Radio: Media's Lost Continent. Producer Hiram Brown keeps aiming for a radio revival

HI BROWN is a producer, and you are his stage. To portray a Paris street, television might need to fly a crew across the Atlantic. Hiram Brown can do it with the whurr of tires on pavement, snatches of patter from a caf'e.

``You dress the actors. You create the scenery,'' he says, like a man who has spent a lifetime trying to get people to see the obvious.

Mr. Brown has been called ``the Norman Lear of radio.'' He produced the radio shows that had a whole generation huddled around art deco sets: ``Dick Tracy,'' ``Inner Sanctum,'' ``The Shadow,'' and others. Back then, radio listings were as copious as TV listings are today. So skilled were the actors at conjuring pictures with their voices, that fans would come just to hear them read.

Now, as Brown sits in his 26th Street studios in New York, brisk and dapper in a plaid sport coat, it's tempting to think him a relic, like the Orson Welles tapes that have been playing at the Museum of Broadcasting uptown.

Except he isn't. And not just because he's worked successfully in TV and film. Almost unnoticed, a radio revival has been taking shape on the nation's airwaves. Brown's ``CBS Mystery Theater'' ran as long as TV's ``MASH''; and, though the network took it off the air in 1983, it is back through another distributor. A Garrison Keillor-type variety show called ``End of the Road'' debuted - of all places - on AM radio nationwide this fall. And old-time drama shows are arising coast to coast, on stations ranging from WEEI-AM in Boston to KNX-AM in Los Angeles. Even New England Telephone has transposed its affecting mini-drama ads to radio (where they work even better than on TV).

Not that Top-40 playlists and prime-time sitcoms are going to disappear any time soon. Brown knows that. Still, he speaks cautiously of a ``renaissance of the spoken word.''

To people like Brown, the stakes are high. ``It's not just that radio - a product of the imagination - is suffering,'' says Sam Dann, a writer who has worked often for Brown. ``It's that the imagination in general is suffering.''

Radio is the lost continent of American media. It is present everywhere, but noticed hardly at all. There are twice as many radios as people in the US. Americans listen while they shower, drive, cook, even while they jog. Yet while local newspapers list television schedules in minute detail, radio gets a tiny station roster. There's virtually no way to find out what's on. Commentary about radio is rare compared to TV.

For the most part, this invisibility is deserved. The radio dial today is a vast expanse of canned and neutered rock, with occasional islands of public radio, news, or talk. Many stations are turning to packaged soundtracks from satellites. ``I couldn't even get good Christmas carols,'' laments Peggy Charren of Action for Children's Television, after a holiday drive.

The prevailing view explains this in one word: television. In a video age, in which seeing is taken to be perceiving, aural atmospherics is about the only role radio has left.

``People no longer listen to radio,'' says Helen Dudman, the owner and manager of AM and FM stations in Ellsworth, Maine. ``It's just there as background.''

Yet it wasn't simply that people suddenly lost interest in radio when television burst upon the scene. At the same time, ad agencies and networks lost interest in providing it. There wasn't an independent radio industry determined to meet the TV challenge. The new TV industry was the radio industry. Owners simply took their radio profits and plowed them into TV. ``The agencies and the networks lay down and let TV roll over radio,'' says Alan Sloane, a radio writer who went on to win television Emmys.

The reason, says Mr. Sloane, is that television was a ``more potent selling medium.'' He recalls the Pall Mall cigarette ads on the radio and TV versions of a show he wrote called ``The Indictment.'' ``When it went to TV, you saw a character take a deep drag, and a look of satisfaction come over his face.''

The ad money prompted a stampede of radio talent to TV - Jack Benny, Arthur Godfrey, and others. Hi Brown went, too, with a TV version of ``Inner Sanctum.'' Brown isn't totally down on TV. He has kind words, for example, for ``L.A. Law.'' But he found he just couldn't do as much with pictures as he could with words and sounds. His trademark on ``Inner Sanctum,'' for example, was a creaking door. ``Consider what that does in your mind,'' he says. ``I couldn't create that kind of ambience in TV.''

