Radio is dead?
Q & A with Summer Scholar Katie Woods ’13:
What’s the title of your research?
“‘Radio Is Dead!’ An Investigation of Historical and Contemporary Audio Drama in the United States and Britain.”
Mark Evan Bryan ’96, Associate Professor of Theatre, on his advisee:
Katie Woods is a student I knew, in fact, as a playwright, but also because the introductory course she took with me required regular short critical papers. Her work showed me that she is a fine writer, a thoughtful critic, and a very intelligent young person.
The project Katie proposed is an interesting one because, at its heart, it asks a simple question about a very significant deviation of the American theatre tradition from the British: why is radio drama dead in the U.S. but successful enough in the U.K. for playwrights to make a significant portion of their livings from writing for the radio? (In most other ways, the cultural inferiority complex that Ralph Waldo Emerson famously pointed to in the 1840s is still very much alive in the American theatre; it, generally, follows the trends—artistic, technical, and economic—of the British theatre.)
And while audio drama is by no means an area of my expertise, the big questions Katie would need to tackle were ones in which I’m very interested too—particularly about the composition of popular audiences, about the role of unions and corporate entities in American entertainment, about the ways in which a “settler colony” Anglophone drama diverges from English cultural traditions.
So, between the idea she had and the student I knew Katie to be, agreeing to work with her on this was an easy decision.
My project is about whether audio formats have the potential to be a viable outlet for American drama in the future. I say audio instead of radio more specifically, because although radio drama exists and existed, it doesn’t look like the American broadcasting system is particularly hospitable to drama. Not when it’s so commercialized and a lot more money can be made in other types of programming. About half of my research is about coming up with a comparative history of British and American radio drama, and the cultural differences that led to their divergence. But I’m also examining topics like plays and serials on modern public radio, how amateur audio drama is made and distributed on the internet, and the community dynamic of old-time radio enthusiasts.
What’s the story behind the idea?
I haven’t done work or research in this area, but it’s a question that’s been on my mind for the past two or three years. Around my senior year of high school (about the same time that I started getting really interested in how creative productions are put together), I realized I really enjoyed British television programs. It was pretty frustrating at first, because the BBC has this tantalizing wealth of programs and clips on their website that are off-limits outside the U.K., but then I realized that what I could do for free was listen to any of their radio programs. Since I— and most people I know—tend to assume that radio drama died out because nobody needed it after television came around, I was intrigued to think that maybe we’re the only ones who call it universally archaic. Several of the BBC’s radio stations commission new work and air classics every year; famous television actors work in radio over there, and some people make their entire careers in it.
What’s the personal draw for you?
I’m a computer science major, not a theatre major, but I’m leaning toward some kind of career in technical production and want to explore as many areas as I’ve got time for before I graduate. The problem in the U.S. is that if I want to learn about radio production, I’m probably going to have to make my own opportunities. Even if I find other people who are willing to help me produce a play, I want to be familiar enough with the writing, technical, and acting challenges of the medium to make the project work. So I’m interested in this from a sort of advocacy standpoint, because I want to be able to introduce more people to a style of theatre that’s become dear to my heart. But I also hope that this summer could serve as useful background if I get the chance to create some work on my own.
What’s the most interesting or unexpected thing you’ve learned?
Radio started out as “wireless telegraphy,” which couldn’t transmit more than Morse code. When people started to catch snatches of music and conversation on the airwaves, nobody believed them. Amateurs sometimes pretended to be high-ranking navy officers and radioed in bogus military maneuvers, or sent out distress signals for nonexistent ships. People used to write angry letters to stations about radio waves blighting their crops or dropping birds from the sky. A good sound effects man in live comedy got as many laughs or more than the main characters. The people who kept a tight rein on the British airwaves until the 1920s worked for the post office, of all places.
Katie Woods is a junior computer science major from Myersville, Md. Her summer research was funded by the William G. and Mary Ellen Bowen Research Fund.