynthia Meyers, COLLEGE OF MOUNT SAINT VINCENT, “Radio with Pictures: How the Ad Industry in the 1940s Debated the Transition from Radio to TV”

Andrew Bottomley, UNIVERSITY OF
WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “The Liveness of Internet Radio: Streaming, Sociability, and the Experience of Radio in the Convergence Era”


Session O 1:00 – 2:45 p.m.

O15. The Actor’s Voice


Kelly Kirshtner, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MILWAUKEE, “Actor/Microphone: Acoustic Presence in Sound Collection Practices”

Yiman Wang, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA CRUZ, “Speaking in a ‘Forked Tongue’: Anna May Wong’s Linguistic Cosmopolitanism”

Katherine Kinney, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, RIVERSIDE, “The Resonance of Brando’s Voice”

Katherine Fusco, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, RENO, “Voices from Beyond the Grave: Virtual Tupac’s Live Performance at Coachella”


O23. Workshop on
Cinema and Media Studies in Higher Education: Perspectives from Administrators









Session P 3:00 – 4:45 p.m.

P11. Cinema Sound, Music, and Voice


Babak Tabarraee,  UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA “A Pragmatic Approach to the Metaphor of Silence in the Oeuvre of Abbas Kiarostami”

Paula Musegades, BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY, “I Don’t Think We’re in the Nineteenth Century Anymore: Copland’s Establishment of Atmosphere in Golden Age Hollywood Films”

Nilo Couret, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA, “The City Listened: Ethnography, Vernacular Speech, and Niní Marshall’s Vocal Stardom”

Kate McQuiston, UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII, MANOA, “Germanic Yearnings and Musical Dreams: Rehearing Stanley Kubrick”


P12. Remixing Hip-Hop Film and Visual Culture

Chair: Michele Prettyman‐Beverly, MIDDLE GEORGIA COLLEGE

Lauren Cramer, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY, “‘What Does Keepin’ It Real Look Like?’: Examining the Visual Language of Hip‐Hop Album Covers”

Charles Linscott, OHIO UNIVERSITY, “DJ Spooky’s Hip‐Hop Time Machine”

Michele Prettyman‐Beverly, MIDDLE GEORGIA COLLEGE, “Beautiful, Dark, and Twisted: Kanye West, Genius, and Madness in Hip‐Hop Film and Visual Culture”


P18. Economies of Media Industries


Josh Shepperd, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “The Emergence of the Non‐Monetary Economy of Public Broadcasting at the Allerton House Seminars, 1949–1950”

Colin Burnett, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, “Rethinking the Culture‐Style Conundrum in Film Studies: Marketplace, Language, Artistry”

James Lastra, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, “The Economies of Modern Sound Design”

Douglas Gomery, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND/LIBRARY OF AMERICAN BROADCASTING, “Economies of Scale in Mass Media: The Case of Radio Broadcasting”


Session Q 5:00 – 6:45 p.m.

Q11. Japanese Celebrity Cultures

Chair: Colleen Laird, UNIVERSITY OF OREGON

Junji Yoshida, OLD DOMINION UNIVERSITY, “The Works of Samurai Legend in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Restoring the Voice of Silent Humor in Horo Zanmai”

Kyoko Omori, HAMILTON COLLEGE, “In Occupied Japan, A Radio Star is Born: The Role of the Allied Powers in the Creation of an Anti‐governmental Political Satire Program”

Colleen Laird, UNIVERSITY OF OREGON, “AKB48’s Tears of Surprise: Teen Idol as Fetish and the Consumption of Star Image”

Forrest Greenwood, THE COLLEGE OF ST. SCHOLASTICA, “A Spectral Pop Star Takes the Stage: Hatsune Miku and the Materialization of the Ephemeral in Contemporary Otaku Culture”


Q18. Channeling Stereo Histories The Shaping of Innovation in Film and Television Sound


Helen Hanson, UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, “Invention, Innovation, and Compromise: The Shaping of Multi‐Channel and Multi‐Speaker Film Sound in Hollywood’s Studio Era”

Jay Beck,  CARLETON COLLEGE, “Theorizing Stereo: The Growth, Decline, and Rebirth of Multi‐Channel Film Sound”

Katherine Quanz, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY, “Canadian Films’ Slow Transition to Multi‐Channel Sound”

James Lyons, UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, “‘You Don’t Need Stereo TV for Laverne and Shirley’: The Development of American Stereo TV Broadcasting



M15. Paul Reinsch, CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY, “Song(s) of the South: Country Music in/and Exploitation Cinema”

