Another music and memory post today! This is the fifth in my “With Music” series. The others so far included a song by Ben Folds Five (you can read it here), Sheryl Crow (here), one of the best songs ever by Beth Orton (here) and an embarrassing love for a Dean Martin single (here). This time, I take on a lost week and a zombie. Enjoy!
The easiest way to describe radio drama in the United States is to compare it to a zombie.
While in England and other European countries you can still find radio dramas (new and old) on their stations (many time with famous actors and writers supplying the talent), here it is something different. When television came around, the media world couldn’t have dropped it faster and all of the radio celebrities ran from the waves to the boxes.
Here is the thing though; it is not dead… well… not entirely.
It struggles, it grunts and it staggers forward, hands outstretched, craving listeners to bring it back, make it truly alive again. Not brains, ears is what the monster craves. Ears… Ears!
I have always had an obsession with radio plays. I remember the first time I heard The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was like a revelation. Douglas Adams took his crazy idea and with some sound effects and wonderful actors made a movie in my head that was better than any I could have hoped to have seen. I went from there to The Firesign Theater and then to old time radio. There was an AM station in my area that would play it randomly late at night, and as a kid I would stay up, leaning over the player, ready to press record on my tape deck if a show I loved came on.
There is something awe-inspiring to me about radio plays. They take really little to produce, anything can be a sound effect (Douglas Adams made the sounds of the end of the universe with a bath tub, for example), and you were playing in the mind of someone else. And since radio dramas rarely get bogged down with descriptions, the listener is really an active audience, dressing the characters and the set with their imagination. It’s a personal experience, and the audience can own it as much as the performers.
So when I started to dream of being a writer, my first thoughts were all about radio. I wanted to capture the zombie and give it new life, I didn’t want to be eaten.
Yes, I dreamed of feeding it ears.
Back in the 90s, the Midwest Radio Theater Workshop was a once-a-year gathering of radio lovers. They would all convene together at some chosen location for a week and from there create a radio show that would play live in front of an audience and on NPR.
Every year, since I was a teenager, I was submitting scripts into the workshop. You see, they had a writing contest, and I was always contributing, hoping to get a bite. I had a few winners and one finally caught the eye of a director from it.
I remember this call, I could write it is as a scene in a stage play if I had to. I see the room, I see myself pacing, and I remember every beat of the conversation. The director called me at my dorm room at Michigan State University asking if he could use my script “A Camping Trip with Joe” for the workshops that year.
He didn’t have to ask twice, I quickly agreed.
As part of my winning and agreeing, I was given a free pass to attend the event which was to be held at a small college in Missouri. Free food, room and board for a week and I get to watch a radio show of one of my plays? Sign me up.
I was certain somewhere near by me, probably hiding in a shadow, a zombie was smiling.
Arriving in Missouri, I immediately felt like the outsider. Most of the people there knew each other very well. It was, in many ways, like starting at a new high school and realizing that all of the cliques are already in place. The sound effects gurus hung out together, the actors hung out together, and there were the directors, etc. Everyone had their group and their place… strangely, just not me.
That first night, the group met in a room and heard samples from some of the people that were overseeing the camp. It was a who’s who of radio drama in the 90s, from producers of Firesign Theater to those doing the good work, producing shows where they could.
I didn’t talk much, of course, I didn’t have much to say. It was a lot for me to take in, and naturally being an introvert, it is easier to just step back sometimes and let my brains collect what it can for digestion later.
This was radio drama today in the U.S. and I was there, right in the heart of the monster.
The next day I eagerly attended the casting session watching actor after actor audition for my play. I considered auditioning myself. No, let me correct that; I wanted to audition badly, be part of the process. But I was told by the director that I couldn’t.
I’m not sure if it was a rule or what, I’m not sure even if the director realized how disappointed I was at that moment, but in that instant the week changed for me. I wasn’t there to write (my script was already done and won an award, remember?), I wasn’t there to work behind the scenes, and I couldn’t be in front of the mic.
So what was I going to do for a whole freaking week?
They did offer different classes during the week for those that want to train to be in radio. I attended the writing ones because… well… why not? It was run by the director of my show and it was fun, but beyond that one hour every day I really had nothing else to do.
On one day I went to the movies nearby. Saw two of them. (The theater had only two movies and I was alone in both theaters and eating way too buttery popcorn.)
On another day, I bravely wandered off campus and explored the community around it. I remember sitting in a coffee shop reading a book wondering if anyone was curious where I was. Of course, the answer was no. They had places to be.
