The Pictures Are Better on Radio

Why is it, when the internet so dominates the landscape, that 91% of Americans 12 and older still listen to AM/FM radio?

Because the pictures are better on radio. Even though it directly stimulates only your hearing, radio fully engages the other four senses and the mind. It's not for the lazy. Unlike TV, movies and even traditional print, where the pictures are thrust in front of your eyes, radio forces you to conjure up your own images to accompany the words you are hearing. As a consequence, those pictures have more impact because of the effort it takes to create them.

Here's the lesson: If you're telling a story, try to emulate sports announcers who describe a game so colorfully that you will see what they see and hear what they hear. Then the spokesperson disappears and the tale itself takes over.

Whenever you are narrating events in your life or your business, either in person or on the phone, you are in effect a radio announcer for the rest of us. It's as if you are explaining a movie to a blind person. Those of us who don't live in your world might as well be blind because we are not sharing your direct experience at that moment.

In fact, people who can neither see nor hear say that deafness is the greater misfortune. Helen Keller, for one, said, "For me [being deaf] means the loss of the most vital stimulus - the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."

As you contemplate the visual power of sound, try to include as much detail as possible in your stories.

Take a lesson from the great CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow, subject of the recent movie Good Night and Good Luck. Here's one of his radio reports from London in the aftermath of a bombing raid in World War II:

Children were already organizing a hunt for bits of shrapnel. Under some bushes beside the road there was a baker's cart. Two boys, still sobbing, were trying to get a quivering bay mare back between the shafts. The lady who ran the pub told us that these raids were bad for the chickens, the dogs and the horses. A toothless old man of nearly seventy carne in and asked for a pint of milk and bitters, confided the he had always, all his life, gone to bed at eight o'clock and found now that three pints of beer made him drowsy-like so he could sleep through any air raid.

You can see it all, can't you? He puts us there. There are no clichés like the "horrors of war" or the "indomitable spirit of the Britons" that lesser writers might employ. All that is unnecessary, because we get the point from the details. Who among us cannot identify with children who turn an air raid into a treasure hunt? Then again, there is the unexpected reference to the fear of the animals, reminding us, without saying so, that war is tough for beast and man alike.

Another notable storyteller is the great Columbian novelist and "magical realist" Gabriel Garcia Marquez, best known for One Hundred Years of Solitude. He said, only partly wryly, that people won't believe you if you simply say that elephants are flying in the air. If you insist that there are 425 elephants in the sky, however, that's a different matter.

Then comes Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who recently became a star on the book circuit with her new memoir. "In examining witnesses," she explained, "I learned to ask general questions so as to elicit details with powerful sensory associations: the colors, the sounds, the smells that lodge an image in the mind and put the listener in the burning house."

Bravo, Madame Justice. My brother-in-law Tony Castro, now in private practice in Westchester County, handled more than his share of homicide cases when he served as a district attorney in the Bronx. Often there were no apparent witnesses, which presented a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. He would tell the jury that there was in fact one key eyewitness: the victim himself. Then he would proceed to describe what the dead person could "say," such as the direction of the bullet, the height of the assailant, and so on. Besides, as Tony adds, "while a dead body can speak volumes, it can't be cross-examined. No attorney is ever going to try to impeach its credibility."

None of this works unless you learn to use your eyes. I recently read Revenge, consisting of eleven interlocking tales from the outstanding Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa, whose style is redolent of Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Edgar Allen Poe. Here's the opening paragraph of a story called "Afternoon at the Bakery":

It was a beautiful Sunday. The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight. Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement. Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings.

Who notices the way sunlight caresses the roof of an ice-cream stand, the faucet of a drinking fountain, or the eyes of a stray cat? A professional writer? Yes. But you can too, if you learn how to look.

Use your eyes to collect precise images, then explain them as colorfully as you can for the benefit of those who were not there.

So did video kill the radio star, as The Buggles famously sang in the first rock video that MTV aired back in 1981? Nope. Radio not only survived the attempted murder, but it's flourishing. There's a reason why the famous concert hall in New York City is still called Radio City.


Radio statistic: (91% listen to AM/FM), Pew Research Center.

Helen Keller quote: Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, p. 191

Edward R. Murrow script: Edward Bliss and John Patterson, Writing News for Broadcast, Second Edition, p. 20

Justice Sotomayor quote: The New York Times, January 21, 2013