The Strange Pleasures of Watching Radio

When radio becomes more than just a listening experience

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So, for various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about radio — specifically, the visual element of radio.

Many of those reasons, admittedly, have to do with the fact that I managed to catch a performance of The Thrilling Adventure Hour at the past San Diego Comic-Con, and had such a different experience with the show as a theater piece (compared with the podcast that I normally enjoy), that it stuck with me days afterwards.

For the uninitiated, the Thrilling Adventure Hour is “a new-time podcast in the style of old-time radio” in which regular performers — alongside such featured guests as Nathan Fillion, Jon Hamm and  Emily Blunt — act in mini-plays that are part parody, part affectionate-recreations-of-old-school radio pulps. Shows include “Sparks Nevada,” “Marshall on Mars,” “Captain Laserbeam,” “Colonel Tick-Tock,” and my favorite, “Beyond Belief”  — which might be described as a boozy mashup of The Thin Man and The X-Files.

As an audio-only experience, there’s always been the feeling that there are some things that the live audience for each Hour show get that listeners don’t — like the laughter during pauses or following lines that aren’t particularly jokey. Watching the show for myself, though, I realized just how much of the show was visual (Admittedly, I wasn’t watching a traditional show; this one was intended for the live Comic-Con audience, and may have been tailored accordingly).

It wasn’t that we were watching a traditional theater performance, because we clearly weren’t: Actors had scripts in hand, and stood around microphones, as they would have been done back in the day. But the performances seemed… bigger, perhaps? There was more there, whether a look or a gesture to emphasize (or, occasionally, undercut) a particular line-reading. Listening to each play, everything seemed to be present, but watching it happen felt as if there was something more, a special bonus or secret that we were being allowed to share.

It got me thinking about what radio looks like. Or, more specifically, what the radio shows I tend to listen to personally look like. WNYC’s RadioLab, for example, is another radio show that I’ve happened to have seen live — what can I say? I’m a geek — but that experience was very different from Thrilling Adventure Hour. The stage version was very enjoyable, but it felt reworked in an intrusive way, and very different from the regular show. Part of what makes RadioLab work as a radio show for me is that it does things that explicitly aren’t visual, and can’t be; it uses aural tricks to conjure our own imagery for things, and makes the listener an equal participant in the creation of the experience.

There’s something that about the level of ambiguity and incompleteness offered by both shows that reminds me of prose; both require the listener or reader to fill in the blanks. By their very nature, TV and movies leave little to the imagination — the smell of your favorite characters, maybe, but how often do any of us really go there? – and allow us to lose ourselves in what we’re watching, relaxing into a passivity that can be enjoyably overwhelming when done well. Prose — and radio — ask you to work more, and because of that, can feel more engaging if you choose to do so.

I loved watching the Thrilling Adventure Hour show; I felt like I was getting a glimpse behind the scenes, a secret sneak at something that I don’t normally — and can’t normally — see. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder how I’ll feel when I go back to it as a podcast in the future, and whether or not it’ll have lost a little something as a result. Perhaps, sometimes, it’s better not to look at the man behind the curtain.