Voice, personality and suspense

From a con­tri­bu­tion to the Inter­na­tion­al Fea­ture Con­fer­ence in Berlin, 2000 

… Some obser­va­tions while lis­ten­ing recent­ly to a num­ber of Orson Welles pro­grammes, in par­tic­u­lar to my favourite called “The Hitch Hik­er”: 

The words and sound effects, even the sub­ject itself seems to be a lit­tle dat­ed after 60 years. You might call it triv­ial. But there is a mes­sage behind it — still con­vinc­ing and moti­vat­ing for radio pro­duc­ers.

Rule num­ber one, two and three: Nev­er bore the lis­ten­er.

As a mat­ter of fact, there are dif­fer­ent philoso­phies and tech­niques how to attract and enter­tain (= not to bore) lis­ten­ers. “Attrac­tion” is one of the key­words in the world of radio today. 

The air is filled with pro­grammes, like an ori­en­tal mar­ket­place. And pro­gramme mak­ers tend to act like camel ven­dors, try­ing to out­roar the oth­ers at the top of their voic­es. In 1994 the leg­endary sound proces­sor L 1 turned up, a com­bi­na­tion of Lim­iter and Max­i­miz­er, and this soft­ware from Israel ini­ti­at­ed a cold war in the skies with one sin­gle objec­tive: acoustic pre­dom­i­nance. Sound pro­cess­ing is the tech­nique of enforc­ing and opti­mis­ing acousti­cal sig­nals. The result of this manip­u­la­tion of sounds and voic­es is not mere­ly an increase of “loud­ness” (which is a more sub­jec­tive per­cep­tion) but of punch and pres­sure. Lis­ten­ers must catch the — com­mer­cial — mes­sage even, if they low­er the out­put of their ampli­fiers.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, peo­ple get used to the punch of those vir­tu­al base­ball bats on their ears and minds. So the com­mer­cial media indus­try com­plex was forced to invent some­thing what they call “Loud­ness Con­troller” in order to pre­vent lis­ten­ers from get­ting tired by per­ma­nent sound attacks (like a so-called “Human­iz­er” has to add small “human” irreg­u­lar­i­ties to the mechan­ic beat of drum machines).

Loud­ness”, “speed” and “punch” are the symp­toms of an obses­sion­al neu­ro­sis in the radio of today: to be per­ceived — noticed. What we should learn from our pro­fes­sion­al fore­fa­thers like Orson Welles is anoth­er kind of “punch” and “pres­sure”, close­ly con­nect­ed to the term “per­son­al­i­ty”. In Welles own words: “Per­son­al­i­ty always mat­ters more than tech­nique”.

When the fea­ture came to Ger­many with the British lib­er­a­tion army in 1945 Axel Egge­brecht, one of the celebri­ties in our Ger­man fea­ture his­to­ry, demand­ed from his col­leagues “den Druck ein­er lebendi­gen Gesin­nung” — “the punch” or “pres­sure of a liv­ing opin­ion” or “spir­it”. No one in our pro­fes­sion has imposed more punch and pres­sure on his lis­ten­ers, as Orson Welles did in more than 20 radio years (…) In dozens of crim­i­nal and sus­pense pro­grammes the unique voice of Orson Welles — a soft bari­tone but with a dra­mat­ic under­cur­rent — sent shiv­ers up and down the spine of Amer­i­ca. How does Orson Welles achieve such an impact ? 

The answer to this ques­tion leads us direct­ly to the fun­da­men­tal virtues of radio. Just a few of them: 

ABSTRACTION is one of the main qual­i­ties of the oral medi­um. It abstracts from real­i­ty by not tak­ing advan­tage of oth­er impor­tant human sens­es. As we know from dif­fer­ent fields of life: abstrac­tion as means con­cen­tra­tion. Every loss can be a prof­it, too.

Music — in the nar­row sense — does with­out words, ges­tures, images; silent movies did it with­out lan­guage, black-and-white pic­tures with­out colour, dance and pan­tomime with­out the spo­ken word, car­toons on paper with­out motion … and over all lit­er­a­ture: just let­ters, sym­bol­iz­ing some­thing you can’t nei­ther hear, smell nor touch.

Abstrac­tion has been used by sto­ry tellers of all times and cul­tures. And “radio” — says Orson Welles — “is about the best sto­ry teller that is”. Gen­er­al­iz­ing we might say: abstrac­tion means a loss of direct per­cep­tions but a plus, a gain of active imag­i­na­tion, of fan­ta­sy.

I always have been a fan of black-and-white-pho­tog­ra­phy. The black-and-white-pic­ture of a small town, for exam­ple, does not pre­tend fac­tu­al­ly to be this town; it rep­re­sents the idea of it and — if well done — it becomes the image of any small town in the world.

