becoming a composer of texts and more
Few of us can explain how we learned to interpret the world around us, yet we constantly sift through massive amounts of input and analyze the data to make choices. Not everyone develops complex critical literacy skills — and even those of us who try to be critically aware cannot escape biases and interpretation errors. Also, being critically aware in one medium might not apply to other media.
To encourage my students to consider how they receive, process, and analyze the media around them, I ask them to compose multimedia literacy autobiographies, which they share and discuss in class. These personal narratives promote awareness and nurture critical literacy by demonstrating content is neither natural nor neutral.
While I was completing my master’s degree in English composition theory and rhetoric, a literacy autobiography was assigned during a pedagogy course. The narratives explored our attitudes toward writing, focusing on how writing instruction had either encouraged or hindered individual growth. It should surprise no one that academic experiences tended to be negative, even for the most passionate creative writers in the course.
Digital literacy is impossible to ignore; the Internet is the dominant distribution medium for text, audio, and video. As an instructor, I have expanded the assignment from my composition pedagogy professor to include media literacy. This expanded assignment includes film and television in addition to printed texts. The assignment recognizes that literacy is not constrained to page or screen.
It would be impossible for students to reflect on all media, so I ask them to write on the medium and experiences that have affected them most deeply. Students have written about music, painting, and graphic novels. I have learned about the creativity of my students and come to appreciate their abilities to analyze messages. My task is to have students apply critical thinking skills they possess to all media.
Inspired by Radio
Radio has been the most influential medium in my life. I dreamed of becoming a writer and storyteller because of audio dramas. My passion for technology began with AM and shortwave radio, long before the first personal computers appeared in households. Listening to stories as a child set me on a career path.
Each week, I spend hours listening to terrestrial, satellite, and Internet radio from around the world. Growing up, my father listened to shortwave and AM radio stations while we traveled the 90 minutes between Bakersfield and Visalia, California. While he attended nursing school and worked various jobs, our grandparents and extended family helped care for my sister and me. I still recall the radio programs and advertisements from the 1970s we heard while traveling along Highway 99.
After moving closer to family, the tradition of listening to radio shows continued. At home, we listened to BBC World Service and other stations with audio dramas. Friday nights featured CBS Mystery Theater. The show aired new episodes from 1974 through 1982. Scripts alternated between new mysteries and adaptations of classic literature. I grew up listening to E. G. Marshall host the works of writers including Twain, Poe, Dickens, and Hugo. The creaking door and deep bass that opened Mystery Theater captured my imagination. When Radio Was followed Mystery Theater, with classic broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio.
Though the Golden Age ended in the United States with the last airings of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (1949–1962) and Gunsmoke (1952–1961), local stations including KNX 1070 in Los Angeles and KGO 810 in San Francisco aired reruns of these and other OTR programs throughout my youth. BBC World Service and BBC 4 continue to air new audio dramas that originated in the 1960s and 70s. Today, I listen to BBC 4 and a dozen other audio drama stations via Internet streaming services. New programs from Jim French Productions, Colonial Radio Theatre, L.A. Theatre Works, and Big Finish Productions (which owns the Doctor Who audio rights), continue to captivate my imagination and my admiration for great storytelling.
Primacy of the Writer
Radio dramas begin with a credit for the series creator and episode writer. An announcer commands the audience to stay tuned for the latest exciting adventure of “Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe” or “Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.” Online productions continue this tradition, with Jim French’s Imagination Theatre telling audiences, “Tonight, M. J. Elliott’s Hillary Caine, Girl Detective, solves another unusual crime.” Every creator and writer, from the celebrated Douglas Adams to unknown Jerry Robbins receives recognition before and after an episode.
Radio taught me story structure, plot, character, and dialogue, all through spoken words. Through the on-air repetition of the names of authors, I learned that people created the worlds and stories I imagined. The audio dramas of the 1970s often included biographical information about the writers, teaching me about these storytellers. When I realized what “Tonight’s story by Sam Dann” meant, I wanted to be like Sam Dann or Ian Martin. We honor the directors of film and celebrate successful television producers. But radio, like stage plays, honors its writers as equals to the actors and directors.
Books became important to me because I could read the stories I had heard. Audio dramas encouraged me to read the classics of adventure, mystery, and science fiction. In elementary school, my mother would take my sister and me to our community’s one-room library. There, I would ask for the books that inspired the most recent radio programs. My grandparents subscribed to a collection of illustrated classics for me, books that I still own and display on a shelf near my office.
Radio shows demand structure for broadcast scheduling, commercial placement, technical, and legal reasons. As broadcasters established formal “programming clocks,” writers learned to construct scripts that hooked and retained listeners through breaks. Announcers introduced acts and epilogues during episodes. Radio and streaming audio dramas adhere to formulaic structures, derived from the three-act dramatic structure familiar in theater and cinema. Working within rigid time constraints, scriptwriters become masters of the short story. They introduce characters, establish situations, and initiate conflicts within the first segment of an episode. This parallels all Western narrative traditions.
The best audio series feature well-defined characters. Since many series adapt classic literature, the audiences anticipate character traits. Sherlock Holmes, the most adapted character in audio drama, cannot change without audiences protesting. Narratives rely on some familiarity. Audio dramas also feature characters from cinema and television, revealing that visual media share equal standing with literature among audiences.
Radio and audio drama audiences listen closely to dialogue for information. Exposition occurs in the form of exchanges between characters. Often, what would never be said in real life is said by characters to help audiences follow events. Writers make the artificial seem realistic in literature and in other media. Audiences, regardless of their personal socioeconomic situations, need to relate to and understand the motivations of characters.
From radio, I learned that memorable characters and compelling dialogue are not realistic in the literal sense, yet the audience must consider a story authentic. Although some writers successfully challenge narrative traditions, audiences interpret stories through the familiar structures of a beginning, middle, and end.
Reflecting on Words
Listening to radio, I learned to pay attention to words. In a media culture dominated by images, this focus means I tend to prioritize content over presentation. Words are choices, selections made to affect an audience. Too often we listen and read passively, without asking why one word was chosen over another. As a writer, I seek to compose economically while delivering complete and compelling stories.
Music, dance, stage, film, and video can exist without words. Brilliant theatrical productions entertain without spoken dialogue, such as Beckett’s Act Without Words. The great silent films of directors including Eisenstein, Griffith, and Lang demonstrate the power of images. These media entered my awareness after radio audio dramas, though.
I started to recognize and appreciate the cultural biases and prejudices embedded in audio dramas while I was in high school. I developed an awareness for the racial stereotypes and class caricatures depicted. The jingoistic propaganda and dominant male characters of OTR became clear and problematic during the early 1980s. Stories and scripts written between 1850 and 1950 suddenly felt anachronistic.
Some shows featured blatant propaganda, such as I was a Communist for the FBI, while others subtly promoted social order, such as Dragnet and Gangbusters. The Great Gildersleeve; The Jack Benny Show; Amos and Andy; and most other OTR programs featured offensive racial and social stereotypes. I later saw the same flaws in classic cinema and theatrical productions. As a writer, I ask myself how audiences might perceive the stories and characters I create in fifty years, or even less. Becoming aware that stories reinforce culture represented a major stage in my media literacy development.
Regardless of its flaws, radio’s ability to create a “theater of the mind” keeps me loyal to audio productions. Technology enables anyone with a computer to create audio content and add special effects. A second Golden Age of Radio is upon us, in the form of podcasting and Internet audio streams, embraced by National Public Radio, the BBC, and independent producers. What we create today hopefully lasts into the future for others to enjoy and critique.