Considering how much of the form of television has been influenced by old radio programs; I thought it might be useful to look into what carried over between radio and television. I want to briefly look into how stories were told through radio shows without a visual component, and how the consumption patterns influenced form.
I started listening to the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast (“Your favorite new time podcast in the style of old time radio shows!”) during the commute to work in the summer. During this time, I’ve gotten very accustomed to the forms of the programming and how the shows have to compensate for the lack of a visual element. The sound effects help ground the shows and they help the audience visualize what’s going on. We know when the characters open and close doors, when they use cars, and when they engage with objects generally. These moments help contextualize the actions of the characters. The music also helps tell the stories. Since we cannot see the actors and thus know their facial expressions, the mood of the music helps the audience understand what the people on stage are feeling without it needing to be directly referenced.
What is also striking is how much characterization has to be established through the voice work. Since the audience has no idea what these characters look like, the voices have to serve as the distinguishing characteristic. To some extent, they use familiar stereotypes to quickly convey information. One of their shows, “Beyond Belief”, uses the accents and intonations of their leads to establish their socio-economic status as well as their personalities. The use of distinguishing voices also helps the audience know who is speaking. Unless there is a reason to make characters indistinguishable, the use of varied accents and speech patterns keeps the characters separate and recognizable. Again, because the medium lacks visibility, the voices are what allow the audience to know which character is talking.
Radio also makes use of repetition. Much like the early television programs aimed at distracted housewives, radio is constantly repeating the names of characters and certain plot points. Even for regular characters, their name and a basic characterization is repeated for the listener. “Sparks Nevada”, the western style program, features a narrator that introduces the two lead characters. They are given the opportunity to speak, establishing their particular speech patterns, in addition to their relationship to one another through a quick interaction. In addition, some of the programs rely heavily on structured and repetitive narratives. “Captain Lazerbeam”, a superhero story, follows the exact same structure every time. Every story is told with the same 4 part structure. As a listener, one barely has to pay attention and they can still understand what’s going on (which is ideal if you’re working with the program on). It’s interesting to note how and why these methods exist, both in terms of the necessity of the medium and for how it is often used.
The narrative styles throughout the podcast demonstrate the variety of methods available in radio. Several of the programs are serialized, where the characters carry over, but the stories told are all self-contained. Others carry a narrative throughout several episodes. For the self-contained style stories, the quick introduction to characters and premise serves to both orient newcomers and returning listeners alike. The longer form narratives feature a quick recap of where the previous episode left off, reminding the listener of what happened last.
The methods used in the radio shows are at once similar and distinct from those used in television. Radio has some different uses because they have to compensate for the lack of visuals. Many of their methods are used to orient listeners and keep the story coherent. However, the episodic format and the assumption of distracted consumption, necessitates similar strategies or both radio and television programming. The use of repetition, structured narratives, and recaps keeps the audience engaged and up to speed on the occurrences of the shows. Various methods emerge to compensate for certain needs, and getting used to the structure of a radio show has really helped me understand that.
If you’re interested in the Thrilling Adventure Hour (and you should be because it’s great), you can find it on Itunes, or http://thrillingadventurehour.com/. It’s hilarious and well written. Also, Nathan Fillion tends to guest star every so often which is tons of fun, and John Di Maggio (Bender on Futurama) is a common voice actor for them.