When films became coloured (“bunt”), they lost a major part of their ini­tial charm and mag­ic. Sud­den­ly, the colour of the evening dress of the lead­ing actress became impor­tant. The poet­ic real­ism of Chaplin’s films was replaced by nat­u­ral­ism — though in the words of Orson Welles, “colour looks like trick work any­way” — which is quite a fun­ny para­dox. Film­mak­ers had to add more and more effects, tricks, super­fi­cial­i­ties, to achieve the impact, the “punch” of silent black-and-white pic­tures: wide screen, mul­ti screen, Mul­ti­plex, Imax 3 D, dol­by sur­round — 20 000 Watts …

For me some­times it’s rather mov­ing to observe the efforts and expens­es of the visu­al media in order to obtain com­pa­ra­ble emo­tion­al reac­tions, which radio mak­ers cre­ate by using a few words and some sin­gle, sim­ple sounds. Actu­al­ly, they have to work real­ly hard to com­pen­sate their struc­tur­al hand­i­caps: being too def­i­nite, dis­tinct, super­fi­cial, one-dimen­sion­al … Every­thing is vis­i­ble.

You see what you see. 

I hear “The Hitch Hik­er” in black and white. That’s how imag­i­na­tion works: using our own mate­r­i­al; our mem­o­ries; the images in our head. That’s close­ly relat­ed to our dreams ! My images of Amer­i­ca in the For­ties are — of course — black and white, belong­ing to my own pri­vate film stock in my brain archives: The 1940 Ford V 8 vehi­cle trav­el­ling along on the emp­ty, end­less Route 66, cross­ing drea­ry plains with des­o­lat­ed gas sta­tions. And addi­tion­al­ly my imag­i­na­tion is fed by dozens of films and by lit­er­a­ture: Jack Ker­ouac, “On the Road”, for exam­ple … John Stein­beck … Allan Gins­berg … Guess “The Hitch Hik­er” sto­ry on a wide screen, full colours — it would be as ridicu­lous as Bat­man in the body of Michael Keaton or George Clooney.

Welles used to call his radio pro­grammes ” The The­atre of Imag­i­na­tion”. That’s what our brain is used for by radio: As a stage, an inner screen, a pro­jec­tion wall for our own fan­tasies stirred up and ani­mat­ed by the radio pro­duc­er. Radio doesn’t describe images — it’s no “tele­vi­sion with­out screen” — radio cre­ates pic­tures, and they are dif­fer­ent in each of us.
The tech­ni­cal won­ders of dig­i­tal TV make peo­ple fly, shrink, expand, explode and assem­ble again. But radio can do much more. In our tiny head, there is room enough for towns, land­scapes, an ocean, a con­ti­nent, the world, the out­er space. 

The out­put of radio is not fixed to the speak­ers at the wall — like the TV images need the phys­i­cal screen, a rec­tan­gle of defined size. Radio is space. It’s sur­round­ing us. If the pro­duc­er makes us lis­ten, we are all ears.

(…) Anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic of our medi­um: In the radio every­thing tends to become an ARCHETYPE, a mod­el — like our small town on the black-and-white-pic­ture. The sol­dier in the radio is all sol­diers — or at least a cer­tain type or group of them. The pim­ple on his nose doesn’t occu­py our minds. The tie of the nar­ra­tor doesn’t mat­ter — as Rudolf Arn­heim stat­ed in his book „Rund­funk als Hörkun­st“, “Radio — the Art of Lis­ten­ing”, which was pub­lished in the ear­ly days of Ger­man radio. The nar­ra­tor is voice and — in hap­py moments — more opin­ion, thought, idea. 

(…) There is anoth­er para­dox: Though radio gen­er­al­izes peo­ple behind the micro­phone and cre­ates arche­types, it also invites us to iden­ti­fy with them — with what you might call the essence of their per­son­al­i­ty, trans­port­ed by their voice. They are gen­er­al AND unique, abstract AND high­ly per­son­al. Orson Welles, for exam­ple, is the Hitch Hik­er and the famous radio nar­ra­tor at the same time.

Next obser­va­tion: Orson Welles had a rather erot­ic rela­tion to his audi­ence and — above all — to the micro­phone. “How about the micro­phone ?” Orson Welles was asked by Peter Bog­danovich, who inter­viewed him for his biog­ra­phy “This is Orson Welles”. The answer: “Emo­tions !” And: “The microphone’s a friend. The camera’s a crit­ic”.

For Welles, mak­ing radio always was part of show biz. He was a pub­lic per­son because of work­ing in a pub­lic medi­um — on the stage — the widest stage imag­in­able in his days. He enjoyed it. He was aware of it. Each radio dra­ma, each doc­u­men­tary, each talk­show which he con­duct­ed was a radio SHOW. His main virtue: show­man­ship. 

Welles’ part was the sto­ry teller on the ori­en­tal mar­ket place — but it was a mar­ket place in North Amer­i­ca, the home-land of cap­i­tal­ism. He accept­ed the rules of the game. Being one of the first info­tain­ers in his­to­ry, he knew very well, that he had to gain and main­tain the atten­tion of his acci­den­tal audi­ence. 

