When Orson Welles broadcast War of the Worlds as a fake newscast nearly 70 years ago, a panicked radio audience filled in fears they couldn’t see in a way Tom Cruise and pricey visual effects never could.
That’s because our ears feed our imaginations differently than our eyes can, which is the idea behind the “sonic nourishment” that Chicago Public Radio’s Third Coast International Audio Festival will be serving at a “Radio Potluck” listening party in D.C. And if you think that sitting in a room of people just listening to radio programs is strange, Third Coast managing director Julie Shapiro agrees.
“It’s actually a bit awkward at first if you’ve never done it,” she admits, adding, “We do dim the lights to make the experience a bit more comfortable.” Shapiro insists that audiences do warm to the idea. “That’s the most amazing thing to watch,” she says. “People really dig in and concentrate.” And then they discuss what they’ve heard.
The festival is a curated competition for audio documentaries and features now in its fifth year. “We’re trying to open people’s ears so they listen in a new way,” Shapiro says. “It’s true that some radio pieces go over live better than others—even better than on the radio sometimes. But most radio merits two or three listens.”
“Sometimes you hear something on the radio and you want to react,” says Shapiro. “But there’s only the cat on the counter or a person in the next car. This is a way to share something. I’ve sometimes reacted vocally to the cat.”
Defining documentary “very, very broadly,” the Third Coast playlist has included such sound surprises as a German report on Japanese society. “The sound design was so beautiful,” Shapiro says. Transcriptions were provided.
Transcriptions may not be needed for the pieces that local producer Katie Davis is providing. “I’ve settled…on two pieces about my neighborhood, Adams Morgan,” she says. “What I like best about these pieces is that there’s a kind of dialogue between me and the person I’ve interviewed. And there’s a really great rhythm, almost like call-and-response between me and the person. And you’re seeing two, sometimes three, points of view.” The 45-year-old Davis says her work is “about the feeling of Washington, the way people speak here, the rhythm of the city, which is less and less small and Southern.”
Not surprisingly, Davis agrees with Shapiro about the power of sound. “In the same way that you can be in car with someone and if a really compelling radio piece comes on—you shush. And you listen. And it isn’t until afterward, when the station break’s on, that you turn to each other and go, ‘Whoa.’ I just think the mind is just waiting to be taken away somewhere.”
The Third Coast International Audio Festival comes to the Warehouse Theater on Thursday, June 23. Call (202) 783-3933 for more information.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.