SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Web spreading the (spoken) word
PAM DIXON 7-May-2000 Sunday
Sure, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but in some cases a sound can convey a thousand unspoken feelings. And that is the whole idea behind the notion of listening to plays and poetry vs. just reading them silently.
Imagine, for example, the difference between reading the line “Who knows what danger lurks in the hearts of men?” as opposed to hearing it spoken in dramatic, vocal quivers accompanied by a darkly rolling, evil laugh. The sound version is surely more potent, which is why audio drama and its close cousin, “spoken word,” got started in the first place.
Ever since such popular shows as “The Shadow” drew people in breathless clusters to radios in the 1930s and ’40s, audio drama — or plays and vignettes performed vocally with no visual aspects — have held a place in American culture. And spoken word — or poetry that is “performed” by speaking it dramatically — has claimed cultural turf since Socrates’ time.
Spoken word and audio drama continue to play a part in today’s culture, but not in the same way as in their heydays. During the past few decades, the overwhelming popularity of film and television has displaced these dramatic forms. Amazingly, however, an unlikely medium — the Web — has reinvigorated these classic art forms and is making them downright hip.
Thanks to the near-ubiquity of the Web, people who already love the spoken-word form can easily find hundreds of free sites dedicated to the topic and can download or even stream files for listening. Fans can also hear audio drama streamed, or played live, from some radio stations’ Web sites.
And people who may have never encountered these art forms can discover them more easily as they browse large sites such as http://amazon.com/ and http://mp3.com/ , where audio drama and spoken word is sold in increasing quantities. While it takes more effort to happen across aspoken-word performance in person, it isn’t at all difficult to click on a link leading to a spoken-word category on a Web site.
The (audio) drama builds
Naturally, when technology impacts an art form so resolutely and quickly, the organizations traditionally associated with it have to scramble, and then some. “In just 25 years, our organization has gone from doing theater workshops in prisons with inmates to creating plays for radio broadcast to creating a large catalog of audio drama cassettes,” says Susan Albert Loewenberg, founder and producing director of L.A. Theatre Works, a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing and recording audio drama. “Now with the advent of the Internet, the technology and the content together have become an incredible set of resources.”
The L.A. Theatre Works recording library, one of the largest of its kind in the world, contains an astonishing 260 full-length plays. Loewenberg is deciding exactly how she wants to take that audio library to the Web, saying only that she is making that decision.
“The audio dramas are already broadcast to radio audiences all over world on the Voice of America and on NPR,” says Loewenberg.
But there’s a new technology twist. “KCRW in Los Angeles now streams our programs live on Sunday night via their Web site,” says Loewenberg, noting that the technology has extended the organization’s reach mightily and found brand-new listeners. “We also are selling our recordings onAmazon.com and on our own Web site, and very soon we will be streaming radio drama for downloading and listening on demand on our own site.”
Loewenberg says that the Los Angeles organization’s listing in the Amazon catalog has provided a steady influx of new business. “Audio drama is a niche. I have created new markets for it already, and with the Web, I can do even more. The key is that you put it all up there. I think the important thing is that you need to be positioned correctly when everyone, not just a few people, listens to audio drama on the Web.”
Similar organizations have had positive experiences riding the intersection of the Web and audio drama. “We originally put material on MP3.com last year because we wanted to make our dramas readily available for our listening audience. But we’ve discovered that there is a whole new community finding the art form there for the first time,” says Winifred Phillips, founder of the Generations Productions and the producer and narrator for National Public Radio’s “Radio Tales.”
“The Web has introduced us to a new demographic and has allowed us to be found by the kind of people who respond to audio drama, who otherwise wouldn’t know we’re here,” says Phillips. “We have also been able to connect ourselves to a wider community of audio-drama companies that we didn’t know about, and that has been very positive. Before, we felt isolated in our work. Now, we know there are others like us.”
Like audio drama, spoken word — which can range from poetry that is spoken to a rhythmic street rant to a dramatically read essay — has experienced an extraordinary surge of popularity in the last year. It has gone from something very few knew about to becoming an integral part of this generation’s voice. Much like how early rap expressed an urban outlook, spoken word expresses the angst of the modern world for whoever cares enough to express it or listen.
A critical part of the phenomenon is peoples’ ability to easily stream, or listen live, to spoken word at their computers. Another reason for the popularity spurt is that the Web allows geographically far-flung segments of a small art community to connect and create a larger niche through unity.
“Generally, I speak my own poetry to my own music,” says Annie Vox, a best-selling spoken-word artist on MP3.com. “It’s nice how things have started to point toward more interest in poetry,” says Vox from Florida, noting that the interest in her work is global, which has been vital. “I could write a piece that no one here in Tampa would understand, but there may be someone online who may be touched by it.”
Vox decided to stream herspoken-word poetry so she could better track what was popular, and who was listening to what when. Since November, Vox has sold nearly 50 CDs and has had more than 1,200 people listen to her work. Vox notes that that’s a whole lot more audience than she could have expected from a bookstore reading in Tampa.
Certainly, hopping on the Web and listening to poetry being spoken by the author or listening to a new play is a far cry from huddling around a radio to listen to a beloved broadcast such as “The Shadow.” But each generation has its favored show, and mediums.
If the Web is going to push new spirit into wonderful but flagging art forms, then it deserves to be the next device that everyone huddles around, even if one at a time.
Where to hear words on the Web
Audio drama and spoken-word resources:
L.A. Theatre Works — http://www.latw.org/
Radio Tales — http://www.radiotales.com/
Monterey Media — http://www.montereymedia.com/
Annie Vox site — http://sybil.org/vox/
KCRW/FM (Los Angeles) — http://www.kcrw.org/ (Public Radio Web site that streams audio drama.)
Various poetry available at http://www.audible.com/
for download http://www.mp3.com/
Pam Dixon’s column about arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.