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.

© Alle Rech­te beim Ver­fas­ser