becoming a composer of texts and more
Most of us cannot 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. Unfortunately, not everyone develops 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 others.
To encourage 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. The goal is to 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 biography was assigned during a pedagogy course. The goal was to explore 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 now the dominant distribution medium for text, audio, and video. But, I found that digital implied computers to students. As an instructor, I expanded the assignment to include media literacy. This expanded assignment included film and television in addition to printed texts.The assignment is now a multimedia literacy autobiography, a recognition 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 even 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.
Radio and Literacy
The most influential medium in my life has been radio. I can spend hours listening to old and new audio productions; the success of Internet audio dramas that try to recapture the magic the Golden Age of Radio is exciting. While I was primarily conscious of the storytelling, radio series also helped me develop a general media literacy.
My father introduced me to radio. He would listen to CBS Mystery Theater almost nightly. Since the show ran from 1974 until the end of 1982, I literally grew up listening to E. G. Marshall host the works of writers like Twain, Poe, Dickens, and Hugo. From the age of six into junior high, the creaking door that opened Mystery Theater captured my imagination.
The shows I first heard were modern, written and produced for the audiences of the 1970s and 80s. This was fortunate, since old-time radio had reflected the biases and prejudices of earlier decades. When I eventually began listening to classic shows, I was developing social awareness and could recognize some of the problems with the productions.
By the time I was in high school, I had listened to thousands of hours of radio productions. From these I gained awareness of:
- Hundreds of classic stories, adapted from literature;
- Commercials and product placement within scripts;
- Music as a way to convey moods and foreshadow action;
- Cultural ideals and aspirations, such as noble and altruistic law enforcement;
- Political propaganda, especially against communism and socialism; and
- Ethnic stereotypes, often exploited by writers to imply character traits.
Some shows were blatant propaganda. It’s impossible to listen to I Was a Communist for the FBI and not notice the biases and prejudices reinforced by the writers. Others, like The Great Gildersleeve, featured racial and social stereotypes reflective of their time. Learning to listen critically, to recognize intentional and unintentional bias, was a skill developed over time. Today, the biases might seem absurd, humorous because of their ignorance, but knowing they were common helps me appreciate how our society continues to evolve.
Regardless of its flaws, radio’s ability to create a “theater of the mind” has kept me loyal to audio productions throughout my life. Improvements in technology enable anyone with a basic computer the ability to create audio content. It is quite possible that a second Golden Age of Radio is upon us, in the form of podcasting and Internet audio streams.
Primacy of the Writer
Audio productions depend on words to deliver stories, while visuals drive most other media. Radio shows taught me about story structure, plot, character, and dialogue, all through spoken words.
Music, dance, stage, film, and video can exist without words. Brilliant theatrical productions exist without spoken dialogue, such as Beckett’s Act Without Words. The great silent films of directors like Eisenstein, Griffith, and Lang demonstrate the power of images. These media entered my awareness after radio, though.
The moment I realized what “Tonight’s story was 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, honors writers as equals to the actors and directors. If a radio script is based on an existing story, both writers receive credit, recognizing adaptation as a craft or even an art.
When Mystery Theater faded away, KNX Los Angeles and KMJ Fresno both began carrying classic old-time radio (OTR) programs. The flat geography of Central California permitted signals from all over the West to be heard on small transistor radios. I had a small silver AM radio that I took to bed at night, scanning the dial for shows.
Radio mysteries elevate authors to unparalleled heights. The creators of characters often receive top billing, an announcer telling the audience to stay tuned for the latest exciting adventure of “Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe” or “Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.” Current productions continue this tradition, with Imagination Theater telling audiences, “Tonight, M. J. Elliott’s Hillary Caine, Girl Detective, solves another unusual crime.”
Writing for Radio
Radio shows demanded structure for commercial, technical, and legal reasons. Possibly most important was the evolution of structure as a way to establish show identities. As networks established formal “programming clocks,” writers learned to construct scripts that hooked and retained listeners through breaks. Announcers even introduced acts and epilogues during shows.
Old-time radio was, admittedly, formulaic. The same can be said of most mass media. Knowing the formula is part of the experience when you follow a show. The writers had to be careful to not reduce a show to self-parody, even in the case of comedies.
My expectations as a listener to radio dramas shaped my notions of structure as an aspiring writer. The need to quickly hook an audience was similar to pulp fiction and serials: start quickly and keep accelerating. The audience can leave in an instant, and will. This translates to a quick introduction of the plot and a reliance on cliffhangers at commercial breaks.
Working within rigid time constraints, scriptwriters had to be masters of the short story. Characters had to be introduced, situations established, and conflicts explained within the first two to three minutes of episodes. Some shows famously relied on narrators to establish the background, while others favored prologues. As a listener, I find narration dry or even boring. Action keeps the audience alert.
The best radio series featured well-defined characters. Since many of these came from existing literature, the audiences could anticipate various traits. Studios also used characters from motion pictures, making an art of cross-promotion. Unfortunately, the explosion of radio programming also resulted in some weak, derivative characters.
Character was important regardless of the genre. Jack Benny’s radio persona dictated the comedy written for his character. Nero Wolfe, unlike Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, was neither wisecracking nor adventurous. His lethargy was his defining feature, reinforced by references to the size of the detective and his ego. Chester A. Riley would try to take shortcuts at work and home, always leading to another “revoltin’ development.”
Taking a strong character and placing him or her in an unusual, often absurd, situation seemed essential in radio writing. The character’s personality would create more complications, often because even the heroes of radio series were flawed. There were few perfect characters on radio. Even the superheroes made mistakes because of hubris.
As a writer, I want to know my characters — including facts and traits that might not appear in a particular story. It is obvious when writers know their characters, and even more obvious when a writer hasn’t created a back-story for a character.
Radio audiences had to listen closely to dialogue for information. Exposition was in the form of exchanges between characters. Often, what would never be said in real life had to be said by characters to help audiences follow events. The challenge for writers was to make the artificial seem realistic.
I sometimes wonder if the low fidelity of radio helped promote better dialogue. Contrasting speech patterns and distinct dialects were important to help the audience identify characters. While casting and direction helped ensure unique voices, the writers also had to craft scripts that reduced the potential for confusion. For example, similar characters would seldom speak after each other, especially if actors played more than one role.
Audiences, regardless of their personal socioeconomic situations, had to be able to comprehend characters. This meant characters from professorial archeologists to snobbish noblemen had to use simplified speech, yet convey education and prestige. Dialogue included explanations peers would never offer each other, but that audiences would require.
From radio, I learned that effective, polished dialogue is not realistic in the literal sense. Dialogue is realistic when the audience finds exchanges believable at the moment lines are spoken. Characters cannot speak over each other, nor do they speak in the fragments of daily speech. But, the audience must still believe the words are authentic.
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 passively, without asking why one word was chosen over another. As a writer, I hope I exhibit economy while still delivering complete and compelling stories.