Old-time Radio Primer: A Stands for Audience

Well, we all crave it. An audience, I mean. Not that “audience” is the most precise term for visitors, readers, or spectators. Audiences are people who come to audit—to hear and judge—a performance as sound; and to no medium does the experience of aural appreciation seem more germane than to radio, the only forum in which a single recital has been known to have come, instantaneously, to the ears of nearly half the US population. So, I am opening my “Old-time Radio Primer,” as announced yesterday (and as inspired by Norman Corwin’s 1941 play “Radio Primer”) with just that word: “audience.”

Is “audience” a synonym of “radio listeners”? “Audience” generally implies membership, partaking of something or taking something in, whether singly or jointly, as an individual belonging to a certain group—be it a group of theatregoers or Roman Catholics. Radio listening, however, requires no such membership; nor is it a group experience.

The so-called members of the radio audience are separated, often tuning in alone. They are not unlike the anonymous websurfer in their isolation; but, back in the pre-TV era of the 1930s and ’40s, tuners-in were even more remote and less interactive than today’s rovers of the blogosphere. Radio listeners might talk to friends about a certain broadcast; they might even call in or write letters to a station or sponsor; but the interactivity of what has been called “yesterday’s internet” was nonetheless limited.

It was a removal from the public eye that was rather daunting to many performers, especially those coming to radio from the defunct vaudeville circuit. Actors standing behind the microphone in an empty, austere studio might have thought something like this (you’ve got to have some rhyme in a Corwin inspired primer):

An audience before you
Is easy to assess:
Folks sneer, snore or adore you,
Respond as you address.

It’s not so for the speaker
Behind the microphone;
The limelight sure seems bleaker
Faced millionfold alone.

This sense of isolation from the public made stage-trained performers reluctant to step into the theater of the mind. A notable exception was the great Alla Nazimova, an actress who very much embraced the opportunity to dis-appear on the air. “Always,” she confessed to the delight of a decidedly catty reviewer of one of her radio performances, “I have hated audiences. Always!”

Producers and sponsors of radio entertainment were concerned about the medium’s missing group dynamic. What would induce listeners at home to sit still during commercials, let alone purchase the articles advertised? To create this sense of a shared experience, broadcasters resorted to some aural trickery that has shaped television and influences it to this day.

I am referring, of course, to the “live studio audience.” In the 1930s and ’40s, most radio broadcasting was live; and it was widely believed that radio plays would sound even more like live entertainment, or at any rate more lively and interactive, if spectators were to come to the studio to howl and clap on cue.

There was considerable dispute over this definition of “live audience” as referring to studio visitors who could testify—through laughter and applause—that a certain performer truly was there, appearing in the flesh for some to see while dematerializing as sound for all to hear. As I discuss it in Etherized Victorians, my study on old-time radio, those who believed in the autonomy of radio drama as an art very much resented this spectacle approach to soundstaging, which gave listeners at home the impression that they were not witnessing the real thing because they never got to see the stars performing for them.

In a statement read at the close of the Campbell Playhouse presentation of Liliom (22 October 1939), Helen Hayes reminded listeners that a program barring spectators was

a real radio show, produced for the air, without a stage, without a curtain, without an audience in the studio. It allows the producer to produce and the actors to act for their real radio audience, for those millions of listeners sitting at their radio sets in their own homes all over the country.

Today, of course, “live studio audiences” in the age of time-delayed transmission and laughtrack accompaniment are neither truly live nor, for the most part, present in the studio. Given such progress, could I be hearing a chorus of disapproval?

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