Radio has always been very special to me. From the days as a boy, while not understanding the world, there were still the strong authoritative radio voices that announced the news and made stern warnings about severe weather approaching. I have always been drawn to the tone and delivery style of radio broadcasters as they need to have a range of inflections and emotion that is not required in any other medium. At age 54 I still have the same warm thoughts about those signals that bounce about and come out of my radio as I did when they came forth from the unit situated on the buffet at my childhood home.
Tonight as I sat in a theater on the campus of UW-Madison to experience a live radio production of A Wonderful Life I was swept back to the days when I was a boy. It was an awesome joy to sit with James and hear the live sound effects and music hearkening back to classic radio shows. While not old enough to recall first-hand the way radio once created shows like Gunsmoke or The Bickersons I was reminded (again) of the intimacy of radio and how the medium allows our imagination to work.
This beloved American holiday classic came to captivating life as a live 1940’s radio broadcast. With the help of an ensemble that brought a few dozen characters to the stage, the story of idealistic George Bailey unfolds as he considers ending his life one fateful Christmas Eve. This production was also aided with the assistance of WPR which aired a live simulcast broadcast Saturday December 3rd, and you can listen to the whole show.
For me the production was actually more emotional set in the nostalgic element as a radio show than the movie, which I have seen, like most people, countless times. It was hard to tell at times if they were acting as radio personalities doing a show, or as actors and actresses doing a radio show. That is the geeky stuff I think about.
Photo by Beau Meyer
As the show unfolded my mind crisscrossed the various parts of my life that intersected with radio.
I still recall an awesome snowstorm that hit Chicago, but one that missed central Wisconsin. As a boy I wanted the snow in my backyard, but instead turned to Eddie Schwartz on WGN as he broadcast hour after hour about how Chicago was crippled by the snow and wind. I recall being in my bedroom and feeling like I was there in the midst of a wild storm. As he talked with snowplow operators, police, and folks trying to get off the expressways I understood the power and intimacy of radio. I suspect that there are few young people today who can comprehend what I am talking about.
My mind also traveled back to my years at WDOR in Sturgeon Bay when the station aired a Christmas parade in early December from Kewaunee County. General Manager Eddy Allen Sr. always loved to talk about WGN radio –where he had once worked–and I was only too happy to hear his stories about that famed station. Ed was the only person I ever heard on radio who could broadcast a parade. Think about that for a moment.
There he sat outside of a store who was a sponsor of the broadcast on what I recall was a cold night with lazy snowflakes fluttering about and with the use of descriptive words he allowed for the theater of the mind–the real role of radio–to come alive. He knew the power of radio and used the foundations of it to entertain and inform listeners. He described the floats and atmospherics and allowed anyone who was tuned in to live the moment.
In the era of social media and computer graphics with nothing needed to be left for imagination all that I have written may not mean a great deal. There is no going back. But for those who still recall the magic of radio–the radio of the mind–oh, what found memories we shall always have.