THEATRST 107S: Radio: The Theater of the Mind

November 30, 2007

Most new technologies go through a fairly long period of development during which the new invention is pricier and limited to wealthier consumers. Radio, however, has a different story. In its heyday, radio sets were almost immediately and widely available, says Daniel Foster, assistant professor of theater studies. As a result, national broadcasts attempted to appeal across socioeconomic lines.

Ultimately, radio took a backseat to television and film, and radio theater productions were replaced with music and talk shows. As major broadcasters switched to television, the number of national radio channels decreased, and radio's unifying cultural power diminished.

"Radio: The Theater of the Mind," a course in Duke's theater studies department, was created because Foster wanted to share with students the relevance of old radio theater shows.

"I'd been listening to them for a long time, and I'd think, 'Wow these are really still funny or these are really still scary,' " Foster says. He wants his students "to be more aware of the aural world around them."

"We're such a visual culture, and I really want them to tune in to the world in a way they haven't before."

The course explores the history of radio and how it reveals prevailing opinions on America's sense of self during radio's prominence from the 1920s through the 1960s. An example of this is the show The Green Hornet, which began before World War II. The sidekick, Kato, was initially Japanese, but as the show evolved, his character progressed from Japanese, to Chinese, to simply "Oriental," and then, finally, Filipino: a reflection, some argue, of the United States' fluctuating relationships with the different countries.

Aside from examining historical contexts, the class contributes to the future of radio through a final project: Internet podcasts that are accessible to the public. A podcast is similar to a radio show, but the listeners choose when they want to hear the show; in addition, it is available nationally. Foster says that the course site gets 5,000 to 8,000 listeners per month.

For the final project, students perform original scripts or revamp old ones. One of Foster's favorite projects was by Tiffany Chen '07, who adapted a short story called "The Most Dangerous Game," by Richard Connell. In the piece, a hunter is stranded on an island owned by another hunter who has come to believe that humans are the greatest prey. Chen has been interviewed by publications such as The Guardian for her involvement in the class.

The biggest challenge of making a podcast, Foster says, is creating a "sonic landscape," a believable atmosphere in which the dialogue takes place. There are no theater prerequisites for the class, and Foster believes that broadcasting requires a different set of skills than stage acting.

"If you're constitutionally shy, radio is a good medium because you don't have to appear to anybody," Foster says. "In that way it's closer to writing. Your voice gets transmitted and not you as a visible whole."

Completed final podcasts are available at www.thetheaterofthemind.com.

Professor
Daniel Foster earned a B.A. with a major in philosophy from St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago. A classically trained pianist, he held a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the music department at the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught at Duke for four years and is the director of undergraduate studies in the department of theater studies.

Prerequisites
None

Readings
Requirements include listening to radio shows and reading analyses of radio by writers such as Rudolf Arnheim, Allison McCracken, and Andrew Crisell.

Assignments
Three essays
Radio theater project
Analysis of radio theater project