It was strangely all like being given a week off, but not planning for it. I was on vacation in a small town in Missouri and I had nothing to do. This was where people left to go on vacation elsewhere.
So what would I do on that almost empty college campus with everyone else around me busy? I would stagger around, with arms outstretched, looking for anything to occupy my time.
On one of the days, I went through a yellow pages and found a local Kmart. I reviewed the map and hiked there. If I was going to be on vacation, I should do this right, right?
I grabbed some trashy scifi paperbacks (I think I remember one of them with a Captain Kirk on the cover looking distraught with a phaser in his hand), batteries for my CD player, and snacks (I believe there were Oreos, soda, and a heck of a lot of pretzels in my bag).
On my way out, I went through the CDs. Honestly, I didn’t expect to find anything I would typically listen to at a Kmart (snobby listener that I am). But they had the new (at that time) CD by The Verve, Urban Hymns.
A few hours later, I was back at the school just in time for… nothing.
I found a grassy secluded hill, opened my Oreos, put the new CD in my player, laid down on the grass and closed my eyes.
Peace… Press play.
Everyone, when they talk about The Verve, talks about the majesty of “Bittersweet Symphony.”
I get it. It’s a great song with rich layers. In the 90s, with Blur and Oasis trying to be the new Beatles, The Verve did something that fit in with that 60s creativity more than any of the hits of the other guys. Heck, they even stole some sounds from the Rolling Stones for the loop. But for me, on that CD it was all about “Lucky Man.”
There is this moment in the song that is magic, empowering. It’s about a minute and a half in the song and for some strange reason it is never repeated.
“I’m a lucky man, with fire in my hand.”
Every time I would listen to that song, I felt like raising my hands in the air at that moment, triumphant, trying to embrace that feeling. It feels like it sings to us introverted and artistic sorts. (Not that I’m particular sure what all of the lyrics are about, it possibly could be about a person walking away from addiction or finding his inner peace/strength, you decide.)
But there I was. I was eating Oreos on a hill in an almost abandoned college campus in Missouri finding a music mantra; raising my hands like I was at a concert or finding salvation in a religious congregation.
“I’m a lucky man.”
Sure! Yes! Awesome!… I guess…
There were two moments that standout for me from that week.
The first was when I decided in the writing class to share a scene from a comedy radio series I had written (10 episodes all done and ready to go). The series was entitled The Dante Experience and heavily influenced by Douglas Adams and Monty Python. (You can actually listen to the series and find out about it on this page on my site). I handed out copies of the scene and we did a readthrough. The director of my show laughed so hard he fell off his desk.
I’m not joking, he fell to the ground.
In about a year, he would produce and direct all ten episodes of the series.
The second moment that stands out is the night of the show. For some reason outside of my knowledge the live show did not air on NPR that year. They couldn’t get connection, or something, to the local station. So, basically, if you were there at the theater you were the lucky ones. And really in a small town in Missouri at an empty college in the summer for a radio reading… Well, you can imagine how many were in the audience. But I was there, not really watching the show, but the people sitting around me.
I’m not sure how many actually got what I was doing in the play. Part of me blames the introduction they gave before the play. They gave no warning that the audience were able to experience a silly comedy reminiscent of Monty Python. Instead the introduction was something about family and camping. It was an odd and bland choice, and no one consulted me on it. So the audience had to take a few minutes to catch on to what they were watching.
Personally, I was happy with the show overall, but by the curtain call I was already mentally someplace else. I had an idea for a novel I wanted to work on and I had no real reason to stick around the campus. I wanted this zombie-filled forced vacation over.
That night at the cast party, I had a few drinks, thanked everyone that cared, said my goodbyes, and by dawn I was gone.
Okay, I admit I ran away from the zombie.
I can still hear it behind me, and sometimes it is quite loud, demanding my attention, growling. God, I wish I could do something for it. It doesn’t need to be a zombie, especially now with the internet, streaming services and podcasts, but I am not the doctor the zombie needs.
I can’t save the zombie.
I know that to be true today, just as much as I knew it during that week so long ago. Yeah, I spent a week with the other dreamers like me, those chasing after a time and an audience that had already moved on. And my brain, which is usually not so analytic, weighed the odds of the zombie coming back and other avenues for telling my stories. Frankly, I went with the odds.
I will say this, I was still a lucky man for having had some times being chased by it. The zombie made me a better writer. And that song, I listened to it again and again as I raced on that highway towards home and another plan.
My future was ahead… the zombie was behind.
My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.
Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.