Tulips & Radio History
… it’s nothing short of daft that a superabundance of radio-driven experiments in audio fiction and composed non-fiction is being disappeared in my own adopted country in a neo-liberal inspired narrowing of the ‘listener offer’ …
Why bring radio history into debates around new audio?
In his 1947 Handbook of Radio Writing, for instance, radio writer Eric Barnouw advocated techniques drawn from novels and music rather than from theater, which he called merely radio’s “foster parent.” Contrast his view with that of Trip Cullman, one of the Audible judges, who comments that the chasm between theater and audio fiction “is not so wide.”
* Illustration for “The Soul,” 1705 English edition, Orbis Sensualium Pictus
Neil Verma is assistant professor of sound studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His books include Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama, and (as co-editor) Anatomy of Sound: Norman Corwin and Media Authorship.
Sure, I was shocked when, near the beginning of the ‘renaissance of narrative radio’, no keen young American radio producer I asked had heard of New American Radio. After all, it had only been a few years earlier that NAR was ‘the key place for artists in American radio.’ I’d assumed they’d know NAR because its producers Helen Thorington and Regine Beyer were part of the same networks that linked me and my colleagues at The Listening Room (1988-2003, Australian Broadcasting Corporation) with writers, musicians, sound sculptors and sound poets, tape collagists and radio remixers, filmmakers, dramatists, auteur documentarists and experimental feature makers, environmental sound recordists, video, online, transmission, performance and installation artists, pirates and other provocateurs the world over—through our shared interest in radio as a creative medium.
But this culture of forgetting isn’t unique to the U.S. At a presentation to indie radio and podcaster types in London a few years back I decided to play works by Barry Bermange when a straw poll revealed the British radio experimentalist’s name didn’t ring many bells. And it’s nothing short of daft that the unruly close cousins of today’s inspired experiments in podcast and radio, namely a stunning array of radio-driven experiments in audio fiction and composed non-fiction, is being disappeared in my own adopted country in a neo-liberal inspired narrowing of the ‘listener offer.’
But we should remember that the collapse of the market for tulips in Holland in 1637 didn’t diminish Dutch flower painting, in which roses, forget-me-nots, honeysuckles, narcissi, iris, lilies-of- the-valley, cyclamens, violets, hyacinths, marigolds, chrysanthemums, poppies and even pineapples hung out together improbably, along with the greatly admired and numerous species of tulips, in extravagant orchestrations, to create outrageous sprays of colour.
The cautionary tale of Tulip Mania is only glibly transferable, but in our own frenzied times it’s worth thinking about the role of audio visionaries whose speculative bubbles are of a completely different kind. Those that inspire me have skin in the game, yes. But the game is the art, with its audacious and hybrid histories. Through their strange writings and art they teach that if we make our most daring and personal work, people will learn how to hear it.
Her style described as ‘symphonic soundscape that shows without telling’ (Prix Italia, 2016 jury) and her use of voice, ‘intense and spellbinding’ (Voice Studies, Routledge, 2016), Sherre DeLys’s audio experimentation has earned some of the world’s respected radio awards. Collaboratively she’s created sound sculptures and participatory media platforms, and performed improvised vocal music.
Radio has become a small club that only looks at itself.
We should talk about how radio can become a breathing, creative enterprise again, rather than a blind regurgitation of a limited perspective on culture. The kind of discussion that most radio practitioners are having today is too practical and too focused on industry. Radio and podcasts need to lose their professional veneer. Even college radio is slowly getting consumed by music promotion companies, the commercial radio sphere, and public radio formats. Increasingly, students are encouraged to market themselves and think of radio as a professional step. The creative and “alternative” forces that have historically existed within college radio are getting pounded out.
As a result of these forces, radio has become connected with consumption, not creativity. Radio has become a platform to sell music and pitch news. DJs and producers are mostly curators, for lack of better term, but not artistic practitioners themselves.
Where’s the ingenuity?
I like to think that I am pushing boundaries. I produce radio at a community station that mostly focuses on music. My show blends music with narrative, dialogue, and extraneous noises; there’s a lot of layering. I think that this approach proves how intimate and strangely alluring the human voice can be, as well as how cinematic radio can be. My show is also largely improvised, and often becomes as surprising to me as it might be to listeners. I think this spontaneity and surprise, the ways in which my experimentations figure themselves out as we go along, are also a refreshing take to today’s radio. Most radio has been reduced to a talk-show format, when it can actually be much more vaporous and ambiguous.
Negativland’s Over The Edge was a huge revelation for me in learning how radio could sound. I must admit that without listening to their program, I wouldn’t have been able to fully formulate how music, dialogue, and other distinct textures could bounce off one another all at once, without academic pretension. In that sense, more transparent and accessible canons are necessary in providing models that budding radio artists can wrap their brains around, study, and circumvent.
Voices like Gregory Whitehead, Alan Weiss, Delia Derbyshire, Hildegard Westerkamp, the Tellus series, Ubuweb.com, etc., have been fundamental to expanding my mind and practice. I still go back to their works (audio and written), further uncovering new meaning and new understanding each time.
Furthermore, experimental film documentaries, film theory, film criticism, and general art history have also served as an important anchor in my development. Chris Marker, Michel Chion, among others, have been particularly useful. Radio has a lot to learn from other fields. It would be a disservice to the medium (and its myriad possibilities) to only engage a canon directly related to “sound” and “radio.” For example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is extremely sonically rich and it’s incredibly interesting to analyze it from that angle. Ellison himself is a wonderful writer on music, which unveils a great deal about how we listen and how we can discuss listening.
Sound is omnidirectional. It also exists in the internal as much as it does externally (you know those voices always bumping around in our heads?). We’re always balancing the narrative in our head with the multitude of sounds around us (whether these sounds are songs, voices, industrial clangs, etc). Radio can be a perfect vessel to explore our relationships through sounds.
I’m an audio artist. I currently broadcast on WFMU, Wave Farm and Resonance (you can see archives here and here).