March 21, 2016

Is Anyone Listening?

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If you don’t already know, looking at bright screens — particularly before bed — is severely detrimental to sleep patterns. Most articles on the topic suggest the obvious solution: stop doing it. But millennials need a little more than that to get in the way of Netflix (and chill) before bed. Seeking a replacement for myself, I’ve turned to radio drama. Discovering this medium has single handedly salvaged my slumber and opened me up to a new world of immersive storytelling armed with only the power of sound. It is visceral and real, and it attains psychological realism in a way that other mediums sometimes cannot.

The words  “radio drama” induce nostalgia for a time long before I was born. When I hear them, I think of War of the Worlds and a distinctive Mid-Atlantic accent. But ever since the 1950s, the television has forced radio dramas into a sharp cultural neglect, and the genre has even had trouble mirroring the recent surging popularity of podcasts. But there are a few good production companies out there carrying on the abandoned torch.

The Truth Podcast has become my go-to for bedtime entertainment. It produces 15 to 30 minute narratives that have an eerily cinematic feel to them. Using scripts as a launch pad, the dialogue is mostly improvised and the result is crazy realistic. The normative image of a radio drama is something like a  play dialogue with an over-dramatic underscore, but these guys are radically deconstructing our conception of an outdated style, and tapping into this genre’s full effect.

The short pieces have a remarkable capacity to tell almost any story. If you’ve ever written for the stage, you can appreciate how the practical constraints of time and space are freed once you get into film, as nonstop set changes and flashbacks become casual. Radio flagrantly disregards essentially any constraint, especially ones considering money. Dinosaurs, space-scenes and births on radio cost a fraction of the price tag on a movie, and these things are often impractical for a staged performance.

Beyond financial restrictions, theatre, film and even oratory present a visual accompaniment to the story that is concrete and constant. It’s not that your other senses of sight, smell and touch aren’t working when you’re listening to a radio drama, but it’s that you construct them yourself. Close your eyes and the auditory inspires a visual sensation your brain has produced just for you. There is something about auditory fiction that finds a more direct path of psychological engagement than if all of your senses were to be determined for you. The product is virtually hypnotic, and something I’ve never felt before.
This is a plea to explore the most underrated dramatic, literary, and creative art form I’ve encountered. It seems absurd trying to put into words why sound is a powerful and underused medium of storytelling; just listen to it yourself! I’m a sucker for sci-fi, so my favorite The Truth piece is “Dark Matter,” but you can start with their most recent production, “Man Vs. Nature,” which re-thinks the classic stranded-on-an-island narrative with three cynical and pseudo-depressed 30-year-old men on a lifeboat.

Samuel Morrison is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at shm89@cornell.edu.

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