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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