Veils, Politics, Static
Where is the bracing, live-in-the-moment feeling that I may never hear again what I am hearing on the radio?
Veiled Intentions in Radio
I have been thinking about the aesthetic and epistemological dimensions of narrated versus non-narrated forms of documentary audio.
Even in audio with narrators, the kind of narration varies. At one end of the spectrum the narrator of a nature-documentary, a disinterested but knowledgeable observer pointing out and informing the listener of underlying facts. Alternatively, a narrator can be actively advancing some kind of argument, with a very distinct position or political orientation, like Michael Moore in documentary film.
At the other end of the spectrum is completely non-narrated audio, where the story and messages comes through only from production choices. When you are narrating, you are leaving very little up to chance, and when you are actively stating a thesis in your narration, you leave no room for misinterpretation. The more you state, the less you show. But there is a certain kind of aesthetic cost.
When Ann Radcliffe drew a distinction between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’ in 19th-century gothic fiction, prioritizing terror as the better form, she was picking up on a distinction in human experience generally between the explicit and implicit, the overt and the veiled. “Horror” literature displays blood, guts, sex, and gore, appealing to bodily disgust. It is overt and explicit. When an act of violence occurs in “terror” literature, it is veiled or obscured; we know it happens, but it does so behind a closed door. For Radcliffe, our reactions in literatures of terror are more cerebral, connecting us more closely with the sublime experiences.
This aesthetic difference between overt and veiled messaging is everywhere in human life, and it translates directly to the case of narrative audio. Having a narrator is overt, having an opinionated narrator who is arguing her point even more so. We will get our message clearly and unambiguously across, but maybe the only people listening are the ones who don’t need persuading. On the other hand, when we veil our intentions through editorial decisions, sound design, and soundtracking alone, without anyone telling the listener what to think, you are providing the experience of beauty and the sublime through veiled messaging, the analog to Radcliffe’s “terror.”
But then how much risk are you willing to take that your audience will not get the right message, or perceive the lack of transparency as manipulation?
Barry Lam is host and executive producer of the story-telling philosophy podcast, Hi-Phi Nation. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, and produced the first season of Hi-Phi Nation as Humanities Writ-Large fellow at Duke University.
Stories Make the World
I’ve been thinking about the politics of radio storytelling. Words, sounds, and stories are powerful –they co-create and shape the ever-emerging world. This understanding about the power of words, sounds, and stories as bringing worlds into being (again and again) comes from speech act theory, as well as from Buddhism and Indigenous philosophies, which in their different ways point to the responsibilities of storytelling. What worlds are my words, sounds, and narratives co-creating and energizing? What is my storytelling complicit with?
Karen Werner is a radio producer & sociologist. She has been an artist-in-residence in Vienna at studio das weisse haus (Fall 2016) and at the Museum Quartier/Tonspur (Fall 2017) producing episodes of Strange Radio, a project about the intergenerational impact of war and displacement. Karen teaches at Goddard College.
After I finished writing an essay on Glenn Gould’s landmark radiophonic work The Idea of North, I was jolted by the brief terror of a suddenly obvious absence: Where is my radio?
Gould and a bunch of .mp3s from the late, lamented Australian Broadcasting Company program Soundproof populate my laptop’s “current listening” folder. Jose Pivin spun down in my portable CD player just a little while ago. My bookmarks can and do take me to great listening online, including Earlid, Hollow Earth Radio, radioCona, Resonance FM, sfSoundRadio, The Third Coast Festival, the Wavefarm, WFMU, and my first gateway to radio art, Kunstradio.
Yet I miss what radio scholar Margaret Ann Hall in her dissertation “Radio After Radio” describes as “early radio’s distinct qualities: the chaos from a listener’s perspective of random and broken narratives, feedback, and static,” qualities which help hone the desperate focus of listening to a singular event. Where is the bracing, live-in-the-moment feeling that I may never hear again what I am hearing on the radio?
In his essay “Out of the Dark: Notes on the Nobodies of Radio Art,” Gregory Whitehead declares that radio art can be much more than merely an act of transmission by “whatever any artist from any medium happens to represent, acoustically, on air.”
I seek an opaque, churning ether of sound, listening, conversation, surveillance, transmission, and community which, according to Whitehead, “challenges the audience to cross and recross the obscure boundaries that separate radio dreamland from radio ghostland, living from dead, utopia from oblivion.”
Where might this radio be found? Much as the web has regressed into well-runnelled networks which lead most everyone to The New York Times and away from confined, pocketed eddies of information stored on someone’s manic angelfire or tripod page, the radio will stream through phones. Yet Marshall McLuhan’s notion of “the continuing process by which new technologies create new environments for old technologies” suggests other paths: hacking (social, infrastructure, technical) has become a form of transmission while new forms of reception await an algorithm dependent on responsive metadata.
Ultimately, NPR will be NPR, and you will have to navigate to interesting destinations of your own volition.
Christopher DeLaurenti has been making adventurous radio since 1997. His recent works include Fit The Description (Ferguson, 9-13 August 2014) (2014); To the Cooling Tower, Satsop (2015) and The Surry Power Station EWSS Test heard amidst a stand of bamboo (2016).