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Centre for Broadcast Studies explores 'theatre of the mind'

Radio will never quite die

by Tim Hornyak

Before television, Canadian families gathered around a different sort of box for their diversion. Radio drama is one of the oldest forms of broadcast entertainment, and is now enjoying a renaissance of popularity, according to John Jackson, a research fellow at Concordia's Centre for Broadcasting Studies.

CBC sound men ham it up in a radio studio. Their creativity was tested weekly for live dramas and comedies -- everything from car chases and bolting horses to riots and tornados.
Photos courtesy of CBC Still Photos.

John Drainie, one of Canada's best-known actors in the 1940s and '50s, playing Jake, the rough-hewn farmhand in Jake and the Kid. The series' writer, W.O. Mitchell, invented CBC-acceptable profanity, which Drainie delivered live with gusto.

"Most people aren't aware of radio drama," Jackson said. "It's kind of a cult thing." Although he doesn't like the term, Jackson said the "golden age" of radio drama was before the 1950s, which marked the widespread presence of television in Canadian homes. Now radio drama can only be heard on CBC. Yet while the public broadcaster doesn't produce as much radio drama compared to the genre's heyday, the number of plays on the airwaves is up from 10 years ago.

"It is making a comeback," said the retired professor of sociology and anthropology, who researches radio drama at the Centre. "I used some tapes in a classroom setting when I was teaching, and the reaction of students was, 'Is that what it's like? I've never heard one of those things.' There's a show of interest."

Founded at Concordia in 1981 by Jackson and Howard Fink, the Centre for Broadcasting Studies is the official repository for CBC's radio dramas, and houses an archive of about 25,000 radio drama scripts, 500 tapes and production materials dating back to 1928.

Jackson and his colleagues recently formed the Canadian review board for the Journal of Radio Studies (JRS), the only academic journal devoted exclusively to radio research. Since 1997, the semi-annual JRS has been published by the U.S. Broadcast Education Association, a group of academic and industry professionals that promotes broadcasting education and training for students of television, radio or electronic media.

The JRS, created in 1992, has increased its coverage of international radio lately, and its current edition includes a review of clandestine Hebrew radio during the British mandate in Palestine. There is also a symposium on Canadian radio by Jackson and researchers Fink, Greg Nielsen, Mary Vipond, all Concordia professors, and Grace De Sousa, who acquired her Master's here and is now doing her PhD at the University of Alberta.

One part of Jackson's radio research deals with how radio drama can reflect contemporary social issues. "The radio drama written during the Second World War period addressed various issues related to the war," Jackson said. "The writers and producers at that time were politically left of centre. In their wartime dramas, they tried on the one hand to show the war as a just war. But on the other hand, they tried to show the German people as human beings. So they verge away from the propaganda line."

Today's radio plays span a variety of subjects. Last month, for example, radio listeners could tune into the brilliant mental acrobatics of Sherlock Holmes in CBC's serialized production of Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, part of an ongoing series of whodunits that comprise the broadcaster's The Mystery Project. In addition to broadcasting radio shows imported from Australia and England, CBC is now committed to producing 150 hours of original Canadian radio drama annually. Jackson said the format offers something special for listeners.

"All forms of entertainment offer ways of exercising your imagination. Radio offers a particular way which is different from reading or watching television. It expands one's creative potential. Radio drama is a sort of theatre of the mind."

As a child, Jackson remembers listening to the popular radio show The Green Hornet, broadcast from 1936-52, and, years later, watching it on TV, when the show ran from 1966-67, starring Van Williams as Britt Reid and Bruce Lee as Kato.

"I watched The Green Hornet on television, and what really struck me was my memory of it was a radio memory," Jackson said, "I had my own images of what these people looked like and the sound effects. Watching it on television was quite an experience, like going to a film after you've read the book."

As for the future of radio, Jackson said the medium will be around for a long time in one form or another. "Really, television, radio and the Internet seem to be coalescing into one major audiovisual means of communication and dissemination of information."

Jackson believes that radio's continued popularity is confirmed by its virtual ubiquity. "Ask yourself: How many television sets do you carry around with you, and how many radios do you have around you?"

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.