The Pictures Are Better On Radio

Move over, video. When it comes to the medium of choice for powerful storytelling, audio wins hands down. That’s why — in its golden age — radio was called the theatre of the imagination.

In the 1920s and 30s, while audio equipment was technically primitive, radio storytelling reached its peak popularity. It was in that era that young talents like Orson Welles elevated the radio story to an art form.

I knew and worked with Welles late in his life and from him I learned the infinite possibilities of the audio medium. Even though Welles was a master choreographer of sound effects and music, he always considered audio a narrative medium.

Orson Welles, 1938.

Orson Welles, 1938.

“When a fellow leans back in his chair and begins: 'Now, this is how it happened' — the listener feels that the narrator is taking him into his confidence; he begins to take a personal interest in the outcome,” Welles said.

It has been that way since storytellers conversed around campfires. No electronics were needed. Only the human voice of the storyteller and the imagination of the listeners.

Though old-time radio storytelling was long ago usurped by television and film, the audio medium is alive and well on podcasts and other variants. Radio was just re-named.

In 2019, more than 50 percent of Americans listened to podcasts. By 2022, it is estimated that podcast listening will grow to 132 million in America alone. The growth rate of audio has been extraordinary.

John Houseman, 1973.

John Houseman, 1973.

The late John Houseman, Orson Welles producer during his radio days, lamented the loss of radio drama near the end of his life. “I think it is one of the cultural tragedies of our time that, through nobody's fault, simply because of the changing state of the art and the habits of American people, radio drama virtually came to an end,” Houseman said. “It was a great art and would have been capable of infinite development.”

Houseman, who died in 1988, did not live long enough to see how right he was about the “infinite development” of audio programming. Storytelling on audio is now big business and growing.

Why has audio (without pictures) long been so powerful? What’s behind the current resurgence? Some say it’s because of the increased popularity of headphones and portable audio devices. That may be partially true. But a more important factor is driving the popularity of audio: the human mind.

The mind's eye is a powerful projector. What we can imagine is usually scarier, funnier, more real and vivid than the explicit images of video. What we can’t see fuels our imagination.

A modern podcast.  Photo by Austin Distel.

A modern podcast. Photo by Austin Distel.

Some of the wiser media directors have taken this lesson to heart. For example, in horror movies, it is a mistake to show the monster before the end of the film. Left to the imagination, our minds create demons far scarier than any filmmaker's image.

“Ask any baseball fan about the crack of the bat and the lilt of the announcer's voice coming off the airwaves on a languid summer afternoon,” wrote Adam Clayton Powell 3rd on the potential of audio. "The pictures are better on radio.”

The lesson here is we should never discount any medium based on technology alone. Radio was never displaced by television and movies were not displaced by television. Each media form stands on its on.

Audio, when creatively produced, has stood the test of time for one basic reason. It is the theatre of the imagination. Nothing else comes close.

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