On the oth­er hand, Orson Welles was quite aware of the ambi­gu­i­ty of words like enter­tain­er, enter­tain­ing, enter­tain­ment. He always want­ed to make use of his skills as enter­tain­er (which were out­stand­ing and mul­ti­fold), but he nev­er attempt­ed to pro­duce mere enter­tain­ment, just to amuse his audi­ence — one rea­son for his nev­er-end­ing desasters in the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem. Intel­lec­tu­al ambi­tions broke his neck.

We must not for­get: Welles was a high­ly polit­i­cal per­son. He wrote and nar­rat­ed “The Fall of the City” 1937 on CBS, a pro­gramme against total­i­tarism. In the same year he read the com­men­tary of Ernest Hem­ing­way to Joris Iven’s doc­u­men­tary “Span­ish Earth”. Welles held many cam­paign speech­es for Roo­sevelt in 1944. In the year 1945 his name even appeared on a list of can­di­dates for Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary of the just found­ed Unit­ed Nations. A week­ly series called Orson Welles Com­men­taries, most­ly con­cern­ing social and polit­i­cal sub­jects, ran 13 months on ABC

What I would call his most impor­tant pro­fes­sion­al prin­ci­ple, is expressed in the sub­ti­tle of The Mer­cury The­atre on the Air, anoth­er Orson Welles series: “First Per­son sin­gu­lar”. Welles exper­i­ment­ed also with the first per­son cam­era (lat­er known as “sub­jec­tive cam­era”). 

In his words: “Nothing’s true for every­body”. And: “I like to feel a lit­tle like Colum­bus: in every new scene I want to dis­cov­er Amer­i­ca. And I don’t want to hear about those god­damn Vikings. Each time I set foot on a movie set, I like to plant a flag”.

First per­son sin­gu­lar” doesn’t mean, that radio authors always force them­selves to write “I” and “me” and “mine”. Also, our own voice is dis­pens­able. There is a num­ber of impor­tant sto­ry tellers in the radio, tak­ing advan­tage of pro­fes­sion­al nar­ra­tors with well trained voic­es, more suit­able than their own. Not every­body is a sec­ond Orson Welles … and most of us are not even them­selves in front of the micro­phone.

In his great fea­tures, Peter Leon­hard Braun nev­er was the nar­ra­tor him­self. But he insist­ed, that each radio fea­ture should expose the per­son­al­i­ty, the opin­ion, the author’s atti­tude towards the sub­ject.

On the oth­er hand: There are many argu­ments in favour of the iden­ti­ty of voice and mes­sage. Like peo­ple used to say: “Orson Welles is on the air tonight !” They referred to his voice, but also to his spe­cial type of sub­jects, to his mes­sage, to his intel­lec­tu­al punch. The term “doc­u­men-tarist” doesn’t mean, that fea­ture authors and pro­duc­ers are some­how neu­tral, objec­tive, nei­ther-nor-peo­ple, unemo­tion­al mat­ter-of-fact-pro­fes­sion­als, accoun­tants of cur­rent affairs. 

(…) Some of us use to hide them­selves behind the so-called man or woman of the street: “I am not impor­tant”, they say. “I rather stay in the back­ground. Observ­ing and report­ing is my busi­ness” — etcetera. In my opin­ion, those respectable friends mis­judge their func­tion as AUTHORS, which in Latin describes some­body who cre­ates; who brings to life; who speaks instead of just lis­ten­ing, just count­ing, just keep­ing records.

(…) We must not mis­take a plain 1 : 1 doc­u­men­ta­tion for real­i­ty itself. Real­i­ty in the radio is, what we tell about real­i­ty; what we trans­port of our per­cep­tions of real­i­ty to the medi­um. It can’t be more than an extract, a snap­shot — and it’s us, who have done the extract­ing and snap-shoot­ing.
Real­i­ty like truth is a phan­tom, which sole­ly appears in sub­jec­tive out­fits. Radio mak­ers shouldn’t pre­tend, to be the guardians of truth, neu­tral wit­ness­es, the “fly on the wall”. We nev­er can be more — or less — than “first per­son sin­gu­lar”.

My sum­ma­ry is:
Radio fea­ture has to become more per­son­al again. Authors — first per­son sin­gu­lar — must return as fast as pos­si­ble from their writ­ing desks, car­ry­ing along all their skills, opin­ions, atti­tudes, their virtues and weak­ness­es and — if pos­si­ble — their voic­es. In short: their per­son­al­i­ties.

Oth­er­wise we might loose our posi­tion to the inter­net, the world of graph­ics and link-but­tons — the fea­ture becom­ing sort of a mul­ti­me­di­al Do-it-your­self-info­tain­ment-show on demand.

(…) In the Unit­ed States, the age of tele­vi­sion began in April 1939. One year lat­er Welles took part in a talk show, already look­ing back on the his­to­ry of the radio. Though he still earned a lot of mon­ey as a radio star, he called the radio a dying medi­um. Six­ty years have passed. And still the radio hap­pi­ly keeps on dying and dying and dying … Orson Welles, to con­clude this lit­tle excur­sion, died in 1985.

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