by John Pellegrini
From the outside, it’s a crumbling building. The façade is cracked, chipped, and pieces of stone are missing. The marquee sign that had the name of the building is missing so many letters that you can’t even tell what the name of the place was. The only letters that are coherent are the ones that read “For Sale Or Lease” on the lower part of the marquee. The doors are sealed with brick and plywood, and admittance is nearly impossible. But we’re going to break in anyhow. Don’t worry about the police, they, along with everyone else, have forgotten that this old place even existed.
Inside, the funk of must, dust, and rotting everything is nearly overwhelming. But, since no one remembers this place, if we ignore the smell, it disappears. We continue past the old concession stand where the garbage of old popcorn bags and soft drinks lie in heaps. The once plush red velvet carpeting is now moth eaten and rat infested. It also makes a rather disgusting gishing noise under our feet as we walk along, but again, if we ignore it, it goes away. We head up the incline toward the doors that were once beautiful golden color with engravings, but are now rusted, as the gold was only paint on steel. We try to push the doors open, and they squeal with age and fall off their hinges.
Inside, the main floor of the theater is cavernous. We can see how it once must have been spectacular--the immense rococo ceiling and breathtaking gigantic crystal chandelier that’s hanging barely by a few visible chain links from the peak. The ornate statues of the ancient Greek Gods and animals that line the walls and both sides of the stage are crumbling, yet still retain the ability to astonish when seen. But age has not been kind to this great old palace. It is a huge, dark and dangerous looking place, with a gloomy sense of doom pervading in the dark. As we walk down the aisle, past the dilapidated seats with holes chewed through the formerly plush red velvet, we get a feeling that the walls and the ceiling to the place may not exactly be stable. Our footsteps seem to vibrate and shake the very foundation below us, which adds to the feeling of nervousness. The proscenium before us was both for live performance and movies, the projection screen is still hanging down but torn to shreds, and we can just barely make out the huge size of the stage behind it. This was a great old theater in its day. It’s so sad to see it now.
Welcome to the Theater of the Mind. Radio’s forgotten playground is nearly gone. Here on this stage were once produced the greatest feats the Universe ever imagined. Here on this stage the Martians were conquered. People could cloud the minds of others so they would be invisible. The wars of Europe and the Pacific were witnessed live as they happened. Plays were seen. Wooden puppets came to life, and amazing miracles of impossibility occurred on a regular basis. This was an incredible theater. No other theater was ever as spectacular as this one. No other theater was ever able to hold an audience spellbound the way this one did in its heyday.
Yet, it’s been a long time since the vast majority of us have performed here. Most days the stuff that we consider our “best works” are performed in concrete block bunkers just like the 300 screen multiplexes at the end of the shopping mall parking lot--where every room looks exactly the same and every screen shows the same 3 or 6 movies over and over again. Truth be told, much of our “best work” isn’t worthy of this grand old palace. We know this; we’ve accepted this unfortunate realization, and that’s why we’ve let the old palace fall apart.
We’ve also allowed ourselves to believe a fairy tale, a myth, a lie that says only film and video can present pictures. We repeated that lie to ourselves for so long, that we no longer bother to describe anything in detail any more. Instead, we just filter our voices, speak some lines like, “NOBODY PLAYS MORE MUSIC,” add a couple of wowie kazowie stingers and sound effects, and think we’re being impressive. The truth is, we’ve gotten lazy and stupid.
Think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Think it doesn’t matter? Look at the numbers, my friends. Radio ratings are sliding all over the place. The corporate “brains” have all the same excuses—the economy, increased competition, and so on—but no matter what nonsense they come up with, we know the real reason isn’t economics or demographics. The real reason is radio is becoming stale and repetitive to the point that no matter what city you’re in, no matter what country you’re in, most of the stations sound the same. Big voice announcers, filtered voice announcers, funny TV or movie drop, funny or obnoxious slogan, and a big sound effect. No matter the format, no matter the market, it is all starting to get very redundant sounding. Listeners are getting tired of the same old stuff day after day, and if it’s ‘THE MOST MUSIC” they’re after, they don’t need radio. You’ve got cars with CD players and Napster at home on the PC, all without the same stale liner cards and promos day after day. Plus, if I don’t like the local talk radio, I can listen to other shows in other cities live as they happen on the Internet.
Then, of course, there’s that new threat, Satellite Radio! 100 or more channels! Digital quality across the fruited plain! Drive from Key West to Seattle and never change the channel! Yes, that could be very dangerous to what we’re now referring to as “Terrestrial” radio. I’ve heard some PDs say the best way to fight Satellite Radio is to emphasize “locality” (which isn’t even a real word, but that’s never stopped PDs before). I say the best way to fight Satellite radio is to emphasize better quality entertainment. Radio will never die as long as it gives the listeners great stuff to listen to. And there’s the crux of the biscuit, kids. Are we giving the listeners better quality entertainment than they can get anywhere else?
