In Search of Sounds; or, How I Wound Up Podcasting

Well, I was about to head out for The Island. Athol Fugard’s Island, that is, the Johannesburg Market Theatre production of which is currently on tour in England and Wales. Apparently, the company got lost on its way through the wilds of Wales and is, as I just learned, a no show for tonight. A second attempt at staging the play has been scheduled for 12 June, giving the navigationally challenged troupe from South Africa ample time to check their compass.

I was introduced to Fugard’s prisoners on Robben Island as a graduate student in the mid-1990s, a time during which I was happily drowning myself in a sea of sound. I had just discovered the thrills of old-time radio, tuning in to Max Schmid’s “Golden Age,” still broadcast weekly over WBAI, New York (and archived here). For someone who grew up watching dubbed Hollywood movies, hearing my favorite actors of the 1930s and ’40s emote in their own voices—and by way of their voice boxes alone—was as much of a revelation to me than it must have been to those twisting the dial back then to catch shows like Hollywood Hotel or the Lux Radio Theater.

The experience of listening in was more immediate, more intimate than watching someone act on the big or small screen. On radio, actors are not idols. They are too close and familiar to be worshiped. They are, after all, right there with you in your living room or under the covers, if only you close your eyes to imagine them there. The Hollywood a-listers appearing on the Lux program did not appeal to listener by being unreachable; Stanwyck, Dietrich, Grant or Gable were one in a million, all right, but they were decidedly among and part of rather than apart from those millions tuning in. And whereas images are generally dated (an actor’s hair, make-up, or apparel telling time, especially in comparison with other images), radio voices (unless the sound is particularly low-fi) waft right into your presence and become now, even on recordings.

Soon after getting “the wondering ear” (as I expressed it previously), I began to conduct Frankensteinean experiments in resurrections through electricity. Listening in itself was not unlike a séance, as voices from the past came alive at my bidding, just as, many years earlier, I had preserved on tape the sounds of my everyday, my friends and family members in a series of audio diaries. So, I am beginning my experiments in podcasting with such a sonic revivification, by calling forth the legendary Tallulah Bankhead.

As I explain it at the beginning of the introductory podcastellan episode, I have been “in search of sounds” ever since I got my first radio. Tuning in, I was eavesdropping on a hidden realm the passage to which was the canal of an eager ear pressed close against the speaker. It was my keyhole to the world about which I knew yet little, a world to which I did not yet belong.

Magnetic tape has given way at last to podcast technology; and however high tech today, podcastellan is the continuation of a project begun in childhood—the enjoyment of close encounters with those presumably distant or gone. Indeed, playing around with historic records may strike some aficionados of old-time radio as an act amounting to sacrilege; to be sure, it is an entirely unacademic venture, a reckless sampling, an appropriation of and engagement with sound, which I have the nerve to make a regular feature of podcastellan.

What’s more, my calling forth of Ms. Bankhead seems to have brought about unexpected results: above image, a 1932 newspaper clipping which fluttered into our home only yesterday. Having stuck (as mere padding) behind a framed work of art for nearly seventy-five years, it reemerged promptly after I had sent my podcast tribute to Tallulah out into the world. Welcome back, Dahlink, in all your Craven Abandon!

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