So while he produced TV shows and documentary films, Brown kept knocking on doors. Finally, in 1974, a man named Sam Cooke Diggs at CBS embraced a Brown proposal. (``Had there been no Sam Diggs,'' Sloane says, ``radio would have disappeared.'') The result was ``CBS Mystery Theater,'' a brazenly ambitious undertaking involving one-hour dramas seven nights a week.

At its peak, the show appeared on 360 stations and had a weekly audience of 5 million. Ray Barnett, who was station manager at KNX-AM in video-centric Los Angeles, calls ``Mystery Theater'' ``without doubt one of the most consistently successful vehicles we ran on the air. It doubled, tripled, or quadrupled the audience [for programming] before and after it.''

Even more significant, perhaps, was who this audience was. CBS had expected a nostalgia draw. ``What we weren't prepared for was the amount of young people,'' says Dick Brescia, who was with CBS Radio at the time and is now handling ``Mystery Theater'' independently.

Of course, ``Mystery Theater'' was not the only sign of a radio revival. Garrison Keillor was updating the old variety format on public radio's ``Prairie Home Companion.'' Offbeat voices continued to appear in the nooks and crannies of local radio, such as ``The Bama Hour,'' a sort of bluesy, inner-city ``Prairie Home Companion'' on WPFW in Washington, D.C.

In New York, public station WNYC started a kids program with the inspired title ``Small Things Considered'' (later syndicated as ``Kids America''). ``A lot of grown-ups were addicted who didn't have kids,'' says Mary Perot Nichols, president of WNYC. Only 26 stations picked up the show, however, partly because Arbitron ratings don't include listeners under age 12.

``CBS Mystery Theater'' didn't make big dollars, but it did return a profit. Accountancy was on the rise at CBS, however. When Diggs retired, ``Mystery Theater'' lost its protector. The decision was to ``take the money we were investing [in ``Mystery Theater''] and put it into sports,'' Brescia recalls. ``That was not a position I took.''

It was, however, a reminder that Hi Brown and others face an uphill battle. And not just because TV habits are not easily broken.

THE people buying major stations today generally are not people for whom radio is a passion. They are investors, who hire consultants to tell them what to put on the air. ``The bean counters have taken over,'' says Gene Burns, the erudite talk-show host on WRKO-AM in Boston. ``These people are into making money. They don't try new talent.''

They are ``people who don't care anything about what you are doing,'' as Sam Dann puts it. ``It's a `product.'''

At the same time, Brown observes, young executives at ad agencies - who decide where ad dollars flow - grew up on TV and often regard radio as a foreign country.

Making matters worse, in the view of many, was the lifting of federal guidelines under the Reagan Administration. In theory, deregulation of broadcasting would bring a flowering of free-market diversity. In practice, it has often done the opposite. Especially harmful has been the rampant speculation in broadcast licenses, something Washington no longer restrains. One L.A. station sold for $18.5 million in 1983, then sold again for $79 million in June, 1988. (The federal government originally bestows such licenses for free.)

Radio should be a low-cost, experimental medium. But the expense of buying a station today cancels that. Instead, owners tailor music formats to deliver very specific audiences to advertisers. ``There's a lot of money at stake,'' says Mike Ewing, station manager at KRLD in Dallas. Owners are ``more comfortable in a very tight format.''

``Radio stations have become commodities,'' says Sam Smith, a Washington, D.C., publisher who recently sold his family's radio station in Philadelphia. ``Broadcasting tends to be secondary.''

At the same time, however, revival advocates see a lot of things in their favor. For one thing, cable has disrupted the cozy world of network TV. ``Radio should take advantage of that, do the kind of programming it did years ago,'' says Douglas O'Brien of WNYC. For example, ``I think TV is vulnerable to children's radio on Saturday morning.''

AM radio may well lead the way. In recent decades, station owners shifted their money into FM, leaving AM to decline. Now, FM has fallen into tight commercial formats, a victim of its own success, while AM stations, hungry for young listeners, are willing to try something new.

This is why Brescia developed ``End of the Road'' especially for AM. The show stars Tom Bodette, a writer and NPR commentator who lives in Homer, Alaska, in the Garrison Keillor role. John Quick, station manager of WCCO in Minneapolis - Keillor's old base - says ``nothing in the past several years has gotten near the response.''

