By Trent Rentsch
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories.”
– Eudora Welty
Once upon a time, there was a young man who believed in the words, “Theatre of the Mind.” Blessed with more heart than sense, he felt that radio held a mystic Creative potential… the power to tell all the stories of the human condition in a way no other Creative art could, by painting the pictures in each listener’s imagination, using only the power of words.
Sadly, like most idealists, our hero was soon disillusioned. It wasn’t just the practical needs of the radio medium (repetition of the client’s name, phone number and 37 year old jingle being but a few), but the dawning truth that, like any Creative-for-hire medium, turning a commercial production into a compelling “story” isn’t easy.
Discouraged, the young man began looking for answers, and soon found himself running with a crowd of Noisemakers… producers who turned to style and volume and explosions to cover their total and complete lack of substance. “LISTEN TO TH-TH-TH-THIS!” they’d growl, letting loose with a cacophony of lasers, monkey chatter and trouser trumpets. “THIS IS THE WAY… THE WAAAAAAAAAAAY… TO DO RADIO PRODUCTION! BOOOOOOM ZIGGIDDY SCHWIZZZZZZZZ!!” The young man, confused and awash in sound & flurry, began to let go of his dreams, and covered his messages in obnoxious noise, convinced that the louder and more “intense” his audio Creative was, the more apt listeners would be to listen to it.
The sad truth about misguided youth is, left unchecked, it becomes misguided adulthood. As our young man grew older, his production grew noisier and more superficial, and his dreams of becoming a compelling story-teller eventually died completely. He continued to produce audio, mostly imaging for stations intent on being edgy and self-absorbed, but the excitement, his thrill of Creating great radio was as burned out as disc 5, track 7 of his “Bad-ass Bangs & Booms” sound effects disc (the explosion with the really long, warbly pig squeal ring-out).
“A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”
-- George Lucas
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I knew that young man pretty well. In fact, I’ve worked with him several times in my career, and while his name and face weren’t the same, the frustrations were. In many ways, I myself have come to wonder why anyone who is into the power of words and compelling story-telling would want to be part of the radio industry. Then I remember those words, “Theatre of the Mind.” I remember listening to Paul Harvey as a kid in my Great-grandmother’s kitchen, that skilled voice delivering carefully crafted words that brought his tales to life in my mind. I was reminded of his power during the Superbowl this year and the Ram Truck “Farmer” ad (if you haven’t seen it, make of point of it). Yes, the pictures were compelling, but if you closed your eyes and listened, Mr. Harvey painted even stronger images in your mind. It’s interesting to note that, in the usual sea of loud and crazy spots that appear during the big game, it was a single voice, telling a great story, that stood out above the rest.
“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.”
-- John Steinbeck
OK, reality time. Times have changed, attention spans are shorter, and radio story-tellers like Paul Harvey are not only one of a kind, but also out of fashion. If you want to accept these statements as truth, and are willing to accept status quo, the world is not going to come to an end, you aren’t going to lose your job and your station will keep pumping out the hits as it always has. However, if you believe in that mystic power of bringing a listener’s imagination to life with the right words, delivered in a compelling way, enhanced by (NOT overwhelmed by) subtle sound effects and music underscore, give yourself the gift of at least one project in the next week that tells the client story.
I won’t pretend that I can tell you how to tell a great story, I can only tell you where it’s always started for me, and that’s by listening to the world around me. I know I’ve mentioned many times that I’m not above eavesdropping on the conversation of others wherever I am, absorbing common life experiences and how we talk to each other, then incorporating what I hear into my scripts, mixing it with all the concrete information that’s required, and hopefully turning it all into something the listener can relate to. It might not be the Great American Novel, but at the very least the result is usually more interesting than a laundry list of frozen food sp-sp-specials… BOOM!