Of course not. That’s the whole problem. We’ve once again been lured to sleep by our own redundancy. We’re at the same point in time radio was in back at the dawn of television—asleep at the wheel and not taking the disappearing audience seriously. You’ve heard that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it? Except that we have even less help available with the current situation, there is no Rock’N’Roll on the horizon to save our collective asses. Nope, the only thing that can save terrestrial radio is our imaginations.
Folks, it’s time to restore the Theater of the Mind. It’s time to remodel, renovate, and rebuild that glorious palace where we used to stage our glorious triumphs. Open up all the doors. Blow out the dust and decay. Fix the lights, clean the carpets, sew up the seat cushions, rewire the electrical works, polish up the brass and gold plating, shine the hardwood stages, and repair the place so that it’s even better than it used to be. The best part about this kind of renovation is you don’t need to apply for permits. You don’t need to hire anyone, and you don’t need to raise huge amounts of cash. All you have to do is say it, and make it happen instantly. Snap your fingers, click your heels together and say, “there’s no place like showbizniz.” Voila, the Theater is as good as new. Now, what are you going to do with it?
That’s the hard part. This is where the difficult work comes in and kicks you in the groin. Now that we’ve restored our Grand Old Palace, we cannot rely on the same old boring clichés that have become standard. We must set new standards of creativity. How do you do that? Well, just as examining the failures of the past can help you prevent them in the present, examining the triumphs of the past can give you clues on how to triumph in the future. It all starts with the imagination. How far are you willing to let yours roam? No limits, no boundaries. Those are lofty words and goals. But truthfully, you have boundaries and limits, don’t you? You set limits on the kinds of creativity you will do because you’re told that really outlandish stuff won’t work. I beg to differ.
Why are Stan Freberg and Dick Orkin so well known and respected around the world? Why are Spike Milligan and Douglas Adams still revered in the U.K., Canada, Australia, and many parts of the U.S.? Why are the Firesign Theater’s 4 or 5 Crazee Guys still selling recordings in large numbers? Why is Garrison Keillor the purveyor of the single most listened to program on all of public radio as well as much of commercial radio, and in fact has a bigger audience than many television shows that run opposite his time slot? Why is it you can mention any of these names and nearly always manage to have someone recognize them as easily as any TV or movie celebrity? Is it because they all used big announcer voices and filtered voices and said, “NOBODY PLAYS MORE MUSIC!” and had stingers and sound effects all over their work?
If your reply is to point out that they’re unique performers and no one else can get away with what they do so we shouldn’t even try, then you’ve completely missed the point. Get this: If you hope to survive in the future of radio, then you’d better start getting as unique as those mentioned above. Right now, radio is going through some major cost cutting and salary reductions and job eliminations in order to save the all-important multi-million dollar bonuses of the executives. Eventually, though, audiences are going to have to be regained. You can’t keep selling advertising on the basis of fewer listeners each year without going bankrupt. Running Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Dr. Laura 24 hours a day on every radio station in the world isn’t going to save anything, no matter what the Corporate “Geniuses” claim. 30 minutes of commercials per hour isn’t the answer, either. Creativity and (the word that most radio execs dislike so much) TALENT will eventually need to come back into play. To attract the largest and most loyal audience, you’ve got to provide something they can’t get anywhere else; and I don’t mean “locality.”
Right now is when we need to see a second “Golden Age” of radio occurring. We need to bring incredible creativity back into the medium. As I’ve been saying all along, writing is the key. We need to have greater expansion of the imaginative frontier, and we have to do it ourselves. We aren’t going to be able to bring in specialists or consultants to make it happen, because no one understands how to do this better than those of us who are already working there every day.
The key is description. When you read the opening of this article, you saw the Theater in your mind, right? Now go back, and record yourself reading that piece out loud. Then, add appropriate sound effects in the background, such as street traffic for the start when we’re looking at the marquee, doors opening, quiet footsteps, and a touch of large reverb to signify being inside the auditorium. You’ve just produced an amazing Theater of the Mind piece, and it wasn’t all that difficult, was it? The only difficulty is getting over our objections to doing the piece in the first place.
