Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio drama – Neil Verma


Neil Verma divides the book Theater of the Mind into three parts that correspond with three distinct time periods in radio’s history: (1) radio aesthetics in the late depression, 1937-1945; (2) communication and interiority in 1940s radio, 1941-1950; and (3) radio and the postwar mood, 1945-1955.  Verma takes the phrase “theater of the mind” from a New York Times article that ran in 1949 to describe radio and its plays. Verma states that “radio is not a theater of the mind; it is the theater of the mind” (2012, p. 3).  Radio allowed listeners to imagine stories unfold.

In part one, Verma begins his study, not by looking at radio when it was a new medium, but after radio had developed a prominence in listeners’ lives. Radio receivers could be brought into homes, the private sphere, but listeners could discuss programs in the public sphere. This creates an issue of space, is radio public or private or both.

Several new terms are introduced throughout the course of the book. Verma uses the term “audiopoistion,” in place of “vantage point” and “point of audition,” to “indicate the place for the listener that is created by coding foregrounds and backgrounds”  (2012, p. 35). This means that one or more characters are exclude from the privilege of knowing how the story develops.

There are two audiopoistions formulas, intimate and kaleidosonic styles. Verma argues that these styles represent a way to solve “representational and narrative problems” (2012, p. 57). Intimate style allowed listeners to become close to the characters and, depending, either empathize or sympathize with them. Kaleidosonic style is defined as a way “to describe the feeling of a shifting sonic world that is accessed through a central point that is itself static and removed from events” (Verma, 2012, p. 68). The difference between the two styles is that “intimate plays take us around places, listening to the testimony in a succession; kaleidosoinc plays tend to center on events, conveying disparate voices all at once” (Verma, 2012, p. 73).

In part two, Verma makes a claim that the psychology of the war era can be understood, to a point, through the programs that were broadcasted at the time. It also changed how people viewed certain topics. The term “signals” is defined as “a type of sound effect that seems to take over the play and by extension, the mind” (Verma, 2012, p. 103) and is “a compulsive form of listening” (p. 106).

Paul Lazarsfeld’s, creator an early version of a Nielson recording device, paradigm is that “a ‘listener’ was a container of opinions and allegiances…and research consisted of surveying these opinions in order to unveil campaigns altered the content of mental repositories across populations (Verma, 2012, p. 122). This paradigm is connected to the idea of being passive. Characters are casted into either be “passive receivers” or “active transmitters” roles.

Another three terms are introduced in relation to radio: eavesdropping, ventriloquist, and signalman, found in chapter seven. Eavesdropping allows for certain stories or information to come forward through “ghost stories”. Ventriloquism allows the reinforcement of a “mask.”  Signalman tell, without the knowledge of the character, listeners certain facts for their consumption.

In the third and final part of the time, Verma writes about radio in the postwar era. He argues that radio plays a significant role in how people dealt with the transition and the eventual popularity of television in the home. The plays of the postwar era allowed for a return to imagining the story, as opposed to understanding communication that was present in the war era. New issues were discussed in the 1950s, such as the concept of boundaries and the paranoia of the Red Scare. Radio allowed people to grapple with the concept of a medium that could be brought into the home and paved the way for the publics that now include technologies such as computers. 


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