Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Race car driver Bobby Unser

From the vault: Racing legend Bobby Unser is three time winner of the Indy 500, and his new audiobook WINNERS ARE DRIVEN, written with Paul Pease, features a forward by his friend and fellow racing legend Roger Penske. The book is narrated by Jim Bond for Brilliance Audio. I spoke to Bobby by phone at his home in Albuquerque.

JONATHAN LOWE: Winners Are Driven uses racing as a guide to business success. What gave you the idea to tell your own story this way?

BOBBY UNSER: Well, they wanted me to write a book, and I wasn’t hot on writing another biography, then it dawned on me, since all my talks over the years had been motivational, of doing it this way.

LOWE: We seem to live in a win-at-all-cost era. Your book focuses on integrity, though, using examples from your past to illustrate various points. What is your favorite example of why integrity is important? The Goodyear vs. Firestone tire incident?

UNSER: That was a perfect example, and why we put it in the book. I turned down a tremendous amount of money at the time, over switching tire companies, because your word has to be your bond. People are used to older people saying that, but we should all have integrity, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to prevail as it should.

LOWE: Wouldn’t it be great if integrity was the rule of law for politicians?

UNSER: Yeah, that would be such an asset. We’ve come to accept politicians openly and outwardly lying to us. But why do we? It shouldn’t be accepted. And they have become used to the fact that they can lie, and that nobody believes them, and it just flows out of their mouths.

LOWE: Wasn’t meant to be that way, with career politicians forever in office.

UNSER: The career politician, what a terrible concept.

LOWE: Internal politics was involved in the race win that they took away from you for a time in 1981, wasn’t it?

UNSER: Yes, they created an infraction after the race was done. At a meeting I was never invited to they said the blending point–where you get back into the race from the pit–was going to be at the end of the pits, not coming off of turn two, which had been the rule. All the drivers that testified on my behalf didn’t remember that change, so it must have really been a deep secret. There was nothing in print, that’s for sure. When ABC does that race, though, you see, they have 25 cameras around the race track, and they all record all the time, so what we did was get hold of the tapes nobody ever sees. So when we saw those, darned if Mario (Andretti) and many other cars didn’t do exactly the same thing. So they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They’d wanted to start a war between teams Patrick and Penske, and it backfired on them. Indianapolis should be above that, though. Largest single sporting event on earth.

LOWE: Earlier in your career, you used walnut shells in tire rubber. . .sounds like what Thomas Edison might have tried. What gave your team that idea?

UNSER: Well, the idea was if you put walnut shells in the rubber, when you wear the tire down, the shells are going to flake out. So when that happens it becomes like a sponge, and gets hold of the coarse road a lot better. A gain of about forty percent. We also tried crushed batteries.

LOWE: What gave you the idea to even try that?

UNSER: Because it was some rubber that was made for ice. So I put shells on one side of the car, and crushed batteries in the rubber on the other, and we found the shells got the best traction. That was a secret for us, and I took the concept to Goodyear. I did a lot of tire development for Goodyear, in fact, and after many years of trying to develop rain tires, we finally developed a compound tire that did better than the walnut shells.

LOWE: Traction versus speed, then.

UNSER: Yes, the biggest gain we found was in the turns, not just going faster down the straight away. Traction is most important.

LOWE: You talk about an eight-second pit stop at Indianapolis, which is an amazing time for changing four tires and refueling. Is there a most memorable pit stop for you?

UNSER: None most memorable, as I’ve done thousands. Often things will go wrong, for sure. Probably the worst was in 1981, in the Indy race, when because of the design of the fuel filler that year, there was a tendency of the sleeve to stick. Happened to Rick Mears car, which caught fire. He jumped out, got burned a little. Same thing happened to me, around the same time, but what I did was just take off out of the pits, gambling that the flames would blow out, which they did. It burned my left sleeve, but that could have cost me the race had I just jumped out.

LOWE: About the go-cart accident which laid you up for a year, did you really tell the doctor you needed to go race as soon as you woke from a coma of more than a week?

UNSER: When I woke up in the hospital I was close to dying, for sure, but you have to realize I didn’t even have a headache! Didn’t know where I was. I was like I’d just woke up from one night. So it’s time for me to go, time to be at Indianapolis for a sprint car race.

LOWE: That’s amazing. Did you know Dale Earnhardt?

UNSER: Yes, I did.

LOWE: What is your thought on track safety today?

UNSER: Safety has just steadily gotten better. Racing will never be totally safe, but it’s so much better than it used to be. Goodyear, for one, spent lots of money, not just on winning races, but on safety. Like fuel cells, break-away fittings, clothing. Bill Simpson was a tremendous help with safety. Simpson Safety Products really got technology going that way. My brother died from burns at Indianapolis, and there was just no safety back then. Helmets, clothing, cars, walls, all were just terrible. We used to accept the fact that about fifty percent of the drivers died while racing, and that wasn’t a good number.

LOWE: Fifty percent?

UNSER: Yeah, but it’s changed, now, and you hardly ever see a fire today. The uniforms are a thousand percent better. Drivers I remember used to race in tee shirts, back when there were no bladders in the fuel tanks. Now Indy cars have a lot of shock absorption qualities, whereas in Nascar the frame is rigid. Steel tubing.

LOWE: That’s not good.

UNSER: Now this is turning out to be a negative, and Nascar is looking into remedies, because they’ve got to do something about shock absorbing. An Indy car, where the driver sits, is like a capsule, where everything else can shuck away. Nascar cars, like Dale’s. . .that’s a rigid frame, and one of the reasons why he died. I saw the report on Earnhardt. Best done investigation of an accident I’ve seen. Of course there were many reasons why Dale got killed. Problems that came together all at the same time.

LOWE: Dale Jr. carries on. Do you have children, yourself?

UNSER: Four kids. One daughter has a program to help teach driving safety in corporations, to get breaks in insurance. My other daughter is a real estate appraiser. And I have two boys. Bobby Jr. helps create TV car commercials. Stunt driving for those. He’s won some awards, like for the commercials on the Super Bowl. Then Robby was a race driver too, but he didn’t stay with it either. He was in Indianapolis twice.

LOWE: Jim Bond reads your book on audio. Do you listen to audiobooks yourself, while driving, or recommend them?

UNSER: Absolutely. I have some people who’ve gotten mine, and listen while going to work. Ironically, some are in L.A. with the bad freeways! But what a beautiful way to read a book. I think audiobooks are a fabulous idea.

LOWE: Good way to relieve stress. Better than rock or rap, which only adds to stress.

UNSER: Exactly. A way to keep your mind working, for sure. Something other than being aggravated about the traffic problems. If my wife and I are going somewhere, she’ll listen to tapes and learn Spanish, since we own a home in old Mexico now. Same with my book. That’s how Lisa read it, listening to the tapes. Time on the freeway is wasted time, so why not turn a negative into a positive? That’s the bottom line.

LOWE: What’s next for you, and for your friend Roger Penske?

UNSER: I do expert witness litigation work now. Roger, of course, will keep on racing. He’s got the best team, and he loves the sport. He isn’t slowing down. A good man, and good for racing.

LOWE: As are you. Thank you, sir. It was a pleasure and a privilege to talk to you.

With bestselling author Mark Bowden

from the vault: Mark Bowden is the author of four books— Bringing the Heat, Doctor Dealer, Black Hawk Down, and Killing Pablo. As a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, he won many national awards for journalism, and he has since published in magazines such as Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Parade. His screenplay version of Black Hawk Down was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and Killing Pablo has been optioned by “Gladiator” director Ridley Scott.

JONATHAN LOWE: In your early career as a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, what types of stories did you cover?

MARK BOWDEN: In my work for newspapers, which began in 1973 for The Baltimore News-American, I have covered just about everything imaginable. I have always preferred being a generalist, and have enjoyed moving into new territory. My first writing job was with a special section of the Baltimore paper called “Young World.” I wrote searching feature stories about acne and loneliness. I went on to cover cops, a suburban county, the state legislature, politics and even baseball. At the Inquirer I have been science writer, transportation reporter, football reporter and have done extensive national and international reporting.

LOWE: Was it a natural progression for you from newspaper and magazine stories to books?

BOWDEN: Yes. When I was just getting started, a solid newspaper story was the best thing I could do. Then it was longer Sunday stories, magazine stories (I was staff writer for The Inquirer Sunday Magazine for five years), and then stories that had to run in a series. At this rate by the time I’m 60 I’ll be giving Will and Ariel Durant a run for their money.

LOWE: In BLACK HAWK DOWN you write about a tragic incident during the war in Somalia that was harrowing and galvanizing. When did you know this had to be told in a book–was it the famous photo of a dead American Special Forces soldier being dragged along the streets of Mogadishu?

BOWDEN: I was drawn to the story in Black Hawk Down by its inherent drama. I didn’t even realize when I started that the troops involved were Special Forces, or even, frankly, what Special Forces were.

LOWE: I saw the Frontline piece on drug lord Pablo Escobar’s life and death, and what fascinated me was how many people revered him, and continue to do so. Current drug lords in Mexico also purchase poor citizen’s allegiance, and buy politicians or threaten them. But none have been as blatant or cruel or rich as Escobar. What is your take on his mythic status? Was he really intelligent, generous, and sociopathic–like a Mafia don–or was he only a self-deluded street thug who attracted allegiance with his fearless audacity and by passing the buck?

BOWDEN: I think Escobar did have something of a social conscience, although only in a very selective and self-serving way. I suspect his efforts on behalf of the poor helped him rationalize the other things he did. It enabled him to see himself as a good man, even when he was ordering assassinations and setting off bombs in Bogota.

LOWE: His extravagant lifestyle seems to support the myth that crime pays, although his death explodes that notion. Was he a paranoid man, or did he really think he was innocent and untouchable, like a god? And exactly how far reaching was his control of the drug trade in the U.S.?

BOWDEN: At his height, Escobar was the most powerful drug dealer and most successful criminal in the world. About 80% of the cocaine that reached the U.S. came from his cartel. He certainly came to believe that he was too powerful and smart to be stopped, and no doubt felt that he was performing an important service. He was not paranoid. It’s like the old joke …people were actually trying to get him. His extravagance was the expression of a man who suddenly had more money than he could ever spend. So his imagination ran wild.

LOWE: Why couldn’t the CIA take him out earlier? Why did it take so long to find him after he walked out of his agreed-upon self imposed “incarceration?”

BOWDEN: The book makes a strong case that American military, drug enforcement and spy agencies were linked to the death squads that left Pablo isolated and vulnerable, but the final killing appears to have been done by the Colombian Search Bloc, with considerable American assistance. Escobar was not killed earlier because he was smart and fast on his feet. He was extremely difficult to find because he had many friends, he was rich, and where he was not beloved in Antioquia, he was feared.

LOWE: This really is an amazing story, involving competing spy forces, government corruption, revenge, and the ridiculous conceits of the criminal mind. But do you think Escobar would be alive today, were it not for the secret vigilante group “Los Pepes” which targeted his operatives in revenge?

BOWDEN: I think that without Los Pepes, Pablo would still be at large.

LOWE: Are many people in Medellin, Colombia drug users? You say that the place is still dangerous today for American tourists. Are they so used to seeing brutal killings as a way of life that they might not help someone being attacked in the street?

BOWDEN: To my knowledge, Colombia has never had a drug problem anything like ours. Widespread drug abuse afflicts prosperous societies. In poor countries people are too busy trying to eat and find shelter to lay around stoned for long. The people of Colombia and a warm and generous folk, but Medellin in particular has long been plagued with violence, and in recent years guerrilla groups have targeted Americans and affluent Colombians for kidnapping.

LOWE: Did you enjoy narrating the audiobook version of KILLING PABLO?

BOWDEN: I very much enjoyed reading the book for Simon & Schuster audio. I’ve been reading my work out loud to my wife for years, and she’s never offered to pay me. We writers fall in love with our words, so what could be better than an excuse to sit down and read the whole thing out loud?

Interview with Catherine Coulter

From the vault: Catherine Coulter is the bestselling author of The Edge, The Cove, Hemlock Bay, Riptide, Eleventh Hour, and many other suspense and romance titles. With 50 million + copies of her novels in print, Catherine Coulter lives in Mill Valley, California.

JONATHAN LOWE: You started writing Regency romances, and some historical romances. Then you started writing contemporary suspense novels. Now you write both. Why the switch, back and forth, and which interests you most?

CATHERINE COULTER: Can you imagine two more disparate genres than historical romance and suspense thrillers? And that’s why I do both — I’ll never get burned out. I hope I can continue to do both forever. Well, I don’t want to get carried away here. How about for another fifty years?

LOWE: Okay. Of course that’s not up to me! What is your background?

COULTER: I think of background as what happened yesterday. To go way back, my background started when when I was riding quarter horses with no saddle and sometimes no bridle as well, which drove my mother mad. At twelve I was in love with Little Joe Cartwright and wrote my first novel — it was fourteen pages long and is, thankfully, in oblivion. After the horses and Little Joe, I got degrees in history, English lit and psychology. Yes, you might come to the conclusion that I was a professional student. When I decided to try my hand at a novel, I knew I’d come home. Oh yeah, I wrote funny speeches for the president of an actuarial company on Wall Street. What I wrote was really funny; unfortunately, he wasn’t.

LOWE: Wall Street is definitely not funny these days. Did anyone influence you to become a writer?

COULTER: No one influenced me to become a writer. I didn’t visit Tibet and meet with a beautifully-complexioned monk who laid his hands on me and intoned, “Write.” Nope, I read everything in sight, including cereal boxes, and the #writing came along with it. My very favorite writer growing up was Georgette Heyer, and she certainly influenced my first novel.

LOWE: When I interviewed Lincoln Child, he told me he prefers to do something new and different each time out, rather than a series utilizing series characters. It’s harder to sell books that way, these days, since you have no faithful readers of characters. What are your thoughts on series?

COULTER: You know, I really like series for the simple reason that you get to know the people and want to know what happens to them. I’ve done both single books and the series — series are the most fun as well, in my own humble opinion. Maybe you could say that a single book is like coming out with a new kind of cereal every year and then it’s gone and there is no more. But what about all those folk who happened to love that cereal?

LOWE: You’ve got a point. I’m not crazy about serials, though, or cereal. With the exception of MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, or Cussler’s Dirk Pitt. Which novels have done best for you, sales wise?  

COULTER: The very best top-selling book for me is The Cove, which turned out to be the first book in the FBI series.

LOWE: Do you go on book tours? Any surprises along the way, there? I know some writers who get a flood of people in one city, and hardly anyone in the next.  

COULTER: Book tours and surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant, go hand in hand, like having a stretch limo drive me from Dayton to Chicago in time for an early TV show and running into the most violent thunderstorm of twenty years. I’ve toured now for years, some years more intensive than others. This summer one of my stops will be in eastern Tennessee because Blindside is set there.

LOWE: What’s this about a writer’s retreat you’re attending?

COULTER: I have three very dear friends: Iris Johansen, Linda Howard, and Kay Hooper. We met in Las Vegas. We call it a “retreat” — it makes the accountants happier.

LOWE: Let’s hope the IRS isn’t listening. Describe your latest book, if you will.

COULTER: I just finished Blindside, the next FBI thriller, set primarily in eastern Tennessee. Sherlock and Savich are in it big-time. The Sheriff, Katie Benedict, is remarkable. I have a feeling she’s going to be getting her own fan mail.

Interview with Lincoln Child

From the vault: Lincoln Child is part of a collaborative writing team. Together with Douglas Preston, they have produced several #bestsellers, including RIPTIDE, THUNDERHEAD, RELIC (made into a movie starring Linda Hunt), MOUNT DRAGON, and RELIQUARY. One of theirs, THE ICE LIMIT, was about an unusual meteorite collected from an island off Chile. At the time of this interview their new title was THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. 

JONATHAN LOWE: Many bestselling authors are teaming with lesser known writers in order to produce more books these days. This includes Clancy, Cussler, Clarke, and even Ludlum before he passed away. You are an exception, as you write all of your novels together, as equals. How did your partnership come about? 

LINCOLN CHILD:  We met in the mid-80s, when I was an editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York. I was fascinated by the American Museum of Natural History and was looking for someone to do an armchair tour / history of the place. I noticed that Doug Preston, who worked for the museum, wrote interesting historical columns for their magazine. So I took him to lunch at the Russian Tea Room and pitched the idea to him. He’d always wanted to write a full-length book and the project appealed to him.  That was the beginning of a non-fiction title called DINOSAURS IN THE ATTIC, which he wrote and I edited. Over the course of the project, we became friends. Afterwards, he sent me an idea for a murder mystery, set in a museum. I responded that murder mysteries were hard to do well, and (in my opinion anyway) a dime a dozen.  But why not a techno-thriller, set in a fictitious natural history museum?  It seemed the ideal place for one.  And why not write it with me? I was in the process of leaving the publishing industry by that time and my own nascent writing interests–which had more or less dried up while working so closely with other people’s manuscripts–had begun to reassert themselves. That was how RELIC got started. 

LOWE:  How does the collaboration work in terms of outline, first draft, editing? 

CHILD:  Although there are exceptions, the way we have generally collaborated is this: first, we brainstorm extensively, sometimes over the phone, sometimes in the form of letters faxed or emailed back and forth.  Next, I put together a rough outline of an upcoming series of chapters, based on our discussions.  Sometimes we toss this outline back and forth, adding things, removing things, posing questions, pointing out problem points.  Then Doug writes a rough draft of those upcoming chapters, based on the outline. I then revise those chapters. Sometimes my revisions are relatively light; other times, they significantly rework Doug’s originals.  At one time, I used to do a final pass over the entire manuscript–the literary equivalent of a Zamboni machine–to give the manuscript a uniform feel.  But over time, I think our individual styles have really begun to approach each others–I’ve picked up traits from Doug, and Doug from me, and so when we’re working together on a book that last pass of mine is no longer necessary. We both look at the finished manuscript, add our individual bits of polish, and that’s it. 

LOWE:  Do you ever argue vigorously over which way to go? 

CHILD:  Of course we do! As Doug once put it in an interview, “sometimes we argue like an old married couple.”  In the early days, we were extremely diplomatic with each other. But now, we’ve worked together long enough that we can put forth our ideas, or critique what the other has done, in relatively blunt tones, without fearing (usually) for bruised egos.  Our arguments and discussions are healthy things, however.  With two minds at work, there are twice as many ideas to choose from.  And with somebody else looking over your shoulder, you are less likely to slip unconsciously into self-indulgent writing, or to travel down some dead-end path in the story. 

LOWE: The dust jacket says your background is in story anthology editing.  Who are some of the writers you’ve published, and have you written short stories for magazines yourself? 

CHILD:  Actually, most of what I edited was novels, by both American and British authors. I edited several hundred books while an editor at St. Martin’s, primarily #mysteries, #thrillers, and historical novels, but also non-fiction books as diverse as the notation of Western music and a certain armchair tour of the American Museum of Natural History by one Douglas Preston. I’ve been involved with the work of such authors as James Herriot (ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL) and M. M. Kaye (THE FAR PAVILIONS). I wrote several short stories in my callow youth, and submitted one or two for publication, but they were never printed. Since high school, I really haven’t thought much about short story writing. I do have an idea for a really chilling short story, but I’ve been so involved with novels I haven’t had time to put it on paper! Some day, I do hope to publish another anthology of ghost and #horror stories. If that ever comes together, perhaps I’ll write that story of mine for inclusion. 

LOWE:  Describe you new novel, if you will. 

CHILD:  Our seventh thriller, CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, has what we think is a great hook: a developer is razing a group of old tenements in lower Manhattan to make way for a new high-rise tower.  They break into an old subterranean chamber, and a workman goes in to investigate.  He finds what is basically a charnel: the walled-up remains of dozens of people, killed brutally. It appears to have been a New York Jack the Ripper, working unsuspected in the late nineteenth century. These ancient crimes become even more grisly when it turns out the murderer appears to have had the skill of a surgeon, and he was attempting in his fiendish work to find an elixir of life prolongation. And then, in modern-day Manhattan, similar killings begin to surface. Is it a lunatic, copycat murderer…or did the diabolical “surgeon,” in fact, succeed?

LOWE:  An interesting twist on the old serial killer theme. Almost like a combo horror/suspense with a historical perspective. So, these cabinets referred to are like minature museums which used to be displayed, right?  How did you research them?

CHILD:   As you know, Doug Preston worked for several years at the American Museum of Natural History in NY. He did quite a bit of research on the old cabinets of curiosity for his first book, so we were able to tap into his expertise for our new novel. I believe that some of today’s natural history museums helped get their start by buying up the old cabinets, too.

LOWE:  Actor Rene Auberjonois does a great job with the narration. It sounds as though one is listening to a museum curator, with his delicate and precise diction.  Of course he’s best remembered for #StarTrek: Deep Space Nine. But I wanted to ask you about sequels, considering that a sequel to your book, THE ICE LIMIT, might explain some things. Do you not plan on writing any more sequels, or is the ending to that novel a suggestion to the reader or listener to use his or her imagination for closure? Perhaps just a final chilling question mark? 

CHILD:  We are not planning to write a sequel to THE ICE LIMIT.  With each book we write, Doug and I try to bring something fresh and new to our readers.  That’s what keeps things interesting for us, and hopefully for our readers as well.  The one time we wrote a sequel — RELIQUARY, the sequel to RELIC — we found it very difficult.  We refused to succumb to “sequelitis,” the kind of tired retread of an original story that neither Doug nor myself can bear to read.  We had to make sure RELIQUARY was a unique and interesting book on its own, and that was challenging.  There were lots of technical problems, too, such as balancing the needs of returning RELIC readers with those readers who had not read RELIC — how to bring them up to speed without boring the “old” readers?  We also think, as you yourself suggest, the conclusion of THE ICE LIMIT is more effective if we leave that chilling question mark hanging for the reader/listener’s own imagination to answer.  However, I will say that, in a rather interesting if subtle way, what ultimately happens in THE ICE LIMIT has an impact on Nora Kelly, the hero of both THUNDERHEAD and our new novel. 

LOWE:  Interesting, and I agree with you on sequels . . . I generally hate them too!  Now, audiobooks are increasing in popularity as more people simply can’t find the time to read print books. Do you ever get fan mail from people who’ve heard your audiobooks as opposed to having read your books in print? 

CHILD: Yes, we get a lot of fan mail from listeners, as well as from readers. Personally, I think that audiobooks are a great way for people to enjoy “reading” — whether it’s popular fiction, literature, poetry, biography, or whatever.  I have a friend who has listened to the complete works of Patrick O’Brien on tape, in unabridged form, while commuting to work.  It makes so much sense: why just stare out the window of a train or car when you can be enjoying a book?  But it goes far beyond commuting, of course.  For someone who does not have the time to read, or for some other reason prefers tape to print, audiobooks are an invaluable resource. 

LOWE: You had a stand alone novel something along the lines of West World or Jurassic Park? 

CHILD: I’ve long been fascinated by today’s first-rank theme parks. The way they employ all sorts of subtle psychology to manipulate guests and keep them happy; the way they micro-manage all the various details of the experience of visiting a park; the way cutting-edge technology is used in everything from designing rides to tracking visitor flow. I wanted to write a thriller that would lift the curtain that’s been carefully placed between the park that guests see and the behind-the-scenes park they’re never allowed to see: the offices, labs, workshops, tunnels, security areas. The more a park becomes computerized, I thought, the more vulnerable it becomes to a sophisticated penetration. UTOPIA is about a group of high-tech hackers who hold an ultra-modern theme park hostage and demand an outrageous ransom. It’s also about the man who designed the park’s robotics… and who is the only man who can stop the villains. Stopping them is especially important to him because his only daughter is at the park that day, and as such is in grave danger.

The Golden Age of Radio Today

On the day before Halloween, 1938, millions of Americans tuned in to a popular radio drama program hosted by Orson Welles.  Unfortunately for listeners that day, Welles’ adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” presented the radio drama as if it were an actual news broadcast. Fake updates described a “huge flaming object” dropping from the sky near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Actors read lines like “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake They look like tentacles to me! This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’t find words. I’m pulling this microphone with me as I talk. I’ll have to stop the description until I’ve taken a new position. Hold on, will you please, I’ll be back in a minute!” While the beginning of this broadcast indicated its fictional nature, such an explanation wasn’t repeated until more than half an hour later.  In the meantime, the panic that ensued would soon make legitimate news headlines, with stories of people hiding in cellars with loaded guns, or wrapping their heads in wet towels for protection from Martian poison gas.  It all prompted New York Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson to declare that, “All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time. They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic. They have demonstrated the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery.”

This was the Golden Age of Radio, which didn’t fade until the newer technology of television took over in the 1950s.  Oddly, the effectiveness of radio wasn’t diminished even by World War II, since news broadcasts spurred a need for escapist evening drama, particularly thriller drama.  During a typical wartime season, then, radio networks offered 25 programmed hours each week of shows like “Suspense” and “The Shadow.”  Even later, when television was young, many successful radio series were adapted for the small screen, like “Gunsmoke,” which could then be heard on radio and seen on TV simultaneously.  In fact, only when the number of TV sets began to near the number of radio sets in American homes did the medium die as a popular addiction.

But has it died completely? Not if you ask Steve Karesh, whose radio drama Sonic Theater channel was heard nationwide on the even newer technology known as XM Satellite radio. Beamed from space to strategic repeater stations nationwide, XM radio can be heard anywhere in America, fade free, with an offering of both old and new, including Bob & Ray, Imagination Theater, Alien Worlds, Twilight Zone, Radio Tales, and L.A. Theater Works productions. And what has listener feedback been like?  “I’ve received hundreds of emails from people, half of whom are fans of the comedy plays and half the dramatic plays,” Karesh told me. “I believe we’re providing something that hasn’t been available for a long time, and I have no doubt that we’re influencing producers to format new works in lengths of thirty minutes to meet our needs, too.”

For a deeper look at those producers, and the state of radio and audio drama production today, I interviewed Sue Zizza, and asked about her own history with the medium.  As Executive Director of what has become the National Audio Theatre Festivals, Zizza also teaches a course on the subject of audio drama at New York University, and credits success to directors like Charlie Potter, Yuri Rasovsky and Tom Lopez, along with audio artists like Marjorie Van Haltern, David Ossman and others.

“Back in 1979,” Zizza recalled, “when I was on staff at a community radio station in Missouri, we put feelers out across the country to other dramatists in the field.  The intent was to see who was still doing what, and to form a new group of professionals, utilizing funds provided at the time by public radio, the NEA and CPB. Then when the suggestion was made to form a training event, the Midwest Radio Drama Workshop was born. Now, our week long workshops in Missouri introduce people at all skill levels to audio drama production.” As Zizza further explains it, “We believe that if you learn how to produce an audio play, where you’re blending voice and music and sound effects and silence, then you can take those skills and become a better documentary, film or music producer, because what you learn through telling your story as audio drama really hones your storytelling craft.”

In addition to week long workshops, the NATF also sponsors weekend events around the country, focused on one particular skill, and at the end an actual performance is staged so that these learned skills can be practiced. “Take Lindsay Ellison, for example,” Zizza points out, “who added audio production and direction to her stage direction and acting skills.  Now she’s working with Tom Lopez on the post production of her play.  Others take classes in voice acting, writing, producing, directing and technology.  After learning the fundamentals, they mount a live show as an effects artist or technical assistant, and also network with others at meals and social events.”

In describing the unique challenges of audio drama, Zizza cites knowing how to make voices unique “because obviously there are no body types or hair colors as in stage acting,” and also knowing when and how often to utilize sound effects “because too much sound design only confuses the listener, and should only be used to support the action, identify locales, or move characters around a space.”  In short, the listener must be clear at all moments about what is going on. And that rule has never changed.

But hasn’t the equipment changed since radio’s Golden Age?  “Not really,” claims Zizza. “Many of the props I use today were inherited from my mentor Al Shaffer, who did sound effects for Bob & Ray, among others.  He taught me how to do horses, walk down stairs, etc.  The only thing that’s really changed is that the microphones are more sensitive now, so you can’t get away with using an old-time prop like cellophane to make fire. Although corn starch is still used for walking through snow.” Indeed, she is adamant that sound effects taken from CDs don’t work for the most part, even in our modern, high-tech era. “The acoustic space is not the same as the space where the actors record, and you can tell.  With animals in a zoo, for example, there’s a reverb which can’t be corrected.  So getting a sound effects artist to listen and add effects in real time actually saves time.  Where the science has advanced is really in post production, with digital recording and editing.  But if you don’t understand how the elements of writing and acting and sound design combine in the final product, it won’t matter if you’re producing it digitally, and Pro Tools won’t save you.”

Zizza says that part of her funding today comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, and part from the local arts councils where the festivals are held, and from individual contributors.  The audio drama community as it exists today consists of “about two hundred independent companies or individuals producing mostly new material, although maybe half will produce both old time and new scripts.”  For her own part, she produces The Radio Works, (suemedia.com), a sampler series which is heard on 70 public radio stations, and features a different producer each time, with all new work.  Other audio drama companies currently active include the Full Cast Audio company, founded by Bruce Coville, a producer/publisher of teen and young adult titles primarily in the fantasy genre; the Atlanta Radio Theater, Great Northern Audio Theatre, ZBS Foundation, Firesign Theatre, Shoestring Radio Theater (an amateur San Francisco company), and the Radio Repertory Company of America. Seeing Ear Theatre, associated with the Scifi channel, produces original plays for publishers like Harper Audio, like the excellent “Two Plays for Voices,” featuring actors Bebe Neuwirth and Brian Dennehy performing Neil Gaiman’s “Snow Glass Apples” and “Murder Mysteries.” And of course L.A. Theatre Works, perhaps the most highly regarded audio theatre company, employs talented professionals like Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason to record classic plays as audio dramas for distribution in bookstores, like Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”  More news about audio drama may be obtained from Audiofile magazine, whose editor, Robin Whitten, is a consultant for NATF, and maintains a website rich in material on the entire audiobook industry at AudiofileMagazine.com. To find more about what’s available in new audio drama, look to the Lodestone Catalog, now online at Lodestone-media.com. Or one may sample the productions of an individual pioneer like Yuri Rasovsky at BlackstoneAudio.com.

What does the future hold by way of opportunities for actors, writers, directors and technicians in the full cast segment of the audiobook industry?  Zizza is cautious, but optimistic. “Full cast audio is costly to produce, as you know, and so there are not as many titles available. This is also true for public radio stations, who find it more economical to produce news or talk shows. But I think the situation is improving over what it was just three years ago.  Listeners are becoming more astute, and they enjoy hearing a story, and so after seeing something like Spider Man, which has an incredible sound track, you can’t expect them to listen to a dry audiobook with nothing but a voice. With all the webcasting and iPod downloading going on, and with the new Mp3 players that are starting to come standard in new cars, I think people will seek out audio drama, and already a new crop of directors and producers are studying the craft the same way as those who study stage acting.  Our challenge is to produce better quality material, and take those interested to the next level of skills so that audio theater looks forward instead of backward.”

Monday, September 25, 2023

Satire in Real Life

In many ways, humorists are similar to–and yet the opposite of– rubbernecking journalists. They also point out freak accidents, murders, thefts, and just ordinary politicos caught with their pants down in public. Comics don’t take it so seriously, though. These things happen, they say, so don’t worry about it. For God’s sake, just go outside and breath some fresh air once in a while.

It was poet Dylan Thomas who once advised people to rage against the dying of the light, with Sylvia Plath as cue-card holder.  But if he’d been a humorist, Thomas would have told people to wave a candle at the line of approaching super-storms between swigs of Coke Zero. No one rages anymore, except guys with AK 47s and three sheets to the wind. We’ve all decided that nothing will ever change, least of all our own addictions. My question? With Thomas gone, aren’t all the hack TV journalists out there (who focus on Hollywood award nominees and those walking jewelry stores known as rap stars and divas) REALLY saying that the life of the average Joe or Mary “Toe-Tag” Smith is pathetic and miserable by comparison, as well as meaningless and random? People sure seem to be getting the message by the way they drive in traffic.

And what about all the Chinese watching American TV in Beijing by satellite?  What do they take away from it?  According to Jared Diamond, they want what they see:  our SUVs, camera cell phones, plasma TVs, Harleys, 20 oz. steaks and supersized steak-cut fries.  Plus they want our central air and hot tubs, too, and our marble kitchens, and maybe a big hearth with a big roaring fire.  Thing is, though, if they get what they want the world will become unlivable. Our solution?  Combine rubbernecking news with Hollywood news, and broadcast it to Beijing, and quick.  Because it’s already too late for us.

SATIRE–  A tongue-in-cheek mockery, usually in literary format, and particularly with the rich or powerful as target.  Examples:

“Yacht Race Massacres Fifty”

Fifty spectators to the Pre-Oscar Celebrity Yacht Race in Long Beach were accidentally killed last night when a Celebrity Cruise Line ship piloted by Tom Cruise grazed a Carnival Cruise Line ship piloted by Ted Cruz, and veered into the stands.  “The two ships were supposed to pass in the night, but kissed off each other,” harbormaster Eric Ericson reported to the Long Beach Tattler after hours phone desk.  “Please tell folks, if you must, that all the celebs involved in the incident are truly, truly safe, and that anybody who is anybody wishes to express their deepest condolences to those who are not.”

ARCHEOLOGY–  The science involving the excavation of old artifacts buried in the earth, and the interpretation thereof.  Not to be attempted at home.  Example:  Jimbo “Jonesy” Jones, Newark, NJ:

June 24)  While in search of fossils this afternoon in my back yard, have run across a jawbone similar to the one found by Dr. Alfred Zimmer in Ethiopia last summer, which HE claimed was 4 million years old. (Or 40 million–he wasn’t too sure about the decimal point).  What this may mean, I have no idea except that perhaps college textbooks need to be rewritten so students can’t resell their old ones next year.  Plan to take this jawbone home and reconstruct a skull from it, hopefully.  On the way back must remember to stop at the library and check out GRAY’S ANATOMY and an unabridged copy of 100 SCIENCE PROJECTS YOU CAN BUILD WITHOUT LEAVING THE KITCHEN.

   June 26)  Have encountered minor difficulties in my work with plaster molds and the posterior portion of the skull.  My enthusiasm remains high, however, for in my zeal to unravel the mystery I inadvertently (but nonetheless brilliantly) substituted Red Band Flour for Plaster of Paris.  Such accidents in the past, we are told, resulted in many inventions and breakthroughs in Science for such men as Edison, Goddard, and Herbert Bloom (who once constructed a Brontosaurus from one broken tooth, 900 bags of Quickrete, and–as accident would have it–19 bales of chicken wire.)

Any day now I expect success.