Oh, sure, there will be times when you won’t be able to produce pieces like this, especially when commercials come into play. For many years I struggled with that problem: some clients are just too dull or stupid to realize how much more interesting their spots would be if they didn’t insist on laundry lists of items and prices. You know what? That’s okay. Let the moron clients be morons. I’ve decided that there will always be idiot clients with lousy sounding spots. So what? There were idiot clients with lousy sounding spots back in the previous Golden Age of Radio, too. The idiots will always be there. Treat them the same way the listeners do, ignore them. Take their money and to hell with their results. I know that goes against everything I’ve said in the past about educating the client and striving for better commercial breaks, but I’ve finally realized that beating yourself senseless over an immovable brick wall only hurts you, not the brick wall. Moron clients are morons for a reason. Instead, focus your creativity in projects where you know you have free reign, such as your station’s promos. Eventually, there will be clients who hear the stuff you’re doing and ask you to make their commercials more fun and exciting. The right people will be impressed and educated. The right people will know what you’re doing and will want to join in the fun. That’s whom we should be trying to reach, because they’re the loyal ones. I’d rather have a station with a few loyal clients who get it and are excited about being part of the idea, instead of a thousand moron clients who pay today but demand that you continually jump through their hoops to get their money tomorrow--the moron clients who cause stations to lose money with their demands, until the station is forced to change formats because “we just can’t sell this format.” Bullshit. They just can’t sell their moron clients.
Now, I want to take a moment to address Napster. I’m not going to get into the copyright nightmare that the lawsuits are going after on Napster, nor am I here to plead pro or con for either side. What I want to talk about is how you can use Napster to improve your creative outlook. Three of those creative giants that I mentioned in the previous paragraphs--Spike Milligan and the Goon Show; The Firesign Theater; Douglas Adams and the original BBC Radio broadcasts of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-- much of their works are available on Napster for you to download and enjoy. And that’s precisely what you should do. Listen to the writing and the production of all of their works. Listen to radio without boundaries. For the Firesign Theater, I recommend their greatest audio masterpiece, “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers.” Dwarf is my favorite recording by the 4 or 5 Crazee Guys, because it completely breaks all the laws of Radio Theater. There’s no setup. There’s no narrator to tell you the action. There’s no form established. Scenes fade into completely different scenes via channel changing, as the protagonist, George Tirebiter, spends a night watching his entire life flash before his eyes on television. It’s an amazing performance. Sure there are some dated ‘60s druggie references, but that doesn’t spoil the quality of the work at all. It just authenticates it to its time period, and yet the work still holds up as a ground-breaking piece. Cheech and Chong were never this imaginative. Note: some of the Firesign Theater’s stuff is still available for purchase, but Dwarf is not yet available, which is why I’m advocating getting it off Napster. For more info on what Firesign stuff is available for purchase, check out their website at www.firesigntheater.com.
The original BBC Radio Productions of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are the best versions of the works available on Napster. Each episode is under a half an hour, and it is also quite astonishing creativity that continues to hold up despite having been recorded 22 years ago. These episodes are also not available in stores. Also, many of the BBC episodes of the Goon Show are available on Napster as well, and are no longer sold in stores. Virtually any episode of the Goon Show is worth listening to, but one of my favorites is “The Histories Of Pliny The Elder.”
By the way, for those of you Chicken Man fans, Dick Orkin is now offering cassette copies of the entire old series at his website, www.radio-ranch.com. None of those recordings are available on Napster. Stan Freberg just issued a box set of his best stuff, and I recommend getting it. Some of Stan’s stuff is on Napster, but in this case, I suggest buying the box set because, unlike the Goon Show, Firesign Theater, and the Guide episodes, you can buy the box set almost anywhere. Plus, the box set has a lot more info including a video of Freberg’s best commercials and two booklets packed with great stuff. As for A Prairie Home Companion, it’s on your local Public Radio station every Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time, and rebroadcast each following Sunday at 1:00 p.m. EST. Let me make it crystal clear, I’m only advocating Napster for the stuff that you can no longer purchase at your local CD store, because it’s no longer being issued. If you find stuff from the artists above for sale at your local retailer, then by all means purchase those recordings. Use Napster only as you would a Public Library.
The reason why I think we should listen to these gems is to study how the best of the best made audio magic. Plus, these are all more modern sounding examples of Theater of the Mind, and not quite so dated as old episodes of Fibber McGee and Molly. But don’t just concentrate on the production values or the performances when you listen to them. Spend the most time studying the writing, the descriptions, the settings, the plot twists, the stories themselves. See if you can learn how the great radio writers chose the directions and influences that he or she used to make these strange things happen. It’s not just a matter of being funny or silly for the sake of being funny or silly; there are real situations happening here. Joke telling gets dull very quickly. Humor that develops over a series of believable events becomes an interesting story line, and one that can be continued far longer than you might imagine. Descriptive story telling is what we need to strive for if we are to make our production better than the standard crap that you hear everywhere. Because, as we can plainly see in the current state of radio, the same old standard crap just isn’t gaining new audiences any more. And gaining new audiences is what winning the radio war is all about.