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An Evening of Intrigue: WICB's Retro Radio

Written by Meghan Swope
11/8/2010

Students perform the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries in a darkened Park Auditorium while WICB simultaneously broadcasts the performance

 

It’s a Sunday afternoon in October, and there are four students hard at work in the Scene Shop on the first floor of the Roy H. Park School of Communications. Armed with drill bits, a hammer, and a saw, they’re hard at work constructing a door. One might assume that this prop will be used for a staged theatre performance, or perhaps the latest ICTV show, but this door’s purpose isn’t to be seen – it’s to be heard. It will be used to create a series of sound effects in WICB’s Retro Radio drama.

The idea to host a live radio drama first came to WICB’s student station manager, Rob Engelsman ’11, after he took notice of an award the station had received in 1988, the year Engelsman and many of his co-workers at WICB were born. In ’88, students had used the scripts of Rod Serling -- the renowned screenwriter and producer of The Twilight Zone, and former Ithaca College professor – during a live broadcast for which they won an outstanding performance award from Ohio State University. Doing a radio drama was also something that Engelsman had always been interested in, especially after his semester spent studying abroad at the Ithaca College London Center.

“I was in London last fall and saw a lot of Sherlock stuff. It's one of the big tours and draws in the London program, and the movie remake had just come out,” Engelsman, the producer of Retro Radio, recalls. “I came back last spring as the Promotions Director for WICB and wanted to put an effort into making this sort of thing happen.”

Engelsman then met with Chris Wheatley, the manager of radio operations, who liked the idea; and they began to slowly put the pieces together. Engelsman also mentioned the idea to Matt Rigby ’11, who later became the show’s Technical Director. “I spent the first 11 years of my life in England listening to The Archers on BBC Radio 4 at 7pm in the kitchen while my Mom washed the dishes, so maybe that’s where my love for live spoken word shows started,” Rigby remembers. “So when the idea of doing a live show on WICB came up it seemed like a perfect fit and something I was very interested in doing.” Reminiscent of the original Sherlock Holmes radio dramas broadcast in the 1930s and 40s, Engelsman and Rigby envisioned a live performance -- recorded in front of an audience and broadcast over the WICB airwaves -- involving voice actors, authentic sound effects, and even live music (though that last element later fell through).

Things moved forward quickly this fall. Engelsman pitched the idea at Rush Night, the annual student media recruitment held at the start of each semester, and received overwhelming interest. He recruited his London Center classmate Kelsey Burston ’11 to direct the performance, and chose three full-length Sherlock Holmes scripts and three five minute mysteries to perform.

The students had to exercise due diligence to ensure that the scripts were no longer under copyright, and had to adjust some scripts to make them fit the context of today’s performance. 40 students showed up to the open auditions that were held to fill the nine acting spots, and roughly 7 students consistently served on the technical crew. Although WICB draws heavily on Park School students, the Radio Drama involved participation from across schools and majors. “I’m big on integration and also on bringing everyone together,” Engelsman says, which is part of the reason why he’s thrilled to have recruited students from departments including Theater, English, Writing, and TV-R.

For the next six weeks or so, students working on the production spent their Sunday afternoons in Park, rehearsing the scripts or building the props needed for sound effects. Rehearsals presented their own unique set of challenges. As Burston points out, “Directing a radio drama is different than directing a play. In a play, I can help the actors understand their characters by using their bodies and trying different things. With a radio show, there are no movements, just voices.”

Questions lingered as the event approached. Would the historic, and some would argue “outdated,” medium of a radio drama be well received in today’s world of television and Netflix? It didn’t seem as if Burston was worried. “I think that radio dramas have a lot more to offer than people realize,” she stated. “Live performances don’t leave a lot for the imagination. It tells you what people look like, what the scenery looks like. Radio dramas let the listener construct the images for themselves. They let your imagination fly.”


 

After all the hard work, the big night arrived. Sunday evenings on the Ithaca College campus are traditionally spent catching up on work or relaxing, so it was surprising to find that of the over 70 people in the live audience in Park Auditorium, the majority were students. The fact that these students were willing to give up their Sunday was itself a testament to the quality of the work the students had done. Burston’s energy and enthusiasm shone as she engaged the live audience in rehearsing their participation -- chatter, applause, and other reactions that would contribute to the sound effects being broadcast over the airwaves to WICB’s over 250,000 potential listeners.

The cast stood in front of Park Auditorium dressed in black, and to their left was the technical crew, positioned strategically in front of items ranging from the door and a series of kitchen utensils to a bucket of water and matches. The dimly lit auditorium allowed those in the live audience to occasionally close our eyes and be absorbed in the stories in much the same way as the listeners. In these moments, the sound effects were so convincing that audience members might believe they were actually there in England, solving the mystery right along with Holmes.

At the end of the two-hour live performance, Engelsman’s pride -- and exhaustion -- was evident as he led the audience in a second round of applause for the cast and crew. The hours of hard work these students put in had paid off -- they’d breathed new life into an old medium. For a radio station that prides itself on being “The Station for Innovation,” WICB proved once again that, with a lot of hard work and dedication, it is capable of bringing to fruition the ideas and dreams of its all-student staff.

 



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