Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tony Schwartz and the Power of Imagination

Tony Schwartz died on June 15th.

I had no idea who he was, either, when I first heard the obituary on NPR and read about his life in the Washington Post. But as it turns out, Mr Schwartz was a giant in a medium I love - radio. He was an audio recording genius who, in his long career, churned out more than 20,000 radio spots ranging from a few seconds to an hour in length, including some of the most memorable political ads in history. One of his most famous sayings was, "The best thing about radio is that people were born without earlids. You can't close your ears to it."

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love radio, and had my own program (The Audio Attic) for nine years on WEBR, the Fairfax County Public Access radio station. I was born in 1951, toward the end of the era of Big Radio, but I still remember listening to wonderful radio comedy and drama that made long evenings exciting. To this day, I have a very large collection of old-time radio programs on CDs and mp3's, and enjoy listening to them frequently.

Of course, this makes me a relative dinosaur in an age of ever-more feature-packed Blu-Ray DVDs. Video may be where it's at, but for my money, audio is by far the better medium, because it challenges you in a way video doesn't. It makes you use your imagination, rather than presenting everything to you on a flashy, high-definition plate. What you imagine in your mind is more detailed - and often far more frightening - than what you can see on the screen.

Comedian Stan Freberg once said that there were some things you could just never do on television, and proved it with a wonderful sketch in which - with all the appropriate sound effects - he drained Lake Michigan, filled it with chocolate syrup, shoved in a mountain of ice cream with bulldozers, blasted it with clouds of whipped cream, and dropped a giant maraschino cherry from a fleet of create the world's biggest ice cream sundae. In my mind's eye, I could really see that sundae take shape, and I don't think it would have been the same on video.

Or take the marvelous radio drama Gunsmoke, starring William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon in Dodge City of the Old West. William Conrad couldn't have played Matt Dillon on television, because he weighed close to 300 pounds...but no one else could have lent the drama that deep, strong, endlessly weary voice. I can still get chills when I listen to his introduction to the old shows, saying about being a US Marshall on the frontier that, "'s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful. And a little lonely."

Or Abbot and Costello with their classic routine, "Who's on First?"

Or Agnes Moorehead as the terrified lady waiting for a murderer in the classic thriller, "Sorry, Wrong Number?"

Radio taxes your imagination in a way television and the movies never can. A famous quote that has been attributed to both Francis Bacon and Oscar Wilde says that, "Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor, to console him for what he is."

Reading and radio - two of the world's great pleasures. Enjoy both...perhaps by reading John Dunning's great thriller Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, set in a radio station during World War II.

And tip your virtual hat to Tony Schwartz, now creating audio clips for the next elections in the Great Beyond.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Letter-writing project update: Amanda's letter is finished and will be mailed today. Mike's is up next. My hand hurts...but it's a good hurt.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

Radio is sadly a dying form of media. Pittsburgh radio is truly crap too, including Pickle. I need to go beat up a DJ now...don't mind me :)

Happy Thursday

Amanda said...

WOW! I can't wait to get the letter. It will be my first in Palembang. I've never received ANYTHING here.

Thank you so much!

Mike said...

Well I give up. I was trying to find what the RADIO acronym means and I'm giving up for now. THey talk about radiotelegraphy but that doesn't explain radio. I'm sure the R is for radiation but I'm not sure if the rest is an acronym or just an abbreviation. (Why is abbreviation such a long word?)

Anonymous said...

What a way to start the day. I have been a fan of Tony Schwartz since I read his first book - "The Responsive Chord" - which totally changed the way I think about communication. I am also a big fan of NPR but missed Schwartz' obit and so this is the first I'd heard of the news. I'm also a huge fan of Stan Freberg and it was an ongoing Google News search that brought this blog to my attention, because of the reference to Stan. I'm a little sadder, this morning.