Sunday, July 17, 2011

This Week in Listening: The Columbia Workshop

 Orson Welles, Irving Reis, and Archibald MacLeish working on The Fall of the City.

Things are calming down for me after a busy couple of weeks (months, really), so I'm looking forward to getting back on track with my listening. Because of Chatterbox's upcoming recreation of "Meridian 7-1212," I've been inspired to dig deeper into The Columbia Workshop.

According to author John Dunning, when The Columbia Workshop debuted in 1936, radio was only a decade old and was still trying to decide what kind of medium it would be: "Would it be commercial or a public entity? What would be allowed in the name of 'art'? Was radio by its nature simply another vehicle for pop culture, to be absorbed by the lowest common denominator and immediately forgotten?"

Luckily, a man named Irving Reis saw the artistic potential inherent in sound. Reis conceived of and championed The Columbia Workshop from the beginning. In the early days, not only was he the director of the show, but he also wrote several scripts (including "Meridian 7-1212") and apparently even answered the show's fan mail. William N. Robson took over for Reis in late 1937. Robson shared Reis's interest in experimentation but grounded the show in more literary works.

The Columbia Workshop was billed as a show of "experimental radio." The idea was to find brave, creative writers and directors to explore the vast possibilities of this new medium. According to Douglas Coulter, "The Workshop programs grew out of a conviction that there was much to be done to improve the originality of radio drama, both in content and in production."

Coulter and Wikipedia detail several of the show's innovations, including extended soundscapes, microphone filters, and the use of music cues to suggest sound effects. During its eight-year run (from 1936 - 1943, then again from 1946 - 1947), the Workshop was a breakout show for several audio luminaries, including composer Bernard Hermann and radio writer par excellence Norman Corwin.

The Workshop was broadcast as a "sustaining" show, meaning it had no advertisers and thus no outside forces to answer to. The creators were free to work in the name of art, not commerce.

The Columbia Workshop's finest hour is generally considered to be its production of Archibald MacLeish's poetic, gorgeous, frightening, and moving original script "The Fall of the City," which features Orson Welles, Burgess Meredith, and about 300 extras. With a celebrated poet like MacLeish on its side, The Columbia Workshop put to rest any question of whether radio could be a medium for art.

I had heard a handful of Columbia Workshop plays after stumbling across "Meridian 7-1212." Upon finding a longer list on, I'm really enjoying jumping back in. As with any experimental work, some of the shows are better than others, but all have something worthwhile to offer. Plus, they're almost entirely devoid of any cliched "Old Time Radio" trappings. Heck, most of them are shows I'd be proud for Chatterbox to produce today. Not surprisingly, I find listening to this show very inspiring.

The list begins with Orson Welles's one-hour version of Hamlet, and while I'm left hungry for the full-length play, it's always a treat to hear Welles doing Shakespeare. Also recommended are an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's fable "The Happy Prince" and the two-part "Alice in Wonderland." "The Fall of the City" really is as good as its reputation. And naturally I'm quite fond of "Meridian 7-1212," which is a master class in intertwining stories, shifting moods, and mounting suspense. (Chatterbox's recreation will debut on The Sonic Society in August.)

There are more than 60 Columbia Workshop productions freely available on I'm going to be checking them out in the weeks and months ahead. You should, too -- I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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