The Aesthetics of Radio as a Creative Art-Form

"There's still a huge gap between the technology available and what actually comes out of your radio at home or in the car, We've taken sub-standard radio for granted for far too long. Why? Is a mystery."

"There's wonderful technology for recording and reproducing music, for example. Today's listeners demand and expect digital sound. But you'll be hard-pressed to find that on any radio station in the world! Most radio is still two-channel mono and highly compressed. Too many producers are still forced to use crappy little cassette players, cheap mikes and even worse, cassettes to actually record programs. Whereas the music industry uses the latest portable CD players or now MP3 files and distributes its products via the Internet and on compact disc."

"Radio is one of the great under-achievers that defeats every received wisdom about technology changing behavior. The technology is sitting out there, available to all, to make programs that would transform the sound of radio. And no-one seems to have the gumption to use it. The result is two-dimensional radio...:'‘

"Intellectually also, radio is taken for granted. The Arts pages of magazines and newspapers in most countries always have reviews of the latest films or plays or books, but almost never of radio programs. Intellectuals admit to being addicted, but few, if any would go the next logical step, and place radio on the same plane as the other "creative" media. Self-expression is still seen as making films or television, or multi-media or writing books or painting or photography or musical composition or performance ..everything in fact, except making radio, using radio as a creative medium."

"Which is bizarre and absurd, if you stop to think about it. Because what is a musician other than someone who expresses him or herself in terms of sounds? What do teenagers do except listen to their music? What is multi-media other than the marriage of image and sound?"

"There's more money in TV so young artists tend to gravitate there fast. Plus many of today's TV producers and performers moved, once upon a time, from radio to TV. So conventional wisdom makes the assumption that radio is but a stepping stone to the big, glamorous world of TV."

"There's also a very common but erroneous assumption that radio is just print on tape, that anyone can do it if they just sit in front of a microphone. The sad truth is much of what passes for radio is about as inspiring as warmed-over fish."

"Writing for the speaking voice is entirely different from the printed word. The voice is a musical instrument. You write to its strengths and characteristics. I know my own voice so intimately I can write sentences without verbs and commit the double sin of ending that sentence with a preposition. But I can make this seem like the most natural thing in the world through the manner I play on my "instrument." ...

"Think of the voice as just one - admittedly very important and prominent - instrument in the orchestral palate a radio producer has at his or her disposal. Narrator, Interviewee(s), Ambience(s) are the sections for the orchestra; a documentary marries and blends these sounds into a symphonic whole. Radio has its own aesthetic language as a form of creative self-expression."

"The documentary producer (should) think(s) in terms of sounds, trying to create images in the minds of the listener, making better pictures than television, and often succeeding. But too often radio is just two-dimensional, an interview interrupted by a few seconds of ambience, then more interview. This is essentially radio derived from the printed word. But genuine radio as a creative and autonomous language of self-expression has a different language, based on sounds (voice, natural and mechanical sounds, music), and their respective rhythms."

"Some years ago, I conceived a program on the Monsoon in this language for BBC Radio 4. I had to figure out how to translate the many moods of the monsoon into sound."

"Its sudden appearance, the violence of constant rains, the sheer sensuality of water, the misery of spending several months in mud, clothes sticking to flesh, food, paper, paint in a constant state of mildew. Some of this I could express through the human voice. But much of it had to be conceived in terms of sounds, some recorded close-up, others at a distance, some at dawn, others in the full fury of the day, some on busy streets, others in the mud lanes of slums.

"I will use the cry of the koyl set against rain dripping from the leaves of rhododendrons in the foothills of the Himalayas, or a monsoon shower expending its fading strengths on the stones of gardens and buildings, each surface producing a different note because of its angle and proximity to the falling water, or the despondent cry of a bhaji seller soaked to the skin, trudging through several inches of brown swirling muck."

"When I put this all together I will have to "compose" it in musical terms, not as a writer would the written word. The Rhythms - its alap and jhor - the acceleration towards a climax, will be dictated by the subject matter and the sounds available. The only thing I know for certain is that it will end quietly and ambiguously, just as the real life monsoon recedes back the way it came, leaving wreckage and hope in its wake."

["In fact, I ended up using a hybrid of Indian and Western musical structures. Satyajit Ray once told me (and he did to many others) that you couldn't make films without an understanding of Western classical music. I know I quite consciously assembled the final 75 minute version of Monsoon in terms of the music of Anton Bruckner, in three movements (Anticipation, Release, Withdrawal) but with the natural climax (the start of the Monsoon) therefore in the second movement Release. Usually, the climax is in the final movement. But then the Indian influence enters - a symphony conceived of as circular, returning to the mood and rhythms of the beginning."]

"I envy my colleagues in television one thing only: the size of their pay packets. Most of the time I pity them! Such a restricted means of expression. The same one image imposed on the retinas of millions of viewers."

My palette is huge. The pictures I can offer my public even more vast. As many images as there are imaginations of my listeners! No two listeners will ever hear or see the same image."

"Television is the totalitarian art-form par excellence. The same image imposed on everyone. You can't interpret it or later it. It's there, like Big Brother. There's a world of wisdom in Anthony Burgess's remark that "TV is for adolescents, Radio is for adults." For it's radio, not television that's the more complex and the more demanding. And surely the more democratic."

Excerpted from The Illustrated Weekly of India, August 28, 1993 Copyright 1993, 2002 Julian Crandall Hollick

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