M16. Terri Francis, YALE UNIVERSITY, “Baker’s Burlesque: The Ironies and Erotics of Josephine Baker’s Celebrity”

M21. Jennifer Porst, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES, “The Sound Track Ban: The American Federation
of Musicians’ Role in Excluding Feature Films from Television before 1955”

P13. Kristen Galvin, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE, “Jem: Girlhood, MTV, and Technological Transformation in the 1980s”

P19, Olufunmilayo Arewa, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA,
 IRVINE ,“Making Music: Copyright Law and Creative Processes”

O6. Akil Houston, OHIO UNIVERSITY, “Unrequited Love: Hip‐Hop Culture and 1970s Black Cinema”

O14. Bill Kirkpatrick, DENISON UNIVERSITY, “Voices Made for Print: Disabled Voices on the Radio”

O17. Barbara Klinger, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, “From Theaters to the Airwaves: Classic Hollywood Films and Transmedia in the 1940s”

Q9. Isabel Huacuja Alonso, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN, “Censoring Film Music in All‐India Radio and the Case of a Failed Auditory Utopia”

Q15. Assem Nasr, INDIANA UNIVERSITY–PURDUE UNIVERSITY, FORT WAYNE, “Reliable Sources: Oral Cultures and News Media in Lebanon”

Q22. Sarah Kessler, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE, “I’m Your Puppet: Nina Conti’s Her Master’s Voice”


Special Events Saturday Evening

8:00 – 11:00 pm

SCMS Screen Test

Live the Warholian Experience at a Multiple‐Projection Event

Featuring “Screen Tests” of attendees shot by legendary Chicago filmmaker Judy Hoffman

Gallery 400, University of Illinois at Chicago, 400 s. Peoria Street


8:00 pm

With a Voice Like the Lake

New Experimental Media Work from Chicago

The Nightingale Theater, 1084 N. Milwaukee Avenue.

Signs designating public performance areas, downtown Chicago, Image by Flickr User romanaklee

Signs designating public performance areas, downtown Chicago, Image by Flickr User romanaklee



Session R 9:00 – 10:45 a.m.

RI. Meaning and Multiplicity in Game Environments

Chair: Nina Huntemann, SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY

Lyn Goeringer, OBERLIN CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC, “Beyond Guitar Hero: Sound Shapes, Sonic Inclusivity and Peer‐to‐Peer Musical Experience”

Ian Peters, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY, “Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, Batarangs, and Dark Lords of the Sith
in Miniature: Videogame Feelies, Diegesis, and the Tangible Gaming Experience”

Benjamin Aslinger, BENTLEY UNIVERSITY, “Unlocking Kurt: Celebrity Likenesses and Ludic Music”

Nina Huntemann, SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY, “Foul Play v. Fair Use: Likeness Licensing Litigation in Sports Video Games”


R20. Rethinking Technologies of Audiovision


Jonathan Crylen, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Ciné: Humpback Whale Recordings and Film Sound”

Hannah Frank, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, “Beyond Mickey‐Mousing: American Animated Cartoons Learn to Talk, 1926–1933”


Respondent: Steve Wurtzler, COLBY COLLEGE


* Meeting of the Radio Studies Scholarly Interest Group*

The Club International Room, Lobby Level



R5. Kate Newbold, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, “Sounding TV History: Boundaries of the Archive, Memory, and Personal Media Histories in the Case of Phil Gries’s Archival Television Audio”

R12. Mika Turim‐Nygren, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, CHICAGO, “Tevye: Language, Sound, and the Resonance of Ritual in the Late Yiddish Cinema”

R19. Christopher Cwynar, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN‐MADISON, “In a Town This Size: The Vinyl Café, the CBC, and the Nostalgic Mythos of Small‐Town Canada”

S1. Theodora Trimble, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH, “When All Boys Become Men: Russian Pop Music and the Global Ethnographic Idiom”

S4. Mark Lynn Anderson, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH, “Roads to Ruin; or, the Woman’s Voice in Late Silent Cinema”

S11. Sushmita Banerji, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA, “Band‐Baaja in the Background: Manmohan Desai’s Music”

Chicago Blues Festival, 2008, Image by Flickr User Janet and Phil

Chicago Blues Festival, 2008, Image by Flickr User Janet and Phil

Interested in checking out the last few years of “Sound at the SCMS”?  Peep  the following links:

“Sound at SCMS 2012,” 26 March 2012

“Sound at SCMS 2011,” 28 February 2011

The Sound of Radiolab: Exploring the “Corwinesque” in 21st Century Public Radio

Editor’s Note: Today, radio scholar Alex Russo, author of Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks , continues our summer series “Tune In to the Past,” which explores the life and legacy of radio broadcaster Norman Lewis Corwin, the “poet laureate of radio” who died last summer at the age of 101.   Sounding Out!‘s three-part exploration of his legacy by radio scholars Neil Verma (June), Shawn VanCour (July), and Russo (August) not only gives Corwin’s work new life (and critique), but also speaks to the growing vitality of radio studies itself. And now, hey everyone, you are listening to . . .Alex Russo  Alright? Okay? Alright?–JSA  

P.S. Look for a special bonus fall installment of the Corwin series in September!