Most radio stations make their money during morning and afternoon ``drive time,'' moreover. So the evening hours - television's ``prime time'' - are precisely when they are most free to experiment. Another advantage of radio is its economy. ``I could be on the air for 500 hours for what one episode of `Miami Vice' costs,'' says Brown. ``This is what is so incongruous.'' (While dirt cheap compared to television, however, radio drama is relatively expensive compared to rock music formats.)

But perhaps the most hopeful sign has been the enthusiasm of young people. They defy the common assumption that products of the video age will reject anything without a picture.

IT'S not just the response to shows like ``Mystery Theater,'' or ``Kids America.'' The Museum of Broadcasting, for example, has a Saturday program in which children actually produce a radio mystery. It's been sold out since October. After a recent class, one girl said, ``You could picture it in your own mind, and you didn't have to see it like everyone else sees it.''

Robert M. Batscha, museum president, says kids come back to the museum to listen to tapes of old shows. ``Once they have exposure,'' he says, ``it is as fascinating as any form of amusement.'' Sam Dann talks about students in his writing classes at New York University. ``Film students who never heard of radio sit there and are enthralled,'' he says.

This is why Hi Brown isn't giving up. ``The little boy or little girl climbs up on Mommy or Daddy's lap and says, `Tell me a story,''' Brown says. ``Not show me a story. Not tell me a story in color. Or stereo. Tell me a story. That's the whole thing.''

He cites a letter from the mother of a young ``Mystery Theater'' fan. ``Thank you,'' this mother wrote, ``for giving my child back the world of fantasy.''

Writing to people's hearts

PEOPLE like Hi Brown are not surprised that radio drama still works. If television makes the world smaller, they say, radio makes it larger - ``as limitless, as free of boundaries and constraints, as the human mind,'' Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post.

Tony Schwartz, the media guru and ad man, points out that radio evokes our own thoughts. ``The content of radio is us,'' he says, which explains the intimate, soothing quality of radio voices on dark highways late at night.

People who grew up with shows like ``Inner Sanctum,'' who knew baseball greats Babe Ruth and Dizzy Dean from a broadcaster's voice, recall these with a warmth that TV rarely arouses. ``I felt I was writing directly to peoples' hearts,'' says Alan Sloane of his radio work. ``I miss that in television. I really do.''

Sam Dann points out that television's classic period - shows like ``Studio One'' and ``Playhouse 90'' - in the early '50s was when the medium was closest to radio. Schwartz notes that, even today, television is ``predominately sound.'' Schwartz listens to TV news on a radio monitor in his car, and says the weather map is really the only information he misses.

A crystal set got Brown started

RADIO careers frequently take strange and fortuitous turns. This was especially true in the early days.

Hi Brown was a high school actor in New York who became enthralled with radio through his crystal set. He wangled a job at a station by telling ``a bagful of lies,'' he recalled recently. The result was a poetry show called ``Hi Brow Readings.''

Later he heard about a new network called NBC, where he ended up reading fairy tales in a Jewish dialect. After the second show, he got a call from a ``domineering'' Bronx woman named Gertrude Berg, who said she had written some scripts. Soon thereafter Brown became Jake, Molly's husband, on ``The Rise of Molly Goldberg.'' Berg dumped him when the show became a success, a move Brown now counts as a blessing because it propelled him into production. The radio business - like the medium itself - could be intimate and familial in those days.

``In 45 years working with Hi Brown, I never had a contract,'' says Alan Sloane, one of Brown's writers. ``I never had to sign a piece of paper.''

Brown has few kind words for modern station owners, ditto the people at National Public Radio, whom he thinks neglect radio drama. He speaks wistfully of England, where under the BBC, such drama has thrived. ``I'm doing my own public radio,'' he says, of the way he pours his own money into drama projects. His latest: a series on the daily trials of older Americans, called ``We, the Living,'' for which he is seeking an outlet. The University of Georgia has named a new audio center after Brown, which he hopes to use in his production work.

``I hate the phrase, `Golden Age of Radio,''' Brown says. ``I want the `Golden Age of Radio' to be 1990.''

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