In Pursuit of Echoes; or, the Vagaries of Coveting Nothing

What attracted me to live broadcasting to begin with is its transient nature. Radio plays are being played out in time rather than space. They pass through your mind, where they might well linger; but the sounds proper are gone as soon as they are heard. After World War II, when producers of radio plays in the US increasingly resorted to transcriptions, that is recorded sound canned for later broadcast, listening in lost much of its intimacy and immediacy.

The actors were no longer performing live and radio was no longer the immediate medium that brought absent listeners into the presence, the not-here-but-now of the speaker. The age of the rerun had begun; performers were becoming less engaging, less careful in their readings, and recording and editing technology presented those in charge with more opportunities to control and censor what was being uttered.

In the years between VJ-Day and the Korean war, commercial radio was more clamorous and importuning than ever. It had lost its lure, however, its hold on the American imagination. As in the myth of Echo, the living voice was tamed, became petrified, repetitive, and ultimately inconsequential. It was stillborn, already past before being presented. Recordings took the live—the life—out of radio.

Today’s technology has made it easier than ever to capture sound, to retrieve and release it, encouraging us to become ever less attentive, ever more in need of external memory, of megabytes, databases, and hard drives. Yet, as I was reminded last week, sound waves resist being shored; however preserved, they remain fleeting, that is, being fleeting, refuse to remain.

As a result of some carelessness on my part I damaged my computer and lost my entire library of recorded plays; some 7250 of them, gone. For months I was in pursuit of thin air and, with one shock to void a thousand voices, ended up with nothing. Storing radio ephemera, cataloguing plays neatly and listening to them with proper knowledge of their precise broadcast date, of their place in time, has been an obsession of mine for years.

When I began to write about the time art of radio dramatics I realized, time and again, just how much of what is preserved and available online is incorrectly or inadequately logged. It had been my aim to serve aural art by preserving it; but, having been thwarted in my efforts, the paradox of live recordings makes itself keenly felt. I was in pursuit of Echo, but now feel more like Narcissus staring into the mirror of his own folly. If only I could remember, re-member the missing pieces now almost beyond recall. . . .

Well, almost. The machine might have given up the ghost, but the aftermath isn’t the last act of Hamlet; “the rest” will not have to be “silence.” The pursuit continues, and I am forever catching up with the elusive echoes of sound’s past.

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