Art of the Invisible: Listening Responses
Radio as Storytelling
Like all artistic media, there are subtle and unique elements to radio which distinguish it from other forms such as the written word, TV or film. Nowhere must the radio producer be more cognizant of the uniqueness of radio than in the radio documentary. The most intriguing of this week's listening was Rudolph Arnheim's piece "In Praise of Blindness." He disputes the idea that radio should help the mind to form visual images. Instead, the entire appeal of radio is that despite a common listening experience each listener creates an entirely independent experience in their mind's eye. This is a unique feature of radio that some forms such as writing have to a lesser extent and which contemporary forms such as TV and film entirely lack. Television instead compels all its consumers to experience both the same audio and visual experience thereby demanding less engagement with the art form.
Another fascinating aspect brought up by this week's listening was the extent to which radio producers use sound techniques -- mixing, editing, feedback -- to modify their message. In Sherre DeLy's and Rick Moody's "Jumping Cholla" surprise is used to intentionally disorient the listener in an effort to deliver a message of randomness and to establish meaning as it shifts from information to sound exploration to a sort of short story. This technique is similar to Molly Menschel's use of different versions of her story (for instance, the size and color of the whale) to comment on the nature of witness in storytelling. What strikes the reader is that these methods make the reader feel like there is no narrator and that they are actually experiencing the whale sighting in all its visual and physical reality.
Lastly, this week's listening highlight that radio has unique characteristics which separate it from other forms of news reporting and interviewing. In NPR's "Mandela: An Audio History" a standard radio interview shows how a radio allows the producer to incorporate historical audio to allow historical figures to speak for themselves and to cut between current commentary as it chronicles the anti-apartheid struggle using the actual voices of Nelson Mandela and those who fought against him. Particularly striking are the tapes from the 1964 trial in which Mandela was sent to life imprisonment, the secret recording of Mandela from inside the prison and general interviews with figures big and small from prisoners to presidents. Radio is a particularly appropriate form for this story as the intimacy of radio allows the listener to connect with and feel like historical figures are speaking directly to them vs. In a TV interview.
In summary, radio possesses unique attributes as a technological medium that compels producers to adapt in unique ways in order to get the most out of their work. Great performances, whether they are artistic or merely informational/news pieces, play upon the immediacy of radio and the requirement it makes of listeners to forge mental images of the events described. This allows each listener to connect intimately with the subject matter and facilitates the act of storytelling in ways that the written word and TV are unable to achieve.
Week 8: Who do you see when you listen to the radio?
Upon reflection, this week's articles center around the power of the artificially constructed radio voice to be intimate and affecting while also being a powerful source of commercial and political influence. We live in a time in which the ability to create deceptive simulations, especially for television, has become essential to the exercise of power. And the inability to see through these deceptions has become a form of powerlessness. Those who let themselves be taken in by the multiple deceptions of politics, news, advertising and public relations are doomed, to play a role in other people's dramas, while mistakenly believing that they are reacting to something genuine. Yet for all this the way that radio creates a fake wall between the listener and reader is a fascinating psychological issue.
The truth of the matter is that radio plays upon human listening mechanisms designed for person to person contact. While listeners naively assume that the reader is speaking directly to them, the truth of the matter is that often messages are pre-recorded and broadcasted for thousands if not millions. This illusion of person to person contact explains the value of radio in selling items as people naturally establish bonds of trust with individuals they interact with daily. In short, in response to the question of what explains radio's sense of intimacy between listener and reader...
other forms of media such as the newspaper or the television is that the medium exploits a special niche in human interpersonal psychology that allows it to ingratiate itself into the political and purchasing behavior of its consumers.
Another interesting point that was brought up by this week's listening centers on Orson Welles assertion that the medium of radio is a more honest communicator of emotion than the moving image, either film or TV. I disagree with this statement. It is undeniable that the production of radio is historically a much more democratic medium than film or TV, with users being able to broadcast to others from the earliest days of the form. In contrast, film and TV remain a medium of institutional power due to its greater technical requirements and government licensing to reach consumers (The Internet has weakened this argument of access in recent years). However, the allure of radio is much more deceptive than other media. There is almost no deception with the written word besides potentially who composed the piece. In film and TV, there is misleading and influence but it is spoon-fed with everyone experiencing the same image, the same sound and the same special effects. The uniqueness and therefore power of radio is that when it is listened to each user hears the same words but interprets it uniquely in their mind's eye to create varying experiences, further reinforcing the listener's connection to the reader. Radio is more "dishonest" than other mass communication technologies because it more subtly plays on the unique psychosocial mechanisms of humans, designed for person-to-person interaction.
In summary, the technology of radio creates intriguing psychological questions centered on the listener's perception of the reader, the intentions of the reader and how radio utilizes human psychology to engage its users in distinct manners than other media, such as film and TV. This week's readings highlight the power of radio to influence listeners commercially and politically through creating a one-way relationship and then using it to influence the listener.
Week 9: Thoughts on Radio's power of persuasion
In listening to this week's assignment of Orson Welles and others the effectiveness of radio and its psychological impact became apparent. Whether in advertising or political talk radio, the spoken word is far more persuasive means of persuasion than the visual or printed one. The truth is that writing is merely a substitute for the human voice and a generally poor one at that. When one listens one connects to the reader as if he were there in person. This results in an uncritical approach vs. reading which forces one to be more analytical and more critical, and in the long run probably more defensive to persuasive tactics from marking or political tactics.
In addition, the technological medium of radio goes beyond the established benefits of the spoken word. Because of its broadcasted nature, the voice that an audience heard was disembodied, without a visible speaker, and was thus considered even more credible. With radio the situation is simpler, with fewer distractions, and the message is therefore more effective than if the speaker were seen. The speaker's words are less critically analyzed, the relationship is less personal, and the higher mental processes of the listener are slightly dulled.
Nowhere was this phenomenon better illustrated than during Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast, when uncritical listeners famously allowed themselves to be whipped into a public panic. The popularity of talk radio in our current day, which many accuse of presenting issues in black and white and creating polarized opinion, proves that radio plays on human psychological principles that are unchanging. Through an understanding of these psychological issues, advertisers, politics and artists can attract, influence and entertain audiences.
A further interesting listening this week centered on Ken Sanes' Transperancy and his account of how individuals on first hearing of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks believed that they were being tricked much like the War of the Worlds listeners. This question of what was true and false concerning radio continued through World War Two. My grandfather used to recount how the Nazi war machine used jazz and swing music to lure GI's into listening to anti-American propaganda during the war in Europe. This was always intriguing as jazz and swing were immediately banned upon Hitler's ascension to power in 1933 due to their African influences which he saw as inferior to European music. Swing represented the decadent society of America, while jazz threatened the racial…
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