In the past, radio was the most ephemeral of all art forms - it slipped by the ear and then vanished into the air forever.
But nevertheless, these fleeting transmissions often left deep soundprints -- listening memories that could reverberate for decades. But radio culture has changed. Stories and sounds are archived and accessible, downloadable and easy to share. Still, the medium continues to evoke a powerful connection for listeners.
Tom Morton has been making radio documentaries for 20 years, from places as far apart as Germany, Uzbekistan, Ireland, Canada, the Tanami Desert in north-western Australia & the western suburbs of Sydney. He's a broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's History and Features Unit, a journalist and a writer. His most recent major production was Wide Open Road, a 4-part radio series and website about Australian popular music and the landscape.
Morton is also a musician, a member of the Lovely Assistants and electronic duo tomstu.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Tom Morton
OK Tom, level with us. Was this whole program just an excuse to sing along to Jonathan Richman on national radio?
I wish I could say the idea behind the show was as pure and simple as that. In a way, the feeling Jonathan Richman is singing about in “Roadrunner” - driving along with the window down and the radio turned up loud, the thrill of hearing the song you love most at that particular moment come on and feeling you're in touch with a bigger wider world through the radio – that's one of the feelings I was trying to conjure up.
If not...what WAS your inspiration for producing Listening to Ghosts?
I guess a couple of things were going through my mind. One was thinking about my own memories of listening, moments that have stayed with me from long before I ever imagined I'd be something called a radio producer, and wondering what made those moments so intense.
One of them, which I didn't put into the show, was hearing a song about Victor Jara, the Chilean poet and singer who was murdered by the Pinochet regime. Before they killed him, they chopped off his hands, so that he couldn't play the guitar any more. I heard this song in a program about Jara when I was a teenager and I'd never heard it since, but I've always remembered the refrain: “and his hands were gentle, and his hands were strong”. They're incredibly powerful and tender words (written by the British poet Adrian Mitchell).
Of course, when I put them into a search engine they, and a link to the whole song came up straight away. My memory was instantly recoverable. But I hesitated for a long time before I listened to it, because I was afraid in a way that that particular aural memory would become less unique and vivid.
I hope the impulse behind the program isn't purely nostalgic and conservative. The digital universe is a fantastic thing, it makes a whole rich cultural history of sound and radio available to us in way that was impossible before. That history was not just invisible, it was inaudible, vanished. Broadcast radio creates an experience of listening which is unique, unrecoverable: You're driving down a road with the radio on but you can't turn around and revisit a bit of the aural landscape you missed.
The question I was asking myself was: how does that experience change when we're in control, when listening is more like wandering through a museum than driving down a one-way street.
LTG is so beautifully produced with all of that extra audio – from old shortwave recordings to a range of seminal music, to number stations, to the Shakespeare scenes. How did the sound design come together?
At the ABC we are incredibly privileged to be able to work with very creative and experienced sound engineers. We also have the luxury of time in the mixing studio to experiment, in this case, 10 whole days. I'd never had so much time to play with, so I was like a kid in a toyshop. I don't think there are too many public broadcasters in the world where producers are empowered to work in this way.
The sound design of LTG is very much a collaboration between me and Steven Tilley, the engineer. It was bit like improvising a piece of music together – one of us would have an idea and the other would run with it. He is very imaginative and great fun to work with. No idea of mine was too stupid to try out, and I had some pretty stupid ones. Steven brought an incredible mix of sounds and ideas into the production, like all those weird shortwave recordings of number sequences – they're some sort of relic of Cold War code, I believe.
He's a rock and roll guy, so he understood straight away what I wanted to do with the music. Also he was very happy because he got to use a whole lot of reverbs and echo and other effects he hadn't used for a while.
Your narration is more casual than the usual read script or "pub radio" interview style. Was this always your intention, or was this simply the only way a story so personal and important to you COULD be presented?
Right at the beginning of the production I improvised a bunch of scripts without really knowing where they'd go or how I'd use them. I'd written some narration but I tried to record the scripts with my eyes closed, looking into my memory. Some of those ended up in the program, and some fell by the wayside. Others were made up as we went along. I did'nt start out with this idea necessarily, but Sharon Davis, who was the executive producer, really encouraged me to go for an intimate, personal style, which wasn't something I'd done much of before.
I also shamelessly stole some of the interviewing techniques which Neil Sandell developed at Outfront (and shared in a Third Coast Conference session) and tried to adapt them to doing the interviews.
What do the memories from one listener, of hearing The Tempest on the radio as a young woman, add to your overall exploration of radio as an important cultural presence and formative force in our lives?
The interview with Maggie, like most of the others with “listeners” in LTG, came out of a talkback about radio memories I produced for a daily live program on ABC Radio National called Life Matters. The idea was to go fishing for good stories and anecdotes on this live show and the use the best stories in the produced program. Maggie's story came out of a very short e-mail, but somehow the image of her listening to The Tempest on a rainy night seemed very evocative to me.
I think what Maggie's story adds to the program is a moment of transformation – a transformation in her own personal life, when the experience of listening to the radio put her in touch with something inside herself. In Jungian analysis, this is what a dream can do - bring something into consciousness which you've not been conscious of before. That's a line in The Tempest, too: “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” - and in some ways the whole play is about dreaming and waking and the dream of art.
Also, I didn't know this at the time, but I read recently that in the foyer of the original BBC Broasdcast House building there is a relief sculpture of Prospero and Ariel – so obviously the idea that Ariel is the spirit of radio itself goes back a long way.
We hear you're raising two sons in Sydney, with your wife Eurydice, who also produces radio for the ABC. In thirty of forty years if someone interviews THEM about their memories of listening to the radio growing up, and the role of radio in their parents' lives, how do you think they'll respond?
Funnily enough, we were in the car on the way back from a family holiday the other day and LTG came on the radio, as a repeat program in our Antipodean summer season. I had no idea it was going to be on at that time. Our younger son George listened for a few minutes and said “Dad, this is the most boring show I've ever heard” and then started to make unmentionable sound effects from the back seat.
I hope having parents who are mad radio listeners and radio producers won't turn them off radio altogether. They love listening to audio books in the car and even old stuff like the Goon Show, anything with funny voices. I think the time is ripe for a revival of kids' radio. The screen of the mind can still captivate kids – and adults – just as much as all those other screens we stare at.
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