Voice 1: What if you were the best in the world at something…

Multiple Voices: [background] He is the greatest….most stupendous…. most thrilling…most inventive

Voice 1: and then your entire industry collapsed.

Voice 2: [continuing and fading out] Radio[?] Writer.

Voice 1: But you kept on working?

SFX: Typewriter, continuing until coming to a dead stop when return bell rings and the carriage returns with a clunk on “pass away”

Voice 1: Outliving all your peers, until, 77 years later, you pass away?

Voice 3: Norman Corwin? Never heard of him. He defined a generation’s engagement with sound?

Voice 1: And there is no one left to eulogize you? What is your legacy?

This post is the third in a series that engages with the legacy of Norman Corwin, a – perhaps the – preeminent radio writer and producer of the late 1930s and 1940s. Specifically, it picks up on Neil Verma’s challenge back in June to consider the legacy of the “Corwin-esque.” Verma devotes considerable space to mapping the aesthetic syle of Corwin in his post and his incredibly insightful and astute book, Theater of the Mind.

The analysis that follows leans on Verma’s argument with a caveat. The question of legacy stems in part from Verma’s assertion that Corwin lived for so long, few were left to speak for his legacy. Corwin may not have the name recognition that he should within the broader public, but for radio practitioners, he is regarded with considerable reverence.  In this sense, the Corwinesque style lives on by inspiring contemporary radio producers, especially, I will argue, in the aural style of the syndicated WNYC public radio program Radiolabhosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Radiolab describes itself as “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” While ostensibly a science program, designed to make complicated scientific phenomena comprehensible to a general audience, the show engages in fundamental questions about nature, being, and experience in creative ways.

Certainly, Abumrad and Krulwich regard Corwin as an inspiration, such as when Krulwich responded to a claim by This American Lifes Ira Glass that the turn of the 21st century is the true Golden Age of Radio, by describing Corwin as “Homer in a modern form. . .a lyrical reporter who wrote and spoke like he was wearing a toga and sometimes was so spectacular you’d get dizzy listening and sometimes seems a little too old fashioned and oratorical.”   In his earlier post, Verma defines Corwin’s aesthetic style through a number of formal elements, including what he describes as a kind of “overworked literary calisthenics.”  Putting their own spin on Corwin’s dizzy oratory, Abumrad and Krulwich mark Radiolab with complicated and intentionally convoluted speech patterns. The program features Abumrad and Krulwich in rapid fire banter – far faster than typical public radio fare.  Often, this onslaught of language crowds and overlaps, producing a highly staged simulation of conversational flow. Often, Abumrad is a voice of enthusiastic discovery, while Krulwich plays the role of skeptic, particularly in the early seasons.  Abumrad’s voice is more nasal, higher pitched and, notably, recognizably younger than that of grizzled veteran Krulwich, creating a contrapuntal effect.

Radiolab Producers/Hosts Robert Krulwich (l) and Jad Abumrad (r), Image by Flickr User ThirdCoast Festival

These voices usually interact with a third voice, what typically radio documentary calls the “actuality.” However, instead of than separating “the real” from the narration’s voice of authority, Radiolab juxtaposes sentence fragments from all the voices (analysis, counter-argument, evidence) to create a conversation that proceeds dialectically, on parallel parts that intersect at points to lead to a thematic conclusion.  While Radiolab’s dialogic style has been explored by other radio scholars, like Andrew Bottomley and Eleanor Patterson, its link to Corwin’s model of radio drama deserves more attention. While not exactly the same as Corwin’s signature “choral” vocal style, with voices chiming in from all directions, it performs a similar function, aurally representing a multiplicity of viewpoints.

Furthemore, Abumrad and Krulwich work hard to create a feeling of liveness and connection with Radiolab‘s listeners, much like Corwin did.   Radiolab is certainly not a live program, but we must also remember that much of Corwin’s work was also developed to be recorded and sold–as Shawn VanCour discussed in his offering to this series. Although violating typical news protocols, mangled sentences, mis-matched vocal levels, and cross-talk are not removed during Radiolab‘s editing process; rather they are left in to create the feeling of spontaneity. Krulwich and Abumrad as quite conscious of this effect, with the latter noting in a New York Times profile, “It’s a funny thing, when you find yourselves laboring for weeks to create what you felt at that first moment.”

