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  • Writer's pictureCraig Norris

Some radio, some topics, and some terms.

Radio dramas, their listeners, and the way it circulates around us is diverse and multifaceted. This post will consider the problem of how the experience of the radio dramas we’ve created and broadcast on our weekly radio show ‘Media Mothership’ are made meaningful and enjoyable by listeners. Additionally there is also the significant issue of how our use of radio drama’s work as a commodity in today’s economy.

Discussing how a radio drama can mean something can be approached from many angles. If we start with a conventional semiotic reading of how a radio drama attempts to make meanings and link it to broader ideas of things like the dominant interests in society or how these are then circulated amongst a broad listener based. We can take an example like the radio drama "Sorry, Wrong Number" (1943) from the anthology series Suspense. The story involves a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on the phone.


AGNES: I don’t see how it could be busy all that time. It’s my husband’s office and I’m all alone here in the house. My health is very poor and I’ve been feeling so nervous all day…

OPERATOR: Ringing Murray Hill 4-0098…


MAN: (FILTER) Hello?

AGNES: Hello, is Mr. Stevenson there?

MAN: (FILTER) Hello? Hello

GEORGE: Hello…

MAN: Hello, George?

GEORGE: (FILTER) Yes, this is George speaking.

AGNES: Hello, who is this? What number am I calling please?

MAN: I’m here with our client…

GEORGE: Ohhh, good… Is everything OK? Is the coast clear for tonight?

MAN: Yes, George. He says the coast is clear for tonight.

GEORGE: Ok, ok…

MAN: Where are you now?

GEORGE: In a phone booth. Don’t worry, everything’s ok…

MAN: Very well, you know the address…

GEORGE: Yes, I know, I know. Let’s see now…at 11 o’clock, the privat patrolman goes around the corner to 2nd Avenue for a beer.

MAN: That’s right. Eleven o’clock. And be sure all the lights downstairs are out.


MAN: There should be only one light visible from the street.


MAN: (OFF MIC) What’s that? (ON MIC) Just a minute, George. (PAUSE) Oh, our client tells me that at 11:15, a train crosses the bridge. It makes a noise in case a window is open and she should scream.

AGNES: Hello! What number is this, please…

GEORGE: OK, I understand… That’s 11:15 the train, eh?

MAN: Yeah. Do you remember everything else, George?

GEORGE: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll make it quick…as little blood as possible because our client does not wish to make her suffer…

MAN: That’s right…you’ll use a knife?

GEORGE: Yes, a knife…it will be ok. The afterwards, I’ll remove the rings and the bracelets and the jewellery in the bureau drawer because our client wishes it to look like a simple robbery. Don’t worry, everything’s ok, I know…



SFX: PHONE DIALING AGNES: How unspeakably awful!... Operator!

OPERATOR: Your number, please…

AGNES: Operator! I've just been cut off...

OPERATOR: What number will you calling.

AGNES: Well, Operator, I was supposed to be calling Murray Hill 4-0098, but it wasn't. Some wires must have got crossed. I was cut into a wrong number -- and I -- I've just heard the most dreadful thing -- something about a -- murder -- and – and Operator, you'll simply have to retrace that call at once ... I…

OPERATOR: I beg your pardon? Uh, may I help you?

John Fiske's 3 levels of reality.

The Code

The figure to the right is from Fiske's analysis of TV Culture (1987). What it maps out is the links between producers, texts, and audiences and these codes "are the agents of intertextuality through which texts interrelate in a network of meanings that constitutes the cultural world" (p4). The hierarchy is basically represented in the figure. As Fiske points out, "reality" is not fixed or given, it is always encoded for it to be understandable, it's never "raw'.

An example of this is the way in which specific codes of radio broadcasting can be identified and analysed. The choices available to myself as host of Media Mothership to create meaning from what is being read or thought at the time is specific and within certain restrictions. Eg: vocal emphasis, microphone placement to get the 'sweet spot', the polar pattern and address type of the mic, proximity effect, vocal plosives, feedback, phase flip from multiple microphones, face position to mic, vibrations from the mount or stand etc. However, where it gets tricky is unpacking the ideological codes. Let's look at the example of the script above and its dialogue. We have a type of believable conversation happening here as our main character overhears the questions and instructions between the two strangers. The representation of the woman as having to ask for help and being dependent on others such as the telephone opperator or absent husband. This representation of women as being weak, helpless and dependent on others is an example of the ideological code of patriarchy. The representation of our two male strangers and their overheard conversation and the crime they are discussing of murdering someone plays into the portrayl of male characters as violent, ruthless and dominant. Given the date of production of 1943 this could be related to broader social and cultural stresses of the war time period where women were often working in previously male-dominated jobs, with the expectation they would return to their domestic jobs after the war. And men could be understood as struggling with trauma and some insecurity during and after the war. The naturalness of patriarchy and weakness and strength is an example of how various codes can work together to result in believability, a suspension of disbelief and everyday-ness of a society. Here we are working up and down the 'codes of television' levels that Fiske outlined. We make meaning, and make sense of things as being reality by working up and down these levels of "reality", representation and ideology. The next step is to take this apart, to deconstruct it, and show how it is all construction and highly ideological.

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