Neil Verma, AM’04, PhD’08

(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

Aural traditions

Neil Verma, AM’04, PhD’08, is tuned in to the golden age of radio.

Neil Verma, AM’04, PhD’08, an assistant professor of sound studies in radio/TV/film at Northwestern University, focuses on the intersection of audio and narrative. Studying more than 6,000 radio plays while writing Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama (University of Chicago Press, 2012) gave Verma a sound foundation for understanding the connection between the golden age of radio and modern audio. The latter is the focus of his forthcoming book, tentatively titled Radio and Doubt: Podcasting in the Age of Obsession (University of Michigan Press). Verma’s comments have been edited and condensed.

What is “theater of the mind”?

It’s an expression used to describe radio drama, first applied in the 1930s when dramatists thought about radio in relationship to the stage. Early on, radio plays were designed to create elaborate settings in your mind; they zoom across the country really quickly, or they take place in complicated mazes or mansions. Then in the 1940s there’s a shift when plays become smaller: fewer characters, fewer settings, more interiorized.

I also think that we use the term “theater of the mind” as an excuse to ignore the artifice of radio making. There’s a joke: radio is better because the pictures are better, because listeners get to create their own vision of the story. But that’s true in all kinds of fiction. If we believe the listeners are inventing the story, that gives us an excuse to not pay attention to the craft of dramatists who actually gave us a lot of information in the broadcast itself.

What can radio accomplish that other forms of media can’t?

Dramatists learned that radio has this incredible advantage in that it can express things that are only semipresent. In plays or films, something is either on the stage or not, on the screen or not. It’s like a Banquo’s ghost situation. But in radio something can be partly in existence and partly imagined. A lot of the monsters in blood-and-thunder radio exist in that realm. This is how other media can be considered impoverished relative to radio and not the other way around.

Why do so few narrative podcasts use sound effects like in the golden age of radio?

Think about a medium like lyric poetry or portraiture. Lyric poets tend to know every lyric poem that’s ever been written. Same with portraiture—you must know the history of portraiture inside and out to be good at that art form. Radio drama is the exact opposite—many of the people who make it don’t know the history of the medium, partly because the historical archive is lacking, and partly because there’s been an overabundance of audio drama since the advent of the mp3.

Why is the early archive so spotty?

In the ’30s and ’40s, live radio shows were recorded on transcription discs made for the advertising sponsor and for time-shifted broadcasts on affiliate stations or overseas. These recordings weren’t stable—they were made to be played a dozen times and then thrown out. Magnetic tape became available in 1948, which is when the archive becomes more complete.

Arch Oboler, EX’36, a key figure in your earlier book, best known for his NBC radio program Lights Out, said in interviews that he wasn’t a fan of horror. Should his show, which deals with monsters and ghosts, be considered horror?

Lights Out wasn’t his show originally. Wyllis Cooper created it as a thriller-type program—or “weird fiction,” a term that was idiomatic at the time. The word “horror” gets superimposed later, in the ’40s, I think.

As for Oboler’s self-appraisals, I’ve heard him say he doesn’t think of Lights Out as horror; I’ve heard him say he does. Midcentury showbiz people—don’t take their interviews as expressions of their entire souls. It’s important to remember that they were hustlers, not in a derogatory sense but in an enterprising way—they were chasing their next gig. Orson Welles was even better at it. Oboler wasn’t trying to give a pristine historical record for posterity; he was trying to get from point A to point B. Sometimes that means telling interviewers what he thinks they want to hear. (Learn more about Arch Oboler, EX’36 in “If You Frighten Easily …” in the Winter/22 issue of the Core.)

Why has Orson Welles been remembered when then-household radio names, like Arch Oboler, have been largely forgotten?

Mostly “War of the Worlds.” That’s the short answer—it exists in cultural memory. The panic that supposedly happened never really happened, but the legend of it did. No one died. There were no mass suicides. In terms of evidence, all we really know is that one woman ran down a hallway and broke her arm. There were a lot of phone calls to the police. But the metaphor of it taps into the capacity of media for world making.

Who might count Arch Oboler as an influence?

You know who’s a big fan? Stephen King. [He writes about Oboler in Danse Macabre, his nonfiction book on the horror genre, first published in 1981.] I think he’s a spiritual successor. Wouldn’t it be fun to do a podcast series listening to Arch Oboler plays with Stephen King?

As a modern horror fan, I was surprised by how unnerving and affecting I found Lights Out.

I think at first blush, people have exactly the same experience that you did. Like, yeah, maybe it’ll be fun, maybe it’ll be scary. But then the more you think about it, the more you realize is going on in these plays.

He made one called “Murder in the Script Department,” with two women working late at a radio station. Eerie things start happening; they hear strange noises and see strange things off in the distance. They narrate these experiences to one another, and they kind of talk each other into and out of this terrible fear that something supernatural is happening. I feel like this is a metaphor for how we listen to these radio plays: I’m sure everything is fine, but actually there is something weird going on.

The most curious thing happens—the two characters exchange personas. The one who is quite passive becomes active. One becomes catatonic, and then the other takes on that role. There’s a blending of personalities that has extraordinary depth to it. It seems like a simple premise, but there are complicated and insightful things happening at the same time.