Abumrad and Krulwich, performing a live version of Radiolab, Image by Flick’r User Jared Kelly

A final connection, Abumrad and Krulwich blend two aural styles, “intimate” and “kaleidosonic,” descriptors Verma coins in Theater of the Mind as the hallmark of Corwin’s formal mastery.  Verma defines broadcast intimacy through radio’s address to the listener as an individual, its placement of a program’s “audioposition” alongside the narrator, as well as its emphasis on place-centered narratives. Kaleidosonic style addresses the listener as a public, uses a multiplicity of auditing positions, and creates a broad model of engagement with narratives centered on events (70). A wonderful representative example of this combination of styles on Radiolab can be heard at several points in season two’s episode, “Detective Stories.”  First, the end of the opening beat features the stylized repetition of a New York Sanitation official describing the Fresh Kills sump as a “time capsule.” As the phrase “time capsule” echoes eight times, Krulwich begins to chant “time capsule” in a lightly mocking and metallic sounding tone. Abumrad tells him, “You can stop that now.”

Later in that episode, a segment entitled “Goat on a Cow,” follows Laura Starcheski across the country as she investigates the twelve-year story behind of a box of old letters found by the side of the road.

This segment takes place at different locations, a hallmark of the intimate style. At the same time, it also uses elements of the kaleidosonic style because the narrative turns on particular events, moments where new evidence is found and new theories of the story of Ella Chase, the letters’ recipient. Throughout this segment Starcheski’s voice fades in and around those of her actualities. When she intervenes to provide context, the other voices are not stopped, they continue, telling their story under hers until at specific moment both voices say an identical phrase. This juxtaposition suggests that the letters hold different meanings for the individuals who come in contact with them: For Starcheski they are a reminder of her childhood desire to invent life stories of strangers; For Erick Gordon, an English teacher who found the letters, they are a great mystery on which he can project his own imagined histories and build a teaching curriculum; Finally, for Robert Chase, they represent a relief that he is no longer the archivist of his grandmother’s life. Like Corwin’s work, “Goat on a Cow” combines intimate and kaleidosonic styles, creating pleasures that are linked not to narrative closure but to the process of sonically representing investigation and theorization.

Letters, by Flickr user aroid

In allowing the pleasures of aural storytelling  to enable the show’s narrative, Radiolab’s Corwin connection expands conceptions of the imagination.   Like Corwin (and radio writers of the network-era), Abumrad sees radio as both an act of “co-authorship” and “co-imagining” between the writer/performer and the listener.  However, he also sees his “job” as “put[ting] certain images and feelings in your head.” This link to discourses of the imagination is clear in the series’ opening episode, “Who Am I?” One segment in this episode, “The Story of Me,” suggests that what defines humanity is “introspective consciousness,” the ability to abstract images or events into a story of self.

Citing neuroscientist Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, Krulwich notes: “Only humans can take images from the real world, pull them into their heads, divide them into parts, and take those parts and turn them into abstractions.” To demonstrate, Krulwich leads Abrumrad through an example where the latter conjures the image purple striped red canary in his head. Ramachandran follows, noting that only humans can rearrange and manipulate “tokens” of “bird,” “striped,” and “red” to “imagine” something that doesn’t exist. The “peculiar human muscle” is that “ability to experience things and abstract them into a story. This definition is telling, while ostensibly it is about human consciousness, I would argue it could just as easily be seen as a description of the job of radio writing, taking recognizable symbolic tokens, manipulating them, and turning them into story. By equating human consciousness with radio, Krulwich and Abumrad exemplify a final theme that Verma attributes to network-era radio drama, its evolution “from being a theater in the mind to being a theater about the mind” (3).

Indeed, the segment of “The Story of Me” finishes by noting that neural actions can only be understood in a group: “Even the thought ‘I am a one’ springs from a hundred million cells connecting through a trillion synapses and that all of this multiple activity paradoxically creates the you of this moment. You are always plural.” I imagine that Corwin, no stranger to celebrations of plurality, would completely agree.

Featured Image by Flickr User Jared Kelly

Alexander Russo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He is the author of Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) as well as assorted articles and book chapters. His research interests include the technology and cultural form of radio and television, the aesthetics of sound, the development of “old” new media, the history of music and society, the relationship between media and space, and the history of popular culture.

%d bloggers like this: