The Sonic Society

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Howelling Wisdom

Recently, our Sonic Echo team have been talking about the classic Nightfall horror suspense series from CBC Radio in the eighties. Bill Howell, the senior producer had a fascinating take on the challenge of getting an audience in Radio Drama. From the Theatre Research in Canada Journal. 1990’s article¬†Bill Howell from Canadian Radio Drama in English: Prick Up Your Ears:

According to CBC producer Bill Howell, however, such numbers do not really constitute an audience (even though, of course, the word ‘audience’ derives form the Latin verb audire, ‘to hear’).
They represent individual listeners, simply because there can be no interaction between them and the performers. The experience necessarily is subjective and internalized.
The play is created in the imagination of the listener. This is both the weakness and the strength of radio drama. It precludes the communal experience, the interaction of stage event and audience response so vital to live theatre; but it creates a condition of intimacy, a personal voice in the ear, which live theatre cannot replicate.
Bill Howell considers radio theatre a kind of paradox: ‘It comes out of a sense of community, but finally radio drama is a community of two’ – the radio whistling into the listener’s ear. Most importantly, it develops the art of listening – listening as active and participatory. And in this age of visual stimulation, listening has become almost a lost art.
Rarely is the whole concentration focused on sound. The general assumption in our hurried society is that listening is secondary and passive; it fills in the background during more important activities such as ironing and washing the dishes. The result is that most of us hear very little. We tend to hear what we want to hear, what we think we hear.
We become closed to new perceptions. Only the strident and shocking sounds cut through – what television announcers now call ‘sound bites.’ Radio drama, however, is foreground listening.
It works only if it commands the whole attention of the audience, and this is a difficult thing to do.

Almost forty years later and the challenge is still real, Mr. Howell. Thank you.

About The Author

Born to Teachers and Amateur Audio Enthusiasts in the small rural community of Belwood, Jack's first love was stories- writing, reading, telling, and singing. He developed his acting skills through High School, University, and through film and community theatre. Jack writes the lion's share of Electric Vicuna's Audio Drama scripts and has his own writing site at He's thrilled to co-host the Sonic Society with his wonderful, talented, friend David Ault!


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